After yesterday's look at the offensive side of the ball, today we focus on the defensive prospects who have made an impression on our group of NFL Draft analysts. Without further ado ...
Defensive End (Rob Rang - CBS SportsLine):
Considering his success in college, Marshall's Vinny Curry might be the least-talked about pass rusher in run-up to the 2012 draft. One might think that by earning himself a spot on virtually every All-American team by way of posting 77 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, seven forced fumbles and three blocked kicks in 2011 that Curry would have already secured himself a spot in the first round. A solid performance at the Senior Bowl only pushed his stock that much higher with scouts. A very average workout at the NFL Scouting Combine, however, gave critics an opportunity to question Curry's level of competition. When Curry shaved three-tenths of a second off of his 40-yard dash time during his March 15 Pro Day and posted an impressive 28 repetitions of 225 pounds, however, the 6-3, 266-pound Curry gave those critics a resounding reply... and perhaps pushed himself into the draft's first 32 picks.
Our Take: Curry has been one of the most productive defenders in all of college football the past two seasons, and indeed he may be one of the more underrated players in this draft class. His combination of size and quickness, as well as his nasty demeanor as a pass rusher, makes him a personal among this defensive end group. Some in the media have Curry falling as far as the second round in mock drafts, but it wouldn't be altogether shocking to see him come off the board sometime in the Top 20.
Defensive Tackle (Chad Davis – Draft Breakdown):
A very interesting player in the defensive tackle ranks in this draft is Akiem Hicks. Hicks was a JUCO standout at Sacramento City College who later attempted to transfer to LSU, but due to some recruiting controversy ended up playing last year at the University of Regina in Canada. After a solid season in Canada, the 6-5, 318-pound Hicks was invited to the East-West Shrine game and really played well. He impressed scouts again while attending the Sacramento State pro day, posting 27 reps on the bench press to go along with a 33-inch vertical jump and a 9-foot, 2-inch broad jump. Hicks has the versatility to play a number of different positions on the line and also possesses tremendous length. The obvious question for Hick will be whether, or how quickly, he can handle the leap in competition from Canadian college football to the NFL.
Our Take: Hicks has been a personal favorite all offseason, if only because when you look at him you see a prospect with almost literally a clean slate. He's very raw with his technique, and while his motor may not always be running, you can see that he has a lot of natural ability. He had a great performance at the Shrine Game and during that week of practices, and the expectation is likely that Hicks will hear his name called at some point in the middle rounds of the draft.
Linebacker (Paul Guillemette – PigskinPaul):
The Senior Bowl is a setting for all the major senior NFL Draft prospects in the country, so it's almost a misnomer to label any player invited to that game as a "surprise" or a "sleeper" if they do well. But Bobby Wagner, the linebacker from Utah State, fits the bill. From the time he paraded around the weigh-in at 6-1, 241, looking like a Greek god, Wagner did nothing but earn praise for his hard work and athleticism. He led all players in tackles during the actual game with seven, a performance that included a tackle for loss and an interception. He left Mobile as the game's Defensive MVP with a major buzz working for him. Unfortunately, he contracted pneumonia and was unable to participate at the NFL Scouting Combine a month later, causing his buzz to fade quickly. The buzz is back, however, after the Utah State Pro Day last week. Wagner, who weighed in at 235 following after his sickness, blew away the scouts with his workout. He timed 4.46 seconds in the 40-yard-dash, and bench-pressed the bar 24 times. He also had a 39.5-inch vertical jump and an 11-foot Broad Jump. He's the real deal and may have pushed himself all the way into the second round. He's a hard worker and smart player as well. Wagner played a lot on the inside in college, but the sense is he's just as good of a fit on the outside for a 4-3 NFL scheme. He is also an excellent special teams player. In my opinion he'd be an excellent fit for the Eagles system with that extra second round pick at No. 51. I currently have him ranked as my 65th ranked player overall.
Our Take: Wagner certainly boosted his stock after his performance in Mobile, and while it was very unfortunate that he was unable to participate at the NFL Scouting Combine, he made up for it with a lights-out workout at his Pro Day. Wagner is a tough, experienced player who is one of the top linebackers in this draft class. Wagner will almost definitely come off the board by the end of the second round.
Cornerback (Alex Brown – Optimum Scouting):
The increase of three-receiver and four-receiver sets in the NFL has dramatically raised the importance of having reliable slot cornerbacks in addition to depth on the outside. One cornerback who fits the bill as a slot cover, Derrius Brooks from Western Kentucky, did nothing but continue his pre-draft season rise with an outstanding pro day workout. Reportedly timed at 4.29 and 4.35 seconds in the 40-yard-dash, as well as posting a 6.61-second 3-cone time, 4.17-second short shuttle, 38-inch vertical, and 10-foot, 5-inch broad jump, Brooks showcased elite athletic ability and explosiveness; all testing numbers that would have placed Brooks among the top cornerbacks that tested at the NFL Scouting Combine. Evaluating Brooks in person at the Player's All Star Classic in Little Rock, Arkansas, I saw a fundamentally sound corner who plays under control, with "plus" instincts and a tidy pedal. Scouts I spoke with said the Western Kentucky corner may have been the single most impressive player at the event. Brooks displayed excellent instincts, route recognition, as well as the transition skills to instantly plant and react to the throw. Trusting his pedal until the very last moment, he can drive on short to intermediate routes with confidence in his long speed to turn and run with receivers downfield. Maintaining a polished style of play with no glaring weaknesses and an excellent set of physical tools, there isn't much not to like about a prospect like Brooks, who appears to have solidified a draft selection. Moreover, what Brooks lacks in ideal height (5-9 1/2), he more than compensates for with a solid build (192 pounds) and more than adequate strength for his position (13 bench reps of 225 pounds). Having great feet, the aforementioned elite athletic ability, and sound technique, Brooks could be an immediate contributor as both a special teams player and nickel corner.
Our Take: Brooks is absolutely a player who is flying under the radar in media circles, but is a name that all scouts and personnel men are sure to know as we get closer to the draft. As said above, he's got great athleticism, quickness, and technique. He does a lot of things well, and in a pass-happy NFL, having solid options in the secondary in the latter parts of the draft is a great thing. Brooks should surely hear his name called on the draft's final day, but even if that's not the case he should be a priority free agent, and a guy who can come into camp and compete for a starting job.
Safety (Chris Kouffman – Universal Draft):
In what I cannot help but see as a weak safety class, the players who rise to the top may surprise you. One such player is Brandon Taylor of LSU. Taylor was chosen by coaches and previous members of the team to wear the No. 18 jersey which is given to the player who most represents what it means to be an LSU Tiger. He was also chosen by teammates to replace Kelvin Sheppard as the man who stood in the team's rally circle before games to fire the team up. Several teammates described him as "the soul of the defense," while others described his value in more detail. "You need somebody who can get to a crazy and emotional level, but you need somebody who can also keep their head in the heat of battle. (Taylor) has the perfect balance. He knows when to keep his focus and when to hit the guy hard. He's great at both, a smart player, who plays hard." To be the heart and soul of one of the most ferocious defenses in college football is something special. For his part, I rarely find Taylor out of position, and when he recognizes the play he can click and close with great speed. He is one of those guys who makes three or four plays in every game that make me take notice, especially plays behind the line of scrimmage. What I believe most people underrate about him is his range. He ran solidly in the 4.5-second range at the NFL Scouting Combine for the 40-yard dash, though many were not sure he could do that. Range was something I always saw in his game, more so than a lot of other safeties in this class. He runs well, but more than that he has fluid movement and gets a head start on where he needs to go. He needs to work on being a little more decisive in his approach when coming up for open field tackles, and he needs to work on learning to catch the ball instead of dropping interceptions.
Our Take: Taylor quietly had a very solid week down in Mobile and capped it off with an interception in the game. He's a versatile prospect who can play both safety spots and be effective, and his abilities as a leader and team captain should not be overlooked. As mentioned above, leading one of the top defenses in the nation is nothing to stick your nose up to. He does a lot of things well, and in a weaker safety class is one of the more reliable options at the position.