Commentary

Coples pick comes with questions

Character concerns didn't bother the Jets in what will be a boom or bust selection

Updated: April 27, 2012, 10:08 AM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Quinton Coples is a freakishly gifted defensive end whose play slipped last season because he was stuck in a tumultuous, scandal-plagued situation at North Carolina.

That's what the New York Jets believe. In their minds, they got a top-10 talent with the 16th pick in the NFL draft Thursday night.

But there's another side to Coples, who appeared to be in cruise control as a senior. Stunningly, he all but announced that to his teammates before the season, according to a scout from another NFL team.

"After all the suspensions and all the problems, he shut it down," the scout said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "He got up in front of the team and basically said, 'I'm not playing for the team, I'm playing for myself, I ain't getting hurt for nobody.'"

That NFL team uncovered this information during its background check. That might explain why Coples, after a 10-sack junior season that catapulted him to the top of preseason draft lists, disappeared for long stretches last season.

Giving Coples the benefit of the doubt, you could say he was a disillusioned student-athlete who couldn't wait to get out of Chapel Hill, where the football program was rocked by an agent scandal and the eventual ouster of coach Butch Davis.

On the other hand, it doesn't reflect well on his character, taking a "me" approach and abandoning his team amid adversity. When you play for the Jets, who know a thing or two about turmoil, you need to be thick-skinned and tough-minded.

Clearly, this is a boom-or-bust pick. Coples could be the next Julius Peppers (another Tar Heels alum) or the next Vernon Gholston.

"If I'm a GM, I'm not taking him in the first round," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said recently. "I might not take him in the second round. ... [The] bust potential is high."

Obviously, the Jets felt differently. Rex Ryan liked him so much he told Coples last week during a visit to the team's facility that he'd be the Jets' guy if he lasted until 16. (Nevertheless, they still explored potential trade-downs while on the clock.)

There's a lot to like about Coples. At 6-foot-6, 284 pounds, he's right out of central casting. At the scouting combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.71 seconds. Pretty impressive.

The Jets took him over South Carolina's Melvin Ingram and Alabama's Courtney Upshaw, productive college pass-rushers who lacked Coples' measureables.

With a choice of all three, the Jets asked the prettiest girl to the dance, opting for looks over other attributes. This is a huge draft for general manager Mike Tannenbaum, and he'd better hope Coples is the real deal.

Tannenbaum said the Jets did extensive research into his background, checking out the questions about his motivation. They talked with defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, last year's first-round pick. Wilkerson and Coples were teammates at the Hargrave Military Academy. Wilkerson gave a ringing endorsement.

[+] EnlargeQuinton Coples
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeWill Quinton Coples' past come back to haunt the Jets?

The Jets also brought Coples in for a visit, trying to find out what makes him tick.

"You have to sit down and talk to the kid and find out where his heart is," said Joey Clinkscales, the Jets' vice president of college scouting. "You dig as deep as you can. ... We were comfortable with that."

So why did Coples register only 7.5 sacks last season? Why did 15 teams pass him up? The Seahawks, picking one spot ahead of the Jets after a trade-down, picked a pass-rusher who spent time in jail -- Bruce Irvin -- over Coples.

"It's a question of his football character, his consistency, his motor, his every-down performance," one AFC personnel executive said. "He showed high-end football ability, but he didn't show it all the time. It's risk-reward."

The Jets pointed to a few reasons as to why he was so inconsistent. There was the scandal, which resulted in the suspensions of fellow defensive linemen Robert Quinn and Marvin Austin.

In a separate incident, Coples was investigated by the NCAA last May on whether he received inproper benefits while attending an out-of-town draft party, but he was cleared.

He "stayed above the fray," according to Clinkscales.

The North Carolina program was immersed in turmoil, leading to Davis' departure. Coples played for two head coaches and four position coaches during his four years in Chapel Hill.

The Jets also believe he was hurt by huge expectations and a position change. After a big junior season at tackle in the Tar Heels' 4-3 front, Coples was moved to left end, and he struggled over the first half of the schedule, managing only 2.5 sacks. He closed with a flurry, producing five sacks over the last six games.

Ryan said it's a "fair question" to wonder about the drop-off from 2010 to 2011, but he sees huge potential in Coples. He reminds the coach of Shaun Ellis and Trevor Price. Combined with Wilkerson, who reminds Ryan of Richard Seymour, the Jets should have a whale of a defensive line, no?

Now if only Mark Sanchez can remind Ryan of Drew Brees.

The Jets plan to use Coples at left end, not outside linebacker -- still a major need position. You wonder how he'll adapt to the Jets' 3-4 scheme, because there's a difference between end in a 3-4 and a 4-3. It's not a high-production spot in Ryan's system; it's a blue-collar, do-the-dirty work spot. If Coples is lazy, as some say, he'll be miserable.

The Jets have a tough-guy left end in Mike DeVito, who's entering the final year of his contract. Evidently, they wanted more athleticism at the position. Coples will look the part, but can he play with DeVito's tenacity?

There were a lot of similar questions about Gholston when he was drafted in 2008 -- questions about heart and passion for the game. Ryan dismissed the comparison, saying they're "two totally different situations." He's kind of right, because the Jets tried to make Gholston a linebacker and he flopped.

"This young man is going to be what he does," Ryan said. "He's going to put his hand in the dirt and rush the passer. ... It's unusual to get a guy this athletic, and he gets production."

They hope.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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