|Quinton Coples is rated the No. 1 DE prospect and 12th overall by NFLDraftScout.com. (Getty Images)|
Mobile, AL -- When defensive end Quinton Coples accepted an invitation to play in the 2012 Senior Bowl, the North Carolina defender had no idea which NFL coaching staff he'd be working under. He didn't know if he would be operating out of a 3-4 defense or the 4-3 alignment he starred in while with the Tar Heels.
Frankly, he didn't care.
"I don't really have a preference, to be honest with you," Coples said following his South Team's practice Tuesday. "I'm willing to play in the 3-4, 4-3 inside or outside. I've been practicing and working on improving so that I'll not only be the best defensive lineman in the draft but the most versatile."
Measuring in at nearly 6-6 and 281 pounds, Coples has the size, strength and athleticism to be a force regardless of scheme. Rated as the No. 1 defensive end prospect and 12th overall by NFLDraftScout.com, Coples is the highest-rated Senior Bowl participant. He hasn't disappointed, terrorizing the South team's quarterbacks and running backs by consistently penetrating the line of scrimmage to blow up plays before they've even begun.
"He's been impressive," one high-ranking team official thought likely to be considering a defensive lineman with their first round pick said Tuesday, on the condition of anonymity. "He played really well on Monday and followed that up with another strong effort today."
Considered a natural defensive end by former head coach and renowned defensive whiz Butch Davis, Coples nonetheless was moved inside to defensive tackle as a junior in the wake of Marvin Austin's season-long suspension. The experiment proved to be a dramatic success as Coples emerged as a First Team All-ACC pick after posting 59 tackles, including 15.5 for a loss and a team-leading 10 sacks. Coples moved back to defensive end as a senior and had similar numbers in 2011 (55-15-7.5) despite being double-teamed much of the season.
"I still like him better inside," the official said. "He's got quickness and power and with those strong hands of his, he can turn interior linemen and get after it. I don't see the explosiveness to be a 10-plus sack guy off the edge in the NFL, but he gives you the flexibility to line him up anywhere... and there are very few guys that offer that kind of versatility."
Versatility has become even more of a premium as the NFL has increasingly become a passing league. Defenses have struggled to adjust, making the importance of rushing the passer without losing bodies in coverage absolutely critical.
New Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie spoke of the league's evolution from a largely 4-3 based defensive alignment, such as the one the Raiders have traditionally used, to more 3-4 principles such as he oversaw as the long-time Director of Football Operations with the Green Bay Packers.
"The league has changed," McKenzie said as Tuesday's practice ended. "Schemes have morphed so much that there now is so much difference with what a team might be doing based on first down, second down, and third down. Few teams are strictly a four-man or three-man front anymore. Some people believe that the 3-4 defense is more versatile because it gives you more guys who can stand up and move around. That's the thing with the NFL, it is constantly evolving. So, any time you can add a player with the versatility to do that, you can't help but be interested."
It wasn't just the scouts taking notice of Coples' strong play.
"[Coples] is so big and strong that you might think he's going to bull-rush you all the time but he's kind of a hybrid because he can move so well," Florida State offensive tackle Zebrie Sanders said. Considered by most to be the South Team's top pass blocking tackle, Sanders has nonetheless struggled with Coples so far this week.
"[Coples] has a lot of moves, including spinning back inside," Sanders said. "He's tough to remain square to. It's good for me because I'll be facing guys like him in the NFL and I will improve from the experience but, yeah, he's tough."
As much as scouts and players can't help but be impressed by Coples' versatility, the Tar Heel defender hasn't always played with the level of intensity this season to warrant all of his lofty praise.
That's something that could limit Coples' stock and will make his interviews with clubs this week, at the Combine and in the weeks leading up to the draft all the more critical to his final grade.
Some have suggested that the circumstances following Davis' surprise firing at North Carolina and the investigations surrounding the program led to a solid but unspectacular senior campaign for Coples.
Ultimately, however, questions about Coples' "want-to" desire could be trumped by his "can-do." Essentially, he can do it all.
"I'm versatile. I can play from the zero [nose guard] to the nine [defensive end lining up outside of the tight end] and get after it," Coples said.
Getting after it is exactly what Coples appears to be doing this week in Mobile. He beat the athletic Sanders with speed and pushed around Georgia's Cordy Glenn, as well. Glenn, at 6-5 and 346 pounds, is the heaviest player in the Senior Bowl and, like Sanders and Coples, is viewed as a possible first round prospect, himself.
Considering the success of teams using multiple fronts to confuse offenses in 2011, Coples could be viewed as the type of difference-maker able to make an immediate impact in the NFL.
Reinforcing its well-deserved reputation as the ultimate "copycat" league, NFL teams are certain to follow the lead of the Super Bowl-bound New York Giants this off-season and attempt to boost their ability to put pressure on the quarterback by just rushing defensive linemen.
The Giants tied for second in the NFL with 48 sacks in 2011. Only 5.5 of their sacks came from defenders other than their front four.
For a defender as talented and versatile as Coples, the timing couldn't be better.