While most of the top-level talent here has worked out for teams at the outside linebacker position, they really are better suited to play up front, as a lack of experience in pass coverage for a potential move to the defense's second level might take time for those players to develop an all-around game.
The object of affection at the rush end position is South Carolina's Melvin Ingram, who is gaining considerable attention as a top-10 selection, with a likely call coming from Jacksonville or Carolina. Recruited as a linebacker coming out of Richmond County (S.C.) High School, Ingram is likely to return to that unit in the NFL.
With the success that the New York Giants (Jason Pierre-Paul) and Pittsburgh Steelers (LaMarr Woodley) have had in converting college defensive ends to that position, most talent evaluators see Ingram as the one player who could have an immediate impact with a potential move away from the "trench wars" up front.
For most college down linemen asked to make the shift, it takes time for them to adjust to life standing up. But, in Ingram's case, he is not that many years removed from playing that position, both during his prep days and as a freshman at South Carolina, when he shared middle linebacker duties with Jasper Brinkley.
The Giants have utilized Pierre-Paul in a variety of ways, even lining him up inside as a defensive tackle in various coverages. Ingram has similar qualities, as he shifted from middle linebacker to defensive tackle as a sophomore for the Gamecocks. Teams wondering if Ingram can be an impact player as a rush end need only look at his high performance level playing there the last two seasons.
For a player his size, Ingram has good initial quickness off the snap and he is vastly underrated in the strength department. That raw power has seen him shift inside to defensive tackle, on occasion, along with being utilized in the backfield, where he had brief success carrying the ball on fake punts. He has ease-of-movement agility working down the line and showed off his flexibility at his recent pro day, doing a standing back-flip for scouts in attendance.
Where Ingram rapidly has developed is as a pass rusher, getting to the quarterback 19 times during his last two seasons. "I think, in the NFL, they put even more emphasis on getting to the quarterback," Ingram noted. "Hey, it's important, no matter the level you're at. But I maybe didn't realize just how important it is to them until I started talking to teams. Man, they're all about it."
While Ingram certainly has more experience attacking the quarterback than most players in this group, he has the hand punch to rock offensive linemen back on their heels and plug the rush lanes when working in-line. He is strong anchoring vs. double teams, and those blockers that find him hard to contain coming off the edge find him equally effective as a bull rusher with his inside gap charge.
One emerging talent who seems to have convinced teams that he is not a one-year wonder is Illinois' Whitney Mercilus. I'm not jumping on the bandwagon for making this junior an outside linebacker, and feel his explosiveness off the snap and quickness coming off the edge bring back memories of another standout 4-3 defensive end who played for Chicago, Richard Dent.
Mercilus plays with good leverage and has added a nice array of moves — his spin move is the quickest of any defensive end in this draft. And, oh boy, if he gets his hands on a ball-carrier, if that runner is not overly cautious with ball security, Mercilus' collision skills frequently will lead to a turnover, with his nation-leading and Big Ten-record nine forced fumbles in 2011.
Prior to his insertion in the lineup, the Illini finished the 2010 season ranked 38th in the nation in total defense (351.31 ypg), 48th in scoring defense (23.46 ppg), 32nd in rushing defense (130.77 ypg), 76th in sacks generated (1.77 pg) and 51st in tackles for losses (6.15 pg). With Mercilus leading the charge, Illinois showed drastic improvement by ranking eighth nationally in total defense (291.75 ypg) and 21st in scoring defense (20.08 ppg), and led the Big Ten while placing seventh in the NCAA in tackles for losses (7.67 pg) and 10th nationally in sacks (3.00 pg).
Even famed television lawyer Perry Mason can not argue the case better for Mercilus than his performance showed all season. Of the defense's 161 possessions, Mercilus personally killed 54 of those drives (33.54 percent) on the final play from scrimmage. No other player in the country registered as many third-down stops (34).
Much like Mercilus, Boise State's Shea McClellin had to bide his time as a key reserve before he was given an opportunity to start in 2011. With 16.5 sacks, 26.0 stops behind the line of scrimmage and three interceptions during his last 26 games, the former high school tailback definitely emerged as a playmaker.
Unlike Mercilus, McClellin might be better served as a strong-side linebacker in a 3-4 alignment. With his hand on the ground, he does not generate that sudden burst to penetrate the backfield coming off the edge, but he has fluid moves working down the line and a quick hip snap coming out of his breaks on pass coverage assignments, as he seems natural with his moves working in the short area.
McClellan will need to get stronger (19 reps on the 225-pound bench press), but he has the body control and balance needed to stunt and loop coming off the edge. He's also excelled on special teams and has the leaping skills to be a quality kick blocker.
Not highly recruited coming out of high school, McClellin developed into an elite draft prospect and a player who leads by example. To Boise State coach Chris Petersen, he is Clark Kent. "You don't even see him," Petersen said. "He's just got his head down in the corner and then when he gets on that field, the cape comes on and he's a good player."
To opposing offenses, McClellin is Freddy Krueger. "Shea's a nightmare," former quarterback Mike Coughlin said. Coughlin uttered those words moments after McClellin terrorized the Boise State offense with four sacks in the final scrimmage of 2010 fall camp.
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USC always has been known for developing raw athletes into polished defensive players for the NFL. Perry is expected to rival the Packers' Clay Matthews as the Trojans' next professional star. He has that outstanding burst, take-off speed, long arms and superb balance to make it virtually impossible for slow-footed offensive tackles to prevent him from wreaking havoc in the backfield.
Why some scouts have eyed him as a linebacker prospect is his ability to drop back in pass coverage, as he plays with the proper pad level, textbook knee bend and exceptional balance to not only string plays wide, but to make impact hits that can stun a running back and jar the ball loose. He caused five fumbles in his last two seasons, and 32 of his 51 quarterback pressures have come on third-down plays.
His ability to disrupt the pocket or track down ball-carriers in the backfield allowed him to deliver 21.5 quarterback sacks and 29.5 tackles for losses, in addition to his 51 hurries. What teams immediately notice when reviewing game film is Perry's fluid moves when changing direction, as he is good at slipping past blockers when shooting the inside gaps. He works hard in his quest to collapse the pocket and more than makes up for a lack of ideal size with his all-out hustle.
Clemson's Andre Branch made a big leap as a pass rusher in 2011, as his 10.5 sacks rank fourth on the school season record list. The weak-side defensive end registered 24.5 stops for losses and 33 pressures while deflecting eight passes during his final two seasons. Learning to play at a lower pad level was the major reason for his success as a senior, as he could be a bit late coming off the snap during his first three years with the Tigers.
Branch has good upper-body strength and quick, powerful hands to stack and shed. He's a work in progress as far as his array of moves are concerned, but showed much better confidence with his club move last season, as he tallied a career-best 85 tackles. His pad level and change-of-direction agility saw him be one of the team's few bright spots in providing outside containment vs. the running game.
Much like his brother, Arthur (Baltimore Ravens), Syracuse's Chandler Jones saw his final college season sidetracked by injury woes (leg), but even though he appeared in just seven games, he showed enough for the league's coaches to vote him to their All-Big East Conference first team. He finished ninth in school history among down linemen with 147 tackles, playing just 32 games at the weak-side end position.
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A strong counter punch was the result of working out with another brother, Jon, who is an MMA title holder. Chandler Jones' core strength is evident in running situations, and he has the leg drive to quickly gain penetration and his 4.77 speed lets him give chase to get to runners during long-distance pursuits.
Marshall's Vinny Curry is another interesting pass rusher with 26.5 sacks (fourth in school history) and 49 tackles behind the line of scrimmage to go with 32 pressures, 10 forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries during his 45-game resume. He has good upper-body strength, getting to the quarterback often thanks to his ability to consistently throw offensive linemen into the pocket.
Curry's best asset is his hands, where he has one of the best rip moves in this draft class. He is alert to play action and misdirection, as he closes on the ball in a hurry and has been utilized often in three-technique, as he hits the seams with suddenness when stunting inside.
The big concern about making Curry a linebacker is his lack of lower-body flexibility (takes a lot of false steps in transition). He tends to lose balance when having to retreat, and his limitations working in space brings back memories of Chargers bust Larry English, as San Diego failed in its attempts to convert him to linebacker.
Virginia's Cam Johnson has versatility and experience playing both defensive end positions in the team's 4-3 alignment as well as being a rush linebacker in former coach Al Groh's 3-4 scheme. "I believe I have versatility and I think teams are looking for," Johnson told the official UVA athletic Web site following his workout. "I can play in space or with my hand in the dirt as well."
Still, injuries and a blood disorder (routine physical exams determined that Johnson carries the trait for sickle cell anemia, an inherited disorder of the red blood cells) might scare off a few teams on draft day, though, especially those that play in high elevation (Denver).
A nagging hamstring kept Arkansas' Jake Bequette out of the lineup for a good portion of the first half of 2011, but once he recovered, his "Crash Gordon" style of play was reminiscent to that of former Steelers great Aaron Smith. He led all active Southeastern Conference players in sacks (23.5) and collected 34.5 pressures during his career.
The consummate team player whose family has a long history with the Arkansas football program, Bequette has that closing burst to wreak havoc in the backfield, as he is a master at anticipating the snap. He shows above-average timing beating blocks off the edge, and when asked to work inside, he has the upper-body power to bull rush past combo blocks.
With his active hands, Bequette has had success in generating holding penalties from the linemen trying to stave off his relentless charge. Stamina is his strongest asset, but while he is good at keeping his hands active, he can be stymied by low blocks, as he does not do a good job of protecting his feet when working through trash. His overaggression will get him in trouble at times, as he will out run the play and then struggle to recover.
Two players coming with major buyer-beware tags are West Virginia's Bruce Irvin and Oklahoma's Ronnell Lewis, two players with impressive athletic talent, but you wonder if there are more cobwebs in their heads than brain matter, at times. Both have had issues off the field, with Lewis being so much of a locker room lawyer that the Sooners' coaches did not show much concern when he announced he was leaving school early. When your coach tells you it is "time to move on," it has to draw some red flags at NFL team complexes.
Lewis was limited by knee problems in 2011 and is never going to be a quality pass rusher. Even though he put on an impressive display in the weight room at the Scouting Combine (36 reps), he's a classic "looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane" type. He has become too reliant on his rip move to gain penetration and has no idea how to use his hands to generate proper counter moves when blockers get into his exposed chest, which they do often.
As an edge rusher, Lewis looks robotic when trying to move laterally playing off the edge and needs to do a better job when taking angles, along with learning how to keep his pad level down (often stonewalled when he gets upright). With marginal lateral quickness, poor academic skills, tight hips and a poor anchor despite his weight room strength, while some teams still target him in Round 3, the bust label is shining like a bright neon sign.
As for Irvin, the Mountaineer proved that his lone redeeming asset is his burst off the edge. He's a horrible run container, and I have a shoe size bigger than his IQ, both on and off the field. The high school drop-out has had some of his off-field antics come to light, and to me, he's West Virginia's linebacker version of "Pacman" Jones. You have to wonder if WVU recruiters hang out at reform schools or enjoy having players that might one day wear "eight digits" (prison garb) one day.
Let's look at Irvin's "life" away from the game — he was ruled academically ineligible as a sophomore in high school, eventually dropping out and spending two years away before earning his GED in 2007. He tried to join the Butler Community College team, but was ruled ineligible (geez, a turnip could get an AA degree from that school) before heading out to Mt. San Antonio Community College, where he played safety for a year before shifting to the defensive line.
Irvin began his major-college recruiting tour, first signing on to attend Tennessee, but later changing his mind and telling Arizona State coaches he was on his way (former coach Dennis Erickson would have had to commit himself to an institution if he had both Irvin and Vontaze Burfict together in his locker room), but eventually ending up at West Virginia.
Irvin did post 22.5 sacks in 26 games at WVU, but even the Mountaineers coaches realized his limitations, allowing him just six starting assignments. He's a classic KISS performer (keep it simple and stupid), as his only responsibility was getting to the quarterback and was a total nonfactor vs. the run. He has just adequate lower-body strength, which saw him get stonewalled by blockers any time a lineman was able to get a piece of his jersey.
Irvin has the speed to chase down ball-carriers, but will ankle-bite or arm tackle too much, making bigger runners easily bounce off his initial hit. He has poor hand usage trying to play off blocks and struggles too much when his initial speed move fails to get him an escape to the quarterback. Having him handle pass coverage duties? If I am a slot receiver or tight end covered by this guy, I am acting like a cannibal (yum, yum, eat ‘em up).
Dave-Te Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft.
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.