Only quarterbacks are in greater demand than pass rushers.
In the 2012 draft class, the need outweighs the supply, pushing players such as Illinois' Whitney Mercilus and Nick Perry of Southern Cal up draft boards.
Mercilus and Perry lack prototypical size, but both have the natural quickness and whatever-it-takes attitude. Both entered the NFL early after productive junior seasons. Both are expected to be selected in the top-50 picks and make a living collapsing the pocket in the NFL.
They just have different stories and styles.
Mercilus was a relative unknown entering the 2011 season with only two career sacks. But he shined as a junior and first-year starter last year, leading all of college football with 16 sacks, earning him All-American honors. Mercilus decided to capitalize on his breakout campaign and enter the 2012 NFL Draft as an early entry.
"I was just able to put everything together," said Mercilus. "It was just due to hard work, that's all I have to accredit it to. Can't say I'm surprised, but it happened. I made it happen."
With top production for only one season, teams must figure out whether Mercilus is a one-year wonder. That's a description Mercilus doesn't necessarily agree with and the connotation can be damning. It was applied to the FBS sacks leader Da'Quan Bowers out of Clemson, and he fell to the late second round.
"I think it's a negative label. Once you have it, you have it," Mercilus said.
One of the most impressive statistics by Mercilus from his prolific 2011 season was his nine forced fumbles, a mark that is second all-time in NCAA history. How does he explain his ability to strip the ball?
"I just have a knack for it, I time it up right," he said.
On the flipside, Michigan native Perry wasn't an unknown out of high school. He was a blue-chip, five-star recruit who spurned the Wolverines when Lloyd Carr was fired and joined Pete Carroll at Southern Cal. Perry was a freshman All-American in 2009 after leading the team in sacks (8.0) as a backup. And became a starter as a sophomore and had his best season in 2011 as a junior, leading the Pac-12 with 9.5 sacks before leaving school early.
Despite standing at just 6-2, Perry offers an impressive blend of speed and strength at 271 pounds, adding over 20 pounds of muscle in the last six months. He lined up at defensive end his entire career, but teams that employ the 3-4 formation have also taken a liking to the former Trojan. Perry has the versatile skill-set to stand up as a rush linebacker, but he enjoys his more natural position on the line.
"I can handle both, but I prefer 4-3," said Perry when asked about playing in either formation. "I'd like to keep my hand in the dirt, but as long as I'm rushing and getting to the quarterback, I'm fine with whatever it is."
There are differing views on Perry's best position fit at the next level, but most agree he's capable of filling either role depending on the scheme. Some prospects encourage the switch to standing up in space to get more freedom. But other pass rushers hope to keep their hand on the ground where they feel most comfortable.
"I've been playing defensive end for a long time now and I have experience at that," Perry said. "So I think being put further away from what you're used to doing makes it a little uneasy."
--By Dane Brugler