Drafting first round pass rushers has been more miss than hit over the years. Between 2005-2010, 24 first round picks were spent on 3-4 outside linebackers, orthodox 4-3 ends and specialists. This number doesn’t include interior defensive lineman or five-techniques. Of those 24 players, only seven could be deemed a success: DeMarcus Ware (11th overall, Dallas), Mario Williams (1st overall, Houston), Tamba Hali (20th overall, Kansas City), Chris Long (2nd overall, St. Louis), Brian Orakpo (13th overall, Washington), Clay Matthews (26th overall, Green Bay) and Jason Pierre-Paul (15th overall, New York).
During those six drafts, a lot of the NFL’s sack production was found outside of the top round. In 2005, Trent Cole was a 5th round pick for Philadelphia and has since recorded 68 sacks for the Eagles. Elvis Dumervil was a steal for the Broncos in 2006 in round four and has 52.5 sacks in five active seasons (he missed 2010 through injury). Lamarr Woodley was taken with the 46th pick in 2007 and has 48 career sacks. The same pick in 2009 brought Connor Barwin to Houston (11.5 sacks for Wade Phillips in 2011) and Carlos Dunlap has so far lived up to some of his potential after dropping to the #54 pick in 2010 with 13.5 sacks for the Bengals.
It’s not surprising that more players have been busts because that’s the way the draft works. However, a 29% success rate is a bit more surprising given the mass production teams have found in the mid-rounds. I would argue projecting defensive ends to the next level is one of the most difficult things to do. Sometimes you’ll see a guy dominate college lineman but struggle to have the same impact against the NFL’s best. It takes a combination of skills to be a productive pass rusher in the pro’s – in college sometimes it’s just requires speed. But as the Seahawks set about trying to upgrade their pass rush, it could be one of the riskiest picks they make in the Carroll/Schneider regime.
There’s no rhyme or reason for successful defensive ends. Many expected Brandon Graham to have a big impact after a productive off-season that included a dominating Senior Bowl. So far, he’s been irrelevant for the Eagles – suffering with injuries and failing to make an impact despite Philadelphia’s bold move up the board to draft him. Carolina wasted a future first round pick in 2009 after trading back into the draft to grab Everette Brown. He had the edge speed and performance at Florida State, but was a bust in the NFL and San Francisco remain ever grateful for the first rounder. Derrick Harvey, Vernon Gholston, Jamaal Anderson, Jarvis Moss, Aaron Maybin, Larry English, Robert Ayers, Jerry Hughes – all players expected to have an impact, but became busts. You’re looking for strength, edge speed, a repertoire of moves or at least one move they’ve mastered, technique, leverage and hand use. Essentially, you’re asking for a lot. It still surprises me that a player who ticked all of those boxes – Jabaal Sheard – dropped to round two last April.
Overall the 2011 group bucked the trend by producing a cluster of impact rookies. Von Miller won defensive rookie of the year for an impressive first season in Denver. Aldon Smith made numerous big plays for the Niners, while Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan also made the Pro-Bowl. JJ Watt and Adrian Clayborn both flashed at times for Houston and Tampa Bay respectively, with only Robert Quinn struggling to make an impression. Of the group, only Quinn relied mostly on speed in college. Perhaps there’s something to learn there? This week I’ve decided to drop Whitney Mercilus into round two for the first time in a while. He’s a player I’m still trying to work out, but could easily become part of either list – first round busts, or players who deserved greater faith after they dropped into day two. Expect further analysis on Mercilus before April 26th.
The three pass-rushers likely to be on Seattle’s radar are Courtney Upshaw, Melvin Ingram and Quinton Coples. I suspect Upshaw would be the preferred option, but with all three likely to go in a similar range it could be a decision taken out of their hands. This week I have the Seahawks taking a chance on Coples – a player who divides opinion perhaps more than any other prospect this year. Some are intrigued by his potential and we saw at the Senior Bowl just what he’s capable of – he dominated throughout and was easily the best player on show. Others are suspicious of a senior campaign that was decidedly mediocre.
Yet faced with a situation where both Upshaw and Ingram are off the board – plus a potential ‘wild card’ alternative like Trent Richardson – they may just roll the dice on adding to the small list of success stories at defensive end. Pete Carroll is a coach who believes he can motivate any player to produce results. This would be one of the greatest challenges of his career – and a lot of other GM’s and coaches are likely to be happy to give him the opportunity to take on this test. Upshaw is a complete football player in my view and while he may not have a ceiling to match other pass rushers, I expect he will have an extremely solid career with multiple 8-12 sack seasons. Ingram I’m less crazy about overall, but he’s also a unique prospect in many ways given his size and athleticism. Coples doesn’t just have the highest ceiling among the defensive players in this class – he also has a much greater floor if things go wrong.
For the most part I’ve argued against Coples due to the scheme fit – an argument I’ve also made against Upshaw and Ingram too at times. However, it appears the Seahawks might be more willing to adapt their scheme than I first thought. That doesn’t mean completely abandoning their hybrid 4-3 system, but still incorporating new looks and being flexible with Red Bryant (if he re-signs) in order to create more of a pass rush. The Seahawks can’t keep relying on just Chris Clemons for pressure – and without a dominating three-technique, they may be forced to use a more balanced 4-3 front or consider more 3-4 concepts with two outside rushers.
Coples would be a gamble, Seattle’s biggest risk/reward project in the Carroll/Schneider era. They’ve built a defense that plays with a brooding intensity – a young determined core of players who get under your skin. Coples at his best would add a touch of class to the team’s pass rush and could take the defense to another level. Yet Coples at his worst could undermine everything they’ve built so far. Carroll’s rebuild can’t afford to stall, the margins for error are huge. While this team may one day have to gamble on a quarterback, they could initially gamble on a defensive end. They have to hit on both.
Updated first round mock draft
|#1 Andrew Luck (QB, Stanford)
The Colts are cleaning house to make room for the Andrew Luck era. They might as well start talking about a contract now.
|#2 Matt Kalil (OT, USC)
Take this to the bank – the Rams have to take Kalil. He’s too good to pass up. There’s enough depth at receiver to wait until round two.
|#3 Robert Griffin III (QB, Baylor)
If Minnesota would’ve contemplated taking Andrew Luck at #1, why wouldn’t they consider taking RGIII here?
|#4 Trent Richardson (RB, Alabama)
Elite playmaking talent who will have an instant impact. Cleveland may draft Richardson here even if Griffin’s still on the board.
|#5 Morris Claiborne (CB, LSU)
You have to believe Greg Schiano would love to draft Trent Richardson. Cornerback is also a need.
|#6 Ryan Tannehill (QB, Texas A&M)
This would be a foolish reach but Shanahan wants his guy. If Tannehill really is going to go in the top-15 as speculated, Washington is the obvious choice.
|#7 Riley Reiff (OT, Iowa)
Assuming the Jaguars attack the market for receivers in free agency, Gene Smith could look for further protection for Blaine Gabbert.
|#8 Devon Still (DT, Penn State)
Carolina wants to use a lot of different defensive looks and Still is scheme versatile. This is a big need for the Panthers.
|#9 Courtney Upshaw (DE, Alabama)
Miami needs to improve their pass rush and if they aren’t tempted by Justin Blackmon, Upshaw could be the pick.
|#10 Melvin Ingram (DE, South Carolina)
The Bills could be a wildcard and another potential destination for Blackmon. More than anything though, they need a pass rusher.
|#11 Quinton Coples (DE, North Carolina)
Some teams will be suspicious of Coples, but Seattle has a Head Coach who believes he’s capable of motivating any player.
|#12 Jonathan Martin (OT, Stanford)
The Chiefs could do with boosting their offensive line. They’d have the option to play Martin at left or right tackle.
|#13 Mike Adams (OT, Ohio State)
Expect the Cardinals to pursue Peyton Manning. Whoever starts at quarterback, they’ll need better protection in 2012.
|#14 Michael Brockers (DT, LSU)
Most people expect Dallas to draft for their secondary in round one, but the options aren’t great – unlike Brockers.
|#15 Zach Brown (LB, North Carolina)
Andy Reid doesn’t like drafting linebackers, but Zach Brown will start to rise up the boards very soon.
|#16 Justin Blackmon (WR, Oklahoma State)
This isn’t the first time I’ve had Blackmon falling a bit. New York could move up to make sure they get this guy.
|#17 David DeCastro (OG, Stanford)
Slightly over rated, a technician who looks great on the move but lacks elite power at the point of attack.
|#18 Cordy Glenn (OT, Georgia)
He could play right tackle or guard in San Diego. The Chargers will surely invest in their offensive line this off-season and could trade up.
|#19 Kendall Wright (WR, Baylor)
Electric receiver who would quickly become Jay Cutler’s BFF. Capable of having a big impact quickly.
|#20 Dwight Jones (WR, North Carolina)
Kenny Britt’s problems off the field and with injuries could push the Titans towards finding a replacement.
|#21 Mark Barron (S, Alabama)
Safety’s with Barron’s range are difficult to find and his 2011 performance warrants top-25 consideration.
|#22 Dre Kirkpatrick (CB, Alabama)
He provides a lot of positives in run support, but he struggles in coverage. Could drop lower than this.
|#23 Dont’a Hightower (LB, Alabama)
I think he can play outside linebacker – and while Detroit maybe have bigger needs, this guy can help take the defense to another level.
|#24 Kelechi Osemele (OG, Iowa State)
Played left tackle at Iowa State but will kick inside to guard at the next level. I really like this guy.
|#25 Luke Kuelchy (LB, Boston College)
He’s under sized but what a tackler – he’ll get close to 100 tackles in year one. Has some limitations and he’s no pass rusher.
|#26 Michael Floyd (WR, Notre Dame)
The Texans saw life without Andre Johnson and might add another receiver as insurance.
|#27 Peter Konz (C, Wisconsin)
Top-end interior lineman who could be the best in this class. Stuck out on a talented Badgers line and no surprise he turned pro.
|#28 Doug Martin (RB, Boise State)
They’ve played for two years now without a running game. Maybe it’s time to go all-in on a running back? Martin is seriously underrated.
|#29 Mohamed Sanu (WR, Rutgers)
Sanu can line up anywhere and make plays. San Francisco use a lot of gimmicks and needs a sure-handed catcher.
|#30 Fletcher Cox (DT, Mississippi State)
Cox looks like a pure five-technique to me and would be worth a chance here by the Ravens.
|#31 Janoris Jenkins (CB, North Alabama)
A top-ten talent on the field, but an UDFA off it. New England are willing to take on projects like this (see: Ryan Mallett).
|#32 Sean Spence (LB, Miami)
Underrated linebacker who makes up for great size with speed, instinct, tackling and elite recognition skills.