2012 NFL Draft: Top Defensive Players on the Board
by Trevor Whenham - 3/20/2012
Today’s task is simple — let’s look at my ranking of the top five defensive players in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Before I get to the five players that are on this list, though, I want to talk about three who aren’t. On many boards they would be, but all make me nervous.
Melvin Ingram has had durability issues, he’s slightly undersized, and I’m not convinced he’s as fast as can be. He doesn’t seem like a “can’t miss” defensive end prospect. I certainly couldn’t argue with a team picking him in the first half of the first round, but I think he’s only as highly-regarded as he is because the DE class is relatively weak at the top end this year.
Dontari Poe strikes me as a Combine freak, and they always make me nervous. He’s extremely impressive physically, but he has to take a massive step up in competition after playing at Memphis, and I think there is too much risk to put him on this list.
On a pure physical basis Janoris Jenkins would be a total lock for this list. The cornerback has so many off-field issues, though, that I couldn’t justify taking him as the top CB, and I can’t justify including him here.
Now onto the five guys who I have included:
1. Luke Kuechly, ILB, Boston College
This draft lacks a “can’t miss” defensive freak at the top end. In the absence of that I’ll happily go for a guy like Kuechly.
I had obviously heard about him for a couple of years. I hadn’t seen him play until I watched two of his games last year, though. His team around him wasn’t impressive, but I was stunned by watching him. He ran the game like he was a general on the battlefield. He was involved in every play, and I never saw him commit to the wrong play or move in the wrong direction.
He’s not a freak physically, but he’s tall and fast enough, and he more than makes up for any shortcomings with his incredible instincts. The guy just understands football at a cellular level.
Having strong linebackers inside can make such a huge difference for a team defensively, and Kuechly really seems like the kind of guy you can plug into your lineup and leave him there for the next decade without concern. He’s the biggest difference maker on defense in the draft.
2. Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
I normally wouldn’t have a corner so high because of the challenges of evaluating whether they are going to come through at the next level or not, so Claiborne’s inclusion this high is testament to the lack of top-end strength in this draft defensively.
For two years in a row Claiborne has been ‘the other guy’ at corner for LSU, but he is certainly ready for primetime now.
What really stands out is how well he handles the ball. He was originally a receiver, and it shows in his hands and his body control. He is physically sound and athletically impressive. He also has the rare ability to get inside a quarterback’s head. He could bait college QBs almost at will. He won’t find that as easy at the NFL level, but his instincts will still be very useful.
Patrick Peterson has fit in nicely in the NFL, and Claiborne should as well. In a year when it seems a necessity that cornerback prospects have mountains of baggage it is also comforting that Claiborne is a mature guy who keeps his nose clean.
3. Michael Brockers, DT, LSU
When you close your eyes and think about what a run stopping defensive tackle should look like you see Brockers. He’s fast and athletic, he’s big and can easily get bigger, and he has a mean streak.
His play against the pass needs some work, and it isn’t likely that he will emerge as a top-level pass rushing threat. Against the run, though, he’s as good as it gets. He’s powerful, his instincts are strong, and he does what it takes to find the ball and stop it. The most impressive thing, though, is that with some technique work he could be even better.
He won’t be a flashy guy, but for a team that needs run help he’s a reliable guy with a strong future.
4. Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
It’s all about versatility for Coples. He can play in a 4-3. He would shine as a five technique guy in a 3-4. He can move around — he moved from DE to DT in college without missing a beat. He’s fast and athletic. He’s passionate and works hard.
A team with general defensive line need can pick him first then figure out how to best use him later. He has the tools to be a top-level pass rusher, but he’s not a liability against the run by any means, either.
He’s a guy you can imagine doing well in the league in many different ways, and the downside doesn’t seem particularly big.
5. Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State
It was a disappointing year for the Bulldogs, but Cox was certainly a bright spot. He missed the first game of the year for violating team rules, but he seemed to use that as a motivating factor. He was an entirely different player after that, and he emerged as a total beast.
He’s not dominant in one particular area, but as a well-rounded DT he is unmatched this year. He can play the run well, and showed significant improvement through the season — a sign that he is coachable, determined, and ready to learn. He can rush the passer, and could be particularly effective as the type of inside rusher that teams love to look for these days. He’s an all-round player of a high caliber.
He leapfrogged several guys who are flashier and may have more upside because of his reliability, his work ethic, and the comparative lack of risk that he involves. He’s not the sexy pick, but how often is the sexy pick the right one? If he goes outside the Top 10 — which he likely will — then he’ll represent excellent value.
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