The Day Two 22: The defensive front
The most intriguing prospects likely to be available on Day Two of the draft
The Day Two 22 keeps rolling! It’s over to the defensive side of the ball. A reminder: This is about the most intriguing prospects likely to be available on Day Two of the draft, not my favored targets. Louder for those those at the back (and in the email replies!): It’s intriguing prospects, not favorites.
Players who sit on the top-40 of my board are unavailable for the Day Two 22, and we’ve had some late movement:
Keeanu Benton is now in the top-40 (more on him next week), with BJ Ojulari falling out. Among the 20 defensive players on the top 40 board, there are 12 defensive linemen/edge defenders and six defensive backs. There are zero linebackers.
Onto the team.
Edge — Byron Young, Tennessee
At this time of the process, you hear all about ‘risers’ and ‘fallers’. I am here to tell you that stuff is (largely) hogwash. Players don’t fall – dramatically – throughout the process unless a character concern is revealed. What typically happens is that the regional scouts who’ve spent two years working on a class finalize their reports. Those are passed on to the heads of department and the GM. A fortnight before the draft, a team's board is set. As in any organization, the regional folk get pissed when upper management disagrees with their point of view — and two weeks is a lot of time to twiddle your thumbs when you’ve spent 24 months evaluating a class.
Scouts get antsy. They might be frustrated. How has he put X ahead of Y? Bozo! And they start to talk. The four or five key drivers of the national draft conversation function in something of an echo chamber, at least when it comes to the top 50-ish prospects. So from February to April, they set the outward expectations of the ‘stock’ of a prospect. As draft night nears and scouts get fidgety, information starts to flow about how the decision-makers inside the buildings really feel. And those who work on the outside start to adjust their rankings to match that perception within the league — then, hey presto, it starts to look like a prospect is rising or falling.
In reality, it’s just a case of those outside being brought up to speed on the consensus among the league’s evaluators — and where they’ve been since early March.
The lone caveat: The three or four players each year who blow staffs away with a performance at the combine (off the field and on it) or who wow in an individual workout. But, as the cliche goes, they always wind up reverting to the tape.
I say all this to say: Byron Young is not a riser, but he is getting a ton of buzz among scouts and coaches within the league compared to the outside perspective, which is, at least in the writer’s mind… peculiar.
Most analysts have a fourth or fifth-round grade on Young. Based on conversations with people inside the league, I’d be surprised if fell out of the second round.
Young is a fire-breathing, turbo-charged edge-rusher. He is all gas, no break. He’s a leaper, one with little feel for the nuances of pass-rushing – and lacking the ideal measurables to cover up for that fact. He’s a super torqued-up rusher with a motor that runs for days. At the combine, he posted the second-quickest ten-yard split of any of the edge-rushing prospects, behind only Nolan Smith. He finished third among all edge defenders in Next Gen Stat’s combined athleticism score. But Young isn’t just a tester; he’s a functional athlete. Tennessee moved him around the formation: He played as a heavy-five in three-down fronts. He dropped into coverage from the edge. Against Florida, Tennessee even used him as a middle-of-the-field rover, with him spying on Anthony Richardson.
At his best, though, he’s a stand-up, get-off-and-go edge-rusher. Anything else, at this stage, is asking way, way too much.
Young is an impressive character, though, and that’s what has teams excited. He came to the game late, but he closed his career at Tennessee as a captain. He lacks all of the opening phase, contact phase, or the closing phase might of the top-tier edges in this class, but he comes pretty damn close if you’re just talking about the first step. Young’s get-off can match anyone's (#6):
He wants to be great – and he works at it. And even when his technique fails him (which is often) he fights and scratches and claws his way through reps. His energy never flags. He is as explosive and tenacious during the final rep of the game as he is during the first. Throughout the rep, whether versus the run or pass, Young never, ever stops working.
That matters. Coaches and scouts are willing to embrace a raw prospect who shows a willingness to effort through work on and off the field.
There are three issues, though: Young is 25-years-old; he has short arms; he has no idea what he’s doing. That last one may seem harsh, but it is also, unfortunately, a fact. Of any of the potential Day One or Day Two rushers, Young’s hands and feet are the most out of sync – and this in a class that includes Tyree Wilson!
Why does that matter? Because it makes a pass-rusher inefficient. It adds extra steps to their rush. It saps an edge-defender of the pop needed at the point-of-attack. It can make a rusher unbalanced, making harder to hit a linemen with the necessary move, or to set up one way before swooping the other.
He consistently slows his feet on contact. Rather than charging into and through blockers, his feet get tangled. He stops. He engages. And then he tries to push ahead.
Rather than moving in one seamless motion, Young’s rushes come in fits and starts. There’s an initial surge… and then a break… and then a second surge. He is a poor habit of gaining an advantage, of building a runway to the linemen, of creating a lane and angle to convert speed to power, before slowing his feet, losing momentum, and having to generate up a second surge.
Young likes to slow play early in the rep, to bait tackles into a sense of comfort before exploding. That belies his off-the-snap juice, and often leads to a dud rep.
Starting again from a standing start without a runway limits the ability for an pass-rusher to create any oomph at the point-of-attack. Too often, if Young cannot dip-and-rip around the corner, he’s stuck in no man’s land. If he’s able to generate any movement at the point-of-attack, he’s an all-corner-all-the-time kind of rusher – and those are not only easier to stop but they’ve also been phased out of then league.
Coaches believe they can correct this stuff. Feet. Hips. Hands. Hat. Those four things are, largely, technical flaws that coaches can work through. Correct the feet, the theory goes, and the rest will follow in order. It’s why scouts are so high on Tyree Wilson, a player who suffers with the same issues as Young (inefficient movement; false steps; slowing his feet on contact).
There are reps with Young when you see the potential. The times where he does sync up his feet, lower half, and hands, you see enough pop to raise your eyebrows. You know, maybe this could be *something*.
That’s what staffs are hoping for. Stick Young with a Kris Kocurek or defensive line guru X and they can clean up the issues in the first phase of the rush, which will naturally boost the all-important second-phase: the contact phase.
Young has shown that bending around the edge and closing to the quarterback comes naturally, if he’s able to gain enough of an advantage. He has outstanding short-area quicks and closing speed:
But those second-phase wins are so infrequent or time-consuming or energy and speed-sapping that there just aren’t a ton of clean, get-off-and-go, dip-and-win rep on tape for someone with his natural skill-set. Too often, he arrives to the party ready to play clean-up duty. Where were you when the canapes were being served, Byron?
The stats tell the story. Young doesn’t make enough plays given his skills: He finished 100th in hurries in 2023. But when he does get close, he closes: Young ranked 13th among pass-rushers in hits and 18th in sacks. Some of that ‘closing’ production was a product of Young getting fat against overmatched players. As the competition level grew, Young’s production fell. But is indicative of the player: The lack of technical understanding limits him (right now) on a per-rush basis, which is why the hurries are so low; but when it does all come together, by luck or design, he’s mighty effective and he creates negative plays.
His lack of length will limit him in the league, too. He’s a rotational rusher. He will play in rush-only sub-packages. Against the run, he’s all over the place.
Some have compared Young to a poor man’s Nolan Smith: A high-flier who lacks conventional size. That makes sense, but it’s harsh on Smith’s game. Smith is technically proficient and he’s a thumper in the run game. He finds creative ways to generate power at the point-of-attack even if he’s beaten to the punch by a lack of length.
That’s not the same for Young. It’s in the run game where his inexperience is most exposed. Bad hands with short arms is a recipe for disaster in the run game. Young doesn’t have the instincts or technical chops to hang in the run game. He gets walked off the ball:
There are times when he is completely lost – jumping out of gaps or winding up in the same gap as a teammate, vacating a hole for the offense.
Taking a flyer on Young even late in the third round could mean setting fire to a draft pick. He will be 25-years-old during his rookie year, and he has physical and mental limitations – one is profound in the run game, the other in the pass. But league is intrigued. Coaches believe they can correct the pass-rushing issues – and if a player can be a useful rotational rusher versus the pass it doesn’t matter how they hang versus the run.
He has two of the most important unteachable traits for an edge-rusher: burst and bend. In most drafts, Young is probably a fourth or fifth-round flier. In this class, he will be pushed into Day Two.
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