Over the previous five NFL Drafts, an average of two defensive linemen have been selected before the No. 9 overall pick.
But in this year’s draft, when the Carolina Panthers turn in their selection at No. 9, they could have their pick of the litter among the defensive line prospects if they choose to go in that direction.
The defensive line talent rolling through the NFL Scouting Combine this weekend appears to be nearly as impressive as in recent years, and the demand among NFL teams for quality linemen continues to be strong as well.
But with the growing pressure on struggling teams to land a franchise quarterback, and with an offensive lineman, wide receiver and cornerback widely projected to go in the top six, the Panthers could find themselves calling their shot at a position that has dominated the first round of the draft in recent years.
Over the last three drafts, more defensive linemen (26) have been taken in the first round than linebackers and defensive backs combined (22). Over the same period, a total of 27 quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers have gone in the first round.
The Panthers have one established pass rusher along their front in Charles Johnson, but they were one of just eight NFL teams to average less than two sacks per game in 2011 with 31.
“You have to have a pass rush,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said earlier in the week. “You’ve got to be able to put pressure on the quarterback.”
The Panthers gave some consideration to taking a defensive lineman at No. 1 overall in last year’s draft, when a record-tying 10 went in the first round, marking the eighth consecutive draft that number increased or at least remained the same compared to the previous year.
They instead grabbed their franchise quarterback in Cam Newton, who went on to rewrite the record books while winning NFL Rookie of the Year honors.
Among nine draft analysts on NFL.com, three of them list the Panthers as the first team to take a defensive lineman in their mock drafts, though each projects the Panthers to take a different player – either North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples, LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers or Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still. None of the nine have the Panthers taking South Carolina defensive end Melvin Ingram, but two of them have Ingram going before the Panthers pick.
The other six NFL.com analysts believe Coples will be drafted before the Panthers pick, but all but one of the nine analysts believe the Panthers will have the option of picking the first defensive tackle off the board if they so choose.
If the Panthers do decide to take a defensive lineman, they could target any number of players.
Brockers’ stock is among the fastest rising across the draft board. He made little impact until last season but became a key cog on a dominating LSU defense and decided to leave school with two years of eligibility remaining.
“I feel like I can only get better from here. That’s my mindset, that I can’t slack off,” Brockers said. “I’m trying to be the most athletic big guy out there and hope to impress some scouts out there.”
Still exhausted his eligibility at Penn State but didn’t come into his own until his senior season. The cousin of former NFL standout Levon Kirkland, Still sat out his first two college seasons with injuries but became a factor in 2010 and a force in 2011.
“I want to be the best I can be, so I put in a lot of overtime during the offseason to prepare myself to be one of the best in the country my senior year and make my mark at Penn State,” Still said. “I think hands down I’m the best defensive tackle in this draft just because I feel as though I want it more. I was able to take over a lot of games this season. I was able to disrupt things even on plays when I didn’t make tackles or sacks.”
At defensive end, Coples is slotted by many observers at this early juncture to be the Jacksonville Jaguars’ selection at No. 7. He burst onto the scene with the Tar Heels in 2010 with a team-high 10 sacks and followed it up with a solid senior season.
Ingram could be the wild card in the group, a pure playmaker who played point guard on his high school basketball team at 225 pounds and who scored a touchdown for South Carolina on a fake punt this past season.
“I feel like playing so many roles helped me,” Ingram said. “The team that picks me is going to get a hard worker, a passionate player and a leader vocally and by example.”