INDIANAPOLIS — It’s commonly said that the best way to acquire a high-end pass rusher is to draft them and groom them.
After all, edge rushers are arguably the second most important position in the NFL, and teams typically don’t let elite ones leave. Their impact on opposing defenses can be immeasurable.
Currently slated to pick near the end of the first round at No. 26 in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts would normally miss out on an opportunity to select one of these critical players. However, this year’s draft class is full of quality pass rushers — and is especially top-heavy — which could send one down near the Colts.
If you’ve been following along with the two mock drafts that I’ve posted so far this pre-draft season (here's the latest one), I have had Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell falling in Indy's lap both times. Not only would that be greatly beneficial for the Colts, but it’s also a realistic possibility. But more on that later.
As a three-year starter and two-time national champion at Clemson, Ferrell developed as a well-rounded defensive lineman, became a more consistent player (he increased his sacks and tackles for loss each year) and developed into a hell-raiser.
“I just feel like my versatility is something that is very, very important when I feel like you talk about my game. I feel like that has always given me an edge as far as giving me a benefit on the field,” Ferrell told reporters at the Scouting Combine. “Not only just my versatility as a player — I can play defensive end, I played some defensive tackle this past year, three technique. I’ve also dropped into coverage, outside linebacker.”
“But not only just doing those things, but I feel like I’ve done them at consistently a high level,” Ferrell continued. “That’s always given me a bit of confidence as far as my play. And I’ve done it against the best competition playing at Clemson, so that was a blessing as well.”
Every week, opponents know that they’re going to have to welcome Ferrell as a roommate because, whether they like it or not, he’s setting up camp in their backfield.
For starters, he looks the part. He has adequate size at 6-4 and 264 pounds, but his arms really help set him up for success. They are 34 ⅛ inches long (72nd percentile), his total wingspan is 82 ⅜ inches (88th percentile) and his hands are 10 ½ inches (92nd percentile).
His constant harassment of quarterbacks and running backs starts by getting a quick jump off the snap. Once he has that upper hand on the offensive tackle, he has the speed to get by and make a play in the backfield.
For those rare occasions where he doesn’t get the jump and has to engage with blockers, Ferrell displays the strength and hand usage to chop arms and then slip by those trying to stop him on either the outside or by ducking inside.
He has the foot quickness and short-area agility to defeat blockers as well, which sets up nicely for his collection of pass-rush moves, which includes an arm-over, strong-arm and even an effective spin move. Although he doesn’t appear to be an overly quick-twitch or flexible guy (ran a 7.26 three-cone and a 4.4 short shuttle at the Combine; both in the “average” range), he is capable of dipping his shoulder out of the tackle’s grasp and bend the edge if he gets a good jump off the snap.
Like Ferrell mentioned, his versatility developed throughout his career has helped him become the player that he is today and what he will continue to be. Having to bang around in the trenches occasionally as a defensive tackle has helped him in pursuit of ball carriers, and dropping into coverage has helped with his hustle and closing burst.
One thing that teams won’t have to worry about with Ferrell is his effort. Part of what has made him more consistent and productive is his high motor. He feverishly attempts to get to the quarterback on every snap, and he’ll continue chasing the ball downfield if he didn’t get there before.
Ferrell said Clemson's abundance of riches along the defensive line has helped fuel his approach.
“It was huge because obviously we push each other to a level that I can’t really explain in words. It was truly a blessing to go through it with those guys because there’s some things we did off the field really prepared us and made us better as far as our careers,” he said. “And also, just the aspect of there’s not a lot of plays to go around out there when you’re playing with guys like that. It really taught me the mentality of not taking any plays off, of learning to really push and fight every single play because if you want to have an impact you gotta scratch and claw with my brothers out there. So it was really, really good. We made it a competition for sure.”
Some things for Ferrell to work on are that he needs to stay low more consistently; “low man wins,” as they say. This gets him caught on blocks occasionally while being too straight-up.
He can also be a bit overzealous in pursuit of the ball or just takes a bad angle altogether, overshooting his target and taking him out of position to make a play. Some added coaching and film study will help him diagnose play-action and option plays more consistently.
FIT WITH THE COLTS
Now, as to why Ferrell could be available at No. 26 rather than being selected within the first half of the round where some project him to go.
This draft has some blue-chip prospects from the edge. Nick Bosa and Josh Allen both seem to be top-five locks, while Brian Burns could go in the top 10 as well. Rashan Gary and Montez Sweat are also very intriguing prospects who would be deserving of coming off the board early.
Coming into the Combine, many rankings had Gary slightly behind Bosa and Allen, with Ferrell, Burns and Sweat lumped into their own group. Gary, Burns and Sweat then proceeded to have excellent Combine testing, which came on the heels of Sweat dominating the Senior Bowl as well.
Ferrell's measurements went well at the Combine. However, his on-field testing was just average. This may have been due in part to a toe injury that also kept him from participating in Clemson's pro day.
Those other players blowing up the pre-draft process may have set them ahead of Ferrell on some teams’ draft boards, meaning he could go a little later in the first round than many expect.
Enter the Colts, who consider the pass rush a cornerstone of their team and would likely not be in position to pass over a potential Pro Bowl-level pass rusher.
The Colts did recently sign veteran free agent pass rusher Justin Houston, but that doesn’t seem likely to stop them from continuing to add to their pass rush.
Their philosophy is to shoot for eight-starting level players along the defensive line and to send players at the backfield in waves. In other words, they can never have too much of a good thing.
To have Jabaal Sheard and Houston in the first wave followed by Kemoko Turay and Ferrell would give them advantage through all four quarters. It would also allow 2018 second-round pick Tyquan Lewis to kick inside more often where the Colts would like him.
While the cupboard appears to be stocked at defensive end for the Colts currently, it could look differently in a year or two if reinforcements aren’t added.
Houston is 30 right now, Sheard will be 30 in May and Margus Hunt (who also plays inside) will be 32 in July. Sheard, Houston, Hunt, Denico Autry and Al-Quadin Muhammad will all be due to hit free agency within the next two years as well.
Ferrell is an ascending prospect, partially evidenced by his increase in stats every year, and he hasn’t even hit NFL coaching, nutrition and strength and conditioning programs yet.
Whichever team is fortunate enough to acquire him in the upcoming draft will be getting a player that can develop into someone who wreaks havoc on opposing offensive lines and forces coaches to plan for him on a weekly basis.
“It just comes from, one, my love for the game and more so just my why,” Ferrell said about the effort he puts into his play. “I do it because a lot of people where I come from don’t have the opportunity to do the things they love to do. I was one of the blessed ones to be able to do that.
“Unless there’s a dire need of me not needing to not be on the field, I’m not going to sub myself out for any reason like that. I want to be on the field to help my teammates,” Ferrell continued. “And that’s where it starts. It starts with the people that you play for, and that’s my teammates. I want to be out there, I want to have an impact for them, I want to help us win. That’s always just been kind of a mindset of mine.”
So, does being involved in a draft class that is loaded with talent at his potential have Ferrell measuring himself against anyone else?
“No. I don’t measure my level of potential or my greatness that I’m trying to achieve to somebody else because then I won’t know what my full potential is,” Ferrell said. “I really more so just focus on being the best me that I can be.”