2012 NFL Draft: Who's Hot, Who's Not on Defense
It’s never too early to look ahead to the 2012 NFL draft—especially on defense. With the way NFL teams can light up the scoreboard in this day and age, quality defensive players are at a premium.
Certain college football defenders out there are playing their way into very lucrative contracts in next year’s NFL draft. On the other end of the spectrum, however, some players who showed promise in the offseason are in danger of playing their way right out of the draft’s first round.
So who’s hot and who’s not on defense?
Hot: Luke Kuechly (Boston College)
Since stepping on the field his freshman year, Kuechly has been an absolute tackling machine. So far, 2011 hasn’t been any different. Kuechly has already racked up 130 tackles in eight games this year.
That’s a pretty impressive encore, considering he registered a combined 325 tackles in his first two seasons as a BC starter. While he’s not considered an elite pass rusher, there’s no denying Kuechly is going to be a very effective middle linebacker against the run in the NFL.
He seems to be in on almost every single tackle and has shown that he’s mature enough to handle a tough situation, like when he was thrown into the fire almost immediately as a freshman. Kuechly’s toughness and productivity in the middle will immediately improve the run defense of whatever NFL team drafts him, should the junior declare early.
Hot: Brandon Boykin (Georgia)
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As Georgia continues its resurrection, it’s only natural that Boykin’s stock rises parallel. Boykin and his Bulldog defensive teammates absolutely mauled Florida in the second half of their 24-20 comeback victory in the annual Jacksonville clash.
While he struggles with his hands at times in press coverage, Boykin has the speed and athleticism to possibly sneak into the late first round of next year’s draft. Of course, this is dependent on the demand for cornerbacks.
If a run on cornerbacks emerges in the first round, expect Boykin’s name to be called. If there isn’t, he’s likely to fall to the early second round. Ultimately, I believe he will be a late first-round pick. Teams are always looking for productive cornerbacks, given how the league is so pass-oriented these days, and Boykin has something to offer from a coverage and return standpoint.
Hot: Frank Alexander (Oklahoma)
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Alexander’s NFL future is beginning to look pretty bright. The Sooner senior has 7.5 sacks so far this season and tallied three of those against hated rival Texas.
While he certainly isn’t a high-end first rounder, what could attract NFL teams to Alexander is the fact that he’s playing the best football of his college career this year. That’s an indication that he has room to grow and is progressing at the right time.
Scouts love players with unfinished ceilings, and it looks like Alexander has that. This alone may lead to one team taking a chance on Alexander late in the first round.
Hot: Harrison Smith (Notre Dame)
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If you’re looking for a safety flying under the radar, look no further than Notre Dame’s Harrison Smith. He may not get a lot of attention nationally, but if you look at his body of work, you’ll find someone with the potential to be a really solid safety at the next level.
Over the last two seasons, Smith has proven he can play well against the run, hold his own in cover three situations, come up with a timely pick (last year against USC) and is physical when need be. And like Alexander, he’s another player progressing late in his college career.
Smith has recorded 30 tackles in his last three games and played a big part in holding a Navy running attack that has given the Irish fits before in check. While Smith can struggle in his sideline-to-sideline speed, he’s good enough in space to be worthy of a mid-to-late first round selection.
Hot: Jerel Worthy (Michigan State)
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Even as a junior, this defensive tackle already has NFL scouts drooling over his polished game. At 6'3", 310 lbs, Worthy definitely has the size to be a dominant tackle in the pros.
He’s been a disruptive force in the backfield thus far in 2011, recording four tackles for loss. Great defensive tackles don’t grow on trees, meaning that Worthy could go very early if he declares for 2012. Should he continue to improve like he has thus far in his Spartan career, Worthy could help an NFL run defense sooner rather than later.
Not: Kenny Tate (Maryland)
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Coming into this season, Tate was considered arguably the best free safety prospect in the nation. Then Randy Edsall and his coaching staff took charge in College Park and decided they would tinker with Tate’s position. They switched Tate from safety to linebacker in 2011 to mixed results.
Although Tate tallied a combined 21 tackles in his first two games this season, you still got the sense that he struggled to adapt to his new position. His overall stats weren’t on pace with his junior season of 2010, when he had 90 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions.
And before Tate could get fully acclimated to his new defensive role, his season abruptly ended after four games due to a leg injury. If Tate isn’t granted a medical redshirt for 2012, Tate’s NFL stock could take a hit.
Who exactly will be willing to spend a high first-round draft pick on someone coming off of season-ending leg surgery (the exact injury hasn’t been yet disclosed)? Also, scouts may conclude that since Tate struggled in his switch to linebacker, he may not be as versatile a player as originally thought.
Not: Jared Crick (Nebraska)
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Another highly-touted defensive prospect whose stock could take a hit to injury is star defensive tackle Jared Crick. His season ended a few weeks ago, courtesy of a torn pectoral muscle against Washington.
Even before the injury, Crick had tallied just one sack in three games. Teams with a top-ten draft pick are going to ask two key questions regarding Crick’s NFL potential.
First, is Crick really a dominant interior lineman, or was he a beneficiary of playing alongside Ndamukong Suh for a year? Second, at 6'6" and 285 lbs, just how effective can Crick be at the next level?
I don’t believe the first question is very legitimate. After Suh left for the NFL, Crick was just as productive with 9.5 sacks in 2010 (he had nine playing alongside Suh in 2009). However, the second question is a reasonable one to ask.
Crick definitely doesn’t have the size to be a NFL defensive tackle. So, does he have the chops to excel as a defensive end? If Crick can show scouts he can play with a motor, then he may be lumped in the same class as players like J.J. Watt and Ryan Kerrigan, two rookie ends who have already made a positive impact at the next level.
Not: Vince Browne (Northwestern)
Entering the 2011 season, Browne was on the watch list for many defensive awards, including the Nagurski and Bednarik. Unfortunately for Browne, his productivity so far this year hasn’t matched the hype.
Through eight games, Browne only has 25 tackles and two sacks. Those numbers pale in comparison with the productivity he showed last year, when he racked up 58 tackles and seven sacks.
Browne was already at a disadvantage in his draft status, considering he’s not widely regarded as an elite athlete. Couple that with his disappointing production, and you could see Browne’s draft stock plummet.
Of course, there’s still some time left in Browne’s career to rebound and become a disruptive force in the backfield once again. But he better start doing it fast, because unless he wows scouts at the NFL combine, it will be tough to consider Browne a first-round pick on the heels of this disappointing season.
Not: Dre Kirkpatrick (Alabama)
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While Kirkpatrick gets plenty of publicity for playing on Alabama’s prestigious defense, there are some grumblings emerging that he may be well-advised to return to Tuscaloosa for his senior season in 2012.
Kirkpatrick had a lukewarm performance a few weeks ago against the Florida Gators, surrendering a touchdown and having quite the time keeping up with receiver Andre Debose. It will be interesting to see how Kirkpatrick performs under the lights against the Tigers this Saturday night, going against the likes of Rueben Randle, Russell Shepard and James Wright.
Then again, this game may not be a great test of Kirkpatrick’s abilities, considering that LSU’s offensive operates through its power-running game. Down the stretch, which Kirkpatrick will show up to play?
Is it going to be the one who excels in press coverage and can be physical with receivers? Or is it going to be the one who critics say lacks NFL-caliber speed and fluidity in his hips?
Not: Cliff Harris (Oregon)
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It’s hard to impress the NFL scouts when you can’t stay on the field. Harris has missed several games this year, not due to injury, but to off-the-field troubles involving driving-related issues.
He’s only played in four games so far this season and is suspended once again. Harris has the potential to be a mid-first round draft pick.
He’s an exceptionally athletic cornerback and a dynamic kick returner, two traits any NFL team loves in a player. But it has become obvious that Harris is seriously lacking in the character department.
Harris was suspended from Oregon in June for speeding with a suspended license. He has since followed that up by being sidelined again for racking up numerous traffic infractions. Obviously, Harris isn’t out there beating women or manipulating a major Ponzi scheme. Nevertheless, these infractions—no matter how minor—show NFL teams that Harris currently isn’t mature enough to respect authority or take his football future seriously.
While the guy doesn’t have to be an altar boy, character counts in the NFL these days. If Harris doesn’t improve his soon, his NFL stock will sink like a stone.