04 April 2012
It's no secret that the Panthers will heavily address the defensive side of the ball in the upcoming NFL draft. The real question is, where do they start? The 2011 season featured a defense that was very thin and struggled to stop opposing offenses, both in the air and on the ground. Due to the lackluster performance, the Panthers ranked near the bottom of league in almost every defensive category. With a top 10 pick in this year's draft, Carolina has the opportunity to pick up a dynamic player who can come in and make an immediate impact on the defense.
The Panthers don't have to look far to find that impact player. Quinton Coples, from the University of North Carolina, is a local prospect with freakish athletic ability and the prototypical size and stature for a defensive end in the NFL. While many believe DT or CB are bigger needs for the defense, one could argue that a more effective pass rush will take pressure off these positions.
Last season, the Panthers only recorded 31 sacks, ranking 25th in the league. Teams were able to focus on the team's best pass rusher Charles Johnson due to the inexperienced DTs and lack of consistency from Greg Hardy on the other side. Factor in injuries at the LB position and the pass rush was, at times, non-existent. Opposing quarterbacks often had an excessive amount of time to throw the ball, leaving the secondary exposed and vulnerable.
Coples has shown throughout his college career that he is more than capable of being a dominant pass rusher. However, many question his motor or desire to play due to his somewhat underwhelming senior season. After the jump, we will take a closer look at Coples' impressive skill set as well as some of his weaknesses.
The 2010 season got off to a shaky start for the Tar Heels. Shortly before their season-opening showdown against LSU, the team was hit with numerous suspensions due to NCAA rule violations. The majority of the suspensions came down on defensive players, including many starters. Luckily for the Tar Heels, Coples was not included in the list of players. However, due to the number and length of the suspensions, Coples was forced to switch to defensive tackle, which was not his natural position. Despite his lack of experience as an interior lineman, Coples dominated opposing offensive lineman and turned 2010 into his best season yet. Coples finished the 2010 season with 59 tackles (15.5 for a loss) and 10 sacks, good enough to earn him 1st team All-ACC and 2nd team All-America.
Perhaps one of his strongest performances at DT came against Florida State. Coples showed his ability to explode off the line and used his superior upper body strength to penetrate the FSU offensive line consistently throughout the game. When he was not acting as a pass rusher, Coples used his long arms to disrupt passes at the line. During the FSU game, Coples also showed great ball pursuit, rarely giving up on a play. Once Coples had the ball carrier within reach, there was no escaping. Another impressive performance came later that season against North Carolina State where Coples, once again, showed great effort in pursuing the ball. For example, during one play N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson escaped the pocket and took off downfield. Coples stayed alive and chased down Wilson almost 30 yards from the line of scrimage. Even though Coples was penalized for a late hit on the play, he displayed the willingness to not give up on a play until the whistle.
Despite being primarily used as a tackle in the 2010 season, UNC also used some packages that showcased Coples as a DE. An example of this can be seen in the game againt N.C. State. On one play, Coples exploded off the line and tossed the offensive tackle to the ground with little effort before hitting Wilson from behind, knocking the ball lose. Coples officially returned to the defensive end position during the Music City Bowl against Tennessee. In this game, Coples absolutely dominated the Tennessee offensive line, recording 6 tackles, 2 QB hurries, 1.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. Performances like this is why NFL scouts were drooling over the possibility of drafting Coples to their team.
With Coples moving back to DE for the 2011 season, expectations were through the roof. Almost every draft scout had him ranked as the top defender in the country and a top 5 pick in the draft. However, as the season progressed, Coples did not. His numbers dropped and many began to question his desire to play. Although the dominant performances were not consistently seen, Coples still had some impressive moments to remind everyone why he was so highly touted. In the game against Virginia Tech, Coples constantly applied pressure to the quarterback, fighting off double teams and beating the tackle around the edge. While watching film from this game, I did notice what seemed to be a lack of effort on some plays. There just wasn't the same explosiveness as seen on other plays. However, there were still several times where Coples chased down the ball carrier all the way across the field to make the play.
This lack of consistency became a red flag for some pro scouts and many began to speculate as to why he seemed to be taking plays off. Some say he was playing not to get hurt while others believe the dismissal of head coach Butch Davis affected him mentally. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, Coples' draft stock took a hit as a result. Several draft experts believe teams will be scared to draft a player who does not seem to have the desire to be great. Coples responded to the criticism with a dazzling performance at the Senior Bowl followed by another impressive showing at the combine. However, some people still question his motor and believe Coples only "plays when he wants to."
Despite such a glaring concern, it's hard to overlook the strengths of Coples. His ability to throw the offensive tackle out of his way, his quickness off the snap and when coming from the outside, the second burst of speed he shows once in the backfield, and the versatility he offers is too much to pass on for a team that is struggling as much as the Panthers are on defense. If Coples is available when the Panthers are on the clock with the #9 pick, don't be surprised if his name is called.
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