The MAC begins their season in less than a week and there are three edge defenders in the conference that the Green Bay Packers should pay attention to this year.
The Mid-American Conference sits in the shadow of the Power Five but there have been plenty of talented players to come out of the MAC, in recent years. Ben Roethlisberger, Randy Moss, and Khalil Mack are three players that come to mind. Over 70 players from the conference are currently on NFL rosters.
Only two players were drafted out of the MAC in 2020 but another handful landed UDFA contracts. The MAC has over half-a-dozen players who will be trying to prove their worth this season, three of which are edge rushers.
Edge rusher is a position that the Green Bay Packers have prioritized since GM Brian Gutekunst and Head Coach Matt LaFleur were brought onboard. They’ve thrown plenty of resources at the position over the last two offseasons.
After losing Nick Perry and Clay Matthews during the 2019 offseason, Gutekunst attacked edge rusher in free agency, landing both Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith. He followed that up by selecting Rashan Gary 12th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft.
The Green Bay Packers selected Jonathan Garvin in the 7th round of the 2020 NFL Draft, and shortly after, brought in UDFA Tipa Galeai and free agent Randy Ramsey.
Those six players have accounted for every snap at edge rusher for the Green Bay Packers this season. Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith, or the ‘Smother Brothers’ as I like to call them, have combined for 32 sacks since the two were brought into town, although Preston Smith hasn’t been as productive this year. There’s a chance that he’s a cap casualty after this season.
Rashan Gary had settled into his role as the third edge rusher and has participated in 47% of snaps in the five games he’s been active in this year. Garvin, Galeai, and Ramsey have all provided depth on the edge but none of them have turned heads this year.
With the looming exodus of Preston Smith and lack of productivity off the bench, the Green Bay Packers are likely to add more edge-rushing talent, via the 2021 NFL Draft. It’s reasonable to expect the Packers to spend at least one of their seven day-three picks on edge rushers.
The Mid-American Conference has three day-three edge prospects that the Packers could target. Malcolm Koonce, Taylor Riggins, and Christian Albright could hear their names called by the Green Bay Packers in April.
Malcolm Koonce – Buffalo, Senior
I’d like to start by saying that Malcolm Koonce might have the ugliest three-point stance in D-1 football, though, he looks much better in a stand-up position for Buffalo, where it’s easier for Koonce to get his eyes on what’s in front of him. From a two-point stance, we get a good idea of the potential that Koonce as an NFL pass-rusher.
Koonce shows real explosion and movement ability. He can bend the edge and dip his shoulder with the best of them. However, Koonce has not yet shown an ability to bring that explosion into and through offensive linemen. On the reps where Koonce partners his feet with his hands, we see an elite pass-rusher for the MAC but we don’t see enough of those reps.
During those winning reps, Koonce flashes a good club move and a ‘stack and shed’, where he can utilize his length and foot quickness. Koonce always impresses when he wins but he needs to show more consistency as a pass-rusher. He also needs to show a bull-rush. There’s real doubt that he has the power necessary to push an NFL tackle.
We see that same lack of power against the run, where Koonce has failed on numerous occasions to keep the edge. We would prefer to see a missed read or an ability to disconnect from blockers – those things can be coached, but a lack of anchor against MAC tackles is a real cause for concern.
There are few reps where Koonce plays in space against the run but there’s a lot to like in what we have seen. Koonce has a great feel in space and natural ‘read and react’ ability. He has sideline to sideline mobility and the eyes to match.
We haven’t seen Koonce drop into coverage much and that will be a question for him going forward, but it’s Koonce’s length and athleticism that have scouts and GMs drooling. He led the MAC with 9 sacks last year and will look to repeat that in 2020.
If Koonce can improve his play-strength and maintain his pass-rushing prowess, he’ll check most boxes as an NFL edge-rushing prospect. Koonce may be a day-three prospect right now but he can vault himself into the day-two conversation with improved play in 2020.
Koonce could slide into a rotational role with the Green Bay Packers. Again, his play-strength needs to improve but he already has enough juice as a pass-rusher to see the field on obvious passing downs. These days, we value the pass-game more than the run-game – that should land Malcolm Koonce a job immediately in 2021.
Taylor Riggins – Buffalo, Senior (redshirt)
The second pass-rusher for the Buffalo Bulls, not sorry for being honest, Taylor Riggins, has been productive at the MAC level. He’s recorded 13.5 sacks over the last two seasons, with 14 starts. While the production might be there, we don’t see as much to be excited about as we do with Koonce.
Riggins doesn’t have an elite burst or bend around the edge. He’s rarely the first player to move off the snap and flat-out does not generate enough pressure to have confidence in his ability translating to the NFL. Riggins has undoubtedly benefited from playing on the other side of Koonce and rarely sees a double-team.
Buffalo clearly recognizes this and occasionally places him at defensive tackle on passing downs. While Riggins doesn’t move the needle much as an athlete, he can collapse the pocket, though it takes time. Riggins gets a consistent push and can catch offensive linemen off-guard with his bull-rush.
Riggins’ strength translates to the run-game as well, where he shows a solid anchor. Buffalo can move him from the edge to the 3-tech and not miss a beat. Riggins does struggle to hold ground against a double-team but that’s asking a lot for a 250-pounder.
Riggins shows a strong initial pop and does a great job of keeping blockers off him. He can read the backfield and always does his job. Riggins can be trusted to make the tackle in front of him but shouldn’t be asked to play much in space. He doesn’t have the athleticism and doesn’t take great angles on ball-carriers.
Much like his teammate, Riggins would benefit from adding weight. His lack of athleticism may force him to slide down one position along the defensive front but he can’t play head-up on the guard in the NFL at 250-pounds. For Riggins, it’s add weight, or drastically improve athleticism. Adding weight is the easier path to success.
Riggins has enough length, leverage, and athleticism to win the interior pass-rush battle. At 270-pounds, he’d also be able to hold his own against the run. Its a big ask but we’ve seen players add weight like this before. Riggins will likely never star on an NFL defensive line but could be a valuable piece, anywhere from the seven-tech, to the two-tech if he adds weight.
However, Riggins can hold the edge in the NFL right now. His most likely outcome is an edge defender on obvious run-downs with a potential interior-rush role. The Green Bay Packers need to add run-defenders in their 2021 NFL Draft class
Riggins could be a late-round target for the Packers. Pass-rushing talent comes at a premium in the NFL which leaves run-defenders on the board for awhile. Riggins will likely hear his name called toward the end of the Draft.
Christian Albright – Ball St, Senior
Working as the boundary outside linebacker in Ball State’s 3-4 defense, Christian Albright hasn’t been asked to cover much and he hasn’t had as many reps in space as you’d like to see for a 240-pound edge rusher. However, boundary OLB is the primary pass-rush position for most 3-4 defenses at the college level and Albright has earned the right to let loose at the quarterback.
While he has only 9 sacks over the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Albright fills the stat sheet in other ways. He’s recorded almost 20 TFLs over that time-period, along with 1 interception, 7 passes defended, 6 fumbles forced, and 1 recovered. There’s not doubt about it, Albright is a serious playmaker at the Group of 5 level.
Its reasonable to question, however, if that playmaking ability can translate to the next level. At just 6’ 2”, Albright is short for an NFL edge defender and his arm-length doesn’t make up for it. He also has just average athleticism.
While we see enough flexibility to bend the corner, Albright doesn’t have the ‘get-home’ acceleration that you need from a smaller edge rusher. I also doubt that he runs a sub-4.7 forty-yard-dash.
However, Albright has value as a run-defender. He’s shown an ability to hold the edge, even with his frame, and displays great tackling ability. Albright does a good job of staying home and holding his run-fit. While he defends the edge well in the MAC, we don’t have much film on Albright coming downhill between the tackles, which could hold him back if he has to switch positions.
And Albright might have to switch positions at the NFL level. Even if he increases his production as a pass-rusher, there’s enough doubt, given his lack of size and athleticism to keep him from being drafted. We need to see Albright in coverage and we need to see him play sideline to sideline in the box to justify a day-three selection. It’s very unlikely that the Cardinals ask Albright to do that, which is unfortunate.
He will likely go undrafted but get some interest from attacking-4-3 teams asking him to play Sam linebacker and some 3-4 defenses that put an emphasis on coverage from the OLB position. Albright has a long way to go in coverage but he’s proven to be coachable in the past.
At the end of the day, Albright doesn’t fit the Green Bay Packers defense unless he grows 2 inches and gains 15 pounds. He can have a career in the NFL if he’s willing to undergo a position change and I wish him luck at the next level.
While all three of these MAC edge rushers could have success in the NFL, they’ll probably get there in different ways. Malcolm Koonce is already pushing for day-two consideration and will likely have high expectations as a pass-rusher.
Taylor Riggins is a great run-stopper and will have a role on an NFL defense but what that role will be is unknown right now. Christian Albright looks destined for a position change but he has great vision and tackling ability, and enough juice as a pass-rusher to be successful.
With the MAC beginning play next week, the Green Bay Packers will be forced to expand their field of vision. This conference has produced enough talent over the years to earn the respect of the NFL. We won’t be getting a Khalil Mack out of this draft class but the MAC edge-rushers will have a spotlight on them this year. We’ll be shining a light, here at Game On Wisconsin.