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2012 NFL Draft Preview: Defensive Line

Posted Apr 23, 2012

Based on the immediate impact made by San Francisco’s Aldon Smith last season and Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh in 2010, defensive linemen are in high demand again in the NFL. Whether it’s that overpowering nose tackle capable of disrupting the snap or the speedy defensive end coming around the edge to sack or hurry the quarterback, teams are eager to shore up their defensive fronts through the draft.



LSU’s Michael Brockers, Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox and Dontari Poe of Memphis are hoping to duplicate what Suh did by going very high in the first round to a team in need of a dominant nose tackle or 4-3 defensive tackle. North Carolina’s Quinton Coples is at the top of most lists among defensive ends because of his freakish size and skills, with Marshall’s Vinny Curry garnering some attention as well. Clemson’s Andre Branch and Whitney Mercilus of Illinois also are attractive.

BREAKING DOWN THE TOP DEFENSIVE LINE PROSPECTS (in alphabetical order)


Brockers is the rawest of this year’s prospects having just one full year as a starter under his belt. He was recruited as a linebacker by the Tigers but bulked up quickly and was moved up front where he excelled against the run. Because of his versatility and background, Brockers could line up at defensive end in a 3-4 system but seems to be a better fit as a 3-technique defensive tackle in the 4-3 with his big frame. He registered 54 tackles (28 solo) with 10 for a loss, two sacks, one interception and one forced fumble last season and in between the NFL Scouting Combine at the end of February and his Pro Day one month later, Brockers lost six pounds, which was a testament to his work ethic. He also improved his 40-yard dash time from 5.36 seconds to 5.15 and his vertical jump from 26.5 inches to 30, which explains why his stock is rising.

When scouts look at Coples they see another former Tar Heel that has had enormous success in the NFL – Julius Peppers. They are very similar in size, with the 6-foot-7, 287-pound Peppers owning a one-inch height advantage and a three-pound weight advantage. Coples actually worked out at linebacker on his Pro Day to show scouts, coaches and general managers his versatility, bit his long arms, quick feet and athleticism are too attractive to pass up on the line as a clear mismatch. Peppers has 100 career sacks and Coples, who had 17.5 in his last two years at North Carolina, is capable of putting up those kind of numbers. Consistency is the biggest concern with Coples as game film has revealed moments where he seems to put it in cruise control, but the right coaching staff and situation could easily remedy that, which is why he should be the first defensive end off the board.



Cox had been flying under the radar for the most part until the last couple of weeks, when his stock spiked. He already had left a good impression in Indianapolis when he ran a 4.79 in the 40-yard dash and then Cox matched his vertical jump of 26 inches at his Pro Day and improved his broad jump to nine feet from 8 feet, 7 inches at the Combine. Cox racked up 56 tackles (30 solo) and five sacks in is last season for the Bulldogs and he is very quick at the snap of the ball, capable of getting into the backfield to disrupt the handoff or force the quarterback to get rid of the ball quicker than he would like. In order to have the kind of success Suh had as a rookie, Cox will need to add a more bulk, but his athletic skills and strong hands can make up for that initially.

Another one of those hybrids capable of starring as an outside linebacker at the next level, Curry made a strong impression at the Senior Bowl and again at the Combine. He has pass-rushing instincts that yielded results to the tune of 23 sacks over the last two seasons. Curry’s natural speed and athleticism cannot be overlooked and he is polished in his technique, which will enable him to offset whatever size disadvantage he might encounter at the next level. The one area Curry needs to work on is his run defense as he appeared to be out of place on film in those situations, looking to rush the passer first. If he can develop against the run and use his speed and quickness to set the edge and chase down running backs from behind he can become a dangerous double threat.

Poe was the star of the Combine, pumping out 44 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press to lead all participants and running a 4.98 in the 40-yard dash, which was incredibly fast for a man his size. What that proved is not only can Poe occupy two and even three blockers in the middle to open up pass rushing lines for his ends and linebackers but that he is quick enough and athletic enough to get to the quarterback on his own and chase down running backs. The question becomes whether or not Poe can transition to a 3-4 nose tackle after playing exclusively in a 4-3 system in college and whether or not he can effectively clog the middle. He had 33 tackles (18 solo) last year for the Tigers, eight for loss, and one sack and was named the team’s MVP and Defensive Player of the Year.



OTHER TOP DEFENSIVE LINE PROSPECTS AT A GLANCE (in alphabetical order)

Andre Branch (DE)
6-4, 259
Clemson

Whitney Mercilus (DE)
6-4, 261
Illinois

Nick Perry (DE)
6-3, 271
Southern California

Devon Still (DT)
6-5, 303
Penn State

Jerel Worthy (DT)
6-2, 308
Michigan State
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