Every year, many who come to cover the scouting combine (Feb. 23-28) insist that the drills are relatively meaningless, and that it's the game tape that really matters. And every year, there are a handful of guys whose performances — whether terrific or terrible — vault them up or down the NFL's draft boards. Here are 10 defensive players to watch during this year's combine drills — for each of them, this experience will mean a great deal.
1. DE/DT Quinton Coples, North Carolina — People question Coples' speed and overall effort; I'm more of a mind to question why his college coaches moved him around so much. At the next level, he'll most likely be a better-than-average pass rusher with the ability to slip inside in sub packages. He isn't a one-tech tackle and there's too much of him getting washed out on tape in that role. Some would like to compare Coples to Julius Peppers, but he doesn't have quite that much burst, nor has he developed the "dip-and-rip" moves common to the best edge rushers. Coples' 40 time will be of interest, but far more important will be the agility drills showing how he can use his feet to impact pressure off the snap.
2. DE/DT Jared Crick, Nebraska – The question about any defensive lineman around Ndamukong Suh, and the ability of those linemen to get free without the big man as a point of focus for any offensive line, isn't just an NFL concern. Crick heard it when Suh was humiliating college blockers on the Nebraska line, and his drop in production since (affected by injuries as it has been) have some wondering if Crick can be a real table-setter. He's a great all-around player who puts some in mind of Pittsburgh's Aaron Smith, but teams will want to know that he's totally recovered from his pectoral injury, and that he can flash enough explosiveness to be more than a safe pick.
3. DT Alameda Ta'amu, Washington -- Ta'amu is known as a gentle giant to those who play with and interview the Huskies standout defender, but that lack of nastiness has shown up on the field at times. Historically, Ta'amu has been an inconsistent player despite armloads of talent, but when he puts it all together (as he did during Senior Bowl week, when he looked like Vince Wilfork Jr. at his best), he's got the potential to be a great run-stopping and penetrating tackle at the NFL level. He'll have to answer questions about his weight fluctuation, inconsistent dominance, and his role in a Washington defense that completely imploded in the Holiday Bowl.
4. DT Akiem Hicks, Regina -- Hicks chose LSU in 2009 after two years in junior college, but sat out over recruiting issues and chose to transfer to a Canadian college instead. His size will intrigue NFL scouts and personnel people, but his raw playing style leaves him with the dreaded "developmental" label. Unless ... he can show off in combine drills and show that the surprising athleticism for a 6-foot-5, 325-pound player is backed up by maturity in team interviews.
5. DE Whitney Mercilus, Illinois -- Mercilus led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles in 2011, but his one-year status as an elite edge rusher may raise some questions about just how much of what he did in that can transfer to the next level. It's an optimal opportunity for him to show that he's not only ready to be that player again, but that he's expanded on his skill set -- right now, he's a very good burst edge rusher, but that doesn't always transfer to a more complete game, and teams will want to know about his strength against the run, and his tendency to get blocked out in power situations.
6. DE/OLB Jonathan Massaquoi, Troy -- As we wrote in his Shutdown 50 scouting report, Massaquoi has many of the tools required of a pass-rushing outside linebacker, which is most likely where he'll kick out to after his collegiate career as an end. He's got freakish speed off the snap, good basic agility in coverage, and an impressive sense to stop the run in space. The questions that remain -- gap integrity, cure strength and more advanced technique -- can be answered to a degree in combine drills, but the best part of this week for Massaquoi is that he'll be able to compete against the best prospects, and teams will get a "like against like" read on him. Based on his athleticism, that may be enough to get a few teams buying in.
7. ILB/OLB Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State -- With Burfict, the problems go beyond the penalties for which he is so very well-known -- many who have watched enough tape on the linebacker believe that he's more of a "highlight reel hitter" -- a player who will go for the kill shot at the expense of the wrap-up tackle. Former Sun Devils head coach Dennis Erickson once asked Ray Lewis to talk to Burfict about keeping the edge under control, but the results haven't shown up just yet. More than the on-field drills, Burfict will have to shine in one-on-one interviews with teams, especially when he's asked about his playing style and how his issues will improve.
8. OLB Zach Brown, North Carolina -- Unofficially timed with a 4.28 40-yard dash on the NC campus, Brown could light the combine up if he performs as expected from an athletic perspective. With more and more teams running nickel and dime sub packages more often, and in need of speed linebackers (Exhibit A: The Dallas Cowboys' pass defense with and without linebacker Sean Lee), Brown's pure speed and change of direction ability could very well have everybody talking -- especially after he looked so good during the 2012 Senior Bowl week. At a certain point, Brown's challenges with on-field acumen may not matter as much.
9. CB Janoris Jenkins, North Alabama -- Jenkins might be the most athletically impressive cornerback in this draft, but the fact that he was kicked off the Florida Gators team after two arrests will certainly be a red flag. Jenkins did enough against superior competition at Florida to eliminate most doubts about his strengths as a player, but he might be dinged by some for dominating less imposing players in 2011. Most importantly, Jenkins must show that he's learned from his mistakes -- the team interviews will be crucial for him.
10. FS Janzen Jackson, McNeese State -- Like Jenkins, Jackson started his college career as a much larger program (Tennessee) before off-field issues caught up with him, and he was forced to make tracks to a smaller school. Jackson is less a pure safety than a hybrid player in build and playing style, but his pure athleticism flashes very well on tape. Jackson did enough early on with the Vols to have teams thinking that he could be a star at the NFL level, but those same teams will want to do their due diligence on the other stuff -- before and after Jackson blows it up with what is expected to be one of the more impressive combine performances.