2012 NFL Draft Projections: Predicting the Top Defensive Rookies, Post-Scouting

Ryan AlfieriCorrespondent IIIMarch 1, 2012

2012 NFL Draft Projections: Predicting the Top Defensive Rookies, Post-Scouting

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    This year's crop of rookie defenders features a lot of elite talent. Some of these players will be able to step in and produce right away, while others will need to figure out how to properly use their natural abilities to be effective at the next level. 

    In other words, just because a player is talented does not mean they will be able to step in right away and become a star. 

    This is particularly true on the defensive side of the ball, where technique and football intelligence are of the up-most importance. For example, no longer can a defensive end throw around a weak offensive tackle who is going to become a lawyer in eight months.

    Here are the top defenders from this year's draft class who are polished enough to make an impact in year one. 

Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College

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    Kuechly came into the combine with a reputation for being a steady, solid, smart football player. He is not going to make a ton of "splash" plays and make a ton of tackles for losses, but he gets off blocks and makes solid tackles. Rarely will you ever see Kuechly whiff on a ball carrier while trying to make a big hit. 

    When you watch Kuechly, he just always seems to be around the football and involved in the play. Always. 

    There were some concerns about his straight-line speed, which was put to rest after he ran a solid 4.5 in the 40 yard dash. He also surprised scouts with a 38-inch vertical leap.

    Even though he is not going to make a lot of turnovers, big hits, or tackles for loss, when you combine his measurables with his solid, consistent tape, Luke Kuechly may be the safest defensive player in this year's draft. Whoever is smart enough to draft him will make an immediate impact on their defense.

Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU

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    Clearly the top corner in a deep class, At the combine, Claiborne showed scouts that he has all of the tools to step in right away and excel at the next level. His fluidity was on clear display, as well as his natural ability to bend and make plays on the ball. He has tremendous length and height that is ideal for a shutdown corner. 

    He is best in press-man coverage. When he punches to get receivers off the line, he makes sure his presence is felt. Most importantly, Claiborne can naturally run with a receiver while keeping his eyes on the ball. 

    We saw his former teammate and fifth overall pick, Patrick Peterson, struggle at times adjusting to the Pro Level. However, to me, Claiborne is the superior cover corner, and should have little troube adjusting to the NFL and have himself a great rookie season. 

Melvin Ingram, OLB, South Carolina

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    In a weak class of defensive ends, Ingram looks like the safest bet. He is the most consistent player on tape at his position; guys like Nick Perry and Quinton Coples did not nearly produce at the same consistent level during their college careers.

    Ingram lined up in a 4-3 at South Carolina, but he may be a better fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker at 364 lbs.

    His strong showing at the combine only is going to raise his stock, but I don't see Ingram as a "workout warrior" that will bust in the NFL. His high motor and explosion are enough to give him a chance at a strong rookie campaign at the next level.  

Janoris Jenkins, CB, Northern Alabama

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    Talent is not an issue with Jenkins. He is on a similar level as Claiborne in terms of his ability to cover receivers, and his combine performance only confirmed this fact. 

    Whether or not Jenkins has a long, successful NFL career depends strictly on him staying out of trouble. At the combine, he insisted that he was a changed man, but until we see him behave properly, there will always be a cloud of doubt surrounding him. 

    It is up to Jenkins to decide whether or not he wants to be the next Pac-Man Jones. 

    Either way, if he is going to get into serious trouble, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt ant bet that it will take more than one year for that to happen. He should dominate in his rookie season. 

Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama

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    Upshaw may not be a bona-fide pass rusher like Melvin Ingram is, but he is a fine, well-rounded football player. 

    An outside linebacker at Alabama, it would not suprise me to see if he ends up going to a 4-3 team, playing defensive end. 

    Upshaw is violent with his hands and explodes into his blocks to make up for his short arms. Upshaw is instinctive and rarely wastes motion trying to find the ball. 

    His scheme versatility wll help him get on the field as much as possible and produce at a high level as a rookie. 

Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama

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    Kirkpatrick is on a similar talent level to that of Claiborne, except his forte lies in zone coverage, while Claiborne is a man-to-man specialist. 

    Just like Claiborne, Kirkpatrick has elite size and length that is valued in corners. Just because he is at his best in zone coverage does not mean he cannot jam receivers and re-route them at the line. In other words, man-heavy teams should not shy away from selecting Kirkpatrick if the value on the board is favorable. 

    With his talent and athletic ability, I see no reason as to why Kirkpatrick should not enjoy a stellar rookie season. 

Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama

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    Another stellar defender on one of the best defenses in college football history, Hightower possesses more physical ability than any of the inside linebackers in this draft. 

    When he wants to be, he is a force in the run game and has a lot of pass rush ability. In the NFL, teams could use him as an edge rusher in passing situations. 

    Despite his talent, he does not always play with a high motor and seems to take plays off from time to time. 

    Nonetheless, I will give him the benefit of the doubt, as Alabama was dominant in all but one of their games, and the lopsided scores may have dozed him off. In the NFL where scores are tight in almost every game, I expect him to be at his best on every snap. 

Jayron Hosley, Virginia Tech

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    Jayron, in my opinion, is one of the more underrated prospects in thus year's draft. 

    Hosley is instinctive and has a knack for being around the ball; in 2010, he led the country in interceptions. Teams that run zone-heavy concepts should take a long look at what Hosley brings to the table. 

    However, what will make him stand out as a rookie will be his return ability. Patrick Peterson was an afterthought until he won the Cardinals games with his play as a return man, and Hosley has the ability to make a similar impact. 

    He is not quite the returner Peterson is, but as a mid-round pick, special teams his Hosley's best chance to make a splash in his rookie season.