Don't Overthink Kwity Paye

Photo Credit: Mike Carter (USA TODAY Sports)

In the Audacy Ultimate Mock Draft, I was tasked with picking 14th for the Minnesota Vikings. The draft board fell unfavorably from an offensive line perspective. I was denied the chance to trade down. Alijah Vera-Tucker went to the Los Angeles Chargers one pick before the Vikings, and Rashawn Slater and Penei Sewell were long gone. But only two defenders (Patrick Surtain and Jaycee Horn) were selected. I had my pick of the litter on defense and took Kwity Paye out of Michigan.

I’m plenty comfortable leaving the offensive line for Day 2. Not only is there an urgent need in terms of pass rush, but there is a bevy of offensive line talent in the 50-70 range. The Vikings have the ammo to trade up and target someone like Quinn Meinerz, Wyatt Davis, or even Dillon Radunz. The edge-rushing talent in that range could be viable, such as Joe Tryon, but I’m higher on the offensive linemen. Also, don’t forget about Rashod Hill, who could be a better option than you think.

So if we’re committed to taking an edge rusher, why Paye?

If you go by everyone else’s mock drafts, I reached. Paye is exactly 14th on Arif Hasan’s consensus big board, though that is subject to change. There is some resistance to Kwity Paye as the best edge rusher on the board. On the Audacy mock draft, I described the edge class as “athletic, but raw” and homogenized them a bit too much. Since that recording, I’ve gained a better understanding of Paye specifically, and why his rawness isn’t as concerning as some make it out to be.

The athleticism is less ambiguous. Paye is every bit the athlete he is advertised to be, despite his mediocre size. You may notice a lack of agility drills on this composite. His overall score might break the chart if he ran a three-cone drill as quickly as he did in this video.

If you time that out, it lands at 6.6 or 6.7 seconds, depending on frame rate information and a margin for human timing error. That would be in the 96th percentile among wide receivers. At 261 lbs, it’s beyond the pale. Assuming nothing about that video is doctored (as a professional video doctorer, no alarm bells go off), Paye’s agility is his greatest asset.

That shows up on tape as well. As a run defender, Paye has instincts that can put him on the field on Day 1. That’s important with a first-round pick. Anyone going at pick 14 raises the expectation that he is an every-down player immediately and not one that has to rotate out on rushing downs. It’s a lot easier for a player to grow if they can earn a place on the field. Voch Lombardi explains Paye’s run game prowess here:

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In short, he spaces himself well, reads the play almost instantly, and plays with phenomenal technique against a lineman who is bigger than him. He ends up two-gapping here, which is a function of Penn State’s play design. That means that Paye is responsible for the gaps on either side of him, giving the rusher options. The Vikings like to do similar things with Dalvin Cook, and Paye will encounter pullers like this plenty in the NFL.

Paye is at his strongest when offenses choose deceptive plays. The more time you spend trying to deceive him, the closer he’s going to be to the point of attack. That superhuman agility displays itself readily, too.

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Even if the preseason ends up truncated, any team running an option scheme (like the Baltimore Ravens, a team the Vikings will face on the road next year) is going to have to spend resources accounting for Paye or pay the price. He can read you. Inside zone or other schemes predicated on stressing defenses horizontally will also bring out the best in Paye. There’s a decent chance that all four NFC North teams run such a scheme.

The pass rush is a more nuanced case. Per PFF’s draft guide, he was remarkably efficient during the truncated 2020 season. He produced 16 hurries in just 138 pass-rush snaps, and it was no fluke. His 2018 and 2019 production was similar, but he grew year over year.

From a pure production standpoint, Paye should be the first edge rusher off the board. Azeez Ojulari and Jaelan Phillips have somewhat of a case, but Ojulari is less versatile and Phillips has some medical issues you’ll have to reconcile with first. Phillips has seen success just about anywhere you’ll see an edge rusher on the front, from 4i flirting with a 3T alignment all the way to the wide nine around the edge.

The operative problem is Paye rushing the passer without a plan. He can get off the snap, get into a great position, and then sort of freeze up. He doesn’t have the “bend” that evaluators typically look for to see edge rushers dipping underneath taller tackles. There are examples of him cutting around the corner or winning with his hands, but they aren’t consistent enough.

Here’s Voch again explaining it better than I can:

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That isn’t to say he needs to be re-built from scratch. Paye has good footwork, good hands, and explosive athleticism. In a lot of cases, that will be enough.

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It’s worth reiterating his production here. Even though the skill he displayed above doesn’t show up nearly enough, he still got to the quarterback. In the run, he’s a legitimate threat. Pair that with Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce, and it’s very easy to justify a lighter box. In the long term, if Paye can add pass-rush moves to his arsenal, he’ll become lethal all-around.

When considering rawness in a prospect, it’s important to ask more specific questions. What do they need to learn? How long does it take to learn that? What are the odds he never learns it? And most importantly, what happens if he never learns it? As Voch Lombardi said, Paye has a high floor. If he never develops his pass rush more, he’ll still get to the quarterback on occasion just by virtue of a quick get-off and natural ability. Against the run, he’s an NFL starter with no assembly required.

Kwity Paye will enter his first training camp as a good edge defender with a chance to be great. He has a high floor, an even higher ceiling, and plays a premium position that the Vikings desperately need. If you are against drafting Paye because the risk is too high for the draft pick, I would ask you to fully consider that scenario. Which part are you afraid of?

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Photo Credit: Mike Carter (USA TODAY Sports)

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