|Playing on the line, Melvin Ingram had 9 1/2 sacks in his senior season at South Carolina. (US Presswire)|
INDIANAPOLIS -- Pass rushers are in greater demand than ever before, even if the current class lacks a supply of cookie-cutter, blue-chip defensive end prospects.
"I think everybody has the same characteristics for pass rushers," said Giants GM Jerry Reese. "You want guys who are big and long and fast and powerful. You want everything as a personnel guy but if a guy is big and has got long arms, that helps. If he has speed off the end, that helps. Power to rush up the middle. Your pass rushers are different breeds. Good athletes. We like pass rushers and we look for them."
North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples compares physically to Julius Peppers with the natural ability to be drafted early in the first round. Among edge rushers, NFLDraftScout.com has Coples (6-feet-6, 281 pounds) and his 747-like wingspan ranked first at defensive end and 20th overall behind two players who could project to outside linebacker in the NFL -- South Carolina senior Melvin Ingram and Alabama junior Courtney Upshaw.
Ingram doesn't have the characteristics teams like the Giants seek in a 4-3 defensive end, but he has experience at outside linebacker and does have a similar body type to Steelers 3-4 linebacker LaMarr Woodley (6-feet-2, 270 pounds).
The top defensive ends in the class include Illinois junior Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation in sacks (16) and forced fumbles in 2011 but had only one productive season. Nick Perry, a junior from Southern Cal, has very good athletic ability but is raw and teams aren't sure where he best fits in the NFL.
The Giants have one of the NFL's top pass rushers in Jason Pierre-Paul, a first-round pick in 2010 who had 16½ sacks in 2011.
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He's near the peak of every measurable category teams consider essential when projecting college defensive ends to the NFL: 6-5, 278 pounds, 34¾-inch arms on a 270-pound frame. He carries his weight like a 240-pounder, capable of executing a standing back flip with cat-like quickness and rare straight-line speed -- as evident in his 4.67-second 40 at the combine.
Ingram had 9½ sacks in 2011, but the relevant numbers aren't all on-field totals. He measured 6-1 7/8 and 264 pounds and has 30¼-inch arms -- all considered below average and call into question his ability to consistently beat NFL offensive tackles on the perimeter.
Upshaw also had 9½ sacks in 2011 in a seek-and-destroy role for Alabama's top-ranked defense. His measurements are similar to Ingram's, but his arms were an inch longer and his hands smaller.
That's not necessarily enough to convince teams he can fit as a traditional defensive end. Upshaw has an edge on some outside linebackers in that he has been trained in a 3-4 and his production proves his value.
"[Coach Nick Saban's] background alone, he tried to teach us to be great and be ready for the league. He got us ready for the league," Upshaw said.
For teams operating a 4-3, Coples makes the most sense because he has the size and long arms to combat offensive tackles with the reach and lateral movement to dwarf smaller linebackers.
Coples played defensive tackle and defensive end at North Carolina. He'll have to refine his technique and become more consistent operating in space. A standout in the Senior Bowl after posting 17½ sacks the past two seasons, Coples fits as a 4-3, every-down strong-side end in the NFL rather than a pass-rush specialist. He might be more similar to Patriots defensive end Shaun Ellis, who at the combine was 6-5, 280 coming out of Tennessee and drafted 12th overall by the Jets in 2000.
Like Ellis, Coples has better power than suddenness. Height can be a detriment, especially as fatigue sets in and players lose their fundamental technique and lower pad level to maintain leverage. If general managers are convinced Coples will make enough game-changing plays and has the ability to get to the quarterback in the clutch, he'll rise up boards as the draft approaches.
"We'd like to have a guy who could just play the edge and create problems," said Titans coach Mike Munchak. "Everyone wants the same thing. You want a guy that the offense is worried about, a guy who with a two-minute drive, this guy can take the game over, get the ball out of the quarterback's hand and win it for you. He could be silent all game, and then change the game."
At 272 pounds, Upshaw isn't exactly small, and in Alabama's multiple-front defense he was a game-changing, high-impact player teams will covet. Scouts praise Upshaw for his technique and specifically the strength in his hands. He's an intense on-field presence with a natural knack to bend off the edge.
"Anytime you can get an edge pass rusher or any pass rusher, they're always at a premium because the game has changed," said Chiefs GM Scott Pioli, whose team successfully shifted former Penn State defensive end Tamba Hali to outside linebacker.
Ingram's footwork is excellent and the high school quarterback, running back and wide receiver -- and point guard -- was used in a variety of roles at South Carolina. He exclusively played linebacker as a freshman with the Gamecocks and continued to get reps at outside linebacker during his final two seasons and said his height gives him a leverage advantage.
"I feel like when I come off the ball I already have leverage. So I just try to counter-move off whatever the offensive linemen do," Ingram said.
Ingram can also comfortably drop into coverage and match athletic ability and lateral movement to cover a tight end in space. He had two interceptions and scored three touchdowns in 2011. While he'll be classified as a pass rusher by decision-makers, he's more accurately labeled a football player.
There are similarities between Ingram and 2011 No. 2 overall pick Von Miller, an outside linebacker who ran a 4.42 40 at 6-2 5/8, 246 with 33¼-inch arms. A dervish off the edge, Miller had 11½ sacks and two forced fumbles for the Broncos as a rookie and is now tutoring Ingram in California.
"We just try to compete against each other every day," Ingram said. "Obviously, he's the Defensive Rookie of the Year. So I just try to pattern myself after him because I feel like he's had a lot of success in the NFL."
John Elway, vice president of the Broncos, said the organization determined that Miller was going to be a special player in any system.
Falcons coach Mike Smith said body type can be overrated. Players with a history of production can break the mold.
"We are all searching for that and they come in all different kind of packages. They don't all have to be 6-4 and 270 pounds or 265," Smith said. "They at times can be 6-1, 6-1½, 230 pounds. It depends on the system that you are playing and there are certain systems out there that allow some to rush out of a wide-tackle nine and be very productive. Those same players might not be very productive in another system."