There are a tremendous amount of talented prospects spread throughout the 2012 NFL Draft. This is one of the reasons that I have concluded that teams are going to find tremendous value in the second and third round. Probably more so than in the top 20 of the draft itself.
With that said, there are some elite players at specific positions and defensive end is no different.
While there is some ambiguity in terms of where some of the defensive end prospects are going to play, we have an understanding of how teams are going to utilize their talents.
Some of the prospects on this list translate better to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, but also have the capability to play with their hands down at the line in a 4-3 scheme.
This article is going to focus on the top 10 natural defensive end prospects, no matter where they translate to play at the next level.
Trevor Guyton is a perfect fit as a 3-4 defensive end, a position he played in college. He has the ability to anchor on the outside, consistently taking on double-teams in order to open up pass rushing lanes.
At 6'3" and 285 pounds, Guyton has a prototypical frame to play this position. It doesn't mean that the former Cal standout doesn't translate to playing defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme.
Rather you are looking at someone that has the ability to line up at multiple positions along the defensive line.
Most likely a third-round pick at this point.
Unheralded among a pretty good Boise State defense, Billy Winn translates really well to the next level. You are looking at a defensive end prospect that isn't scheme specific, a huge benefit in terms of his draft stock.
While Winn did only record three sacks during the 2011 season, he was stout against the run. He is extremely hard to move off of his spot, consistently takes up double-teams and plays with extremely good leverage.
Winn reminds me a great deal of Jason Jones, who has had a pretty damn good career in the NFL. Pretty much a third-round prospect at this point.
Yet another player that fits the 3-4 scheme to a tee, Jared Crick reminds me of a poor man's Justin Smith, which is pretty high praise.
He does have issues with injuries, which has caused his draft stock to plummet as of late. Crick was considered a late first-round pick just over a month ago.
The team that drafts Crick is going to get someone that plays with a non-stop motor, maintains his gap at point of contact, takes on double-teams and can move inside depending on the specific situation. Pretty much a jack of all trades.
Despite these injury issues I expect Crick to get some play in the second round.
Andre Branch is one of the most intriguing defensive prospects in the entire draft. Various mocks have him going anywhere between the top 20 to the end of the second round. My view of the Clemson product is somewhere in between.
Teaming up with Brandon Thompson at Clemson, Branch has a breakout 2011 season. He recorded 10.5 sacks and dominated at times.
Clemson's 23-3 victory over Virginia Tech in October was a prime example of this. Branch recorded a total of 11 tackles and four sacks in that dominating victory. However, it does seem that he needs to get more consistent. Branch tends to disappear at times, which isn't indicative of a true playmaker at the next level.
He struggles a great deal getting off the line with a relatively slow first step. This has stopped Branch from becoming a consistent pass-rusher. He does possess a non-stop motor, recognizes offensive formations and has solid technique at point of contact.
Branch does possess great range and technique in terms of coverage, so he translates well in terms of switching to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
Could go anywhere from the bottom half of the first round to the middle of the second round.
Not nearly the upside of other players in this draft, Whitney Mercilus seems to have topped out in terms of value. He struggles a great deal against the rush and is a scheme specific player. This means that Mercilus will be unable to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense because of limited athletic ability.
It is hard to argue against his production in 2011 as Mercilus led all of college football in sacks. He did so against some of the best offensive lines in the country. However, he did come out of relatively nowhere after struggling the previous couple seasons.
You are looking at a player that will be a pass-rush specialist and two-down performer at the next level. Not exactly the value that teams want in the first round.
With that said, most major publications do have Mercilus going in the first half of the initial round. I view him as more of an early second-round pick at this point.
Nick Perry is definitely one of the most overrated prospects in the entire draft. He will not be able to transition to outside linebacker due to an inability to play coverage and lack of technique past the line of scrimmage.
Perry also needs to get more pass-rush moves in order to become a consistent force as a defensive end.
What he does bring is some exceptional athleticism and production that his hard to question. Some team will take a look at him in the top 20 because of these two factors.
I am just here to say "buyer beware."
Vinny Curry is a player that might fly under the radar because of the competition he played against in college. Don't let this fool you. The Marshall product is one of the best pure pass-rushers in the entire draft.
He possesses an uncanny ability to get past the offensive tackles immediately after the snap, consistently utilizing a great swim move. More than that, Curry can do well for himself in terms of the bull-rush.
Curry can come in and be an immediate contributor as rookie. Something like what we saw with Aldon Smith last season. At this point it seems that he translates much better as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
I have been pretty clear in my opinion that Quinton Coples is nowhere near as good as he is projected to go. Some "experts" have the former North Carolina star as a top 10 pick, that is just crazy talk.
He does have a tremendous amount of talent and upside. You are talking about a 285-pound defensive end that possesses a lot of strength at the point of contact. He plays with good pad level and can bull-rush with the best of them. Accordingly, Coples is damn strong against the run.
He fits really well as a 4-3 defensive end at this point, but is limited to that specific scheme due to an inability to drop back into coverage. That really doesn't matter considering that you want Coples up against the line a large majority of the time.
Coples struggles a great deal with consistency, doesn't have that first-gear that is necessary to get to the outside and seems to take plays off. These are three factors that limit his upside moving forward. These are also three factors that lead me to believe that he shouldn't be much more than a late first-round pick.
With that said, some team will reach for his potential in the first half of the initial round.
A relatively strong Senior Bowl performance saw Courtney Uphaw shoot up the draft boards. In fact, many had him as a top 10 pick.
Upon further review and following a pedestrian combine performance, these projections have leveled off quite a bit.
I absolutely love what Upshaw brings in terms of a pass rush. He already has multiple pro-ready moves, including strong swim and bull-rush moves. This is going to enable the Alabama product to make an immediate impact at the next level.
It was a foregone conclusion that Upshaw could play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. That has since changed. He struggles with technique and possesses extremely tight hip movement dropping back into coverage. This means that Upshaw will probably be best suited as a 4-3 defensive end early in his career.
Of course this hurts his draft stock quite a bit.
With that said, you could see a team like the New York Jets or San Diego Chargers, who run a 3-4, take a chance on his exceptional pass-rush ability.
I got to say, Melvin Ingram is one of my favorite players in the entire 2012 NFL Draft. He has the ability to be absolutely dominating at the point of contact with brute strength alone. More than that, Ingram possesses a strong first step and can get into his second gear relatively quickly.
Unlike other prospects on this list, Ingram also has an ability to drop back into coverage, which means that he can be a three-down player at the next level. He will be able to play with his hands down in base defense and with his hands up when the defense moves to a nickel package.
You are looking at a player that won't just rack up double-digit sacks on a consistent basis in the National Football League. Instead, he will be able to help out a great deal in other aspects of the game.
Right now I have Ingram as a top 10 player on my big board and that is where I envision him going in April. A team like the Buffalo Bills will definitely take a long look at Ingram.