While Fantasy Football players on the offensive side of the ball continue to get much love, it’s time for us IDP (Individual Defensive Players) guys to start ranking this year’s rookie crop of defensive studs. Below are my rankings for defensive linemen everyone should be on the lookout for in 2012.
*Note*- Using the DL destination for players that are currently listed as a defensive lineman on ESPN.com. Some of these players may not retain DL designation once the NFL season begins.
1. Melvin Ingram (San Diego Chargers) - Ingram landed in arguably the best spot here. He fell far in the draft to a team that is absolutely desperate for some pass rush help. He will probably start in a rotation with players like Shaun Phillips, Antwan Barnes and newly signed Jarret Johnson. That being said, when it is time to ratchet up the pressure, Ingram will be worked into the lineup. He can rush from anywhere and could be a situational player that could rise to stardom in a similar mold of Aldon Smith last year. He may not be as freakishly gifted as Smith was, but he has a nice mixture of talent and opportunity. And that is big. Keep an eye on whether he remains listed as a DE or gets switched to LB.
2. Courtney Upshaw (Baltimore Ravens) - There is a very good chance that Upshaw will get changed to a LB designation before the year starts. That being said, if Terrell Suggs can maintain his DL designation in Baltimore, maybe Upshaw can as well. Upshaw has a ton of talent and deserved to be a first round pick. Some questions about his position and the amount of weight he carries on his frame which can limit his top-end speed contributed to his fall. The thing is, Upshaw is a baller. He just finds a way to contribute and be successful. He will draw limited attention across from T-Sizzle and the Ravens are bare enough at the position where he could start and contribute almost immediately.
3. Nick Perry (Green Bay Packers) - Perry has an interesting situation. He has drawn comparisons to players such as LaMarr Woodley, and yet it is also estimated that he only gave 30-70 percent effort when playing at USC. He is an extremely raw and extremely talented player. And while many teams draft on potential, he is not much like the type of player that GB normally would draft. That being said, GB is dying for someone to help take the pass rush pressure off of Clay Matthews. Perry can be that guy. He will not see a full complement of snaps, but he could approach 6 sacks in spot duty opposite of Matthews in his rookie year. Perry is another player that could have his designation changed, so watch him closely.
4. Quinton Coples (New York Jets) - Coples is an enigma to me. Is he the guy who could be unblockable at times in college and at the Senior Bowl, or is he the guy who takes plays off and doesn’t try? There were plenty of rumors that Coples was given a first round grade last season and thus was playing this year trying to make sure he did not get hurt. If true that explains a lot. Any of you out there that played football before know that the minute that you play not to get hurt you either get hurt or you play extremely subpar compared to your capabilities. This appears to be the case with Coples. He could be the best DL in this entire draft easily. Rex Ryan has virtually anointed him as the starting LDE over Mike Devito and that means he will retain his DL status and he will also play a full complement of snaps as well. He could easily be #1 on this list if the visions of Vernon Gholston were not dancing in my head.
5. Whitney Mercilus (Houston Texans) - Mercilus was envisioned by many as a 4-3 DE. Well now he lands in Houston and the question is whether he will be used as a 3-4 DE or a 3-4 OLB. If he is utilized like Mario Williams was, he has the chance to be special. Either way, he will end up in a timeshare with Antonio Smith, JJ Watt and Jared Crick. Or he will share time with Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed. Mercilus may end up becoming what Mario Williams was to this defense, but it will take him a little while to get there with the timeshare he will be in.
6. Andre Branch (Jacksonville Jaguars) - Branch is my first 4-3 DE on this list. He gets this high of a mark due to both his raw skill set and the huge need for pass rush help that Jacksonville has. Jacksonville really lacks any pass rush outside of Jeremy Mincey. Branch has a huge opportunity to seize a starting role away from Aaron Kampman and Austen Lane. If he can steadily build momentum and claim the starting gig, Branch could surprise people. It wouldn’t be out of the question for him to total 40 tackles and 4-6 sacks.
7. Chandler Jones (New England Patriots) - Jones is my favorite DL prospect (or DE/OLB prospect) in the draft and he has landed in a situation where he can excel and blossom. The Pats need a pass rush worse than almost every NFL team and Jones has the chance to fill the shoes vacated by the currently unsigned Andre Carter. The problem is that the role that Jones is expected to play is an extremely complex role and it may take him a year to grow into it. He may be slow to develop. But once he does, look out!
8. Fletcher Cox (Philadelphia Eagles) - Cox should have the chance to rack up 4-6 sacks on the interior of this defensive line if he is truly as talented as his scouting report and game tape indicates. While he is a bit undersized for a DT, he gets up-field extremely well and plays on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage a lot. With players like Trent Cole, Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins drawing attention away from him, Cox has every opportunity to shine here.
9. Shea McClellin (Chicago Bears) - McClellin may be undersized to play DE, but Chicago appears committed to playing him on the end opposite of Julius Peppers. McClellin is relentless and his non-stop effort alone could make him a scrappy pickup that notches a handful of sacks and a bunch of tackles. He could easily play LB too if Chicago ever asked him to and that would enhance his value if that day came.
10. Bruce Irvin (Seattle Seahawks) - Many people have criticized and will continue to criticize how early Seattle took Irvin. Was it an unwise decision? We may never know. But if you see a guy you like and you want him badly enough then you go get him. Seattle did that and did it with Irvin being the best pass rusher in the draft in their opinion. Irvin will be given his chances to rush the passer and if he is as special as Seattle thinks he is, maybe he can surprise us and notch a few sacks as a rookie.