INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Quinton Coples stood at the podium, knowing what was coming and ready with an answer.
Coples, generally considered the 2012 NFL Draft’s best player at one of its most coveted, difficult-to-find positions, registered seven-and-a-half sacks this past season.
The number wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, either.
Partly as a result, and partly because he was possibly the best player at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., last month, the buzz around Coples at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine is he is a very talented player who doesn’t always get the most from that talent.
“I could see where it could look like that on film,” Coples said Saturday at the combine, which is scheduled to continue through Tuesday at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis.
“A lot of people had a lot of high expectations for me, but when you play the game of football you have ups and downs. I take it for what it is.”
Coples (6-5 3/8, 284 pounds) is considered a prototypical pass-rushing end, and although there are other first-round-projected ends – including Nick Perry of Southern California and linebacker/ends such as Courtney Upshaw of Alabama and Melvin Ingram of South Carolina – it has been Coples who has attracted the most attention this week. And the most scrutiny.
“The biggest thing he can do at the combine has nothing to do with the athletic drills,” NFLDraftScout.com analyst Rob Rang said. “That’s not necessarily going to play that much of a role, but certainly the team interviews are going to play a critical role. He has to be up front and honest about why he was as inconsistent as he was throughout his career.”
Rang called Coples “the absolute, No. 1 boom-or-bust prospect in the draft” and said Coples has a chance to either move up or fall based on interviews with the teams.
Coples on Saturday said the perception that he didn’t play all-out at times stemmed from a position switch during his college career, and that North Carolina coaches asked him to play differently during his final season after registering 10 sacks in 2010.
“I definitely feel like I did the right job and did the right thing,” he said. “I sacrificed for my team and helped my team out, and that’s what was important to me at the time. I’m a big guy and I have long strides. It may come across as me slowing down a little bit. They know I can compete, and I’ll just go from there.”
The focus on Coples is because of more than just his college career. End historically is a difficult position to scout, and opinions often vary on the top prospects each off-season. Nearly every NFL team will tell you having a pass rusher is critical, yet teams can go years without finding a player who can consistently pressure the passer.
The Jaguars have had one Pro Bowl defensive end in franchise history – Tony Brackens, the team’s all-time sacks leader. They haven’t had a player with double-digit sacks since Bobby McCray had 10 in 2006, and
“They’re hard to find,” Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland said.
“Anytime you can get an edge pass rusher or any pass rusher, they're always at a premium because the game has changed,” Kansas City Chiefs General Manager Scott Pioli said. “Those players are hard to find, too – players that can play the inside and get to the quarterback or at least apply pressure.”
The Jaguars finished sixth in the NFL in defense this past season, and many observers believe they will pursue pass-rushing end in the draft or free agency. They last drafted the position in the first round in 2008, when they used their first-round selection on Derrick Harvey and their second-round selection on Quentin Groves.
Mario Williams of Houston, Cliff Avril of Detroit and Robert Mathis of Indianapolis are generally considered the top ends scheduled to become free agents. Speculation around the combine is that while Avril could be franchised by or re-signed with Detroit, Williams and Mathis are more likely to become free.
Many believe the Jaguars could pursue either player heavily, but more often than not elite pass-rushers are acquired through the draft.
“It’s easier here because those guys usually don’t get to the free agent market,” Tennessee Titans General Manager Ruston Webster said. “Typically, that doesn’t happen. You have to look for those guys in the draft, and I think they’re all along the draft, top to bottom.
“Those types of special rushers really can affect your defense. They help the guys on the back end, and if you can get a lead on people and rush the passer, you’ve got a great chance to win.”
New York Giants General Manager Jerry Reese, whose team has been as successful as any the NFL in recent seasons selecting pass rushers, said there’s no secret formula for finding effective rushers.
“Everybody has the same characteristics,” he said. “You want guys who are big and long and fast and powerful. You want everything as a personnel guy, but if a guy is big and has got long arms, that helps. If he has speed off the end, that helps. Power to rush up the middle. Your pass rushers are different breeds. Good athletes. We like pass rushers and we look for them.”
Jaguars Director of College Personnel Andy Dengler said when looking for a pass-rushing defensive end, “You want a guy teams really have to scheme for.”
“You need him to consistently get off the ball and pressure the quarterback,” Dengler said. “He might give up a little versus the run with a right defensive end, but you need a guy who if he’s not making the sack he’s disrupting the play and disrupting the game.”
And while a focus in this combine is on Coples and any pass rusher, the irony – and a difficult scenario facing any teams with pass-rushing need – is that while the best pass rushers often come from the draft, drafted pass rushers often need time to develop.
“They’re going against these tackles that have been in the league for a while and are really good with their hands,” Jaguars Director of Pro Personnel Louis Clark said. “They can read these young defensive linemen, what their moves are. They can sit down on guys like that.
“The whole college process is tough, because you are projecting guys.”
And that makes the already difficult scenario of projecting a player such as Coples – or any pass rusher, for that matter – as potentially frustrating as it is tantalizing.