Carolina is staring down a look back at history in Quentin Coples - the athletic local pass rusher with all the tools who might or might not put it all together. If that doesn't remind you of Julius Peppers, you're not paying attention.
For what it's worth, before we get into the ends any further, I think there are major differences. Coples wasn't even the best edge rusher on his team - Paige-Moss was, and Peppers had elite level athletic ability where Coples is just above average (when he's turning it on, that is).
So let's talk about our ends. Charles Johnson earned his season salary through most of the season, a hefty pricetag that came along with a lot of plays made. He slowed past the halfway mark, and ended up hurt, but early on he was a legitimate sack a game DE who brought pressure and did everything right (excluding offsides penalties and penalties in general).
Greg Hardy, on the other hand, is on the field the same guy he is off - moody, and inconsistent. Hardy ended up with more pressures - 33 to 32, per profootballfocus.com - than Johnson, though he had more snaps to do it in and played healthy in the full season. He had 8 batted passes, to play out his own portion of the Julius Peppers analogy. He had more PFF "stops" - causing offensive failure - than Johnson. So we're set at end, right? Not in the least.
Charles Johnson didn't have the 90+ hurries from 2010, but the added attention he received in 2011 didn't stop him from excelling against the run. Johnson can clearly handle the attention, and the run. Hardy doesn't grade out well there, PFF listing him as their third highest graded player (Johnson first), but clearly struggling against the run (2nd worst, in their ratings system including backups). There was speculation that Hardy needed fewer snaps or a rotation system. There's no doubt he's talented, and has the bulk to play the run.
So, taking snaps off Hardy and Johnson? Undrafted Thomas Keiser and street FA pickup Antwan Applewhite. Really, not as bad as it seems, but if you had assigned their stats to Eric Norwood and Everette Brown, we're not talking about drafting an end. That duo, at one point penciled starters in preseason at different times, couldn't get out of their own way while Hardy was recovering from a motorcycle accident. Brown, obviously, is no longer with the team and Norwood somehow wasn't even exceptional at special teams.
So that left Keiser, who was on the practice squad at one point, who immediately lit it up in his first action with an open field tackle, and finished with four sacks; however the Stanford scrapper was deceiving, in that he only had 3 QB pressures with his four sacks and finished higher against the run. In reality, Keiser was a declared Junior without an offseason program, and should do well with professional training and a summer in the weight room, but he will have to re-earn his job.
Applewhite stepped in and filled the rush role off the street, and immediately became the other stand up rusher in the 3-4 sets. He was the only other guy with more than 10 pressures (14), and for someone who we picked up in week 5, played the 14th most snaps of defense. Not a bad bargain for the minimum. Now he's a free agent, but it's hard to say what happens or what the team plans to bring in.
So where does that leave us?
Nowhere on defense can we afford to not upgrade. The best man on defense we can get, anywhere, can be helpful. If you are convinced Coples is the next great right end in the NFL, you do take him. It moves Hardy more situational - he or Johnson, or really Coples, might end up rushing inside, giving you a pretty solid Giants-style DL (and don't forget, the pilot of that defense was Steve Spagnuolo, who runs the same Jim Johnson scheme). Coples would possibly be inside given that he's worked more at tackle than end in college lately, and is larger.
Same for South Carolina's Melvin Ingram, who's closer to Coples than many are willing to believe. The difference is, Ingram is squattier, and less athletic, but I don't see much difference on the field. I see a more compact guy for your same 270 lbs, with a better motor. Less upside? Maybe. But, you know you'll get all out effort, and that's big.
Either guy, in a 3-4 one-gap, could move to the 5-technique and rush (you saw a lot of it with JJ Watt if you watched the Texans in the playoffs). It's a nice luxury that you may also get later with Nebraska's Jared Crick, or further down with Trevor Guyton of Cal (who seems to be slipping).
But, if you look specifically at the need and what this team wants to do - does a team that suggests aggressiveness and zone blitzing require a blue chip end to go with its existing guy (and a second, Hardy, with blue chip pedigree)? Or is it better to go after the 280 lb guy who can rush, and drop him in at left end to drop Hardy's snaps per game from 56 to a more manageable 45? Guyton, as an example, could play more run snaps in the second quarter and on, play disciplined contain and set the edge, but stay in his space and react; then he could rush inside, allowing both Hardy and Johnson to stay at it.
All while the team can spend more on corner, DT, even LB if needed.
While I'm on that, if you're looking for a 2 for 1 deal on a football player up top, and the idea of Coples playing inside or outside is more interesting than actually drafting Coples, consider this:
I'm not much on Bowl season being the sum total of a fan's scouting, but anyone had to have sesn the display that Courtney Upshaw put on against LSU. Upshaw is a 6'3, 260 lb OLB who can rush like an end - hand work, knee bend, body lean, all of it. He can beat offensive tackles. And, he's an attacking downhill linebacker who sheds well.
So why not strongside? Carolina has James Anderson, who can move around; they have catastrophic injuries to overcome in Thomas Davis and Jon Beason. And they have no depth behind them (Dan Connor is UFA). Upshaw is a guy you can stand up for the 3-4, and not miss a beat; he's a guy you can stand up in the 4-3 and, if you must, drop back. He's a guy you can edge rush in nickel, and while he's not as sudden as Von Miller, that's a lot to ask of anyone.
If that high first round pick is rich for your tastes for a blitz guy, the 6'4 260 lb inside linebacker counterpart for Alabama seems more than able to do the same things in the second round (and also gives you that inside linebacker ability/mentality).
This last bit isn't about end, but if you can get by with a Guyton or a modest FA like Juqua Parker (who fits), why not? You stop the run, you add a rush body, and then you have the ability to play with your first rounder and possibly take the best impact for your buck in an Upshaw.
Just as an example. Or you can get nutty and draft Coples to play the three technique fulltime. Who knows.