(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft, set for April 26-28.)
It's called a mirage, that phenomenon where a person hallucinates something that isn't really there, and in folklore the hallucination is usually something that person desperately needs. Like in football for example, when an NFL General Manager desperately needs an edge pass-rusher, he can start seeing things in prospects that aren't really there.
The history of the NFL Draft offers many instances of teams using first-round picks with the idea of adding an edge pass-rusher to the lineup, when in reality what they're doing is seeing something that isn't there.
Courtney Brown, Michael Haynes, Jarvis Moss and Vernon Gholston have been some recent highly-drafted defensive ends who turned out to be mirages for the teams picking them. But despite examples of teams being burned in the past, there will be plenty of others willing to step up and take a chance on picking the next Jason Pierre-Paul.
When it comes to this year's group of prospects, something of a consensus has developed over the past several days regarding the name that belongs at the top of the list. That would be Quinton Coples of North Carolina.
Coples (6-foot-6, 285 pounds) posted 17.5 sacks the past two seasons while playing both defensive tackle and defensive end for the Tar Heels, but at the combine he was asked repeatedly about inconsistency and the perception that he doesn't give 100 percent on every snap.
"You know, I'm a big guy. I'm a long-strider, things of that nature, so where it may come fast to me in a game, on film it's slowing down a little bit," Coples said in Indianapolis. "People have their own opinions. Some people don't even think it was a problem. So it's different opinions and you just go for what it is."
The North Carolina coaches asked Coples to slide inside to tackle in the middle of 2011, and he finished that season with 59 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. A communications major in college, Coples lists his favorite football team as the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Despite the warts teams have found on Coples, he still figures to be the first defensive end to come off the board, and the others with first-round potential/pedigree include USC's Nick Perry (6-3, 270), South Carolina's Melvin Ingram (6-1, 265), Illinois' Whitney Mercilius (6-4, 260), Clemson's Andre Branch (6-4, 260) and Syracuse's Chandler Jones (6-5, 265).
Perry finished his three-year career at USC with 21.5 sacks despite being a full-time starter in just 2011. As a freshman in 2009 Perry was a substitute defensive lineman who came onto the field in passing situations, and he ended up leading the team with eight sacks. Then in 2011, he was named USC's Defensive Lineman of the Year after he led the Pac-12 in sacks with 9.5. Some teams could project Perry as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, but among other teams there are doubts about whether he has the instincts to play in the open field.
Ingram is another player who can be viewed as either a defensive lineman or a linebacker depending upon the scheme and the preference of a particular team. But where there is some consensus on Ingram is that he's a playmaker. A fifth-year senior after taking a medical redshirt as a sophomore in 2008 because of a broken foot, Ingram finished his career with 21.5 sacks. He led the team with 15 tackles for loss in 2011, a season in which he also scored three touchdowns – on a 68-yard run with a fake punt, on a 5-yard run after a fumble recovery, and on a fumble recovery in the end zone. Ingram, who had grown sufficiently to line up some at defensive tackle for the Gamecocks in 2011 also returned five kickoffs for 90 yards as a freshman.
Mercilius really came into his own as a pass-rusher in 2011, and this after he had only two sacks in 24 games over the previous two seasons. The son of immigrant parents (Haiti), Mercilius led the nation with 16 sacks last year, and he added nine forced fumbles in those 13 starts. While he could have used another year to develop, Mercilius opted to turn pro to help support his family, and he leaves college as a former team captain who was well-liked and respected by his teammates. Mercilius is motivated to succeed, and with some coaching it's believed he could become a productive pass-rusher who also is adept at stripping the ball from the quarterback. Like Perry, Mercilius will be evaluated by some teams as an outside linebacker, and their interest will be gauged by projections about him as an athlete in open space.
Branch's size would indicate his most likely position in the NFL would be outside linebacker, but there are even more than the normal number of questions about his athletic ability in space to do what's necessary at that position. Branch had four sacks in 2010 when he was playing opposite Da'Quan Bowers, a second-round pick by Tampa Bay last April. Then in 2011, Branch finished with 10.5 sacks despite playing the final month with a hamstring injury that kept him out of the Senior Bowl.
Jones' one brother, Arthur, is a 313-pound defensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, and another, Jon, began 2012 as the UFC light heavyweight champion. After redshirting in 2008, Jones had 1.5 sacks in 2009, four in 2010, and then 4.5 during a 2011 season in which he injured a knee in the opener and missed the next five games. Jones won't get it done in the NFL with brute strength, but he is quick, he uses his hands well, and he has the athletic ability to get around the corner quickly when rushing the passer.
THE 2011 NFL DRAFT, DE STATISTICS
Number drafted: 19
Picks by round: 6 in the first; 3 in the second; 1 in the third; 0 in the fourth; 1 in the fifth; 1 in the sixth; 7 in the seventh
Highest pick: Aldon Smith, Missouri, Round 1, 7th overall, by San Francisco
Biggest impact: Aldon Smith started all 16 games for the division champion 49ers, and he finished tied for fifth in the NFL with 14 sacks