Once you get past this year's top two quarterback prospects, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, the 2016 draft class is top-heavy on defense. Four defenders could hear their name called within the top seven selections, though the order in which they are selected is anyone's guess at this point.
Over the next few days we'll look in-depth at each of those defenders. All of them could be an option for the 49ers at No. 7, depending on how things shake out ahead of them. Today, we'll kick things off with Ohio State product, Joey Bosa.
The draft community isn’t really sure what to do with Bosa. Following a monster sophomore season for the Buckeyes in which he earned unanimous All-American honors, many draft analysts slotted Bosa as the top overall prospect on their early 2016 big boards. Now, after a junior season that saw most of traditional counting stats take a dip, most don’t even consider Bosa to be the best player on his side of the ball.
These varied opinions on what exactly Bosa is or isn’t, from what his strengths and weaknesses are to what position he should play, make him and his potential landing spot one of the more intriguing things to watch at the top of the 2016 NFL Draft. Let’s go to the tape and see if we can find some clarity.
Where he wins
While at Ohio State, Bosa won via nearly any manner he wanted to at some point or another. At the next level, however, power should be the name of his game. Whether clogging the run or rushing the passer, Bosa combines impressive core strength, superb hand usage, and explosion off the snap to win at the point of attack with a powerful punch that jars, and allows him to control, opposing lineman.
When defending the run, Bosa flashes the ability to knife between blockers on the back side of zone runs and make plays in the backfield, but he’s at his best when "stacking and shedding," i.e., getting his hands into the blocker’s chest, standing him up, reading the ballcarrier, and then disposing of the blocker to go make the tackle.
Bosa’s stack-and-shed prowess serves him well when aligned on the interior as well as when tasked with setting the edge on the perimeter, where he simply doesn’t get sealed inside, particularly if opposing coordinators are dumb enough to "block him" with a tight end. In fact, insulting Bosa’s mother might be a better course of action than opting to block him with a tight end in the run game, as doing so leads only to said tight end getting tossed around like some sort of sentient rag doll.
Defending the run is vital for any defensive lineman, but you’re not discussed as a potential top–5 draft pick without possessing the ability to get after the quarterback. Few college players were as productive rushing the passer as Bosa over the past two seasons. Despite seeing his sack total drop from 13.5 as a sophomore to 5.0 in last year’s junior campaign, Bosa was actually a more efficient pass rusher during his final season in Columbus, per Pro Football Focus, finishing fourth among edge defenders in their pass rush productivity metric and notching 70 total pressures.
Most of those pressures, as touched on earlier, are generated by converting explosion off the ball into power to knock offensive lineman back on their heels, where Bosa can either continue to drive the blocker backward into the quarterback’s lap with a bull rush…
…or use one of a couple inside moves to come off the block and take a direct path to the quarterback.
While Bosa did most of his work in college on the outside versus opposing tackles, he proved more than capable of inflicting equal damage on guards when kicked inside. If blockers happen to stop Bosa’s first move, the play hardly ends. Bosa is persistent, chasing after the quarterback as long as he possesses the ball, and capable of stringing together multiple moves on his path to the passer.
Where he struggles
Bosa is a better athlete than many give him credit for. His pSPARQ score — a metric formulated by Nike, with some help from Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, that measures player athleticism — puts him in the 67th percentile of NFL edge defenders (If you compare him to interior defensive lineman, which is where I believe he’d play for the 49ers, he would be in roughly the 85th percentile), ranking ahead of the player many have pegged as the top pure edge rusher in this draft class, Noah Spence. That said, after viewing five of Bosa’s cut-ups from the 2014 and 2015 seasons, I don’t believe he has the requisite athleticism to play one of the league’s premier pass rushing positions and consistently win versus NFL tackles.
Though Bosa did align primarily on the edge at Ohio State, he aligned on the left side of the defense, where he was able to face lesser right tackles, on over 72 percent of pass-rush snaps (251-of–348), per Pro Football Focus. In the NFL, where even some of the best college left tackles are forced to flip over to the right side, the tackles Bosa would face on a week-to-week basis would be far superior to the typical tackle he went against in college. While, to an extent, that’s true for every amateur edge rusher turning pro, the discrepancy would be greater for Bosa than most.
In scouting parlance, Bosa isn’t a true "bender" — meaning he doesn’t display the ability to consistently beat tackles with pure speed around the edge while having the flexibility and balance to turn the corner at as tight of an angle as possible to get to the quarterback. This reality leads to many plays that look something like the following:
There’s little to take issue with when it comes to Bosa’s work in the run game. I would have liked to see him take on more double teams, something that would be a must if Bosa were to find himself playing defensive end in San Francisco’s base 3–4, but there just weren’t many snaps where he had to do so in the games I watched thanks to his edge alignment on most plays. But the limited sample of plays where he did, plus the stellar technique he displayed in every other facet of his game, makes me think he’ll be just fine.
The bottom line
Whichever team drafts Bosa will be getting one of the most productive players in this draft class. He can fit in any scheme, as either a strong-side defensive end in 4–3 schemes or as a defensive end in a 3–4, even if it’s not in the role many want him to fill. In sub-packages, which are really the new base defenses, he can terrorize guards on the interior or bully weaker right tackles depending on the match-up. His lack of elite-edge-rushing-caliber athleticism puts a cap on his upside, and therefore his overall value, for many. However, "upside" and "potential" are too often overrated at the top of the draft, where many are looking for nothing short of a future Hall of Famer, and players who go on to become consistently productive for the next decade are overlooked.
It’s hard to buy into the narrative that Bosa is a finished product when he hasn’t even reached legal drinking age (it seems notable to point out Bosa is three-and-a-half years younger than DeForest Buckner). From a size and athletic profile standpoint, Bosa compares favorably to a former 49ers defensive end who was also miscast as a premier edge rusher at draft time, Justin Smith. Bosa, like any college prospect, has a long way to go before he can hope of reaching Smith’s level as a football player, but as he continues to mature physically, he should be able to gain Smith’s grown-ass-man strength in due time.
Bosa is a perfect example of a player who has been in the draft community’s consciousness for so long that we’ve begun to find warts that weren’t really there and emphasize the things he can’t do rather than the numerous things he can do at a high level. While there are defenders in this class I like more than Bosa, should he be the one who falls to the 49ers at No. 7, Trent Baalke & Co. should have no qualms about turning in their draft card with Bosa’s name on it.