2012 NFL Draft Projections: Predicting the Class' Top 20 Defensive Players

Matt BowenAnalyst IIApril 20, 2012

2012 NFL Draft Projections: Predicting the Class' Top 20 Defensive Players

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    The 2012 NFL draft is now T minus one week, and while all the attention is on the offensive side of the ball this year, everybody knows defense wins championships. 

    April 26-28 can't come soon enough for true football enthusiasts. 

    This in-depth look at just who the top 20 defensive players happen to be will help shine some light on who your favorite franchise will select come next week. 

    In a draft loaded with tons of unquestionably raw talent, it's good to know what each team is looking for and what they'll get. 

    After the initial onslaught of offensive talent is taken, the floodgates will open on the defensive side of the ball as the bulldozers, bruisers and ball hawks quickly come off the board. 

    Keep these guys in mind when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is announcing your team's selection. 

The Extra Point: Linebacker Vontaze Burfict May Not Be Drafted at All

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    Once thought to be a Top 10-overall selection, linebacker Vontaze Burfict's stock has drop tremendously. 

    He's known for being a ticking time bomb on the field and very unimpressive in conversation when talking to NFL scouts.

    It's always a sad story when a kid once thought of so highly falls mightily. 

    For Burfict's sake, let's hope he matures overnight and makes something of himself. 

No. 6: Morris Claiborne Will Be Taken by the St. Louis Rams

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    Morris Claiborne's Wonderlic score may be low, but his ability to excel at the game of football is somewhere in the clouds. 

    New St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher knows a special player when he sees one, and Claiborne will be his man. 

    Claiborne will fit nicely in the Rams secondary as he gets to learn the game from the likes of Cortland Finnegan, who signed with the team in the offseason. 

    The Rams ranked No. 7 in pass defense last season and will remain there for years to come with Claiborne shutting down opposing wide receivers. 

No. 9: Michael Brockers Has the Most Raw Talent at Defensive Tackle

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    Defensive tackle Michael Brockers is 6'6", 320-plus lbs and only 21 years old. 

    The Carolina Panthers will be more than happy to have him help stuff the gaps for the next decade. 

    Although it may take Brockers a year or two to grow into himself, he possesses Herculean physical ability.

    He's simply too good to pass up for a Panthers team that finished No. 25 against the run in 2011. 

No. 11: Fletcher Cox Is All the Rage Right Now

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    Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is a workhorse, and the Kansas City Chiefs will be drooling when they select this young stud.

    The Chiefs are afforded the leisure of selecting Cox with their first-round pick in 2012. 

    The team finished 26th in rush defense last year and will be greatly improved with the ability of Cox. 

    Chiefs fans should be ecstatic for the outlook of their 2012 season. 

No. 12: Melvin Ingram May End Up Being the Best in His Class

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    Something about Melvin Ingram screams hybrid NFL star.

    The defensive end/outside linebacker figures to be a fixture in a Seattle Seahawks uniform for years to come. 

    Ingram will undoubtedly give opposing defensive coordinators nightmares, and he will continuously create mismatches on the gridiron.

    The "12th Man" should be giddy when thinking about rooting for Ingram. 

No. 14: Mark Barron Will Be a Member of the Dallas Cowboys

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    These days football fans should always appreciate a four-year college athlete like Mark Barron.

    The strong safety's move paid dividends as his Alabama Crimson Tide took home the title in his senior season. 

    Now Barron is slated for a more than successful NFL career as a natural leader in the Cowboys' defensive backfield.

No. 15: Nick Perry Will Fit in Perfectly in Philadelphia

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    Like most things in life, the NFL is all about trends. 

    Right now new-age athletic pass-rushers are in high demand, and defensive end Nick Perry fits the bill. 

    The Philadelphia Eagles will be more than thrilled when Perry falls into their lap at No. 15. 

    Perry will benefit by learning how to thrive in the NFL from Eagles defensive ends Jason Babin and Trent Cole. 

    The trio of pass-rushers should have the opposition worried for years to come in the NFL. 

No. 20: Stephon Gilmore Will Fill the Void in Tennessee

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    With Cortland Finnegan now a member of the St. Louis Rams, the Tennessee Titans have a definite need for cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

    Gilmore is every coach's dream as he does whatever is asked of him. He's a well-rounded player that will be a staple in a Titans uniform for the foreseeable future.

    The Titans need Gilmore badly and should consider trading up to get him.

No. 22: Quinton Coples Will Be the Best Available for the Cleveland Browns

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    As badly as the Cleveland Browns need multiple offensive threats with their two first-round picks in the 2012 NFL draft, they need Quinton Coples worse. 

    Coples is a versatile defensive end who'll instantly improve the Browns' run defense, that allowed 147.4 yards/game in 2011. 

    Whether he's filling the gaps or drawing double teams, he'll make the Browns better. 

No. 24: Dont'a Hightower Was Born to Play in Pittsburgh

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers are known for their blood and guts defense, and linebacker Dont'a Hightower will fit like a glove in the defensive-minded system of the Steelers.

    The Steelers showed their age last season, and Hightower will bring new life to the always tough Steelers defense.

    Hightower's awareness on a football field will allow him to make a name for himself in the NFL. He's a student of the game, and it will show on Sundays. 

No. 25: Jerel Worthy Is Wanted in Denver

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    When he wanted to be, defensive tackle Jerel Worthy was the most dominating defensive player in college football in 2011.

    Worthy proved to take plays off, though, which will cause his draft stock to drop. 

    Regardless, he's a force to be reckoned with as his stamina will only improve. He'll be a nice fit in a Denver Broncos uniform. 

No. 27: The New England Patriots Will Welcome Courtney Upshaw with Open Arms

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    The New England Patriots will look brilliant when they draft defensive end/outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw with the No. 27 pick in the 2012 NFL draft.

    Upshaw is a great pass-rusher and has an uncanny knack for finding the football. 

    He'll fill an immediate need for the Patriots and be considered a great pick by the time his rookie season is over. 

No. 28: Let's Hope Shea McClellin Likes Cheese

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    Outside linebacker Shea McClellin is a locomotive heading full-steam ahead on a football field.

    The Green Bay Packers love players like McClellin and will be more than happy to call his name come April 26th. 

    McClellin will quickly become a fan favorite at Lambeau. His constant energy will allow the rest of the Packers defense to constantly badger opposing quarterbacks.

No. 31: The New England Patriots Will Roll the Dice on Janoris Jenkins

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    The New England Patriots stunk in regards to pass defense in 2011 and need a player with the skills of Janoris Jenkins to make a difference in 2012.

    Jenkins, a cornerback, may truly be the best in his class, but his highly publicized off-field issues will hurt his stock come draft time. 

    That doesn't necessarily mean that Jenkins will fall out of the first round, though, as he'll be a steal for the Patriots. 

    Pats fans should be thrilled to have him join the squad. 

No. 32: Luke Kuechly Is Too Good to Fall out of Round 1

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    The New York Giants will feel obligated to select linebacker Luke Kuechly with the last pick in the first round this year.

    Kuechly was a tackling machine in college and has the work ethic every NFL GM loves to see in a young player.

    Although Kuechly lacks top-end speed, the Giants will find a way to utilize him to the fullest. 

No. 33: Dontari Poe Will Become a Road Block in St. Louis

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    Defensive tackle Dontari Poe was a prime example of the hype that surrounds the NFL draft.

    Every year at least one player seemingly comes out of nowhere and is shot into the stratosphere before his stock slowly begins to come back down to earth.

    This year Poe is that player and was considered a Top 10 pick for a hot minute. 

    The St. Louis Rams were simply awful against the run in 2011, allowing 152.1 yards/game, and Poe is the man they need. 

    In the end, this will be a win-win for both parties involved. 

No. 35: Jamell Fleming Should Be a Viking

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    Cornerback Jamell Fleming will join fellow Oklahoma Sooner Adrian Peterson in a Minnesota Vikings uniform soon.

    The Vikings need youth in their secondary and shouldn't be hesitant to draft Fleming.

    At 5'11'', 200-plus lbs, he has ideal size for a cornerback in the NFL. 

    The Vikings face three top-notch quarterbacks in their division and need help defending the pass. 

No. 40: Zach Brown Will Be a Steal for the Carolina Panthers

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    While it's known that the Carolina Panthers would like another wide receiver for quarterback Cam Newton, Zach Brown will be too good to pass on with the No. 40 pick.

    Brown needs to improve in all areas in order to become a superior NFL linebacker, but his pure athleticism makes him worth the risk.

    The Panthers allowed 30-plus points eight times in 2011, and Brown will help lower that number significantly in 2012 and beyond. 

No. 42: Whitney Mercilus Will Become a Member of the Miami Dolphins

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    Whitney Mercilus exploded in 2011 when he lead the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles. 

    That fact will help his draft stock dramatically, but the worries of him being a flash in the pan will cause him to drop to the Miami Dolphins with the No. 42 pick. 

    Mercilus will fit nicely in Miami and take pressure off Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake.

    With his stock being compromised, Mercilus will play with a chip on his shoulder and succeed in South Beach. 

No. 47: Devon Still Will Find a Place to Call Home with the New York Jets

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    Defensive tackle Devon Still will make a nice fit with the New York Jets

    He's a massive defensive tackle with enough mobility to swallow up the opposition in the backfield.

    The Jets would benefit greatly from Still with his run-stuffing ability on third down. 

    Give Still some time to put on some NFL muscle, and he'll be all the beef the Jets need up front. 

No. 49: Alfonzo Dennard Is Needed by the San Diego Chargers

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    Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard should look forward to becoming a member of the San Diego Chargers in 2012.

    Dennard is exactly what the Chargers need right now—a young cornerback with loads of upside.

    While Dennard doesn't possess elite skills in any categories, he's above-average in all with room to improve.

    Bolts fans should feel relieved to get some much needed help in the secondary.