Arguably the most important aspect of defensive play in the NFL is generating a quality pass rush. Every April when the NFL draft rolls around those who can get to the quarterback are valued highly and this year will be no different. The projection for a pass rusher in the 3-4 defensive scheme is an even more complicated process because you are projecting a player to play in a position he has not played in college and in all likelihood you have seen very little of him doing things that he will spend a fair chunk of his NFL career doing, namely playing in coverage. One such player who might be a target for the Arizona Cardinals in the 2012 first round is USC's junior pass rusher Nick Perry.
Position: Defensive End/Outside Linebacker
School: Southern California
Projection: First Round
Background: Perry was a highly touted player coming from High School in Detroit. He recorded 36 sacks as a senior and was his teams MVP as they went 14-0 and won a state title. He redshirted his first season at USC and then played rotational defensive end in his rFr season mostly playing in passing situations where he recorded a team high 8 sacks. His sophomore year bought a bout a bit more playing time, but less production, injuries hindered him as he was only able to record 4.5 sacks. As a Junior Perry started at right defensive end where his pass rushing ability came to the fore and he again led USC in sacks with 9.5 before he made himself eligible for the 2012 draft.
Strengths: Perry has a good frame for a pass rusher and has the ability to add more weight if needed to play as a down lineman in a 43 defense. He has been well coached at USC and uses his hands very well, keeping offensive linemen off his body. He possesses a very good bull rush getting good inside hand position and driving the tackle back into the pocket. Flashes the ability to turn the corner well if he gets the edge, dipping his shoulder and using flexible hips to turn and close on the QB without losing momentum, but need to maintain low pad level and consistency here. Gets his hands up and into passing lanes when he is not going to reach the QB. Holds up well on the edge against the run, works down the line and works off blocks to make plays. Generally reads the play well and reacts quickly. Has a very good motor and works until the whistle.
Weaknesses: Not as fast as advertised off the edge, above average first step, but nothing special and he is inconsistent off the snap, if he does not jump the snap count he can tend to be one of the last off the ball. He does not have great change of direction skills. Not a lot of experience in a two point stance or dropping into coverage. He needs to develop more pass rushing moves, has no inside move to counter his outside rush. Can get washed out if forced inside in the running game, if he does not get the outside shoulder of the tackle he struggles. Might struggle to make the transition to playing in space as an outside linebacker in the 34.
Overall: Perry is a solid athlete with a developing pass rushing game, but he is not a top athletic specimen and is going to need to continue to refine his technique if he wants to see good success in the NFL. His best chance might be top put on 15 pounds and play in the 43 defense, but he still has a shot in the 34 at outside linebacker. Has a very good technical base from the coaches at USC and uses his hands better than any other pass rusher in the draft. His bull rush is very good for a man of his size. With some development in his functional strength and a continued refinement of his technique Perry could become a very good pass rusher on the NFL level.
Nick is a player of quality who has climbed up draft boards from the early second round to someone who could well be selected in the top fifteen selections and who may be the best edge rushing prospect in this draft. The Cardinals have not had a player record double digit sacks since Bertrand Berry had 14.5 in 2004 and it is possible that neither Clark Haggans or Joey Porter will be with the team in 2012 leaving just Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield to fill the role of pass rushing outside linebacker. With the way players can shoot up boards it is very possible Perry is drafted before 13, but he could also end up being available in the mid to late 20's. From what I have seen he might be best suited playing end in a 43, but I thought the same thing about Lamarr Woodley, and versatile pass rushers are huge in the NFL, a guy who can beat you with speed and power is valued more than a guy who simply has one or the other. Personally I would probably go for a veteran pass rusher and allow Schofield another season slide into the starting lineup, but do not be surprised if Nick Perry is the name read out as the Cardinals selection at 13th overall.