Yahoo Sports' top 2019 NFL draft prospects, No. 6: Houston DL Ed Oliver

Yahoo Sports

Leading up to the 2019 NFL draft, which starts April 25, Yahoo Sports will count down our top 100 overall prospects. We’ll count them down 10 at a time, followed by profiles on our top 30 overall players.

Previous entries: Nos. 100-91 | 90-81 | 80-71 | 70-61 | 60-51 | 50-41 | 40-31 | 30. Drew Lock | 29. Deandre Baker | 28. Taylor Rapp | 27. Garrett Bradbury | 26. Dexter Lawrence | 25. Jerry Tillery | 24. Josh Jacobs | 23. Christian Wilkins | 22. Cody Ford | 21. Noah Fant | 20. Andre Dillard | 19. Greedy Williams | 18. Dwayne Haskins | 17. Rashan Gary | 16. D.K. Metcalf | 15. Clelin Ferrell | 14. Florida OT Jawaan Taylor | 13. Byron Murphy | 12. Jonah Williams | 11. Devin White | 10. Kyler Murray | 9. Devin Bush Jr. | 8. Montez Sweat | 7. T.J. Hockenson

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6. Houston DL Ed Oliver

6-foot-2, 281 pounds

Key stat: Oliver had 13 games in college with two or more tackles for loss, including a dominant performance last fall at East Carolina in which he had six tackles (five for losses), two sacks and a forced fumble.

The skinny: Oliver’s high-school recruitment turned into one of the bigger upsets in recent memory when the five-star Texas product committed to non-Power-5 Houston — over Alabama, LSU and several other heavyweight programs. He opted to stay close to home, having starred at Westfield High about 30 minutes down the road, although Oliver later admitted he would not have committed to the school had his older brother, Marcus (a two-year starter at offensive guard), not already been enrolled there. Oliver also had more familiarity on campus with his high school defensive coordinator, A.J. Blum, who spent the past two seasons as the Cougars’ defensive line coach.

Wearing jersey No. 10, Oliver turned in one of the more memorable freshman seasons by a defender in the past decade or more in 2016. He was named first-team All-American and all-conference as a true freshman, ranking second in FBS with 23 tackles for loss, along with 66 total tackles, five sacks, three forced fumbles, nine pass breakups in 13 starts.

In 2017, Oliver won the Outland Trophy, was a consensus All-American and was named American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year Award in amassing 73 tackles (16.5 for loss), 5.5 sacks and three pass breakups. He also ran for a 1-yard score in Houston’s bowl game loss to Fresno State. Oliver’s junior year in 2018 was beset by a knee injury suffered on what looked like a dirty cut block vs. Army, forcing him to miss four games, but he still managed to register 54 tackles (a team-high 14.5 for loss), three sacks, one forced fumble and two passes defended in his eight starts.

Oliver, who turns 22 in December, opted to declare early for the 2019 NFL draft prior to the start of his junior season and he skipped the team’s bowl game to prepare for the draft.

Houston Cougars defensive tackle Ed Oliver after defeating Rice. (AP Photo)
Houston Cougars defensive tackle Ed Oliver after defeating Rice. (AP Photo)

Upside: Nearly unparalleled movement skill for a big man. Rare athletic traits — his testing numbers at the combine and his pro day would have been excellent for a defensive end, but they were nothing short of historic when compared to interior defenders. Combination of core strength (32 bench-press reps at the NFL scouting combine, can back squat 650 pounds) and flexibility (his 3-cone and 20-yard shuttle numbers from his pro day would have been top 10 among all interior D-linemen at the combine since 1999) is absurd. Oliver’s shuttle time of 4.22 seconds was faster than what Saquon Barkley ran at the combine. Extremely productive and disruptive even while facing constant double-teams — 54 tackles for loss in 33 college games, and very high tackle total (193) for nose tackle as well.

Elite quickness and lateral-movement skill — loose hips and great flexibility. Plays on the balls of his feet and can pivot and burst in a hiccup. Explodes out of his stance and uses twitched-up athleticism to gain an advantage before more linemen are into their sets. Great gap shooter who can defeat double teams with guile and get-off. Low pad level — built squarely and is hard to block one-on-one. Earns a lot of holding calls, adding to “hidden stat” worth. Will flash some power vs. the run.

Very good toughness and instincts — not just an athlete out there. Plays with great effort most of the time and invites a street fight. Furious hand-fighter who can arm-over blockers as readily as he can bull rush them. Great ball awareness — locates and hunts down. Will make plays 20 yards or more downfield on pursuit and athleticism, such as chasing down Dede Westbrook on this bubble screen in Oliver’s first college game against an Oklahoma team loaded with future NFL talent in 2016 (at the 4:18 mark):

Lined up as the zero-technique nose tackle on the Cougars’ three-man front more than 80 percent of his snaps last season, which was what the staff wanted but which clearly held Oliver back individually. Wasn’t used all that creatively last season, and really for the past two seasons, and yet still found ways to make plays every game.

Some NFL teams at least have explored the idea of Oliver becoming a linebacker or an edge rusher, but he certainly should be used more as a shaded nose or as a three-technique to help him work creases better inside and avoid double teams. Was used most creatively in college by former coordinator Todd Orlando in 2016 — on stunts and twists, shaded, standing up, dropping, the works. Occasionally dropped from nose into a QB spy role, which is a good indication of just how rare a specimen he is. Even could be tried as a moonlight offensive specialist in short-yardage and red-zone situations.

Was involved in dispute with former head coach Major Applewhite on the sidelines during a game when Oliver was injured and apparently broke a team rule by wearing a sideline jacket, which was supposed to be restricted to players who dressed for game day. But a team source told Yahoo Sports that there were people on staff who were not aware of said rule, and members of the program have made sure to let NFL folks of this, so Oliver has emerged from that part of the incident with Applewhite (who was fired at season’s end) looking better.

Downside: Size issues for his current position are hard to overlook — lacks good length and girth, despite weighing 287 pounds at the combine (and 281 at his pro day). Sources say he played last season in the 271-277 range, and he dropped into the high 260s as a freshman. Adding mass and keeping weight above the 280 mark could be a tall order for a frame that appears close to maxed out — failing to do so could complicate his NFL projection and limit the ways in which he’s utilized. Missed time with knee injury and was limited at combine with hamstring.

Power-run teams had success trapping and double-teaming him and using his lack of mass and length against him. Can be engulfed and buried by double teams, even against lesser competition. Almost must win with speed and effort and cannot be counted on to bull rush 315-pound centers and 330-pound guards in the NFL. Can get locked up inside and needs more of a plan to break free — long-armed blockers can get into his chest and stone him. Hand work remains unrefined. Too often relied on his natural gifts and strong effort to win battles. Comparisons to Aaron Donald are unfair and short-sighted — Oliver lacks Donald’s rare power and advanced technique.

Immature, albeit not in a do-not-draft kind of way — just needs to grow up some and doesn’t yet know how to be a pro. Was handed the keys to a middle-tier program as an elite recruit with more social-media pull than the rest of his teammates combined, and it created a bit of a monster. Ego conflict with Applewhite had shared blame on both sides, but Oliver leaving the stadium after the incident hasn’t sat well enough with some teams. Has always been a big fish in a small pond and could need time to adjust to NFL accountability.

A team source said Oliver was asked by NFL scouts attending Houston’s Junior Day to fill out questionnaires (which he skipped after asking if it would affect his draft stock) and was asked to step on a scale. Oliver said he had to go to the bathroom but never returned.

Prideful and stubborn. Needs to be engaged — looked frustrated at times in limited scheme role. Stopped responding positively to coaches pointing out his negative plays in front of the entire team as a way of motivating him, which it had earlier in his career. Looked less focused on a daily basis without his brother and a few older defensive linemen (who served as mentors) on the team in 2018. Game-day effort was always strong but practice effort waned at times. Would be best-served to go to a team where he’s surrounded by a demanding defensive line coach, a position room with some seasoned veterans and a defensive coordinator who knows how to use Oliver creatively.

Best-suited destination: Scheme-wise, there are some limitations in Oliver’s projection and he won’t be a natural fit for every type of system. Still, there is too much twitched-up athleticism and quality tape for more teams to deem him an ill-fitting piece, especially in a league that uses more four-man lines and sub-package defenses geared toward speed over power. Ideally, he’d be unleashed in a slanting scheme that allows him to work gaps and constantly foul up blocking schemes and less of a hold-the-point defender who is stuck playing head up against a center for 45-50 snaps a game.

We can envision Oliver being especially sought by teams such as the New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals, New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Chargers, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers.

Fun fact: Oliver was raised on the farm in Marksville, Louisiana, (about four hours east of Houston) with his father, who played running back at Northwestern State (and was teammates with LSU head coach Ed Orgeron and NFL players Mark Duper and Gary Reasons). Oliver has credited his work ethic and country-strong build with his upbringing, where he, his father and brother helped raise and tend to horses, built barns and did other taxing chores.

They said it: “Y’all need to stop comparing us. If you compared Aaron Donald to me, he wouldn’t like it. I don’t want to live in his shadow. We’re going to be competing for who’s better. ... I’m trying to be the best to ever do it.”

— Oliver, to ESPN.com

Player comp: Geno Atkins

Expected draft range: Top-12 pick

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