2019 NFL Draft: Don't overthink Houston DT Ed Oliver

By Russell Wilburn

In his first game as a college football player at the University of Houston, defensive tackle Ed Oliver put on a show. The Cougars faced off against the No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners and future No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Baker Mayfield. No one was talking about Mayfield after the game.

Oliver dominated Oklahoma’s top-ranked offensive line to the tune of seven tackles and two sacks from the interior of the defensive line. His production blew up Oklahoma’s game plan and helped hold the elite Sooners offense to just 23 points and 393 yards.

In many ways, the story was officially written on Ed Oliver after that game. He was going to be an All-American, a Heisman contender and future first round NFL draft pick. Each step along the way, he kept adding to his legacy at the University of Houston. Oliver was a three-time All-American, a unanimous selection after his sophomore season and was even able to declare for the NFL draft before playing a down into his junior year.

But now that it’s time to project Oliver onto draft boards, things have gotten a little more complicated. He’s well outside of consideration for the top pick, and moving closer to the middle of the first round instead. Critics are pointing to his size, strength and perceived character concerns as to why he’s slipping. 

It’s almost tradition at this point to build up players just so you can tear them down later. Don’t do it with Ed Oliver. He’s the real deal.

At his pro day on Thursday, Oliver quieted the critics, at least for one day. Oliver ran an absurd 4.73 40-yard dash at 281 pounds. For comparison, that’s faster than Texas wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Texas A&M tight end Jace Sternberger ran. He also notched a 4.22 short shuttle. That’s quicker than Saquon Barkley, LeVeon Bell and Julio Jones.

That performance doesn’t do anything except confirm what we’ve seen on tape. For three years of football, even taking into account injuries, Oliver has been a menace. In 33 career college games, Oliver posted 193 tackles, 54 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, 14 passes defended and six forced fumbles. This is coming from the defensive tackle spot, a position that often falls victim to limited statistical output.

Those aren’t empty numbers, either. Oliver consistently faced double- and triple-teams. He maintained the same level against multiple Power Five opponents every year. There’s plenty of effect that doesn’t show up in the box score either. His physicality, power and leverage is elite for a player of his relative inexperience. Oliver probably could have played in the NFL after his freshman season, and that’s terrifying.

During the NFL process, NFL draft types seem to value potential over production. Nick Bosa, D.K. Metcalf and Rashan Gary are excellent players with great upside. None of those three were even the best player in their position group in college, much less in contention for the best player in college football.

The overanalyzing of Oliver after his third season isn’t new. Many did the same with consensus No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney after a lackluster third season at South Carolina. People nitpicked the heck out of Myles Garrett’s game following an unspectacular junior season. The reality is that it’s almost impossible to maintain three years of impeccable production.

But still, the criticisms are overblown and nitpicky. Look no further than “jacketgate.” Oliver and then-coach Major Applewhite sparred over his right to wear a jacket that was reserved for active players, and Oliver was clearly in the wrong.

There are legitimate critiques to come from the incident. Leaving the field in frustration is not what you want to see from your star player. Declaring for the NFL draft before the season does put the program in an awkward position, and disagreements over injuries only makes it worse. Oliver undoubtedly projected an aura of being bigger than the program at times. Of course, being the man was a huge part of Houston’s pitch to land its first five-star this century.

But still, the connection between entitlement at a college and lack of work ethic in the NFL is silly. Even when drama unfolded, the motor and production never stopped. Oliver does not have “character concerns.” All of his issues just played out in front of a national audience as his absurd performance became more and more taken for granted.

Ed Oliver is a special player who has the potential to dramatically change a defense in the NFL, and at a position that Aaron Donald has made more valuable than ever. Oliver shouldn’t last into the teens. He should be one of the first players off the board. Whatever NFL team drafts him is getting a steal.

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