Pass Rushing Class Of 2012 Has Tough Act To Follow
Aldon Smith, Von Miller, Jabaal Sheard, Adrian Clayborn, Ryan Kerrigan, Sam Acho – the 2011 draft class produced an impressive number of guys who proved to be effective in getting to the quarterback. In fact, the 2011 class had more sacks in their rookie year than any draft class since sacks became an official stat in 1982. While the 2012 class doesn’t appear to be as strong, there are still a few guys who could make an impact as pass rushers in their rookie year.
Before we take a look at the 2012 prospects, let’s take a closer look at the historic class of 2011. Rookie draftees piled up 117 sacks in 521 cumulative games played. That’s the most sacks all time for a rookie draft class and 4th best sacks per game. 36 different players tallied at least half a sack in 2011, with an average of 3.25 sacks per draftee – 2nd best next to the 1990 class (which included Renaldo Turnbull, Aaron Wallace, James Francis and Jimmie Jones). Here are how all the draft classes since 1982 stack up:
It’s extremely unlikely that the 2012 crop will come close to 2011’s results, but there are a few guys who could make an impact early. Here are 7 prospects who could could have immediate success as pass rushers in 2012:
Nick Perry (USC) – He’s coming off a 9.5 sack junior season with the Trojans and could end up being the premier pass rush prospect on many draft boards by the time the draft rolls around in April. He has an explosive first step, perhaps the best of any prospect in this class and can close on the QB as well as any of the top NFL pass rushers. There are some questions about his strength and ability to take on the bigger, more powerful NFL linemen, however he did perform well against some of the best OT’s in college football (including likely 2012 first rounder Jonathan Martin). Perry best fits in a 3-4 scheme as an OLB, although he probably could succeed at RE in a 4-3 scheme as well.
Vinny Curry (Marshall)– Perhaps the most accomplished pass rusher in the 2012 draft, Curry leaves school with 26.5 sacks under his belt. He’s not as quick off the ball as Perry, although possesses a stronger repertoire of pass rush moves. It looks as if Curry has bulked up a bit in the last year, which should bode well for him in the NFL. He has a terrific motor and could succeed in either a 3-4 or a 4-3 scheme. The biggest question about Curry is the level of competition he faced in school. Racking up sacks in Conference USA isn’t as impressive as doing it against elite college OL. In the Beef ‘O’ Brady Bowl, Curry was handled pretty well by the mediocre (at best) FIU offensive line. Had Curry played against better competition, he’d probably be a top 20 consideration. As it stands now, he is probably a 2nd rounder who could sneak into the very late 1st to a team like the Patriots.
Courtney Upshaw (Alabama) – The versatile Upshaw has been steadily rising up the 2012 draft board, partly due to the lack of premium pass rushing talent available. While some might project Upshaw to 3-4 ILB or 4-3 DE, his best role is probably at 3-4 OLB. He’s not a dynamic athlete like some rush linebackers, but makes up for it with excellent strength and an impressive bull-rush. He doesn’t project to a double-digit sack guy, but could be a steady 6-8 sack per year kind of guy in the right situation.
Whitney Mercilus (Illinois) – He led the country in sacks in 2011 with an impressive 16. However, it remains to be seen whether Mercilus can translate his success to the NFL. While he is pretty good at getting leverage off the snap, he tends to break down a bit through contact and can get driven out of plays by stronger offensive linemen. A lot of his sacks came when he was able to pin his ears back and get after the QB without having to worry about playing the run. That could be partly due to his inexperience, but he looks like a guy who will start his career as a situational pass rusher while he develops his run-stopping. There are also some questions about his best position, as he seems to look lost and stiff when he is playing in space. Teams who run a 3-4 would probably best look elsewhere, unless he shows well in linebacker drills at the Combine.
Brandon Jenkins (Florida State)– A good athlete with an excellent motor, Jenkins is perhaps the most natural 3-4 OLB pass rusher in this class (as far as DE conversion projects go). The big question about Jenkins is his strength, as he probably won’t be able to rely solely on his athleticism in the pros. He might not be strong enough initially to succeed against quality LT’s. He has a decent array of pass rush moves and despite having a somewhat disappointing 2011 season, should still end up in the top 40 picks in 2012 (if he declares).
Melvin Ingram (South Carolina) – The toughest part about projecting Ingram’s pass-rush ability is figuring out where he’ll play in the pros. At approximately 6’1 275, he doesn’t really fit the prototypical size of NFL position. He might end up as an OLB in a 3-4, although he might lack the length that a lot of teams prefer. He could potentially move inside (a la Karl Klug who had success as a “tweener” rookie with the Titans) although he’d probably would need to bulk up a bit. His ability to play DE in a 4-3 is questionable, as he’s a bit short and might lack the athleticism to play RE. Despite these concerns, he has a great motor and a knack for making big plays at big moments. He should come off the board somewhere between picks 25-50 although the lack of a true position might cause him to slide.
Quinton Coples (UNC) – He definitely has the power and first step to be a successful pass rusher in the NFL. The big questions surrounding Coples are: where does he best fit and can he be consistently motivated? He could potentially fit inside in a 4-3 or at LE. He probably doesn’t have the athleticism and explosiveness to have great success at RE in the pros – although he might be able to do it in the right scheme. He could also potentially fit as a 3-4 5-technique (DE). In that sense, he has the versatility of guys like Calais Campbell or Richard Seymour – especially if Coples can bulk up a little.