The strength or weakness of the defensive end class in this year’s draft is a matter of how many tweener types are considered ends in a 4-3 defense and how many are considered outside linebackers in a 3-4.
Nick Perry, Melvin Ingram, Courtney Upshaw, Whitney Mercilus, Andre Branch, Cam Johnson and Vinny Curry are all potential first-round picks that some teams are projecting at end, while others are projecting them as outside linebackers. If they’re to be considered outside linebackers, then North Carolina’s Quinton Coples might be the only true 4-3 defensive end prospect to be drafted in the first round.
SI.com draft analyst Tony Pauline puts Upshaw and Curry in the end category, and considers Johnson and Ingram as prospects at either position. Coples is the stud of the 4-3 end prospects.
“He’s tremendous when he’s at the top of his game. He wasn’t at the top of his game last year. He can be dominant against the run and pass. He can be unstoppable,” Pauline said of Coples, who possesses ideal 4-3 end size and speed at 6-6, 290, and 4.78 in the 40.
Why wasn’t he at the top of his game last year? Those that like Coples will give him a pass due to the unsettled nature of the North Carolina program last season. Coples didn’t help himself at the Senior Bowl, but he did at the combine. He’s a bit of an enigma, but his talent is undeniable.
After Coples, the first-round will be populated by tweeners.
“There’s another guy that fits into that 3-4 outside linebacker, 4-3 end thing,” Pauline said of USC’s Perry. “He’s going to be a very good player at the next level.”
Illinois’ Mercilus exploded onto the scene as a pass rusher last season. He’s got linebacker size and speed, but is he far enough long in his development to move to linebacker? Is he big enough and strong enough to keep his hand on the ground in the NFL?
“You have to hope he’s not a one-year wonder, that last year is the rule, not the exception,” Pauline said.
The tweener class is, as always, loaded with questions and risk, but 3-4 teams such as the Packers have no option but to accept risk when they look for a pass rusher. A lot of people thought Clay Matthews was a risk pick.
Clemson’s Branch has a top size/speed dynamic, but Clemson defensive linemen have struggled in recent years, and that introduces some questions about Branch.
“When he plays, he’s dynamite. Again, I think he’s going to be a 3-4 outside linebacker. He’s going to need proper coaching and direction,” Pauline said.
You have to get down to Penn State’s Jack Crawford to find the next true 4-3 end prospect. Crawford is 6-5, 268, and runs in the 4.8’s.
“He looks the part and plays to it on occasion,” Pauline said.
Arkansas’ Jake Bequette is a down-the-road tweener prospect that represents less risk but, according to Pauline, less upside, too.
“He’s a try-hard guy. He goes a hundred miles an hour. You know what you’re getting with him,” Pauline said.
The true 3-4 ends, of course, are in the defensive tackles group.
“The 3-4 ends are basically guys that occupy blocks, not make plays on the ball,” Pauline explained. “Fletcher Cox; some people think Kendall Reyes. I think he’s more of a quick, first-step guy, but he’s got the body and athleticism to grow into (3-4 end). Maybe Devon Still. Billy Winn of Boise State fits that mold. Akiem Hicks, former LSU recruit, he can probably be a two-down end,” Pauline said in ticking off the names of prospects to play end in a 3-4.
Cox, 6-4, 295, is a first-round prospect from Mississippi State. He’s a big-body player that’s run 4.8
UConn’s Reyes was dominant at the Senior Bowl, but he projects best as a three-technique tackle in a 4-3.
Penn State’s Still, 6-5, 305, is a banger with the size and strength to hold the point in a 3-4. Still is a first-round prospect.
Winn, 6-3, 296, of Boise State is in the Still mold. Hicks, 6-5, 301, played at Regina and could become a late-round steal.
LSU’s Michael Brockers, 6-6, 306, is a pure 4-3 defensive tackle and considered to be the top of the class.
Memphis’ Dontari Poe lit up the combine and he’s the fastest-rising guy in the draft. Is he for real?
“I think so. He definitely can play. He needs to learn how to use his strength. He didn’t show a lot of strength on the field. He moves around the field like a power forward. They would drop him in zone coverage,” Pauline said of Poe, 6-5, 350, who ran in the 4.9s at the combine.
“It’s average. There are no super stars,” Pauline said of the defensive tackle class.
The defensive end class? It depends on where you put the tweeners.