Reviewing defensive linemen is always fun, not least because you get to see quarterbacks getting dropped repeatedly. Unfortunately it's also a nightmare to right up, for the simple fact that defensive linemen can potentially fall into one of five distinct categories; 1) 4-3 defensive ends, 2) 3-4 defensive ends, 3) 4-3 defensive tackles, 4) 3-4 Nose tackles, 5) 3-4 outside linebackers.
Which category they fall into has more to do with who drafts them and what that team decides to use them for than it does where they played in college. The same issue applies to linebackers (Casey Matthews was a 3-4 inside backer who now plays in a 4-3 scheme for the Eagles) and then again at the safety position with College strong safeties occasionally finding themselves at free safety because they're deemed not big enough to play strong safety in the NFL.
For that reason as we go over the various defenders you need to be aware that just because I put a guy in a list of defensive ends doesn't necessarily mean that's where he'll play at the next level. I'm going to include in this list only players who played in college as 4-3 defensive ends. Be aware that some of these players will likely end up as 3-4 outside backers, and some might even get moved inside to tackle positions.
With the draft fast approaching I'm going to limit myself to the first 10-15 guys on my list and then come back to the rest later, possibly post draft with the way my schedule is working right now. And as usual, the order is somewhat random and not reflective of whether I believe player A is better than player B etc.
- Whitney Mercilus, Illinois: I have a tough time assembling my thoughts on Mercilus simply because I've seen some very good and some very bad. The very good was Mercilus using his hands well to defeat certain tackles and get to the quarterback, causing fumbles and havoc everywhere he went. The very bad was a game where he was basically shut down completely with little effort by larger, NFL sized offensive linemen.
For that reason I kind of can't decide either way. Against weaker tackles, both in the physical and technical sense, he plays really well. But in the NFL? Facing off routinely against behemoth human specimens the like of which I watched him get squashed by?
My gut feeling is that he'll have good games here and good games there, but overall he struggle to make an impact. I personally couldn't live with using a first round pick on him. He just isn't reliable enough. In big games you cant count on the offensive line not being very good to get you sacks.
- Melvin Ingram, South Carolina: So I sat down to watch Ingram with expectations running high that I was about to sit down and watch a masterclass in college defensive end play, and a sure fire first round pick. Indeed Ingram is a very athletic individual considering he tops 260 pounds.
But I would not, NOT, part with a first round pick for Ingram.
To be a successful defensive end, or even a 3-4 backer which Ingram could probably have a stab at, you need to explode off the ball like a rocket to gain good position on the offensive linemen opposite you. Ingram just doesn't do that. He mostly misses the snap and then often he just stands up and starts surveying the offense. Any hint of a run and you can stop him from rushing.
As a pass rusher he's really nothing special at all. He is pretty good against the run precisely because he likes to sit back and survey the offense, and he also has a knack for sniffing out screens and delayed releases by running backs. His ability to run with backs out of the backfield will attract some attention from teams running a 3-4 scheme. He also has utility on both sides of special teams.
Despite all that though, he fails at the primary task of a defensive end in that he's not what I would call a legitimate pass rusher. If the offense somehow leaves him unblocked or if the quarterback scrambles then yes, he has the speed to get after the quarterback and bring him down. However he's displayed nothing that I would call one on one pass rushing skill.
And don't give me all that "he did well at the senior bowl drills". I don't care. It's easy to look good at the senior bowl when you're being told to pass rush and you have no other concerns. On the field, on game day, Ingram struggles as a pass rusher.
He's not an awful defensive lineman by any means and in some respects I love how patient he has and how well he reads the game. He seems like a very football savvy player. That does not change the fact that for the cost of a first round pick (and the contract that goes with it) I would want a much better pass rusher.
- Quinton Coples, North Carolina: I don't understand Coples, I really don't. On many of the plays I watched he showed some great pass rush moves, practically man handling offensive tackles with his bull rush or swatting them aside like pesky nuisance flies. Yet, for all that I saw one sack, where the quarterback held onto the ball for far, far too long.
The trouble is that Coples doesn't seem to have the speed or the get up and go to finish the job. He can beat the tackles easy enough in the majority of cases, but he lacks the speed to actually get to the quarterback, and in some cases just doesn't seem all that interested in getting in for the tackle.
That to me is a serious question mark. Coples is projected as a first round pick, but I would be very worried about using a first round pick on someone who doesn't seem all that concerned about the game he's playing.
If he was motivated and dedicated to playing at a high level, there's a chance he could walk into the NFL and have a rookie season that would compare to that of Aldon Smith. But how can you take that chance? There is nothing that suggests that Coples is willing to suddenly up his game, and indeed it may just be a pure lack of speed.
That's why I think Coples is up in the air at the minute. "Could be great, if he wants to be" is kind of damning someone with faint praise. He has potential, but that potential could get some coach fired. For me it's too risky to warrant a first rounder. If it all pans out then the team that drafts him is going to be very pleased, but if not then they're going to look like jackasses. There are other, better options for a first round pick.
- Courtney Upshaw, Alabama: God this an awful draft. If this is what passes for a top defensive end prospect then I think the time has come for teams to start trading those first round picks away for future selections.
It's not that Upshaw is terrible, he's not, but he's not a first round pick either. If he'd been in last years draft class he might have even fallen into the third round. Generally speaking he's ok at this job. He has some strength, though he's not all that quick. His pass rushing skills are not all that developed and like some defensive ends (at all levels) a sizable chunk of his sacks seem to stem from just being left unblocked on certain pass plays.
With coaching he might improve and his demonstrated ability to play both with his hand in the dirt and standing up means that scheme concerns won't exclude him from some teams. As a first rounder though? I don't see it. I see a player who might turn up a few sacks a year, if you're lucky, but not a first round pick. He doesn't really have the potential to develop into a game changer like some of the other projected first rounders and is likely to have an average to solid career at best.
- Nick Perry, USC: I always take USC players with a slight pinch of salt, in that despite USC being hailed for their many achievements over the years, let's not forget that their schedule often plays a lot nicer than most (the opposite of this being one of the reasons SEC players are considered so highly).
On his own merits Perry is... ok. Despite his impressive combine his burst off the line during games is nothing special, but he plays hard and seems to give it a lot of effort. He doesn't really have much in the way of developed pass rush skills and frankly I think it would take a significant coaching job to get him to the level required.
Overall I think Perry is probably not good enough to make it in the NFL. A player without startling technical skill can often get by if he has dazzling athletic ability, but I really don't think Perry does. So he ran a fast 40 time. Great. Now put the film on again and watch. He's really nothing special. Unless he really has transformed himself into some kind of physical phenom during the off season, Perry is going nowhere, fast (ba dom tish!).
- Vinny Curry, Marshall: God this is the worst top five (or even six) I've seen in years. Curry struggled against such mighty names of college football as West Virginia and Florida International, showing some flashes that were few and far between.
Much has been made of his performance at the Senior Bowl, which frankly is more damning of the tackles than it is a reason to laud Curry. Against NFL quality tackles I can't see Curry doing much. He'll probably be a better fit physically as a 3-4 outside linebacker, though he hasn't played the position in college. Don't hold your breath waiting for Curry to break out, short of some bloody miraculous coaching.
- Andre Branch, Clemson: Now we're talking. I imagine he could probably play as either a 4-3 end or a 3-4 outside backer, either of which he will probably excel in. Simply put, Branch is quick as a flash off the snap. Sometimes the tackle has barely had time to take his second kick step and Branch is already flying past him.
Now he does have some down sides. His tackling isn't that great and he probably needs to develop a greater set of pass rush moves to be consistently successful at the next level. He struggles more than most when teams put a running back to chip on him before releasing and like with all speed rushers he often runs himself right out of the play on runs that are designed to go inside of him.
All those issues pale though in comparison to his upside. He is greasy fast off the line and it's something that NFL tackles will be able to do little about. He is a lot like Von Miller if you want a physical and style comparison. His projections range from late first to late second and frankly I think any of those would rank as a steal. Easily the best I've seen so far from this group.
- Jake Bequette, Arkansas: There's a "but" coming, so just keep that in mind as you read this next bit. Bequette, frankly, is not a great 4-3 end which is where he spent most of his time in college. People point to the game against South Carolina where he did indeed play very well, however (notice I said however and not but.... yet) the right tackle for the Gamecocks was truly awful and I'm pretty sure doesn't even know how to kick slide, based on that evidence.
Bequette ran a 4.78s 40-yarder at the combine and on the field he looks pretty quick. Against the run he really struggles. He's just not strong enough. When an offensive tackle can get his hands on Bequette he just finds himself out muscled and is often unable to get off the block. Against the pass, from a three point stance, he seems to have difficulty in the initial stages getting himself upright and running, which would explain why his 40 time at the combine was slower than you would expect after watching him in-game.
In a two point stance, as a pass rushing outside linebacker in a 3-4, there is hope for Bequette. He didn't do it all that much but you can clearly see that when he does he gets a much better start off the snap and his speed becomes a real asset. His use of the hands seems to magically improve as he gets on the tackle from a more upright position and I think there is a decent chance that with a bit of coaching, Bequette could make a fine 3-4 outside backer. At least against the pass...
- Cam Johnson, Virginia: I think I've found another player that I really like. Johnson is real quick for his size, has impressive strength, can hold the point of attack against the run and can rush both inside and outside on passing downs.
A 4-3 end in college, which I certainly believe he could play in the NFL, there is something about him, perhaps the athletic ability that he demonstrated, that suggests to me that he could play 3-4 outside backer just as well, if not a little better. Johnson has basically all you could expect out of an end and should be effective on all downs against both run and pass. He reminds me a lot of Terrell Suggs which is always a good thing.
As always you can never truly tell how someone is going to pan out over the course of their career or how well their new team will even receive them in the first place, but I have high hopes for Johnson (providing he doesn't go to St. Louis, Arizona or Seattle). He looks like one of the more promising long term prospects and I might even go out on a limb and say that I think he's going to be excellent.
- Chandler Jones, Syracuse: Erm, bit hit and miss with Jones. Thing about his is that he's damn near 6'6 tall and flies out his stance when the ball is first snapped. The trouble is almost everything that comes after that. He's really not that quick once he's started moving and his strength is a big question mark, that only got worse after his low bench press number at the combine.
Jones is more of your project type guy. His height makes it difficult for him to get under an offensive tackle and get proper leverage but that initial burst does a lot for him. If you can teach him how to rush the passer a little better (as the Broncos did excellently with Von Miller) then there is hope for Jones, but the fact that he's quite raw still means he's likely to slip into the later rounds.
At the NFL level he has potential. That word again, "potential". "Potentially" could do nothing, but "potentially" could be a very good pass rusher in maybe 2-3 years time. Given his size I think he'd be better off bulking up a little more (maybe another 10-20 pounds) and playing as a 3-4 defensive end.
- Jonathan Massaquoi, Troy: I wasn't that impressed. He didn't look all that fast on the field and then bulked up for the combine which is what you call making a bad situation worse. His level of opposition was not great and just generally he did nothing to stand out and make me think he's going to be great at the next level.
- Brandon Lindsey, Pittsburgh: Played mostly as a 4-3 end, but also played a little bit inside as a tackle and even stood up some as a 3-4 outside backer. As an end, he kind of sucked. He just isn't big enough or strong enough and gets man handled far too easily. As an outside backer though he did ok.
His pass rush skills are a little limited but he has decent speed and actually plays the pass pretty well in open space. A longer shot for where he might end up could be as a strong side linebacker in a 4-3 defense. With a bit more time and coaching there is the raw makings of a good player in Lindsey.
That'll do it for the defensive ends. Next on the list is defensive tackles, which will probably a bit bigger because it has to include 4-3 defensive tackles, 3-4 nose tackles and 3-4 defensive ends. Time is running out so I'm gonna have to speed things up by the looks of it.