2012 NFL Draft preseason scouting report: Defense
UNC DE Quinton Coples compares favorably to former Tar Heel Julius Peppers
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict has an impressive skillset, but needs some polish
CB Cliff Harris is considered an elite prospect, but lacks speed and ball skills
Though there are no prospects with the superstar potential of Von Miller or Marcell Dareus, at this point it looks as though the 2012 NFL Draft will offer outstanding depth at every position. Here's the draft board on defense as the 2011 college football season kicks off. Click here for our analysis of potential draft prospects on offense.
Quinton Coples, North Carolina -- The Tar Heels' defensive end shares style and substance with former UNC star Julius Peppers. Coples is a tall, athletic defender who's tough to stop on the college field. He also offers a large degree of upside potential and will be a difference-maker at the next level who will only get better with experience and physical maturity.
Devin Taylor, South Carolina* -- When the top defensive prospects are spoken about, Taylor is often overlooked. Yet, in our book, he grades as an early first-round pick. The Gamecocks defensive end is athletic, forceful and looks like a power forward moving around the football field. Versatility is key to his game, as Taylor can make an impact out of a three-point stance or be productive dropping into coverage and playing in space.
Kheeston Randall, Texas -- The Longhorns' senior is a terrific combination of athleticism and quickness, and grades as the top defensive tackle on our board. He's efficient chasing the action out to the flanks or consistent making plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Brandon Thompson, Clemson -- A one-gap penetrator at the defensive tackle spot, Thompson has the ability to make plays in every direction of the field. He's been a consistent performer the past two seasons and is considered a quality person off the field.
Craig Roh, Michigan* -- The disruptive force stood out on what has been a miserable Wolverine defense. He can line up in a three-point stance or stand up over tackle. NFL scouts are excited about his athleticism and a frame that should only get stronger in time.
Jared Crick, Nebraska -- Many rate Crick as an early pick, but we feel he's more of a complementary player on the defensive line as opposed to being a true playmaker. His intensity and ability to pursue the action around the field intrigues scouts.
Bill Winn, Boise State -- A tall athlete who easily moves about the field, Winn is another defensive line prospect whose best football is ahead. He plays out of position at defensive tackle in the BSU lineup; Winn projects as a defensive end in a four-man line.
Sleeper: Vinny Curry, Marshall -- Curry is one of the better front seven prospects few pay attention to. He plays with great quickness and athleticism as well as football intelligence. Curry fires off the snap and displays the ability to chase down quarterbacks or ball-handlers in backside pursuit. He's comparable to Dwight Freeney when the All-Pro played for Syracuse.
Overrated: Jerel Worthy, Michigan State* -- The Spartan flashes dominance but displays poor fundamentals in much of his game. He often plays very tall and is easily neutralized by blocks.
Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State* -- One of the most dominant defenders in the nation, Burfict is a prospect with early-first-round potential. He's a devastating force against the run, yet at the same time shows the skills to cover backs or tight ends on passing downs. He needs to polish his game, but offers a tremendous amount of upside potential.
Zach Brown, North Carolina -- The Tar Heel senior stayed clear of the off-field mischief that caused several of his teammates to miss significant time in 2010 and projects as one of the most complete linebackers in next April's draft. Brown displays a terrific head for the ball against the run, possesses the athleticism to stay with opponents in coverage and flashes high-caliber pursuit skills.
Bruce Taylor, Virginia Tech* -- A young prospect on the rise, Taylor combines many of the characteristics of our top two linebackers. He's a forceful run defender who plays with a nasty attitude. Taylor also excels in pursuit and projects as an early pick whenever he enters the draft.
Keenan Robinson, Texas -- The underrated Longhorn linebacker is a terrific weakside prospect who chases down ball-handlers in pursuit and excels in coverage anywhere on the field. Robinson offers starting potential at the next level.
Courtney Upshaw, Alabama -- Upshaw, who lines up at defensive end for the Tide, projects as one of the better 3-4 outside linebackers in next April's draft. He possesses the athleticism necessary to beat blockers rushing the passer and can drop off the line to play in space.
Luke Kuechly, Boston College* -- This tackling machine picked up the slack when Boston College was without the services of Mark Herzlich. He lacks top measurables, but plays with great instinct and intensity.
Manti Te'o, Notre Dame* -- A terrific run defender who makes a lot of plays in the box or up the field, Te'o displays limited skill in coverage but projects nicely on the inside for a 3-4 alignment.
Sleeper: Jonathan Massaquoi, Troy State* -- Massaquoi hails from the same school as DeMarcus Ware and possesses a similar game. Primarily coming out of a three-point stance, he displays great speed and athleticism rushing the passer or pursuing the action. He has all the innate skills to be a top 3-4 linebacker at the next level, just like Ware.
Overrated: Don'ta Hightower, Alabama -- Hightower is a tough run defender who many liken to former Tide defender Rolando McClain, a top 10 pick in 2010. While there are similarities in style, Hightower's instincts are questionable and intensity fractional when compared to McClain.
Chase Minnifield, Virginia -- As a freshman he looked like a star in the making, but Minnifield was unable to crack UVA's starting rotation a season later as a sophomore. Last year, he grabbed hold of his opportunity and responded with a breakout campaign. The cornerback is an opportunist and plays with polished ball skills. Minnifield offers first-round possibilities next April and starting potential at the next level.
Greg Reid, Florida State* -- An exciting cornerback prospect who could easily top this list, Reid offers terrific size, playing speed and has a knack for making plays on the ball. He comes with great upside and high expectations.
Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama* -- Yet another talented next-level prospect on the Alabama roster. Kirkpatrick combines terrific size, athleticism and beats down opponents to defend the pass. So good are his skills, Kirkpatrick has a tough time getting involved in the action, as opposing signal-callers purposely throw away from him.
T.J. McDonald, USC* -- He's the first safety on our list and hails from a program that has produced many top prospects at the position. A complete defensive back with outstanding ball skills, he has the ability to convincingly shut down slot receivers. McDonald lacks classic safety size, yet gives a lot of effort defending the run.
Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska -- Expect Dennard to be another Cornhusker cornerback who will get picked in the first round. He's a feisty bump-and-run cover man who mixes it up with opponents throughout the action.
Janoris Jenkins, North Alabama -- Most teams rank Jenkins as the nation's best cornerback prospect, yet injuries and off-field concerns push him down this list. At the top of his game, Jenkins is a polished shutdown corner. But the shoulder injury that prevented him from entering last April's draft and those character issues, which forced him to transfer from Florida, will be closely inspected as we move toward the 2012 draft.
Robert Lester, Alabama* -- Many prefer Alabama senior Mark Barron over Lester as an NFL prospect, yet the game film tells a different story. Lester is a more complete safety and much less prone to mental breakdowns on the field.
Sleeper: Kenny Vaccaro, Texas* -- Vaccaro was the total player in a Texas secondary loaded with talent last season. As a result, he was often overlooked. Still, the underclassman is a developing prospect with a great NFL future.
Overrated: Cliff Harris, Oregon* -- The opportunistic Harris totaled six interceptions last season and led the nation with 23 defended passes. Yet despite his gaudy numbers, Harris lacks the speed and ball skills to be the elite NFL prospect many have made him out to be.