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From the Hart: Breaking down the edge defenders

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Before the teams actually begin making their selections on April 26, I get the chance to voice my views on the players at the various positions. Today that means a look at the guys suited for the edge of the front seven – defensive end and outside linebacker types.

Clearly the Patriots top need is on the edge of the defensive front. The team has tried to find pass rushers for years with varied degrees of success. Free agents like Andre Carter and Mark Anderson worked out great a year ago. Tully Banta-Cain had a short run. But recent draft picks like Shawn Crable and Jermaine Cunningham have not panned out, and as such there is no stability on the edge of the front.

So New England is one again on the lookout for guys who fight the varied needs for the edge of Bill Belichick's various defensive looks. Maybe this will finally be the year Belichick targets a pass rusher in the first round. Maybe not.

NFLDraftScout.com grades 27 defensive ends and 28 outside linebackers as worthy of being drafted in 2012. But not all 55 of those guys fit the style and requirements that Belichick looks for.

That said, here are one man's thoughts on how the prospects on the edge of the defensive front break down from a Patriots perspective for next week's 2012 NFL Draft:

  1. Whitney Mercilus, Illinois: One-year wonders scare the heck out of people. That's exactly what Mercilus is. He led the country with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles last year. But really did absolutely nothing before that. He also has all the measurables Belichick looks for at just under 6-4, 261 pounds with a 4.6-ish 40. He has great speed and quickness. The Pats need a pass rusher. Go for it.
  2. Chandler Jones, Syracuse: Jones isn't always an overly explosive pass rusher, but he does bring a lot of potential and athleticism to the edge. Some think that if he hadn't missed five games with a knee injury Jones might be a top-10 pick. Long, lean and athletic doesn't last too long in the draft.
  3. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama: A big part of college football's best defense, Upshaw has everything but the height (6-1) to be a good OLB in the 3-4. He doesn't have elite quickness off the edge, but has good power and is relentless. Upshaw plays with a mean streak that can really boost a defense.
  4. Melvin Ingram, South Carolina: I'm not as high on Ingram as many are and I certainly don't think he should be a top-10 pick. He lacks elite measurables but you can't argue with his production and pass rush ability. Ingram has boom or bust written on him in my opinion.
  5. Nick Perry, USC: Another guy with impressive measurables (6-3, 271, 4.64), Perry does a good job getting the edge in the rush. He'll need to develop his pass rush moves, and says he'd prefer to play defensive end, but Perry has clear potential.
  6. Quinton Coples, North Carolina: Coples is more of an end/tackle in New England, but it's hard to ignore his impressive frame and athletic potential.
  7. Vinny Curry, Marshall: Curry is not as explosive a player as I'd like to see the Patriots add, but he had very good college production. He's a solid edge prospect with good effort and some ability to play in space.
  8. Andre Branch, Clemson: Branch is similar to Curry in that he's solid but not elite in terms of potential. He's got a good frame and decent athleticism with a little experience in space. I wish he were quicker.
  9. Shea McClellin, Boise State: Fills the Bill at 6-3, 260 with a 4.63 40. A high-energy player with a good first step. Seems to be better with speed than strength, but is relentless and will be a fan favorite wherever he gets drafted even if he's not an elite playmaker.
  10. Bruce Irvin, West Virginia: Some think that Irvin may be the best pure pass rusher in the draft. But he has lots of off-field questions (he was arrested as late as this spring) and is a little undersized (6-2, 245) for the edge of the Patriots front. His speed and athleticism off the edge is undeniable.
  11. Jared Crick, Nebraska: Crick is probably more of a 3-4 end project, but he does have good pass rush skills at 6-4, 279. He's a relentless, solid athlete who finishes plays.
  12. Olivier Vernon, Miami: Vernon is a bit of a project or projection after being suspended for illegal benefits for the first six games of last season and then leaving school early. He's only 6-2, but weighs 261 and ran a 4.6 at his Pro Day. He had 6.5 sacks as a sophomore and could be a high-value prospect for the Patriots in the middle rounds and a name to keep an eye on in New England.
  13. Cam Johnson, Virginia: Johnson has experience at outside linebacker early in his career under Al Groh as well as end experience of late. He doesn't have a ton of speed or quickness, but has the build for the edge.
  14. Jake Bequette, Arkansas: Bequette played end for the Razorbacks, but did linebacker drills at his Pro Day. He's an effort guy with an ability to get to the QB. He doesn't have great size or speed, but has the will to get the job done.

What do you think of my list and breakdowns? Who did I overrate? Underrate? Which edge player do you think I left off that deserved a spot? Let us know with a comment below!

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