With the NFL's rules favoring the passing game, teams have put a premium on good pass rushers. Traditionally, the leading sack artists in the league have been defensive ends that can come off the edge and dominate offensive tackles. Luckily, the 2012 defensive end class is really deep with 10-15 players expected to be drafted in the first two rounds that are either listed as DEs or have the ability to move to that spot.
Hybrid DE: Hybrid DE's are players that can play defensive end in a 4-3 or can stand up and play outside linebacker in a 3-4. Typically, these players have a little bit better athleticism and pass rushing skills than other DE prospects. Hybrid systems like the kind the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens run are where these players thrive.
Comparable players: Andre Ware, Lamarr Woodley, Mario Williams
Melvin Ingram, South Carolina, 6'1", 264 lbs
Viewed by many as the top DE prospect in the draft, Ingram is strong and has the moves and technique to get to the quarterback. If he moves to OLB, bringing his weight down a little might help make him a little quicker in pass coverage.
Draft projection: #12 overall to the Seattle Seahawks
Nick Perry, USC, 6'3", 271 lbs
Perhaps one of the best in this class in terms of athleticism, Perry sometimes relies too much on his edge speed and plays small for a defensive end. In my opinion, Perry is more likely to end up as an OLB than a DE.
Draft projection: #27 overall to the New England Patriots
Andre Branch, Clemson, 6'4", 259 lbs
A DE in college, Branch will be moved to OLB unless a team commits to packing weight on him and getting him stronger. Branch needs to address some durability issues, as well as assure teams that he's not a one year wonder.
Draft projection: #28 overall to the Green Bay Packers
Shea McClellin, Boise State, 6'3", 260 lbs
McClellin has recently been screaming up draft boards. He has impressive pass rush instincts and gives full effort on every play. There's not much room on his frame to pack on extra pounds, add that to his tendency to disappear against large blockers and he's destined to be a 3-4 OLB.
Draft projection: 2nd round
4-3 DE: The prototype 4-3 defensive end has to be an every down player, able to put pressure on the quarterback in passing situations while also able to hold their ground against the run.
Comparable players: Jared Allen, Julius Peppers
Quinton Coples, North Carolina, 6'6", 284 lbs
Coples looks like the perfect DE prospect and showed it at the Senior Bowl, where he dominated every blocker he faced in practice and in the game. He has the talent and is effective against the run and the pass. The problem is, Coples knows he's that good and often coasts on his raw ability, takes plays off, and plays down to his competition. If he lives up to his potential, he'll be special.
Draft projection: #7 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Chandler Jones, Syracuse, 6'5", 247 lbs
Jones is a tenacious player that has the athletic ability to play any DE position. If a 3-4 team drafts him, he has the frame to add another 20-30 pounds of muscle. Jones can at times lack the burst needed to beat blockers on the edge.
Draft projection: #23 overall to the Detroit Lions
Whitney Mercilus, Illinois, 6'3", 261 lbs
The nation's leader in sacks in 2011, Mercilus has the athleticism and strength to be a great player. He still needs some time to develop his all around game. Motivation is not an issue due to his desire to support his Hatian immigrant parents.
Draft projection: 2nd round
Vinny Curry, Marshall, 6'3", 266 lbs
I think Curry could become a very solid player, he is just a productive player. Curry doesn't have the ideal skillset or strength, but at Marshall he put up good numbers. It may take some time, but Curry might surprise people in a few years.
Draft projection: late 2nd – early 3rd round
3-4 DE: A 3-4 DE is not primarily a pass rusher. Players in this position are larger, stronger, and a step slower than their peers and are more responsible for opening holes for blitzing linebackers. Many times pass rushing defensive tackles are moved to the 3-4 DE spot.
Comparable players: J.J. Watt, Justin Smith
Jared Crick, Nebraska, 6'4", 279 lbs
Crick is the only player worth mentioning listed at DE that best fits in the 3-4. His build and skillset are perfect for that kind of system, he can get pressure on the QB, but isn't an elite pass rusher. Crick is a solid, strong tackler that can help a team stop the run. He will need to ease concerns over his medical history.
Draft projection: 2nd – 3rd round
Keep logging on to CraveOnline.com for pick by pick projections and analysis leading up to the NFL draft on April 26th-28th.
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J. Lance Moose is a contributor and lead football writer for CraveOnline Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @JLanceMoose, and subscribe on Facebook facebook.com/CraveOnlineSports.