Strong class of pass rushers could go quickly in NFL draft

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Myles Garrett might be a nice guy off the football field.

On it, the Texas A&M defensive end can be as mean and nasty as anyone else whose dream job is dragging pretty-boy quarterbacks through the mud. And the imposing 6-foot-4, 272-pound Garrett intends to spend next season taking his new job quite seriously.

“I can’t be smiling at folks while I’m sacking people,” he joked Saturday at the NFL’s annual scouting combine.

Some NFL team will learn to appreciate the refreshing candor coming from the early front-runner to be the first overall pick in the April draft.

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Garrett looks like a prototypical pass rusher — big, fast, strong, a quick first step and incredibly productive in one of America’s toughest football conferences.

But what makes Garrett particularly attractive to NFL scouts is his position. These days, the only players who seem to be prized more than franchise quarterbacks are the ones hitting them. And players like Garrett understand the expectations of being a consistent pass rusher.

“You have to be a game-changer,” Garrett said. “You have to be able to turn the tide of a game at any given time. Somebody who, when it’s third-and-15 and maybe it’s the fourth quarter and we need a stop to get the ball back, they put you in and say ‘You’re the guy.’ That’s how good you have to be.”

And many NFL teams are eager to get their first real look at a deep class of potential game-wreckers.

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Defensive linemen and linebackers work out Sunday in Indianapolis.

The list begins with Garrett, a unique athlete who finished with 15 sacks last season and 47 in three years with the Aggies.

If Garrett doesn’t go No. 1 in the draft, Alabama defensive tackle Jonathan Allen could.

Allen had 22½ sacks in his final two college seasons and returned two turnovers for touchdowns in 2016. He may have eased some concerns about both shoulders, which have been surgically repaired, by bench-pressing 225 pounds 21 times.

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“It’s not really a problem now, but it might be a problem 15, 20 years down the road so I’m not worried about that right now,” he said, referring an arthritic left shoulder. “I’m worried about playing good for whichever team I go to.”

Defensive ends Solomon Thomas, of Stanford, Taco Charlton, of Michigan, could both be taken early, too. UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley’s stock took a big jump with an 18-sack season in 2016, and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, Missouri’s Charles Harris and Temple’s Haason Reddick are all intriguing prospects in a defensive class that is rife with talent.

Barnett was sick Saturday and it’s unclear if he’ll work out.

Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster also will be missing after being sent home for getting into an argument with a hospital worker Friday.

But coaches, scouts and general managers realize the best pass-rushers won’t stick around long on draft weekend because they are in such great demand.

“This league is a passing league,” new Colts general manager Chris Ballard said earlier this week. “So it’s about protecting the quarterback and getting guys who can go get the other quarterback.”

One problem is finding players who fit defensive schemes.

Some of college football’s top pass-rushing specialists are too small to play on an NFL defensive line and wind up moving to outside linebacker — a switch that doesn’t always work.

Whether the team that drafts them plays a 3-4 defense or a 4-3, just about every pro linebacker is asked to play coverage, something many making the position change never have done.

If it works, a team can strike gold — as the Baltimore Ravens did with Terrell Suggs.

If it doesn’t, a team may be scrambling for years to find a solution.

How does one decide what works and what doesn’t?

“I want to see if the guy can beat you to the punch,” said Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who had four rookie starters on his NFC champion defense. “As a pass rusher, having that get off to stress the offense tackle the most right off the bat. And to break down their technique based on the guy’s initial quickness, that’s what I look of the most. Past that, you want to find a guy who has a finisher’s mentality.”

And the guy who fits that description best may become the fourth defensive lineman to go No. 1 overall since 2000.

“I feel like I’m the best player in the draft,” Garett said. “And I feel like I’ll prove that today and tomorrow.”