Each NFL draft class is different in terms of its makeup. Defense dominates some years, like in 2008 when seven of the top 10 picks (including St. Louis Rams DE Chris Long and New England Patriots ILB Jerod Mayo) played on that side of the line of scrimmage.
This year, however, finding defensive standouts with top-10 value is difficult. It's possible just three defensive players are selected in this year's first 10 picks, with the dynamic quarterback duo coming off the board first, and other coveted spots filled by offensive tackles, receivers and running back Trent Richardson.
General managers are having a difficult time differentiating between similarly valued pass rushers available in this year's first round. There is no Julius Peppers in this year's class, or even a Von Miller -- teams don't consider any of these prospects as sure-fire sack artists. But plenty of 4-3 defensive ends (like Jason Pierre-Paul) and 3-4 rush linebackers (DeMarcus Ware) have become nightmares for opposing quarterbacks, despite being selected outside the top 10.
Pass rushers are like most other positions in the draft, where only one out of two or three first-round picks turn out to be impact players. Pierre-Paul made a name for himself last season, racking up 16.5 sacks for the Super Bowl champions, while fellow 2010 mid-first-rounders Brandon Graham (Philadelphia Eagles) and Derrick Morgan (Tennessee Titans) have a total of seven sacks between them the past two seasons.
Choosing which player will ripen into a Pro Bowler is not easy. Let's see if we can uncover any hints that might help teams make this crucial first-round call.
In most cases, teams face tough choices because players have very similar measurables and styles (see: the next pairing below). But the draft-room debate on Coples vs. Ingram is a pure study in contrasts.
Coples, who used his power to routinely overwhelm the solid offensive linemen prospects he faced during Senior Bowl week, measured four inches taller than Ingram at the NFL Scouting Combine (6-foot-5 3/4 to 6-1 1/2) and his 33 1/4-inch arms are more prototypical for NFL pass rushers than Ingram's 31 1/2-inch arms. Not to mention, the 284-pound Coples turned in a better 40 time (4.78) than the 264-pound Ingram (4.79), which is surprising given their notable difference in frame.
However, Ingram was among the quickest defensive linemen in shuttle tests, confirming the burst scouts have marveled at on film. Whether turning the corner on an offensive tackle or moving inside as a stand-up rusher and third-down interior threat, Ingram often out-quicked his man to find a lane to the ball. His lack of ideal height and length did not prevent him from shedding blocks or splitting double-teams to attack ball carriers.
Unlike Coples, who had four of his 7.5 sacks last fall against Duke and James Madison, Ingram constantly seemed to be around the ball in 2011 -- even against SEC competition. And his agility and experience at linebacker in 2010 make him a potential playmaker in a 3-4 scheme. Coples might also have a future as a five-technique in a three-man line, though scouts aren't as sure of his ability to be a true difference maker in that role because he did not disengage from blocks very well in 2011 when man-up on a tackle.
Two former first-rounders come to mind when considering the contrasting sizes and styles of Coples and Ingram: Jamaal Anderson, the Atlanta Falcons' eighth overall selection in 2007, is reminiscent of Coples; while Tamba Hali, the Kansas City Chiefs' 20th pick in 2006, feels like Ingram. Anderson's size was exactly what scouts look for in an outside pass rusher, while Hali's short arms and 'tweener build gave teams pause in trying to determine his NFL fit. Hali has piled up 53.5 career sacks and forced 23 fumbles, making the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons. Meanwhile, Anderson has a grand total of 7.5 career sacks and two forced fumbles and is now playing for his third team after agreeing to a two-year deal with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Obviously, my feeling is that Ingram will enjoy the better NFL career.
3-4 Conversion Rush Linebackers: Andre Branch vs. Whitney Mercilus
Last April, Missouri defensive end Aldon Smith flew up draft boards and was selected seventh overall by the San Francisco 49ers. Smith went on to make an instant impact in the fall with 14 sacks. Despite the fact that Mercilus led the NCAA with 16 sacks last season while wearing the same college jersey number as Smith (85), it is Branch whose game compares most favorably to one of 2011's top rookies.
At the combine, these two players were remarkably similar in height, length and weight measurements, and produced nearly identical 40-yard-dash times (Mercilus ran an official best of 4.68 seconds to Branch's 4.70). The biggest difference in test results came when Mercilus churned out 27 bench reps to Branch's 19, and when Branch proved more agile in the 20-yard shuttle test with a sound 4.25-second timing to Mercilus' pedestrian 4.53 mark.
On the field, though, it appears Branch plays with superior functional strength. He also showcases better agility in the open fielding, staying right with quarterbacks in the backfield and running backs in the flat. In a 3-4 or hybrid scheme, Branch seems more capable of holding the edge against the run as a stand-up player and winning hand battles against NFL offensive tackles in a pass-rush capacity.
Mercilus looks a bit more adept at turning the corner from a three-point stance, possibly making him a more intriguing 4-3 rush end, but Smith was not the most flexible of rushers while at Missouri, either. Standing Branch up and moving him inside and out to threaten weak points of an opposing offensive line -- as the Niners did with Smith during his rookie year -- could greatly enhance his production.
Don't be surprised if Branch is picked much earlier than many are projecting right now, or at least landing into the lap of New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan, who favors long rushers off the edge in his defensive scheme.
Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter