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Versatility big key for NFL defenders
What would it take for a defensively challenged NFL team to pass on a pass rusher in the first round of April's draft?
Probably the cardinal sin committed by any player with prototypical size and elite talent: dogging it.
That's the baggage North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples — the top prospect and most physically gifted defensive lineman in the 2012 NFL Draft — toted with him to the NFL Scouting Combine.
If not for a batch of doesn't-lie game film that reveals his sack production dropping from 10 as a junior to 7.5 as a senior, along with a motor that often cuts to idle, Coples (6-feet-6, 284 pounds) might be a guaranteed top-10 pick.
That's because, more than ever, NFL teams are hugely dependent on dominant end rushers in a 4-3 front, and five-technique pass rushers who will establish the edge in a 3-4 scheme. They are the sack-producing, quarterback-harassing bedrocks that teams require to give their secondaries a fighting chance in the ongoing battle against spread offenses.
The explosion of passing statistics across the NFL forced many defensive coaches to load up in the secondary to slow down the aerial assault. In reviewing the 2011 season, many coaches at the annual scouting combine estimated they stayed in their nickel- and dime-sub packages as much as 60-70 percent of the time.
That changes what NFL teams are seeking in defensive players as they scout the incoming rookies this year.
"The game is becoming a spacing game, more spread sets,” Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "The nickel back over the last four years for us has actually played more snaps than our third linebacker.
"A five-DB set — even more so now that you're seeing six DBs and seven DBs on the field, it does change (what we look for)."
And nothing helps a secondary more than a disruptive defensive line that can go multiple and put a quarterback on his heels or on the turf. That has placed a premium now, perhaps more than ever, on players with the versatility to line up in more than one spot.
Coples played defensive tackle as a junior but was moved to end, his more natural position, his senior season. A resume that proves he can play inside-out should make Coples very attractive to teams in the market for a big, explosive, versatile passing end — among them the Bills, Falcons, Jaguars, Titans, Browns, Cardinals and 49ers.
The world-champion New York Giants showcased how dominating a multiple defensive front could be in slowing down the Patriots' prolific passing scheme in Super Bowl XLVI.
"You saw the team that won the Super Bowl this year, the way that they rotated their defensive line,” Smith said. "It's not always necessarily the sacks that are produced — it's the pressure that's put on the quarterback and getting him uncomfortable. And pass rush, I think, is very important to win on third down.”
Would Coples fit well as a possible replacement for John Abraham in Atlanta? Maybe.
But there's that bad rep hanging over him — the pall of inconsistency. Coples knows he looks bad on game film and he understands what it is that makes coaches and scouts scowl when they study his body of work.
"Just more get-off on the ball,” said Coples, assessing what prospective NFL employers are thinking. "More focused and more practice like a professional.
"You know, I think I did things right and made plays and that's all well. To be a professional and to be great you have to work hard all the time and do those small things that I did, but didn't master like I think I should.”
As it is, Coples' standout Senior Bowl performance doesn't look like it'll be enough to make him the next Von Miller. Not even close.
"How consistent and how productive can he be? You just don't know," said Bills general manager Buddy Nix, whose team currently holds the 10th overall pick after finishing 6-10 last season. "It's part of what makes this a hard business. The guy if he plays up to his potential, he'll be a great player for a long time. If he doesn't he's another big bust. . . . He's got great talent. The knock on Quinton is how hard he plays all the time.
There aren't a lot of free-agent options for teams seeking a top pass-rushing end. The Texans' Mario Williams figures to command at least $15 million per season in his next contract, and franchise tags may take standouts such as the Colts' Robert Mathis and the Lions' Cliff Avril off the market.
So teams are shopping hard for end rushers at the combine. Besides Coples, South Carolina's Melvin Ingram and Alabama's Courtney Upshaw appear to be the most promising prospects. But Ingram and Upshaw both are listed at 6-1 so they do not possess not ideal size, nor do they have the long arms that Coples possesses.
"I think everybody has the same characteristics they want in a pass rusher,” Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "They want guys who are big and long and fast, and powerful, too. You want everything as a personnel guy. But if a guy is big and he has long arms, that helps with pass rushers, too. It helps to have speed off the edge. It helps to have some power so he can rush up the middle.”
Does Reese put extra stock into linemen who can play multiple positions?
"We look for versatile players. We like guys who can play all the way across the front because we mix our fronts up a lot,” he said. "We look for guys who can play over the nose, the 3-technique, the 5-technique, as you said, or a guy who can play out on the edge. So we like our guys to be versatile, yes.”
Does a pass rush make a secondary? The Giants certainly think so.
"If you've got good players in the secondary, they can hold their own,” Reese said. "But when you have some guys up front who can chase the quarterback off his spot a lot, that definitely helps on the back end of the defense."
Perhaps that will be enough to compel an NFL team with a top-15 pick to look beyond Coples' sometimes-sputtering play, and embrace the potential that may lurk inside.
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