In my continuing efforts to rank all the prospects in the 2012 class, I'm moving on to the defensive end position.
Note that when I say defensive end, I mean a 4-3 defensive end—a 3-4 defensive end is usually interchangeable with a 4-3 defensive tackle.
Since the NFL is becoming a quarterback's league, rushing the passer has become increasingly important. If you can do it well, like the Giants, you prevent Tom Brady from executing a game winning drive.
So who are the 10 best defensive end prospects in the class? Here's what I have on my big board.
I know this will seem high to a lot of people, but I fully believe in Whitney Mercilus as a top 10 caliber prospect.
He's a sack machine who led the FBS in sacks this year, with 16. He also led in tackles for loss, with 22. Beyond that, he's an amazing ball stripper, forcing nine fumbles.
He's also the perfect size for most 4-3 teams, at 6'4" tall and 265 lbs.
The only thing holding him back from being a definite top 10 selection is the fact that he was a flash in the pan, with only this one year of great production. However, he's rumored to also have a great work ethic, so I expect the lack of production will be overlooked.
He's a machine, pure and simple, and if I was a general manager, I'd pick him over any other player in his position.
I'll go ahead and say that Quinton Coples definitely has the highest ceiling of any defensive end prospect in this class (think Julius Peppers).
However, the rumor is that he has a tendency to take plays off, which won't sit well with a lot of teams. Even if he is a little lazy, he's such an imposing physical specimen that he'll still get drafted in the first round. He stands just over six feet tall and weighs in at 285 lbs.
He's also a great bull-rusher and speed rusher who racked up 7.5 sacks, an additional seven quarterback hurries and 15 tackles for a loss, despite being constantly double teamed.
At the Senior Bowl, he looked completely unstoppable. However, in practices, he looked far from it. That's one way to reinforce the laziness talk.
If a team thinks they can get good production out of him—or if they don't buy the rumors about his work ethic—he won't fall outside the top 10.
Melvin Ingram might be the highest ranked defensive end in this class if it weren't for his height and reach. His arms are too short, and so is he—at the Senior Bowl weigh-in, he came up at less than 6'2" and his reach was a mere 30.5 inches.
That said, everything else about him is stellar. He's powerful, has a great motor, great tape, consistent production and he played a tough schedule in college.
His production was great: he accumulated 10 sacks, 15 tackles for loss and even a couple of broken up passes. He's a great run defender too, and since he mostly played on the interior at the college level, he has a pretty good bull rush.
Because he's so good at everything else, teams will give his short arms and less-than-ideal height a pass and he'll go in the top 20. He definitely won't make it past the Titans.
Like Melvin Ingram, Courtney Upshaw suffers from his measurements. He's a little shorter than Ingram (a fraction of an inch), but his arms are a little longer (31 and 1/2 inches), so he came out of the Senior Bowl measurements looking a little better than Ingram.
Upshaw is also built like a tank—he weighed in a 273 pounds of solid muscle. Because of his size, he seems to be a better fit at defensive end than at rush linebacker.
Upshaw excels at getting into the backfield. In his senior season, he had 9.5 sacks, 18 tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hurries. He was perhaps the best player on a crazy-good Alabama defense and had solid production in 2010.
Upshaw won't go far behind Ingram, likely in the top 20 as well.
Vinny Curry is one of the prospects I've got my eye on this year.
Here are his stats over the last two years: 40 tackles for loss, 23 sacks, nine forced fumbles, 24 quarterback hurries and four passes broken up.
That's impressive, regardless of the lower level competition he faced—which is why he's considered a late first/early second round prospect right now. However, I expect that to change after the Combine.
Curry is the perfect size for a 4-3 defensive end (6'3" tall and 265 lbs.)—he could add a little bulk for more power, or stay where he is and maintain speed, depending on what the team that picks him wants.
He had a great Senior Bowl, winning a few matchups with Mike Adams and looking good all around. Once he surprises in the Combine drills, I think he'll end up being taken in the middle-to-late first round.
Andre Branch was a force to be reckoned with on Clemson's formidable defense this season (at least, until the Orange Bowl).
Really, though, West Virginia's embarrassing win over Clemson in a record breaking Orange Bowl wasn't entirely Branch's fault, and he had a great year until then.
For the season, Branch had 9.5 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, five quarterback hurries and 77 total tackles. He's also the prospect who looks the most like a prototypical 4-3 defensive end (he's listed as 6'5" tall and 260 lbs.).
His stock will depend on his performance in the Combine. If he does well, he could join Mercilus, Coples, Ingram, Upshaw and Curry in the first round, in what would be a very strong defensive end class.
More realistically, he's an early Day Two pick.
Nick Perry is a little small for a lot of 4-3 defenses (250 lbs.) and projects more as a 3-4 rush linebacker, or even a strongside linebacker in a 4-3 instead of a defensive end. Even so, Robert Mathis is about the same size, and he's been to four Pro Bowls as a 4-3 defensive end.
Perry was a great player at USC. He didn't get to the quarterback as often as some other players on the list, but he's still an early second day selection. Against Stanford, he beat left tackle Jonathan Martin several times.
If a team runs a system that can use him (whether as a defensive end or a rush linebacker), he'll end up being a quality player.
Cam Johnson is a quality pass rusher who did well in college, but didn't get a ton of attention during the regular season. He had a great Senior Bowl, though, and has good measurements.
He had a good regular season, but nothing eye-popping. He managed to get to the quarterback four times and had another 11 tackles for loss with 30 total tackles.
His 2010 season was a little better, so it could be that there was an explanation for his lack of production. Like I said, he was impressive in Senior Bowl practices, so if he keeps up the good work he could reward the team that drafts him.
He'll probably go late in the second round.
Jake Bequette had good overall numbers, but was inconsistent. Part of that might have been due to a hamstring injury that shelved him three games. If that was the only explanation for his problems, he could fly up draft boards with a good showing at the Combine.
He had 10 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries this season. However, where he really shines is in forced fumbles—he has five.
He did all of this while missing three games, which could help or hurt his stock, depending on how much the injury will affect him in the future.
He is, however, weak against the run, which might cause some teams to pass on him.
Frank Alexander started the season strong, but, just like the rest of his team, didn't do great down the stretch—in fact, he only had one sack in the second half of the season.
However, his overall numbers are still pretty good. He had 19 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, eight broken up passes and seven quarterback hurries.
However, like I said, he just didn't look great in the second half of the season, which makes me worry that he has a lingering injury or something. Whatever it is, he'll have to explain it in interviews if he wants to be drafted before Day Three.