Miami makes case for having top two edge rushers in 2021 draft

University of Miami defensive end Gregory Rousseau wears the turnover chain during a 2019 game against Central Michigan. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel/TNS)
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University of Miami defensive end Gregory Rousseau wears the turnover chain during a 2019 game against Central Michigan. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

Credit: TNS

When Gregory Rousseau opted out of the 2020 season, Miami’s football team needed an answer to replace his production from the previous season.

As a redshirt freshman in 2019, Rousseau finished second in the nation with 15.5 sacks. Only former Ohio State defensive end Chase Young, who was taken second overall by the Washington Football Team a year ago, did better with 16.5 sacks. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rousseau decided not to play this past season, which opened up a window for another Miami pass rusher to emerge.

Enter Jaelan Phillips, the former five-star prospect who transferred to Miami from UCLA after the 2018 season. Phillips took over as the Hurricanes’ pass-rushing threat and recorded eight sacks in 10 games.

Now, Miami has two edge rushers who have a chance to be selected in the first round of this year’s NFL draft.

Rousseau, at 6-foot-7 and 266 pounds, passes the eye test when it comes to physical traits, athletic ability and speed off the edge. His lone issue is the fact he has appeared in only 14 total games since 2018.

Rousseau is hopeful that teams will study just how productive he was in the games he played.

“I don’t have a lot of film, but I feel like I showed a lot in the time that I did play, my redshirt freshman year,” Rousseau said. “I feel like I proved a lot. I also feel like I’m a very versatile athlete, and I fit into a lot of schemes, and I’m just going to be somebody who’s hard working from Day 1. I’m ready to get to the next level.”

A former five-star prospect, Phillips appeared in only 10 games at UCLA in 2017 and 2018. He then briefly retired from football because of lingering effects from a concussion. After some time away from the game, he decided he wanted to play again and transferred to Miami. Sitting out the 2019 season, Phillips transformed his body into the 6-foot-5 and 260-pound frame he played with this past season. He addressed the concerns teams may have about his injury history and brief retirement.

“We play a dangerous and violent game, and obviously people get hurt,” Phillips said. “But I wouldn’t be here if I was a risk. I think I’m a guy who does all the right things and the extra things to make sure my body is on point.”

Phillips showed off his speed earlier this week at Miami’s Pro Day, clocking a 4.56-second 40-yard dash, which should be enticing to many teams needing help on the edge.

“When Jaelan got here a year-and-some-change ago he was way skinnier,” Rousseau said. “I’m really proud of Jaelan. He came a long way. He put a lot of work in, and hard work pays off. So he’s reaping the benefits of his hard work right now, and I’m super proud of him. That’s my brother, and I love him.”

The Falcons have been looking for a premier pass rusher for numerous years. Although former Falcons first-round defensive end Vic Beasley put forth a 15.5-sack season in 2016, he wasn’t consistent enough on a yearly basis. The previous regime allowed Beasley to walk in free agency following his 2019 campaign.

Two years after drafting Beasley in 2015, the Falcons added Takk McKinley via the first round as well. McKinley never lived up to expectations and was released during the middle of the 2020 season following a series of social-media posts that were critical of the franchise.

However, this year’s draft class doesn’t have a premier edge rusher who many deem worthy of being taken with a top-five selection. Therefore, if the Falcons want one of the few first-round options, such as Miami’s Rosseau and Phillips, trading back from the fourth overall selection could be a possible option to consider.

NFL Media draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah even suggested the Falcons could trade back in the first round twice if they target an edge rusher. Jeremiah was complimentary of Rousseau’s game, but noted the hesitancy teams might have since he only had one year of production.

“Rousseau has some really good tape,” Jeremiah said. “He only had one year of it, but you’re talking about somebody who’s 6-7, (266) pounds who’s got 15 and a half sacks in the ACC. He’s got some accomplishments to work off of here. I don’t see how he falls out of the top 15 in any case. We’ll see how he tests. If he tests well, he might be right back up there. But I thought if he would have played, to get a chance to see him when he was fresh in everybody’s mind and he had another double-digit sack year in that conference, then I think you would say, OK, this kid will be a top-five pick because you couldn’t ignore it.”

In his updated draft rankings, published Monday, Jeremiah ranked Rousseau 13th overall and Phillips 22nd. Rousseau and Phillips are Jeremiah’s first and third edge rushers, respectively. Michigan’s Kwity Paye, ranked 14th overall, is sandwiched between them.

This year’s edge-rusher class may not have the can’t-miss prospect such as Young. But Rousseau and Phillips believe they can bring the same kind of game-wrecking production at the next level.

“I have a desire to be excellent at everything I do,” Phillips said. “For me, I feel it’s my God-given talent to go out there on that football field to perform and just dominate.”