As the NFL world converges on Indianapolis for the 2015 NFL Combine, many teams will be looking to draft the league's next greatest pass rusher, and NFL.com's Mike Mayock believes there's one to be found at the combine.
In this year's draft class, Mayock believes that Florida's Dante Fowler, Nebraska's Randy Gregory and Missouri's Shane Ray are at the top of the group. Close behind them, he lists Clemson's Vic Beasley as a player that can challenge the top three with a solid combine.
When scouting outside linebackers, Mayock looks for three key things: ability to get to the quarterback, physicality and helping out in pass coverage.
Check out these photos of Dante Fowler Jr., an energetic and relentless edge rusher of the University of Florida.
"No. 1, you got to be a great pass rusher or have the ability to develop into one," he said in an interview with NFL.com. "No. 2, you got to set the physical edge. And No. 3, you got to be able to drop in coverage, and that's the least important of the three.
"I think Dante Fowler's the guy that checks off all three of those boxes."
After three seasons with the Gators, Fowler is viewed as one of the top defensive players in this year's draft class. He finished his career with 140 total tackles (33.5 for loss), 14.5 sacks, and capped his tenure with 60 tackles as a junior, landing him on the All-SEC First Team and All-American honors.
In an early October matchup against LSU, Fowler notched a season-high 11 total tackles. To complete his college career, he recorded three sacks in Florida's 28-20 victory over East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.
While Mayock believes Folwer is the cream of the crop, it's only because of his ability to get physical at the point of attack.
"Coming off the edge, you have to be a great pass rusher or have the ability to become a great pass rusher," Mayock said. "And I think when you look at Fowler, Gregory and Ray, all three of them can. The second thing is you got to be tough enough and big enough to set a physical edge. That's where I get nervous a little bit about Gregory, Ray and Vic Beasley."
Another player that left school a year early, Gregory missed the three games this season for the Cornhuskers, but still managed 50 tackles (8.5 for loss) and seven sacks. In his career, he's made two interceptions and returned one 33 yards for a touchdown in 2013.
The reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Ray made 61 total tackles in 2014, including an SEC-best 14.5 sacks. In 14 games in his final season, he recorded at least a half-sack in all but three of them, and had five multi-sack efforts.
Check out these photos of Randy Gregory, a tenacious defensive end/outside linebacker out of the University of Nebraska.
To round out Mayock's top four, Beasley finished his career for Clemson having made 84 career stops, including 11 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss as a senior en route to earning the 2014 ACC Defensive Player of the Year award.
One thing that Mayock will be keeping a close eye on is weigh-in day. He believes that could have quite an impact on where and when Gregory (6-6, 240), Ray (6-3, 245) and Beasely (6-2, 235) will be selected.
"Let's see what they weigh, let's see what they're body types look like," Mayock said. "Because in the NFL, you got to be able to play the run game and you got to be able to go up against those big tackles and guards, and hold your own."
Currently listed at 6-3 and 261-pounds, Fowler is far and away the biggest of the bunch, something that Mayock believes gives him an advantage.
"They're a little different," he said. "It depends what your flavor is. I think the best fit for a 3-4 (defense) is Dante Fowler, and I like him at 255-260 over those other guys."