2023 NFL Draft: 5 biggest sleeper edge defenders

Louisville, Kentucky, USA; Louisville Cardinals linebacker Yasir Abdullah (22) reacts during the second half against the North Carolina State Wolfpack at Cardinal Stadium. Louisville won 25-10. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

• Eastern Michigan's Jose Ramirez: Even though he's not the most explosive edge rusher, Ramirez displays a developed approach that will still enable him to earn high-side wins in the NFL.

• Louisville's Yasir Abdullah: It's not a coincidence that Abdullah put forth a career-best 84.2 overall grade in 2022 while rushing the passer at a higher clip than any other season in his Louisville career.

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

As PFF lead draft analyst Mike Renner stated a couple of months ago, “The term ‘sleeper' can mean different things to different people.” Today, it means a prospect who probably won't hear his name called within the first 125 picks but still has the traits to develop into a contributing-level talent in the NFL.

This year's edge defender class has been heralded as a “deep group” throughout the draft cycle, and while I don't think it's nearly as top-heavy with first-round caliber talents as most — I have only two edge defenders in this class with first-round grades — it certainly is filled with enticing talents who could develop into impact defenders in the NFL.

In fact, the PFF big board has 22 edge defenders ranked in the top 125. However, none of the edge defenders mentioned below are ranked that high, which should fulfill the necessary requirements for these intriguing prospects to fit the “sleeper” label.

Jose Ramirez, Eastern Michigan

Normally, when an undersized, high-side pass rusher (one who wins primarily by getting past an offensive tackle's outside hip) lacks the necessary speed to consistently stress an offensive tackle's pass set, it's usually a death knell for that player's NFL prospects.

So why is Ramirez, who measured 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds with 32 3/4-inch arms and ran a ho-hum 4.73-second 40-yard dash, still on this list? He's one of the rare prospects who display the necessary skill set to still find success rushing the passer in the NFL.

Even though he's not the most explosive edge rusher, Ramirez displays a developed approach that will still enable him to earn high-side wins in the NFL. He has already incorporated a variety of footwork patterns (stutter steps, hesitation moves and Euro steps) aimed at manipulating an offensive tackle's pass set. The Eastern Michigan product is also one of the bendiest pass rushers in this class — as evidenced by his 6.95-second three-cone drill — showing the unique ability to drop his pad level below an offensive tackle's hip line before carving the corner and flattening the quarterback.

Additionally, he already brings a streamlined pass-rush repertoire that includes a variety of moves that can be linked together with his multitude of footwork patterns. Ramirez's long arm represents the foundation of his pass-rush toolbox, as he loves to use it to maintain enough distance so that he's free of contact as he bends the edge and flattens his rush to generate pressure on the quarterback. In addition, Ramirez can also use the long arm to power through an offensive tackle's soft edge with an outside hand chop, counter back inside with a “shot put” move or convert to straight power and walk the offensive tackle into the quarterback's lap.

If that wasn't enough, Ramirez's long arm also sets up his most effective maneuver: Von Miller‘s “ghost” rush, where he feints the long arm before dropping his pad level to slip an offensive tackle's strike and cornering to the pocket to apply pressure. This is an extremely effective move if the pass rusher has the lower-body pliability to pull it off, and Ramirez has that in spades.

Having said all of that, while Ramirez is an exciting pass-rush prospect, his considerable warts against the run suppress his draft value, especially as a small-school product. Many evaluators and scouts want to see small-school prospects physically dominate their competition, but Ramirez just didn't do that against the run.

Nevertheless, his elite bend, impressive footwork and advanced pass-rush repertoire enabled him to earn back-to-back double-digit sack seasons with elite 90.0-plus pass-rush grades. He is quite possibly this class' best “sleeper” edge defender.

Yasir Abdullah, Louisville

Abdullah's small stature (6-foot-1 and 237 pounds with 32 3/8-inch arms) may lead some teams to play him as an off-ball linebacker, but he's at his best rushing the passer off the edge, which is why he should be evaluated as an undersized edge defender in this class. It's not a coincidence that Abdullah put forth a career-best 84.2 overall grade in 2022 while rushing the passer at a higher clip than any other season in his Louisville career, culminating in an elite 90.8 pass-rush grade on the back of 59 total pressures and a 21.2% pass-rush win rate.

While he's still working out the kinks with his pass-rush approach and repertoire, Abdullah is one of the few pass rushers in the class who can win with pure speed. He boasts an elite get-off (1.56-second 10-yard split, 94th percentile among EDGEs) to go with excellent sustained burst up the edge (4.47-second 40-yard dash, 98th percentile) to blow by or stress offensive tackles' pass set with consistency. From there, Abdullah displays good enough bend and cornering ability — though he does show some hip tightness, causing him to gear down when bending the corner through contact — to continually threaten high-side wins.

Abdullah isn't going to get labeled a technician when rushing the passer anytime soon, but he does a good enough job using his hands to win when the opportunity arises. The Louisville product's pass-rush repertoire is built on his speed up the edge, but once he fine-tunes his hands and feet to the point that he can win even when his speed doesn't do most of the legwork, then he'll become a real force as an edge rusher.

Additionally, Abdullah looks comfortable enough in space that an NFL team could drop him into short-to-intermediate zones or assign him to match a running back out of the backfield. Moreover, creative defensive coordinators can produce mismatches by moving Abdullah around the formation and using him on stunts, where he was incredibly effective for Louisville. His interception matching a wheel route against Pittsburgh is one of the most impressive plays in coverage by a front-seven defender in this class.

Against the run, Abdullah performs best when he plays on the edge of blocks, showing the ability to set a firm edge while keeping his outside hand free. His explosiveness aids his ability to knife into the backfield to cause havoc against the opposing offense. Unfortunately, due to his lack of size and play strength, he struggles mightily to get off blocks when forced to take them on square, as he lacks the upper-body mass to press an offensive tackle off his frame to create the necessary separation to shed the block. Abdullah's ability to shed blocks is better showcased when matched up with tight ends, where he is quite effective.

Abdullah's diminutive stature will probably compel whoever drafts to utilize him in a DPR (designated pass rusher) role early on as he adds enough mass to survive more consistently on the edge. Nonetheless, Haason Reddick (6-foot-1 and 240 pounds with 32 3/4-inch arms) and Josh Uche‘s (6-foot-1 and 255 pounds with 33 3/8-inch arms) success as pass rushers this past season should give teams enough confidence that Abdullah can carve out a similar role in the NFL.

K.J. Henry, Clemson

While his teammate Myles Murphy receives all the acclaim, Henry was Clemson's most productive edge defender in 2022.

K.J. Henry Myles Murphy
84 Pass-rush grade 78.5
78.8 Run-defense grade 72.8
53 Total pressures 34
15.9% Pass-rush win rate 14.3%
6.2% Run-stop rate 5.2%

Henry is simply a better technician than Murphy right now, especially rushing the passer. The North Carolina native displays advanced hand usage, as he consistently parries and swats away an offensive tackle's hand to remain free of contact on his way to the quarterback. His hands are smooth, well-timed and violent — all of which should enable his pass-rush approach to translate to the NFL. Moreover, Henry's manipulative footwork gives him access to a tackle's soft edges despite his lacking high-end athleticism for the position.

Additionally, Henry uses a varied approach to keep offensive tackles guessing. He can attack high side, through a tackle with power or counter inside on any given rush, taking advantage of whatever openings the offensive tackle presents. That all bodes well for Henry's transition to the NFL.

Henry was also a disruptive force against the run at times, showing an ability to knife into the backfield to create havoc for opposing offenses. He may struggle when isolated against bigger offensive tackles, but he shows no problems setting the edge and shedding tight ends at the point of attack.

While Henry isn't a deficient athlete by any means, he's not a dynamic athlete like many of the NFL's best pass rushers — as evidenced by his forgettable showings in the short shuttle (4.45 seconds) and three-cone drills (7.47 seconds) at his pro day. Nonetheless, Henry should be able to carve out a role in any defense due to his well-rounded skill set. It's not often that an evaluator can say that a “sleeper” edge rusher has a high floor as a prospect, but Henry is the unique player who fits that description.

Nick Hampton, Appalachian State

Even though he's an undersized edge rusher from a small school, Hampton possesses a plethora of traits, especially in the pass-rush realm, that could enable him to have a successful NFL career.

His fifth season brought out an explosive first step that translates into impressive upfield burst to test an offensive tackle's range in pass protection. However, Hampton's hand technique at the top of his rush is what truly separates him from other Day 3 edge defenders. Whether it's a two-hand swipe or a long arm-chop, he understands how to defeat blockers' hands to attain access to the edge. Additionally, Hampton knows how to use subtle footwork to manipulate an offensive tackle's pass set while also establishing superior attack angles to defeat blocks.

Hampton isn't the bendiest pass rusher, but he does well in using active hands and feet once he gets to the apex of his rush, which should enable him to continue to find high-side wins in the NFL.

Unfortunately, Hampton doesn't display much play strength, which severely hinders his ability to defend the run and enables offensive tackles to home in on his speed and hand technique up the edge, as they don't have to worry about Hampton winning with power. If Hampton wants to maximize his pass-rush production in the NFL, he needs to get stronger and better establish himself as a power-rush threat; NFL offensive linemen are simply too good to get beat consistently by one-trick pony pass rushers.

Early on, Hampton can provide value as a designated pass rusher who injects some juice into his team's defensive line.

Eku Leota, Auburn

From the deep sleeper department, Leota's current draft stock is in hibernation, as the Auburn product had his 2022 season ended early due to a torn pectoral muscle. But before that injury, Leota displayed a draftable skill set. In the five games he did start, he tallied 18 total pressures and a respectable 17.8% pass-rush win rate.

Measuring 6-foot-3 and 252 pounds with 33 1/2-inch arms, Leota is nowhere close to a finished product as a pass rusher or run defender. Nonetheless, he flashes some traits that will truly make your jaw drop. For example, in the above clip, Leota blows by potential first-round pick Darnell Wright for what would have been a sack in game conditions. Leota has yet to get the consistency part down, but the explosiveness, effort, active hands/feet and closing ability are all present.

Against the run, Leota displays some promising physicality that could enable him to develop into an effective edge setter in the NFL, but like his pass-rush ability, he still needs time to solidify his skill set in that regard.

While he's unlikely to make an impact defensively in Years 1 and 2, don't be surprised if Leota earns his roster spot on special teams as he develops on the edge to the point where he can be a key cog in some team's defensive line or outside linebacker rotation in Years 3-plus.

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