2012 NFL Draft Projections: Rating the 2012 NFL Draft's Top Defensive Ends

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystFebruary 14, 2012

BLACKSBURG, VIRGINIA - NOVEMBER 17:  Quarterback Logan Thomas #3 of the Virginia Tech Hokies is tackled by defensive end Quinton Coples #90 of the North Carolina Tar Heels at Lane Stadium on November 17, 2011 in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images)
Geoff Burke/Getty Images

As the Super Bowl XLVI Champion New York Giants showed quite clearly in their run to the title, having a dominant pass rush can be a huge advantage, harassing opposing quarterbacks into bad throws while taking pressure off the defensive backfield.

However, not many teams have the luxury of possessing a tandem of defensive ends like Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck, so many clubs will be looking to bolster their ability to make signal-callers miserable by taking a defensive end early, including the group of collegiate stars listed here.

5. Andre Branch, Clemson

Defensive end Andre Branch had a fine senior season in 2011 for the Clemson Tigers, tallying 77 tackles, 9.5 sacks and a forced fumble on the way to being named a third-team All-American.

Branch's strength, hands and quickness are all assets, as is his ability to contribute against the run, but he sometimes appeared to lack aggressiveness at Clemson and might be best suited as a "complementary" end, at least early on.

Projection: Mid Second Round

4. Vinny Curry, Marshall

The 6'4" 263-pound Curry was a force for the Thundering Herd all season long in 2011, racking up 77 tackles, 11 sacks and seven forced fumbles on his way to second-team All-American honors.

Curry possesses great quickness, balance and burst around the edge, and while he could stand to bulk up a bit more, which should help him in run support, as well as try to develop a few more pass-rush moves, Curry's potential should be more than enough for his name to be called fairly early on Day 2.

Projection: Early Second Round

3. Whitney Mercilus, Illinois

Whitney Mercilus was the NCAA sack king in 2011, as the 6'4" 265-pound Illinois defensive end rolled up 16 sacks to go along with 57 tackles and nine forced fumbles and was named a first-team All-American and winner of the Ted Hendricks award.

Mercilus only had two sacks in his Illinois career before last season, so there are some questions as to whether Mercilus may have been a "one year wonder", but with production like that and Mercilus' speed off the edge, you can rest assured that Mercilus isn't making it out of the draft's first round.

Projection: Top 25 pick

2. Melvin Ingram, South Carolina

Joining Mercilus as a first-team All-American was South Carolina defensive end Melvin Ingram, as the 6'2" 276-pound Ingram rolled up 48 tackles and 10 sacks last year while wreaking havoc across the Southeastern Conference.

Ingram enjoyed an outstanding week of practice at the Senior Bowl, showing the ability to consistently generate pressure in spite of his overly discussed short wingspan, and should Ingram follow that up with a strong combine he could easily find himself selected in the first half of Round 1.

Projection: Top 15 pick

1. Quinton Coples, North Carolina

No player at the Senior Bowl likely helped his 2012 NFL draft stock more than North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples, who was a disruptive force in Mobile all week long.

Some pundits believe that the converted defensive tackle may see his stock drop after the NFL combine, but I think that given his 6'6", 285-pound frame, speed and athleticism that his time at DT might actually be a help to him, as a few of the teams towards the end of the top 10 are either transitioning defenses or considering doing so, an endeavor in which Coples' versatility would be helpful.

Projection: Top 10 pick