With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with North Carolina defensive lineman Quinton Coples, the toughest draft evaluation for this particular writer in a number of years. Players are often one thing or another when it comes to their NFL projections -- it's generally pretty easy to tell where they have "it" and where they don't. Coples is a far tougher study. There are aspects of his game that give great encouragement on the surface -- the 17.5 sacks over the last two seasons, the fact that he racked up 10 sacks for an undermanned defense in 2010 after moving inside to help the team, his dominant performance at the Senior Bowl, and his rare combination of size and speed.
However, as it sometimes does with pure athletic prospects, game tape tells a very different story. Coples is one of the most frustrating players I've ever watched, because you just KNOW that a 6-foot-6, 284-pound player with 4.7 speed shouldn't look and play this slowly in games. That brings up the frequent questions about Coples' effort and "motor," which he has tried to address.
"You know, I'm a big guy. I'm a long-strider, things of that nature, so where it may come fast to me in a game, on film it's slowing down a little bit," Coples recently said. "People have their own opinions. Some people don't even think it was a problem. So it's different opinions and you just go for what it is."
Well, that's the question. What is it? Coples will almost certainly be taken with one of the top 15 picks this week, and there are times when that value is easier to understand, However, there are more than enough times when Coples' tape shows a guy that just doesn't ... look like a first-rounder. Pass-rushers disappear at times -- it's the nature of the position -- but Coples vanishes more often than you'd want at any position. Perhaps a career as a magician? Right now, he's just an enigma.
Pros: From a base three-tech role, Coples fires off the ball very well -- he shows enough power to stand up offensive linemen at times, and while he's not always powerful enough to split double teams, he's dynamic enough to shoot through an inside gap once he re-sets. Has the arm length to deal with blockers one-on-one (especially smaller guards) and push them back pretty easily. Less a speed guy than a power guy overall.
As an end, Coples occasionally explodes off tape as a completely different player. When asked to engage one-on-one with tackles, Coples is able to use his size to throw them around pretty effectively ... at times. He will better disengage and flash through to the pocket from outside. As an interior defender, he's very effective when stunting or looping around, looking for gaps -- in these situations ,you see the speed that doesn't show up when he's in a smaller space. Also, as an end, he covers more ground in a bigger hurry -- as a run defender, he can rush into the backfield and show tackling skills that are hidden when he's an interior player. Directs himself well, gets up a good head of steam, and makes a fair amount of drag-down tackles in space.
From the end position, Coples is better at sliding off the single blocker and reaching out to make tackles -- this is where his size is actually an advantage. At times, even with technique that does him no favors, he'll simply overwhelm the blocker facing him -- putting tight ends straight up on Coples would seem to be a silly thing to do. Showed more pass-rush ability during Senior Bowl week when he was able to simply pin his ears back, which provides a beacon of hope.
Cons: I find it hard to ding Coples for his play as a one-shade nose tackle because it's so obviously a bad fit for him, but in case anyone's wondering ... he cannot break up multiple blockers inside in that role. He tends to wash out right away because he doesn't possess the raw explosion or upper-body strength common to the best one-gap inside tackles. He'll occasionally slide off one blocker and give the other a good push inside, but anyone looking to make Coples a dedicated or rotational pass-rusher between center and guard might want to go back and re-check that notion.
Comes off the ball high in a lot of different roles and it impacts his play negatively, especially inside -- you don't often see him just steamroll his man as a three-tech tackle or as a five-tech end in NC's occasional three-man fronts. That's something he'll need work on at the next level -- when he engages blockers, Coples tends to lock on instead of getting free and pursuing. Comes off the ball late and "soft" at times; you'd like to see more pure speed and force from a man with his physical attributes. Doesn't use his hands aggressively once engaged and gets pushed and punched back too easily in a general sense. Doesn't have the ideal "dip-and-rip" as an outside pass rusher; tackles can ride him out of the pocket pretty easily. Got a lot of his sack production against questionable competition -- four of his seven sacks in 2011 came against James Madison and Duke. In 2010, three of his 10 sacks came against a 4-8 Rutgers team whose passing game was a basic disaster.
Conclusion: Coples' #14 position in the Shutdown 50 is based on the rough area of the first round he'll probably be drafted, not what the tape shows. Whether it's in the NFL or in college football, there are times when you look at how a player is being used, and you simply wonder if the coaches are seeing something you're not, because the player's positioning makes little sense. That was my overwhelming feeling with Coples -- the extent to which he was used as an interior lineman seems to make no sense based on the production on a play-by-play basis. He would occasionally blast through for an impact play, but he was muted far too often for a player of his raw physical attributes.
Of course, we can't throw all the blame at the feet of North Carolina's coaching staffs -- there are enough times where Coples comes off the snap late and seems to give up after a hard block instead of re-directing, and this lends legitimacy to the concerns about his overall effort. It's pretty disturbing to see a 6-foot-6, 284-pound guy who can run a 4.78 40 at the combine get rolled up by tight ends and blocking backs as much as he did.
The Julius Peppers comparisons are frequent, but hardly instructive. Peppers may disappear from time to time, but that's the nature of the defensive end position, and he flashed enough to merit elite status going all the way back to his collegiate days. With Coples, it's tough to even peg him as a high-caliber role-player like Arizona's Calais Campbell, a player who has learned to use his size to his great advantage. Instead, Coples' tape very much brings to mind Arkansas' Jamaal Anderson, a 6-foot-6. 288-pound mountain of a man who was selected eighth overall by the Atlanta Falcons in 2007. Anderson never came close to validating his high prospect status, and there was enough on his college tape to make people wonder. Anderson's size/speed combo hoodwinked the Falcons, and though he had his moments as an interior pass rusher, Anderson's NFL career has been an unqualified disappointment to date.
The only thing I like less than writing a very negative scouting report about a college player is when I have to openly wonder if that same player will do anything above average in the NFL. Unfortunately, after watching more tape on him than any other college prospect in this draft class, that's what I have to do with Coples. He could surprise in the right scheme, and I certainly hope he does, but based solely on the tape ... well, the magic 8-ball isn't so positive.
Pro Comparison: Jamaal Anderson, Atlanta Falcons
More Shutdown 50:
#15: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A & M | #16: Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College | #17: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame | #18: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama | #19: Mark Barron, S, Alabama | #20: Cordy Glenn, OL, Georgia | #21: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa | #22: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford| #23: Devon Still, DT, Penn State | #24: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama| #25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State| #26: Nick Perry, DE, USC| #27: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska| #28: Dontari Poe, DT/DE, Memphis | #29: Whitney Mercilus, OLB/DE, Illinois | #30: Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson| #31, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson| #32: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford| #33: Bobby Massie, OT, Mississippi| #34: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson | #35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse| #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech| #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall| #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers| #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina| #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska| #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska| #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State| #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy