Top Mid-Season Prospects for 2012 NFL Draft- Defense

NFL Draft Analyst Abe Munch

Defensive End

1. Quinton Coples, Sr, North Carolina, 6’6 285 – Blessed with great size and athletic ability, Coples looks like he was created to play defensive end in the NFL. You can’t miss him, he’s a constant threat against the run and pass and is rarely singled up; constantly double teamed. The only drawback seems to be his motor, which isn’t constant. He could be a difference maker at the next level.

2.  Jared Crick, Sr, Nebraska, 6’4 285 – Crick has an excellent feel for the game and plays with good technique; seems to always be in position to make the play. He isn’t a dynamic pass rusher but he understands leverage and angles to get to the passer.

3. Melvin Ingram, Sr, South Carolina, 6’2 275 – A power end with good athletic ability, Ingram can stack the edge in the running game and drive the pocket inside with his outside rush. At times he’ll move inside and release from a standup position. He could make for a very good 4-3 left end.

4. Whitney Mercilus, Jr, Illinois, 6’3 265 – Mercilus has been highly productive to start the year with 10 sacks midway through the season. He plays with good bend and balance around the edge and does a nice job anticipating the snap count. Good awareness.

5. Vinny Curry, Sr, Marshall, 6’4 260 – Curry has a knack for getting in the backfield. He shows good quickness off the line and does a nice job chasing the football in pursuit. An intense player with good functional strength. 22 sacks the past two seasons.

Players to Watch: Devin Taylor, Jr, South Carolina, 6’6 250, Jake Bequette, Sr, Arkansas, 6’5 271, Cam Johnson, Sr, Virginia, 6’3 270, Donte Paige-Moss, Jr, North Carolina, 6’4 260.

Quick Take: Overall the defensive end class looks to be shaping up into a solid group. I expect Quinton Couples and Jared Crick to be first rounders with a few more prospects emerging as potential first rounders as the season finishes up.

Defensive Tackle

1. Brandon Thompson, Sr, Clemson 6’2 310 – A non-stop motor player who consistently wins one-on-one blocks, Thompson is able to drive the pocket and disrupt timing. Looking at games from last season, Thompson was often the first player off the snap, quicker off the ball than decorated teammate Da’Quan Bowers.

2. Jerel Worthy, Jr, Michigan State, 6’3 305 – Worthy shows a good blend of size and power from the 4-3 alignment. He can be overaggressive at times but he plays hard for four quarters and can anchor his gap against the run. Consistent.

3. Alameda Ta’amu, Sr, Washington, 6’3 330 – Ta’amu has the size  and strength that teams look for in a 3-4 nose tackle. He moves well for his frame and can control the line of scrimmage in the running game forcing double teams. Technique and conditioning could improve to reach his full potential.

4. Devon Still, Sr, Penn State, 6’4 310 – Wide framed and long limbed with room for additional size, Still shows good athleticism and power when he’s able to win leverage off the snap. Consistent against the run and pass, he also offers added value as a base end in a 3-4 alignment.

5.Mike Martin, Sr, Michigan, 6’2 300 – Martin won’t wow you with athleticism, but he never quits on the play and takes good angles to be effective at the line of scrimmage and at the second level. Has experience in both a 3-4 and 4-3.

Players to Watch: Josh Chapman, Sr, Alabama, 6’1 310, Dontari Poe, Jr, Memphis, 6’5 350, Kendall Reyes, Sr, Connecticut, 6’4 296, Kheeston Randall, Sr, Texas 6’5 298.

Quick Take: At the midway point of the 2011 season the defensive tackle class shows a very solid group of NFL prospects. There doesn’t seem to be a player in the caliber of our last two draft classes in Ndamakong Suh or Nick Fairley, but there are consistent starter potential prospects available into the middle rounds that teams would be glad to have.

Inside Linebacker

1. Dont’a Hightower, Jr, Alabama, 6’4 260 – Hightower lines up all over the field for Alabama and is effective with a variety of responsibilities. A three-down linebacker who can stay on the field, he moves extremely well for his size. Impressive.

2. Luke Kuechly, Jr, Boston College, 6’2 235 – Luke Kuechly is fun to watch, he never stops hustling and is always around the football. He shows good instincts and plays within his responsibilities. Kuechly had 27 tackles (17 solo) earlier this year against Duke, and is on pace to record 200 tackles for the year.

3. Vontaze Burfict, Jr, Arizona State, 6’3 252 – A tough, hard-nosed, prototype 4-3 middle linebacker, Burfict looks and plays the part. At times he’s too aggressive and has incurred a number of personal foul penalties this season. He needs to be more disciplined, but he could have the highest ceiling in this draft class.

4. Manti Te’o, Jr, Notre Dame, 6’2 255 – A standout player on the Notre Dame defense, Te’o is all over the field. He attacks downhill in the running game and has the strength to take on blocks, disengage, and make the play in front of him. His coverage skills have also improved this season.

5. Audie Cole, Sr, North Carolina State, 6’4 243 – A sound wrap-up tackler with good height and size, Cole bends well for a tall linebacker. He has deceptive quickness around the edge in his pass rush and plays sound with his read & keys in the run game.

Players to Watch: James-Michael Johnson, Jr, Nevada, 6’1 240, Emmanuel Acho, Sr, Texas, 6’2 240, Jerry Franklin, Sr, Arkansas, 6’1 245, D.J. Holt, Sr, California, 6’0 250

Quick Take: This is one of the strongest classes at the top, with four or five linebackers likely to be drafted in the first round if the underclassmen declare. After that it falls of a bit with plenty of similarly skilled players available through the middle rounds.

Outside Linebacker

1. Courtney Upshaw, Sr, Alabama, 6’2 265 (3-4) – A strong and physically imposing player, Upshaw is able to contain the edge in run support and disrupt timing with his pass rush. Reminds me of Lamarr Woodley of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ideal fit on the strong side of a 3-4 alignment.

2. Ronnell Lewis, Sr, Oklahoma, 6’2 244 (3-4 & 4-3) – A high motor player with good overall athleticism. Lewis plays a hybrid role in Oklahoma’s combination scheme, often lining up at defensive end. He shows the speed, quickness, and awareness to play deeper in a 4-3 alignment. Good stamina.

3. Zach Brown, Sr, North Carolina, 6’2 230 (4-3) – Brown’s athleticism jumps out at you as you watch him. Very good range to get to the outside from inside the hashes. More of a finesse player than a take on linebacker. Impressive athletic numbers should get him drafted high.

4. Brandon Jenkins, Jr, Florida State, 6’3 234 (3-4) – Jenkins lines up in a three-point stance for the Seminoles but projects best as a rush linebacker at the next level. He shows good power off the snap with a smooth transition to flatten down and close on the quarterback.

5. Bruce Irvin, Sr, West Virginia, 6’2 235 (3-4) – Irvin has faced constant double teams in the 2011 season, which have dropped his impressive sack numbers from a year ago. He shows good quickness to win the edge consistently in his pass rush and has the body frame to add 15 pounds of clean weight.

Players to Watch: Nico Johnson, Jr, Alabama, 6’3 245, Brandon Lindsey, Sr, Pittsburgh, 6’2 250, Sean Spence, Sr, Miami, 5’11 225, Lavonte David, Sr, Nebraska, 6’1 223.

Quick Take: The outside linebacker position is becoming more difficult to project with half the NFL teams utilizing a less traditional 3-4 scheme. Some college programs utilize a variation of a three down lineman alignment, but not many, which forces undersized defensive ends to move to linebacker.  Individual team value of the position will vary depending on defensive philosophy.

Cornerback

1. Dre Kirkpatrick, Jr, Alabama, 6’2 190 – A pre-season favorite hasn’t lost ground. He’s played as good as you could expect a man/zone cover corner to play in the SEC conference. He shows a safety’s mentality and enjoys stepping up against the run. One of the top fifteen players in this draft class.

2. Morris Claiborne, Jr, LSU, 6’0 185 – A physical press corner, Claiborne had a shutdown performance against the Tennessee Volunteers in 2011. He isn’t the athlete that former teammate and top five pick Patrick Peterson is, but he isn’t far behind either. A first round talent.

3. Janoris Jenkins, Sr, North Alabama, 5’10 180 – The former Florida Gator standout hasn’t lost a step since transferring to North Alabama. He’s rarely challenged by opposing quarterbacks and looks like the best player on the field. A first round pick as long as he can answer questions surrounding his character.

4. Brandon Boykin, Sr, Georgia, 5’9 180 – A dynamic athlete who can play inside and out and offer value as a returner, Boykin reminds me of former top-ten pick Adam “Pacman” Jones without the character concerns. A four year starter known for excellent practice habits and academic standing.

5. Alfonzo Dennard, Sr, Nebraska, 5’10 204 – A physical press cover corner, Dennard can bump and run with the foot quickness to stay with receivers downfield. The only  concern is his ability to leap with bigger receivers and challenge possession.

Players to Watch: Coryell Judie, Sr, Texas A&M, 5’11 188, Donnie Fletcher, Sr, Boston College, 6’1 200, Chase Minnifield, Sr, Virginia, 6’0 185, Trumaine Johnson, Sr, Montana, 6’2 205.

Quick Take: A very good cornerback class with a few first round selections and starter quality talent to be found in the middle rounds. The class should rival last year’s class of seven cornerback’s selected in the first two rounds.

Safety

1. Mark Barron, Sr, Alabama, 6’2 220 –  A team captain for the Crimson Tide, Barron has a variety of responsibilities in the diverse Alabama defense. He lines up at times in two-deep coverage, as the single-high safety, and inside the box. He’s an aggressive tackler with good instincts. His complementary skill set against the run and pass make him a likely first round selection in 2012.

2. T.J. McDonald, Jr, USC, 6’3 205 – McDonald has very good height and size for the position. He’s able to handle bigger receivers downfield on jump balls and jam tight ends at the line of scrimmage; strong and athletic. He shows good striking ability and closing speed on the ball carrier. His tackling could be more consistent as he finishes up the year.

3. Robert Lester, Jr, Alabama, 6’2 210 – Lester is a reliable back-end safety who generally plays within the scheme and is disciplined in coverage. He has the quickness to cover the deep half and is willing to attack in run support. Him and teammate Mark Barron are the best safety combination in college football and should both be off the draft board by the third round.

4. Markelle Martin, Sr, Oklahoma State, 6’1 200 – Probably the best pure athlete of the group, Martin shows very good straight line speed and quick feet to turn and re-group downfield. His tackling in space has improved this season and he’s become a more reliable last line of defense for the Cowboys secondary.

5. Ray Ray Armstrong, Jr, Miami (FL), 6’4 220 – His stock has been hurt a little bit by an early four game suspension to start the year, but Armstrong’s talent is undeniable. He could be a difference maker at the next level if he polishes up his coverage skills and overall discipline when pursuing the football. Great upside and raw talent.

Players to Watch: Harrison Smith, Sr, Notre Dame 6‘1 212, Tony Dye, Sr, UCLA, 5’11 205, Eddie Whitley, Sr, Virginia Tech, 6’1 195, Trent Robinson, Sr, Michigan State 5’11 195.

Quick Take: The class is shaping up to be stronger then 2011, but still lacks the talent at the top of the class that we saw in 2010 with Eric Berry and Earl Thomas. Good value from rounds three to five for teams looking for developmental players with starter ability.


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