Bills GM Buddy Nix likes the depth of the defensive end class, but isn't sure there's an abundance of top flight pass rush talent in this year's draft pool. He sees the value in the middle rounds. What's interesting is those prospects forecast to come off the board in the first three to four rounds have widely varying skill sets. So what one NFL club deems as a fit for their defense might not be as attractive to another team. It could make for a very unpredictable outcome in terms of who goes when.
"Everybody is looking for the next Aldon Smith and you look at those combo guys and normally they transition pretty quickly," said ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper. "We saw that with Smith. We'll have to see. Will it be Mercilus at Illinois? Will it be Andre Branch who could possibly play on his feet at Clemson, but is probably more of a defensive end? Nick Perry is more of a 4-3 defensive end. Courtney Upshaw is an already proven entity as a pass rusher, but he's a guy that is very interesting. He draws comparisons to Lamarr Woodley."
USC's Perry created a lot of buzz at the Combine. An athlete in every sense of the word Perry was expected to perform well in Indy and didn't disappoint running a 4.64 40 at 271 pounds with a 38.5-inch vertical and 35 reps on the bench press. But is he just an athlete?
"I've got him as my number five defensive end in this draft," said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. "I think he was up and down this year at USC. I think he's going to be one of those guys that the combine helps and his pro day helps because he's a little bit of an athletic freak. There were games this year where I thought he could be a first-round pick and there were games where I thought he was a second or third-round pick. I think the lack of consistency will hurt him a little bit, but he has pass rush ability."
North Carolina's Quinton Coples is known for having elite measurables at 6'5 ¾" and 284 pounds. Running a 4.78 at his size was impressive along with his 31.5-inch vertical, but his effort down in and down out has NFL clubs harboring some concerns.
"A lot of people think he's a top 10 pick," said Mayock. "He's a very logical guy in that slot and people are going to place him there in a lot of mock drafts. He looks the part, he's pretty and has all kinds of ability and is going to remind a lot of people of Julius Peppers, but I'd be scared to death there because he did not play well or hard as a senior."
Peppers did dispel some of those concerns with a high-effort week at the Senior Bowl, but his game tape is likely to force scouts to dig deeper.
Illinois' Whitney Mercilus is another player with good measurables at 6'3" and 261, but with just one year of production questions remain.
"He's a fairly gifted kid," said Mayock. "He's got some natural pass rush ability. People are going to want to know where he was before this past year. A natural pass rusher. I don't think he's stout at the point of attack."
Two pass rushers that don't have the measurables for a prototype defensive end might also be the most versatile in the draft class. Alabama's Courtney Upshaw is seen as a defensive end by some clubs and an outside linebacker by others. Meanwhile South Carolina's Melvin Ingram filled four to five different roles on the defensive side of the ball for the Gamecocks. Both players are just 6'1", but don't assume they're the same physically.
"They are different body types believe it or not," said Mayock. "From the waist down Upshaw is much bigger. He's more of a defensive end from the waist down than Ingram is even though I've got them listed opposite."
Mayock has Upshaw listed among his outside linebackers and Ingram as a defensive end.
"Courtney Upshaw for me might end up at the defensive end position before this thing is over with," he said. "I think ultimately Upshaw might be a better fit as a 4-3 defensive end even though at Alabama he played that 34 rush linebacker position. The reason I still have him at linebacker is because that's the position he played and that's where a lot of teams are grading him right now.
"Ingram to me is a little different. He's not as big downstairs, but I like his movement skills better. I think you can move him around more. If you watch what they did with him at South Carolina, he showed up at the nose tackle, three technique defensive tackle, hand in the dirt defensive end, standing up outside linebacker, inside linebacker. He reminds me a little bit of Justin Tuck. He has natural pass rush ability."
"I think Upshaw is a power guy," said Nix. "He's a power rusher, a bull rush guy. Very good against the run. Can set the edge for you. He's borderline on height. Melvin Ingram he's got pass rush ability. He's got quickness. He understands leverage and the game makes sense to him. He's instinctive, but again he lacks height. There are pros and cons to both of those guys and you've got to find a way to weight them all and we're still in the process."
There are other power rushers that will be considered after Upshaw. Syracuse's Chandler Jones and Boise State's Tyrone Crawford are a couple of examples. Other pure pass rushers include Clemson's Andre Branch, Marshall's Vinny Curry and Virginia's Cam Johnson.