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Combine has strong defensive talent

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Adam Caplan

Adam Caplan is our newest NFL reporter/insider at FOXSports.com. He has spent the past 10 seasons covering the league, specializing in player personnel, injuries and contracts.

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The term “franchise player" is a term which seems to have been an exclusive discussion for offensive players over the years. However, personnel sources said there are more franchise players available for the 2011 NFL Draft on the defensive line than are available on the entire offensive side of the ball for April's player selection weekend.

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Call it cyclical, but teams looking for impact players on the defensive line will likely be able to get it, and even deeper in the draft than usual.

“In fact, it looks like it's deep in 3-4 ends. We're a 4-3 team and we think there's some really quality depth as pass-rushers at defensive end that goes into the second round. So we're excited about that,” St. Louis Rams general manager Billy Devaney said.

Defensive line

As many as 10 defensive linemen could be selected in the first round of the 2011 draft, but it's not unprecedented that so many linemen could go off the board on the first day.

"This is the second year that I think we've had a very good defensive line draft: the defensive tackles and defensive ends. I think it's great for the league because for the longest time we had a dearth of D-linemen. We are now excited about having some very high producing athletes along the front,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.

While nine defensive linemen were selected in the first round of last year's draft, only two of them — defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy — would be deemed as franchise type of players. Suh wound up winning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award while McCoy played well before missing the final three games because of injury.

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Three defensive linemen this year are projected to go in the top 10 — DT Nick Fairley (Auburn), DE Da'Quan Bowers (Clemson) and DE Robert Quinn (North Carolina) — and all three should be deemed as franchise players, according to personnel sources.

Fairley, according to an AFC defensive coach, is a classic “3-technique” defensive tackle for a 4-3 defense. He has drawn the comparison to former NFL defensive tackle Warren Sapp.

Bowers is capable of taking over a game at any time, personnel says. He has a tremendous upside and is a classic 4-3 defensive end. He's known for his strength and hands. He had knee surgery after his season was over, so he will only lift weights at the Combine.

Despite being suspended for the entire 2010 season, Quinn's game tape is so strong from the 2009 season that he's expected to be a sure-fire top-10 selection. While being a little raw, he's capable of being an explosive edge rusher. And while he'll need a little work on his pass rush moves at the NFL level, his upside is huge.

Usually, you'll see a drop off in talent at a position when you have more than one franchise player available. Such is not the case in this draft.

“It's another good draft class, one of the best you've seen of guys who can put their hand down and get to the quarterback,” Buccaneers general manager Mark Domenik said.

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Linebacker

The linebacker position is easily the weakest of the three defensive positions for this particular draft.

According to one NFC general manager, there are no franchise players available at linebacker. Instead, there are some hybrid outside linebackers/defensive end types who offer good value late in the first round or early in the second round. But one player, Von Miller (Texas A&M), is expected to go off the board in the middle of the first round. Miller, who played with his hand down as a defensive end in college, is projected to play outside linebacker in the NFL. Teams that run a 3-4 defense figure to strongly consider selecting him somewhere within the first 20 selections. Akeem Ayers (UCLA) and Julian Houston (Georgia) also have a shot to go in the first round.

Unfortunately, after those three hybrid linebackers, there could be a scarcity of top-end pass rushers from an outside standpoint.

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“I think there are more teams in the NFL looking for 3-4 talent, but there's some changes going on in the college game, things going on with the spread offense. You're getting more 3-5-3 kind of defenses which are more similar to what we run, so there's actually some defenses in college that are changing that to supplement some of the extra demand in the NFL,” Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said.

Defensive back

This draft isn't deep on franchise players at either defensive back position.

In fact, cornerbacks Prince Amukamara (Nebraska) and Patrick Peterson (LSU) are the only two defensive backs projected to be selected in the first round. Both have a shot to be selected within the first 10 selections.

Amukamara, who has good size for his position, is known for his physical play. He will fit in with most defenses because of his ability to play press coverage. Teams like cornerbacks who are willing to be physical at the line of scrimmage.

Peterson is certain to be the highest rated defensive back by all 32 NFL teams.

Like Amukamara, Peterson has excellent size, but is considered to be the better athlete of the two players. The only knock on Peterson is where he'll line up at the next level. Some draft analysts believe he could play safety in the NFL.

One other cornerback, Jimmy Smith (Colorado), could go in the first round because of his ability to play in press coverage.

Tagged: Buccaneers

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