|Bruce Irvin might be considered a project, but he displayed blazing speed with a 4.50 40-yard dash at the combine.|
Quarterbacks get the headlines coming into every year's NFL Scouting Combine, while wide receivers and cornerbacks usually fight for the 40-yard dash title. But quite often it's the defensive linemen who present scouts with the most impressive combination of size and athleticism.
This year's class was no different. Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe was among the biggest stories in Indy, literally and figuratively. He put on a show of strength and athleticism at a gargantuan 346 pounds by running a 4.98 40, posting a combine-high 44 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, and outperforming other defensive lineman weighing 40 pounds less in the agility tests. His movement skills during positional drills were also quite impressive.
The class' top defensive ends also quelled questions about their speed and athleticism. Quinton Coples (North Carolina), Melvin Ingram (South Carolina), Whitney Mercilus (Illinois) and Andre Branch (Clemson) put up sufficient numbers to maintain their lofty status on draft boards across the league.
But many others outside of those marquee defensive linemen also significantly raised their stock at the combine. The result is the 2012 NFL Draft's deepest position group in terms of top-end talent and overall depth.
Here are five notable risers:
Nick Perry, DE/OLB, USC: The 2011 Hendricks Award finalist lived up to expectations at the combine, showing off very good straight-line speed (4.64 40), strength (35 reps on the bench press) and explosiveness (led linemen with a 38-inch vertical, tied for the lead with a 10-foot-4 broad jump). He measured in at 6-foot-2 3/4 and 271 pounds -- fine for the many teams that don't require great height on the outside of their four-man fronts. And though his short-area agility times were only average, 3-4 teams could still project him as a conversion linebacker, especially if he improves his shuttle and three-cone times at his pro day and performs well in linebacker drills.
Draft projection: Top 20.
Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: Cox stepped up his game as a junior in 2011, earning first-team All-SEC honors from league media with 14.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. He also stepped up to the plate in Indy, leading all defensive tackles with his 4.79 40 and 7.05 three-cone at 6-4, 298 pounds. Cox didn't always play as strong as scouts would like in an interior player, but his agility is rare for a 300-pounder and could earn him very high grades from 3-4 teams looking for long, quick five-technique defensive ends.
Draft projection: First round.
Bruce Irvin, DE/OLB, West Virginia: Completely miscast as a defensive end in West Virginia's 3-3-5 defense, Irvin still managed to chase down quarterbacks 22.5 times in two years. The lightest DE at the combine (245 pounds) probably should've worked out at linebacker, where he will likely play at the next level. His times certainly suggest that position change, as he led all defensive linemen with his 4.50 40, 6.70 three-cone and 4.03 20-yard shuttle. In fact, the three-cone and shuttle times were better than all linebackers and his 40 would have tied with Zach Brown for second-best at that position. Irvin may be considered a project player by most teams because of his lack of experience playing in space, but a team may take a shot on him earlier than expected.
Draft projection: Second round.
Jake Bequette, DE/OLB, Arkansas: This third-generation Razorback (grandfather, father and uncle all played football at Arkansas) racked up 10 sacks and earned first-team All-SEC honors at defensive end despite missing three games in 2011. At the Senior Bowl, however, he played linebacker most of the week, and his workout confirmed that he could play standing up in the NFL. Though his 40 time was only adequate (4.82) for a 274-pound defender, he ranked second among defensive linemen in the 20-yard shuttle (4.07) and third in three-cone (6.90). Bequette may not be the most explosive pass rusher in the class, but his hustle and agility give him a shot as either a defensive end or a strong coverage linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
Draft projection: Third round.
Mike Martin, DT, Michigan: Poe and Washington's Alameda Ta'amu (348 pounds) have the body type most associate with nose tackles in today's NFL, but the 6-1 3/8, 306-pound Martin could follow in the footsteps of long-time starters Kyle Williams and Kelly Gregg. He showed the superior strength and agility scouts saw on tape, finishing in the top three among defensive tackles in bench press (36 reps), 40-yard dash (4.88), 20-yard shuttle (4.25), three-cone (7.19) and broad jump (9-foot-5). He won't fit every defensive line coach's ideal standard, but his high school wrestling background and persistence in the middle could allow him to start right away.
Draft projection: Third/fourth round.
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