After taking a look at which offensive players to watch closely this week during the Scouting Combine, it's time to focus on the defense. Once again, we've rounded NFL Draft analysts from across the football landscape to discuss some buzzworthy prospects.
Defensive End (Chris Kouffman - Universal Draft):
The buzz on Mississippi State defensive lineman Fletcher Cox has risen lately and should reach a crescendo when he begins to test at the Combine later this week. When college recruiters came to Cox's high school, they could not help but notice the 240-pound dynamic athlete who played multiple positions and hardly came off the field. At a recruiting camp, he ran a 4.47 in the 40 yard dash. Mississippi State intended to make Cox a 250-pound defensive end, but he quickly grew to over 270 and was then moved to defensive tackle. In the NFL, Cox figures to be highly coveted by the wave of teams that play a lot of odd front (3-4) defense. It isn't terribly difficult to find really stout players who are well suited for the stack and shed game you see in a two-gapping defense. However, it is very difficult to find someone who can do that, and then turn around and be dynamic as a pass rusher either from the outside or penetrating the gaps. Cox's flexibility and lateral quickness match his strength and explosion. Once he matures and becomes more consistent, he has the potential to be one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the game. He also has the flexibility to play defensive end in a 4-3, especially if you have him reduce his size. He has that kind of take-off and quickness.
Our Take: Cox is one of the most appealing defensive players in the draft because of his combination of short-area quickness, explosiveness off the snap and physicality on contact. Cox is a player who will surely see his draft stock rise after what could potentially be one of the top performances in this year's Combine. With the Eagles, Cox would be a very good fit inside at under tackle in Jim Washburn's scheme.
Defensive Tackle (Cory Bonini - KFFL):
I am surprised with how little attention LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers has received recently. At 6-6, 306, Brockers is a mountain, and the former Tiger has all the upside in the world. Brockers has the versatility and experience playing as a three- and five-technique. His power is impressive, and Brockers, with a little refinement, could be a viable pass rusher up the middle in a 4-3 system. He has plenty of motor and is an explosive tackler. The main concern I have with him is his struggles locating the ball at times, but that can be coached through exhaustive film study. A strong combine could vault Brockers to the top of many teams' draft boards, and his versatility certainly will help his cause. Expect no worse than a late first-round placement for him in April.
Our Take: Brockers' physical tools are on par with any other defensive lineman in this draft class. He's big, strong and athletic, and his versatility will help him hear his name called in the first round this April. If Brockers can come in and blow all of the other linemen away in workouts (something he's absolutely capable of doing), he could be regarded as highly as a top-10 choice.
Linebacker (Wes Bunting – National Football Post):
The NFL combine will be the first time that West Virginia's Bruce Irvin competes during the post-season process after not playing in any of the All-Star games earlier in the year. However, at 6-3, 240, Irvin has an electric first step, can threaten the edge and accelerate around the corner. He played out of position with the Mountaineers as a defensive end in their 3-3-5 front and will be much more natural playing as a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. He's a "plus" athlete with an explosive element to his game and after showing off his athleticism during workouts in Indianapolis, Irvin is a guy whom I expect to have a lot of buzz going for him post-combine.
Our Take: After a 2010 season in which he was one of the national leaders in sack production, Irvin saw his numbers dip a bit in 2011. Still, his speed off the edge and pass-rush potential make him one of the more intriguing linebackers in the class. Irvin was not a full-time player at West Virginia, but was that because of their scheme or because of his ability? That will be a question he will look to answer this week in Indianapolis.
Cornerback (Josh Buchanan – JoshBDraft):
I have a couple surprise names to watch for at the cornerback position starting with my super-sleeper, Appalachian State cornerback DeAndre Presley. The former quarterback saw time in all three phases of the game during his senior year. Presley is short at 5-10, but has likely 4.3 speed and should test very well at the Combine in Indianapolis. He's my surprise name who could move up from a free agent to one of those fifth- or sixth-round types who can be used all over the field at the next level. Another name to watch for is super-athletic Presbyterian corner/safety Justin Bethel who will likely jump around 40 inches in the vertical and run in the 4.4 range in Indy. Bethel has good size at 5-11, 196, and is the 2011 Big South Defensive Player of the Year who finished with nine career blocked kicks. Expect him to really help on special teams as a rookie and be a solid late-round selection.
Our Take: Presley and Bethel are two "small-school" prospects who will surely raise their stock with strong performances in Indianapolis. Bethel, who played in the Shrine Game earlier this winter, will be of particular interest because of his ability to play multiple positions in the secondary. Presley is a much more dynamic name, and as Josh stated, don't be surprised if he posts one of the fastest 40-yard dash times regardless of position.
Safety (Matt Alkire – Scouts Notebook / Maxwell Football Club):
The safety class is rather weak and I have been surprised to hear such high praise in general for Notre Dame's Harrison Smith, especially when some analysts have mentioned his name near the first round. Smith is a prospect I've watched since his high school days at Knoxville Catholic. He came into Notre Dame and couldn't break into the safety position, playing his first 19 games at outside linebacker. All seven of his career interceptions came in one season and three of those were in one game. As a result, I break from the pack regarding Smith and will put a fourth or fifth-round grade on the Notre Damer before the Combine. Smith does bring good things to the table, however. He's not only big at 6-2, 215, but he's lengthy and plays his size. He's a great leaper who gives coaches a nice empty palate to work with. There is definitely a ton of athleticism there. When he wants to, he can be a hitter, but Smith isn't a great tackler. As much as I love safeties, the film just doesn't lie and Smith has never done anything in my mind to warrant quite this high of praise.
Our Take: Smith has certainly gotten a lot of buzz the past few weeks after what some thought was a very strong performance during the week of practice at Mobile. His lack of consistent production and ability to play in space, as Matt pointed out, will be something that could put a low ceiling on his draft prospects. However, if Smith can show in defensive back drills that he has the ability to turn his hips and run as well as change direction in the open field, he could quell some of those concerns. He will be one of the safeties to keep a close eye on in Indianapolis.