The flurry of offensive production during the regular season appeared to de-emphasize the importance of defensive football in the minds of many, but the New York Giants' unexpected title run will lead some franchises to focus once again on that side of the ball, particularly with regard to the defensive line.
Teams will look to replicate the Giants' depth and talent along the defensive front, so their defensive coordinators can have an effective counter to the sophisticated passing games currently dominating the NFL. There are several potential difference-makers in this year's class of pass rushers, but they all have weaknesses, and none are deemed "can't miss" prospects.
North Carolina's Quinton Coples is the headliner of the class. He is a versatile talent capable of aligning anywhere from the one-technique (over the center) to the nine-technique (outside shoulder of the offensive tackle or tight end). He displays freakish athleticism for his size and is a natural disrupter against the run or pass. While there are certainly questions about Coples' play as a senior (his efforts seemed lackluster at times on film), his flashes of dominance at the Senior Bowl will force teams to think about him as draft day approaches.
Illinois' Whitney Mercilus and USC's Nick Perry are talented pass rushers, but their production surged so dramatically last season that some scouts have dismissed them as one-year wonders. With others, like Syracuse's Chandler Jones and LSU's Michael Brockers, carrying similar labels based on limited resumes, scouts will head to Indianapolis seeking answers from this year's top prospects.
There will also be plenty of questions about the defensive tackles. Penn State's Devon Still and Michigan State's Jerel Worthy dominate the competition at times on tape, but inconsistent play makes some wonder about their ability to have an immediate impact.
With so many questions surrounding the top prospects on the defensive line, the NFL Scouting Combine could provide some valuable answers.
1. Quinton Coples, North Carolina: Based on his impressive showing as a junior, Coples was expected to be the most dominant defender in college football in 2011. When he didn't play up to expectations, scouts began to question his potential. But Coples dominated the competition at the Senior Bowl, changing perceptions of him yet again. He can build on that momentum by putting together a spectacular workout at the NFL Scouting Combine. If he can convince evaluators that his performance as a senior was an aberration and not an indication of how he will play as a pro, Coples has a strong chance of being a top-10 pick on draft day.
2. Whitney Mercilus, Illinois: Mercilus will certainly be burdened by the "one-year wonder" tag. He led the nation with 16 sacks in 2011, but in his first two seasons, he totaled only two quarterback takedowns. Mercilus is a skilled pass rusher with a sneaky first step and burst. He complements his impressive hand skills with a relentless motor that results in sacks on extra effort. While game tape from his junior season suggests he could be an impact player, scouts will examine his football aptitude carefully, looking for the reasons behind his early ineffectiveness. Mercilus' interview sessions will be critical in determining his eventual draft position.
3. Nick Perry, USC: Perry has caught the eye of scouts searching for an athletic pass rusher, but he enters the NFL Scouting Combine with a bevy of questions to address. Evaluators are concerned about his durability and inconsistent production, so he needs to get a clean bill of health from the league's medical team while impressing in interviews. On the field, Perry must show the speed and athleticism that he appears to have on tape. He is viewed as one of the best athletes at the position, but a poor performance on the turf could alter that perception.
4. Chandler Jones, Syracuse: Jones has flown under the radar during the run-up to the NFL Scouting Combine, but scouts, who have been poring over film, are beginning to recognize his talent. He is a tall, rangy athlete with an explosive first step and polished rush skills. Jones' ability to turn speed into power allows him to overwhelm edge blockers, prompting some to think he can slide inside to the five-technique (aligned on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle) in a 3-4. Teams want explosive pass rushers, and Jones could create buzz in scouting circles.
5. Billy Winn, Boise State: Winn has emerged as a top-50 talent after displaying outstanding versatility during his time at Boise State. He seamlessly transitions from defensive end to defensive tackle, and is one of the few players in the draft capable of manning any position along the defensive front. While his talent certainly stands out in matchups against elite competition, Winn's inconsistent motor is troublesome. He doesn't bring the effort expected from an elite player, and scouts will research his character extensively in interviews. How well he handles the interrogation could determine his fate on draft day.
Sleeper to watch: Cam Johnson, Virginia. Johnson is one of the most talented defenders in the draft, but he has seemingly gone unnoticed on the national scene. However, scouts are aware of his unique combination of speed, quickness and athleticism, and some view him as a potential sack artist. Although he is coming off a nondescript performance at the Senior Bowl, Johnson can certainly generate some buzz with an impressive (that is, athletic) showing in Indy.
1. Devon Still, Penn State: Still possesses all of the physical tools scouts covet in an interior defender. His combination of size, strength and power allows him to overwhelm blockers at the point of attack, but he is more than a bull rusher in the middle. He flashes athleticism and quickness when used on the move, and his ability to disrupt plays behind the line of scrimmage has earned him strongly positive reviews in scouting circles. Some have reservations about his unrefined technique, but his natural tools will entice coaches looking for a potential disrupter in the middle. If he puts together an impressive performance in the weight room and on the field, Still could become the top interior defender on draft boards across the league.
2. Michael Brockers, LSU: Brockers created quite a stir in the scouting community with his surprising decision to enter the draft as a redshirt sophomore. The former LSU standout displays a rare combination of size, speed and athleticism, and is an explosive player at the point of attack. Although his game is still raw and unrefined by pro standards, Brockers flashes the kind of talent that suggests he could develop into a difference-maker. A nice showing in front of scouts could make him a potential top-15 pick.
3. Jerel Worthy, Michigan State: Teams looking for disruptive interior defenders with speed and athleticism are enamored with Worthy's game. The former Spartan flashes enormous potential as a penetrator, and his remarkable first-step quickness is complemented by excellent snap anticipation. Worthy will be unable to squelch concerns about his limited rush moves or stamina during his workout at the NFL Scouting Combine, but he can display the athleticism and power that stands out in film of him. If he gives scouts a glimpse of his immense potential, Worthy could cement himself as the third-best defensive tackle in this year's draft class.
4. Dontari Poe, Memphis: Teams on the hunt for an immovable object in the middle will certainly find Poe intriguing. He was one of the strongest players in college football and his explosiveness overwhelms blockers at the point of attack. He holds his ground against double teams, freeing up linebackers to flow to the ball. To solidify his status as one of the top interior defenders, Poe needs to put on a show in the weight room and dazzle scouts with his underrated athleticism in drills. If he can demonstrate that he can move better than his enormous frame would suggest, Poe could come off the board near the end of the first round.
5. Brandon Thompson, Clemson: Run-stoppers aren't valued at a premium, but Thompson's ability to clog the middle is certainly coveted by teams looking to shore up their defensive interior. He certainly holds his ground at the line of scrimmage, and his ability to win against single- or double-team blocking allows active inside linebackers to run and chase the ball. Although Thompson is unrefined as a pass-rusher, scouts will gamble on his potential if he displays athleticism and agility.
Sleeper to watch: Jared Crick, Nebraska. Heading into the 2011 campaign, Crick was a top-five defensive tackle, but a season-ending pectoral injury prevented him from solidifying his spot among the elite. However, he hopes to return to action prior to the draft, and a good prognosis from the league's medical staff could be enough to salvage his status as a prospect for Day 2. Crick certainly has the talent to emerge as an exceptional pro, but concerns about his injury history must be addressed before he leaves Indianapolis.
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