The Buccaneers have made a considerable investment in their defensive line the past two seasons, doubling down early on tackles two years ago while grabbing a couple of promising young ends in last year. The odds of the Bucs jumping on a D-lineman early this year are not high, but also not completely unlikely either. This is a league where you need a number of good pass rushers as the Giants proved again this season.
This class of ends features Quinton Coples, a top-tier guy, and then a group of several solid guys on the next tier. While there will likely be three, maybe four ends selected in the first round, this isn’t one of the better classes of ends that has come out lately.
But you don’t have to always get guys in the first round. There will be some potential gems in later rounds because of guys making position changes and coming from small schools, for example. Or for ‘character issues.’ The Bucs should have a few decent option on the second and third days if they want to add another pass-rusher.
For every Simeon Rice who gets picked in the top five and goes on to get over 120 career sacks, there’s a Jason Taylor who was a third round pick largely because he was switching from basketball to football full-time, and he was out of Akron.
About 150 sacks later he’s headed to the Hall and there are plenty of GM’s who wish they had picked him instead of whatever end they grabbed ahead of him.
1.) Quinton Coples, North Carolina, Sr.
Quinton Coples is the best defensive end in this class, but end is a bit of a misnomer because he’s played inside at tackle as well some too. Coples isn’t an elite pass-rusher, that’s worth pointing out right up front. Out of the box, he’s not equipped to contend with better NFL left tackles without adding some strength and improving his technique on the edge. The reason teams are so high on Coples is his versatility and ability to dominate at the point of attack. Coples is very stout against the run, where he is very fluid and uses his strength well. At 6-6 280 he’s a big, strong guy that may be best suited for a 3-4 scheme at end, but in a 4-3 he would be a great option to play outside on early downs and then slide inside in pass-rushing packages. He is currently an above average pass rusher. He uses his hands very well and has great explosion, but he’s more of a bull rusher than a finesse guy right now. When he adds strength and irons out his technique around the edge, he may develop into a very good pass-rusher, but he’s not quite there yet. The other knock on Coples is his motor, which has been questioned from time to time, especially after a tumultuous transition inside to tackle mid-season in 2011. I don’t think a lot of that will be an issue, UNC was a program in turmoil the last couple of seasons and the team concept seemed to break down there at the end of the Davis era. I doubt Coples will have problems motivating himself in the NFL.
2.) Andre Branch, Clemson, Sr.
Some people may think this is high, but I really like Branch and much like UNC, Clemson has developed quite a good reputation for creating defensive linemen lately. Branch follows in the footsteps of Da’Quan Bowers and Gaines Adams and will likely have little trouble making a solid jump into the NFL. Branch is admittedly more potential than product at this stage. He’s a very athletic, flexible former linebacker that was voted All-ACC in 2011 after leading Clemson with 10.5 sacks. Branch is going to need to develop his technique and strength to become a more consistent NFL pass rusher, but his speed and quickness will make a very good edge rusher if he can get the coaching. At 6-4 260 though, the knock on Branch is his ability to hold at the point on run plays. He lacks the strength and technique to fight off double teams or bigger linemen and will often get blown back off the line by talented guards and tackles. That being said though, Branch is a very high-character guy with great work ethic and a good football IQ. He has a ways to go before he fully realizes his potential, but when he does, there’s a lot of potential there to realize.
3.) Nick Perry, Southern California, Jr.
Nick Perry is a guy who might have been better off spending another year in college. A bit of a ‘tweener,’ Perry could be a linebacker or an end, but has bulked up during the draft cycle to try and demonstrate he’s more of an end to scouts. Last season at USC Perry lead the Trojans with 9.5 sacks and at times looked dominant. I’m not in love with Perry’s body-type, at 6’3 270 he’s not exactly a specimen the same way Branch or Coples are, he lacks elite length and his strength is deceptive, he could be stronger for his frame. But Perry is another guy with outstanding potential as he fully develops into an NFL defensive end. As a pass rusher Perry is better at collapsing a pocket than busting out a move and getting by the guy blocking him, he tends to rely more on bullish strength than great technique. That will need to change in the NFL. But the flipside is Perry is a bull against the run, where he uses great balance and burst to get under blockers and blow up plays in the backfield. Perry may ultimately be a better run-plugger than pass-rusher when it’s all said in the NFL, but he could develop into an above average pass rusher in the right system or with good coaching.
4.) Courtney Upshaw, Alabama, Sr.
Upshaw is another ‘tweener’ though in his case I think playing down as an end is a mistake. Upshaw was very good in Nick Saban’s defense as a linebacker, and despite adding some bulk to his frame I still think his body-type is better suited to stand up in the NFL. Regardless though, Upshaw brings a big-time college pedigree from a top-notch program with great defensive coaches. He comes equipped with a high football IQ and a good foundation for the NFL. Whereas other guys need help with techniques, it’s Upshaw’s technique that helps him overcome being what is considered undersized (by convention) and excel against the run. Upshaw uses great balance and leverage to blow up runs at the point of attack, he has great instincts and is going to be good playing against NFL ground games too. But those are linebacker skills, as a pass rusher Upshaw doesn’t have a whole lot of experience coming from a down position. He has demonstrated potential, but his lack of length will give him problems against taller tackles and his lack of experience at the position is going to require coaching and lots of extra film work. I think Upshaw has very high potential, but he’s a little lower on my list because he’s making the transition to end so late in the game.
5.) Chandler Jones, Syracuse, Jr.
Jones has the kind of body I really like in a 4-3 speed rusher, he just needs to improve his explosion and quickness off the edge. At 6-5, 260, Jones has a very good pass rushing repertoire already and plays with great vision. He uses his hands well, has above average upper body strength and he has several NFL-ready pass-rushing moves. He just isn’t ready to get the edge on better NFL offensive tackles yet. He will develop, and with the right kind of conditioning and training the burst and quickness will likely improve enough for him to fit the mold of a speed rusher, but he’s a little bit of a project until then. That being said, he’s a project worth taking a flier on, especially if he falls into early round three for the Bucs. Jones comes with good bloodlines, his brother Arthur plays for the Ravens, his other brother Jon goes by Bones and beats skulls in at UFC pay-per-views. That’s not a good reason to draft him, but it does give insight as to his athleticism. Jones was injured for part of 2011, and there are questions about that, but his overall ability and potential easily land him in the top five of this class for ends, and had he gone back for his senior year he may very well have come out in 2013 as the top-rated player at his position.
Best of the Rest
6.) Vinny Curry, Marshall, Sr.
Curry is an absolutely relentless pass-rusher who has a knack for strip-sacks. He has very solid technique with one major exception, he becomes overzealous and plays too up-right. Once he gets his technique straightened out he is one of the better pass-rushers in this group. His run defense is also solid, aside from his tendency to play out of control at times. Good character guy. Knock is he played at Marshall.
7.) Cam Johnson, Virginia, Sr.
Johnson is a solid defensive end who fits more in the 4-3 defensive end mold, though he could work in either scheme. He’s 6-4, 270 with long arms and a ton of strength. Another converted linebacker, he’s an excellent tackler with a great motor. He has good speed to get the edge though at time he looks inflexible and struggles to smoothly change directions, he’s better as a bull-rusher and in run support. Has struggled with injuries in the past.
8.) Jared Crick, Nebraska, Sr.
Crick is another relentless pass rusher, which is a nice way of saying he wins with strength and effort, not finesse. That being said, Crick still got to the QB 9.5 times each of the last two seasons. He’s a better run defender though where he holds the point and sheds blocks well to pursue. He has a good frame but, could add a little strength. More of a 3-4 end in my eyes.
9.) Tyrone Crawford, Boise State, Sr.
Crawford is another high-effort, relentless type kid who is more strong than quick. Not likely going to be an elite pass-rusher but more than sufficient in run defense with the ability to play in both a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. I like him but the Boise schedule didn’t feature a ton of great competition.
10.) Billy Winn, Boise State, Sr.
Another Boise guy, Winn will be the better of the duo when he adds a little more strength to his frame. Good technique and instincts, will be a second day guy. But again, I have questions because Boise didn’t play good competition consistently. Still I think Winn is a great sleeper.