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Road to the Draft: Conflicting rankings make edge rusher class one of the most intriguing

With no clear consensus on the top player — or even who belongs in the first round — the 2021 edge rusher class holds plenty of suspense

Over the next few weeks, as the 2021 NFL Draft gets closer and closer, we're spotlighting a different position group or draft storyline at ClevelandBrowns.com.

In our Road to the Draft series, we'll take a deep dive into the top prospects available at each position group. We're continuing with the defensive ends, a group that's received plenty of connections with the Browns since the offseason began.

Why the position matters for the Browns: Even though they added three-time Pro Bowler Jadeveon Clowney to their DE room this week, the Browns could still be in the market for a defensive end early in the draft. Clowney and All-Pro Myles Garrett are poised to garner the most snaps, but Cleveland also has big plans for Takkarist McKinley, a free-agent signee and 2017 first-round pick. The Browns could deploy Garrett, Clowney and McKinley, with Clowney potentially playing inside against opposing guards, in some defensive packages. Porter Gustin, Joe Jackson, Cameron Malveaux and Curtis Weaver round out the group.

The top dog in this year's class: That depends who you ask, but most people believe it's either Azeez Ojulari (Georgia), Kwity Paye (Michigan) or Jaelan Phillips (Miami). All three prospects have been mocked to land between picks No. 11-15 or as low as the second round, and all three have frequently been mocked to the Browns. Ojulari is the highest ranked prospect in Dane Brugler's 2021 edition of "The Beast" and received a comparison to Yannick Ngakoue.

Rounding out the top five: This also widely depends on who you ask, so we'll make this more a roundup of the top six. Gregory Rousseau (Miami), Jayson Oweh (Penn State) and Joe Tryon (Washington) are all potential first-round prospects but could fall to the second round with little surprise. Rousseau opted out of the 2020 season but built plenty of draft stock with his 15.5-sack season in 2019. Oweh, meanwhile, recorded zero sacks in 2020 but is still considered one of the freaks of the 2021 draft class — he ran a 4.37 40-yard dash — and could be a prized developmental piece. Tryon was an opt-out for 2020, registered eight sacks in 2019 and could also develop into a quality starter over time.

How many first-rounders?: This DE class has about eight players with first-round potential, but there only appears to be four or five teams who'd be interested in selecting them in the first round. That means there will be plenty of intriguing edge rushers to choose in Round 2, although many of them could be off the board by the time the Browns are on the clock again.

A sleeper or two?: Carlos Basham Jr. has been projected as a first-round pick from a few analysts, but he appears most likely to go in the second round and could have a high ceiling after accruing 20.5 sacks and 35.5 tackles for a loss in his final three seasons at Wake Forest. Joseph Ossai from Texas holds similar stock as Basham and was a First Team All-Big 12 selection in 2020 after a five-sack season.

Quote to note: "We have been spoiled in recent years with premier pass-rush prospects at the top of the NFL Draft like Myles Garrett, Chase Young, Joey Bosa and Nick Bosa. Since 2013, at least one pass rusher has been drafted in the top five every year. However, that eight-year run will almost assuredly end in April. But while there isn't a pass rusher in this class who is viewed as a lock top-15 draft pick, this class of edge rushers is loaded in terms of depth between picks 20 and 100." - Brugler in his Top 12 edge rushers for 2021 NFL Draft analysis

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Over the next few weeks, as the 2021 NFL Draft gets closer and closer, we're spotlighting a different position group each day at ClevelandBrowns.com.

Our Road to the Draft series will dive deep into the top players available at each position group. In this series, we'll be analyzing what the Browns have on hand and how that may affect the team's decision making with its nine selections.

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