He’s too short. He’s undersized. The sack production isn’t there. What about his attitude? Former top recruit Ed Oliver dominated college football for the Houston Cougars, yet he faces substantial scrutiny heading into April draft. If the NFL’s rigid standards and silly skepticism ding Oliver’s draft stock, the Green Bay Packers will be sitting, waiting to pounce.
Purely on talent, Oliver looks the part on the field. He’s a top-5 player all day. Some wondered if he might be 6-foot-1 instead of 6-foot-3. (He’s 6-foot-2.) Others contended he played at 275 at Houston, though he showed up nearly 290 at the combine in Indianapolis. And after putting on an absolute show as a freshman with 22 TFLs and 5 sacks, Oliver never matched that production again, before playing just eight games last season.
A disagreement with his coach made headlines, leading to questions about his attitude. And while the production for an interior player looks stellar overall, he wasn’t facing Big Ten or SEC talent week in and week out playing in the AAC.
Brian Gutekunst said Thursday he believed free agency freed up the team in the draft to focus on the best players regardless of need, something he said they always “try” to do (a reminder it’s not always practical). Oliver represents an impossibly appealing option even with some of the requisite risks.
In Green Bay, it’s not hard to imagine Pettine standing Oliver up over the center in those patented double-A gap blitzes. He could play on the edge much the way Wade Phillips used Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald on the outside to mitigate the lack of edge rush in LA. His athleticism would baffle teams on twists and stunts and, though his sack numbers don’t show it, Oliver possesses top sack potential given more opportunities.
Mike Daniels turns 30 in May and 2019 is the final year of his contract. Oliver would step into an immediate defensive line rotation with two monsters between Diesel and Kenny Clark and wouldn’t have to carry the team. Imagine him rushing in sub-package next to Za’Darius Smith, a disruptive interior player, with Preston Smith coming off the edge. Oliver boasts such freak athleticism that some NFL teams were asking him to do linebacker drills at the Combine, something he practiced in the offseason even with the added weight.
Though the 21-year-old lacks the ideal length and height to be a 3-4 defensive end, he profiles similarly to Daniels as a shorter, powerful rusher with quickness and burst. He could easily slide into the role as a three technique defensive tackle next to Clark at the nose without changing much of anything should the Packers choose to move on from Daniels. Let Oliver do what Oliver does, much like Pettine deploys Daniels, another guy without the ideal body type to control blockers with his length.
It’s not that Brian Gutekunst should ignore possible edge rushers with the 12th pick, or that offensive line help wouldn’t buoy the talent levels of the Packers in similar ways. Green Bay certainly needs to play for the future at offensive line and a team can never have too much pass rush. But that’s the interesting part of Oliver’s skillset for Pettine and the Packers: he can be a pass rusher on the interior, a place Pettine truly prioritizes. The league has recognized how much easier it is to mitigate the impact of edge rushers, but defensive tackles who can win early are nearly impossible to stop from being disruptive.
Just ask the teams who have to play Aaron Donald twice a year.
Oliver doesn’t have to be Donald to be valuable. The Packers can find offensive line help later. Dalton Risner may fall to 30 and Chris Lindstrom almost assuredly will be there. The 12th pick feels too early for guys like Devin Bush or T.J. Hockenson, even if each are tantalizing talents who would have long-term roles with the Packers. It’s a deep class of overhang defenders and tight ends. Receivers can came later.
Find inside pass rush in a player who can help in 2019 before becoming a full-time player in 2020 next to Kenny Clark, to form one of the most dynamic interior duos in football. If the Packers had not added the Smiths in free agency and if Montez Sweat or Brian Burns were still available at 12, the Packers may have felt the pull of an edge rusher was too great to pick Oliver, even despite his top-5 talent. That obstacle should now be gone (such that it ever existed in the first place).
Oliver now represents a unique, high-upside talent play to throw a lightning bolt into a defense that just added some thunder on the outside.