2012 NFL Draft: Ranking the 10 Best Defenders in Round 1

Zachary ParkerCorrespondent IIMarch 29, 2012

2012 NFL Draft: Ranking the 10 Best Defenders in Round 1

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    The 2012 NFL draft is stacked with defensive playmakers looking to restore the "defense wins championships" motto.

    While NFL teams are hard at work figuring out their final positional rankings, fans can do nothing more than wait anxiously for the season to start.

    In the spirit of filling the empty space between winter and fall, this slide show will rank the top defensive prospects in this year's draft class.

10. Dontari Poe, Memphis, DT

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    Let's get realistic about Dontari Poe. 

    He may be one of the most athletic 6'4," 346 pound human beings of all time. At the combine he defied physics when he ran a sub-five second 40-yard dash. Add on the fact that he put up 44 reps on the bench press and you have yourself a 16-wheeler in pads.

    However, his pre-draft workouts are misleading.

    Anybody trying to say that Poe is an explosive big man with the ability to clog the run and get after the quarterback is only partially right.

    Poe had five sacks in three years playing for Memphis—only one of those came in 2011. Unless he has been sipping some magical Kool-Aid since the end of the season, there is no reason to believe that he will be getting after the quarterback in the NFL.

    With that being said, Poe is going to be a great nose tackle. His power and burst is undeniable. He will wear down opposing offensive linemen and give running backs nightmares, quarterbacks need not worry.

9. Luke Kuechly, Boston College, ILB

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    A lot has been said about what kind of a player Luke Kuechly will be at the next level. At Boston College he was known as a tackling machine, but scouts are concerned that he is not quick enough to be dominant in the NFL.

    Kuechly will not eat up ball carriers like he did in college, but he will rarely be caught out of position. He has excellent football sense which makes up for his lack of foot speed.

    His ability to diagnose plays is evident when you take a look at his collegiate stats: 516 tackles, two forced fumbles, seven interceptions and two defensive touchdowns in three seasons. 

    Kuechly will be under-appreciated throughout his career and will not earn many trips to Hawaii. Yet, he is the type of heady defender every team wants occupying the middle of their defense.

8. Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama, CB

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    The first thing scouts notice when they look at Dre Kirkpatrick on film is his height. At 6'2" he one of the tallest corner backs in the 2012 draft class—a huge plus considering the amount of vertically gifted receivers currently in the NFL.

    Kirkpatrick relies on his lengthy build to stay with receivers. He uses his long arms to track wideouts while keeping his eyes focused on the quarterback. Once the ball is in the air he is able to strike towards the receiver to break up the pass.

    Kirkpatrick is physical without being overbearing. He is a willing tackler and loves to show off after making the big hit.

    The Alabama standout may be better suited to play safety in the NFL. This is due to his ability to read routes and break on open receivers before the ball is in the air. 

    He was nicknamed "Swagga" in college due to the way he carries himself on the field. Kirkpatrick has a quiet confidence about him which will enable him to transition smoothly to the pros regardless of his position.

7. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama, OLB/DE

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    At 6'2" and 272 pounds Courtney Upshaw is a thumper. He is best suited as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 where he can wreak havoc rushing the quarterback.

    Upshaw has a good center of gravity and a powerful burst which allows him to set the edge on running plays.

    He uses his violent hands to keep offensive linemen off balance as he bull-rushes his way to the quarterback. He needs to work a spin or swim move into his repertoire to become an elite pass-rusher.

    The biggest unknown about Upshaw's game is whether or not he will be able to effectively drop into coverage. His stumpy build gives him a sluggish appearance, but he is surprisingly athletic in space.

    As a rookie Upshaw will be assigned to get the quarterback. He will benefit from being surrounded by a talented front seven as it will take him time to develop into the same terrorizing player he was in college. 

6. Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina, CB

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    With offenses airing it out more and more, NFL executives will be looking closely at this year's corners. What they will see in Stephon Gilmore is an athlete who is more fluid than explosive. Someone who is confident without being cocky.

    Gilmore plays the game with ease. He does not look incredibly fast on film, but he always manages to stay close enough to receivers so that he can make a play on the ball.

    Gilmore may never develop into a shutdown corner back, but he will be a consistent playmaker. He will not drop easy interceptions and is very dangerous when the ball is in his hands. He is the type of corner who will look to zig-zag his way to the end zone rather than run out of bounds.

    There will not be a loud applause when Gilmore's name is called in the first round, but give him a few seasons and he will be a fan favorite. 

5. Whitney Mercilus, Illinois, DE

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    After two quiet years with the Fighting Illini, Whitney Mercilus burst onto the scene with a league high 16 sacks in 2011. If last year was any indication of things to come, he will be a monster in the NFL.

    He is relentless in his pursuit of the quarterback and shows good bend coming off the edge. He uses his quick feet to freeze offensive linemen before blowing past them en route to the quarterback.

    The most encouraging aspect of his game is his ability to knock the ball loose; He finished 2011 with 9.5 forced fumbles.

    Against the run Mercilus uses his cat-like agility to slip past stronger offensive linemen into the path of the running back. 

    Mercilus is a risky prospect given the fact that he only had one statistically significant season in college. However he proved 16 times last season that he has all the tools needed to get to the quarterback. 

4. Quinton Coples, North Carolina, DE

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    Quinton Coples is a special player when he feels like it. At best he draws comparisons to Mario Williams. At worst he suffers from RMS (Randy Moss Syndrome).

    Standing at 6'6," 284 pounds he has the ability to play defensive end in either the 3-4 or 4-3 defense. 

    Coples is a freak athlete which is evident when he uses his speed to beat offensive tackles on the outside. This, combined with his long powerful arms will make him a nightmare at the next level.

    He tends to stand too tall, but is still able to get a good push whether he is rushing the passer or attacking the running back.

    Coples will be most dangerous playing in the 4-3 defense where can move inside and use his quickness to slip past the guards in passing situations.

    There is no question that Coples could be a perennial Pro-Bowler. Whether or not he decides to bring it on every play will be the deciding factor to how great he becomes.

3. Janoris Jenkins, Northern Alabama, CB

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    Janoris Jenkins' talent has been overshadowed by his off-the-field antics. If you forget about his three arrests and four kids, you got yourself a shutdown corner.

    Prior to getting kicked out of Florida following the 2010 season, Jenkins earned the reputation as one of the SEC's best cover-corners after he shut down AJ Green, Julio Jones and Alshon Jeffery.

    Jenkins is a natural athlete and plays the game with some attitude. He makes football look easy as he seemingly trots after receivers. 

    Jenkins makes up for his shorter than desired stature (5'10") with his gritty play. In jump-ball situations he leaves the ground a second after the receiver so that he can use his upward momentum to jar the ball loose. 

    In pads Jenkins looks like a young Asante Samuel. This will be evident the first time he guesses right on a 10-yard out-route and takes it to the house.

    For those concerned about his off-field issues need not worry considering the 23-year-old is playing to feed four kids.

2. Melvin Ingram, South Carolina, OLB/DE

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    At 6'1" and 264 pounds, Melvin Ingram is viewed as a tweener at the next level: a little short to play defensive end but a little top heavy to play outside linebacker. 

    But his build only tells half the story.

    Ingram can do nearly everything. In college he played every single defensive line position as well as scored a 68-yard touchdown on a fake punt, out-jumped everyone to recover an onside kick and returned kicks (his freshman year). 

    He has gained a lofty reputation for his non-stop motor, big hits, timely plays and athleticism. In the NFL, he will be known simply as a playmaker.

    As a pass-rusher he has an incredible mix of speed and power that will draw comparisons to Dwight Freeney. 

    He will not be able to cover the NFL's shifty backs or the tallest tight ends one-on-one, but he should excel in zone coverage where he can use his instincts to be one step ahead of the offense. 

    Ingram's versatility will make him an instant contributor and a Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite. 

1. Morris Claiborne, LSU, CB

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    Morris Claiborne may be the safest selection in the 2012 NFL draft.

    His combination of speed and intuition made it impossible for receivers to gain separation in college. His extension when he goes after the ball is unmatched and he has the ability to seemingly hang in the air when going after jump balls.

    Not only is Claiborne an exceptional cover corner, but he prides himself as a run stopper. He is not the most physical defender, but he knows how to bring the ball carrier down. 

    Expect Claiborne's interception total to be relatively low as quarterbacks will learn not to throw the ball his way.