Authored by Jeff Risdon - 1st April, 2009 - 7:07 pm
The linebackers come in all shapes, sizes, and skill sets. The growing trend towards the 3-4 defense requires bigger inside backers and pass rush specialists on the outside. Teams still running the 4-3 front favor more speed and range, particularly with the ILB position.
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I purposely omitted the players who were predominately collegiate defensive ends but might transition to OLB in the NFL. That group includes Brian Orakpo, Everette Brown, Connor Barwin, Larry English, and Aaron Maybin. I rate those 5 in that order, FYI.
1. Rey Maualuga, USC. 6?2?, 249.
Positives: Thickly built and very functionally strong. Devastating tackler who punishes the ball carrier. His hits have a rare sound and thump that turns heads and draws ?Oohs!? Closes strong and quick with his head up. Plays with a menacing confidence. Looks bigger on the field than he is in person. Uses his hands well to get off blocks. Shows the ability to explode to action from his stance. Sound leader who stepped up to take on leadership responsibility at the Senior Bowl. Has some ability in coverage if he?s not matched up on quicker backs/receivers. Has stood out at USC despite being surrounded by NFL talent. Showed he could blitz up the gut as an underclassmen, though he was not asked to blitz as a senior. Anticipates the hole and fills it strong, blowing up the blocker if necessary, though he does guess wrong.
Negatives: Lacks hip fluidity--he cannot change direction once he?s moving at all. Gets caught over-pursuing the ball and abandoning his responsibility far too often. Very stiff in movement unless he?s got the runner in his sights. His 40 times are lower than most tight ends, though he plays faster than he times. Goes for the kill shot on just about every tackle and will miss more than some coaches want from a middle LB. Has had some off-field discipline issues. Tweaked a hamstring at the Combine, which brings up concerns some scouts have regarding his flexibility and long-term durability.
Forecast: He compares physically and stylistically with Junior Seau, though Seau was faster and more disciplined. But his thrilling power, his leadership, and his size will get him drafted in the top 20 picks.
2. James Laurinaitis, Ohio State. 6?2?, 244.
Positives: ?Baby Animal? is extremely instinctive with a very high football IQ. Flows to the ball from sideline to sideline. Does an exceptional job of keeping the play in front of him and attacking downhill. Reads and reacts with a rare quickness. Finishes his tackles and really drives his shoulder through the ball carrier. Very good at creating turnovers; gets his shoulder on the ball and also has great hands. Almost never gets caught out of position, and he takes strong angles of pursuit. Explodes from the middle to the outside on perimeter runs and screens. Solid on the delay blitz. Good field general who commands respect in the huddle and locker room. Demonstrated against Wisconsin and Michigan State he can dominate against the run; his performance against MSU last fall was the best collegiate game by a LB I?ve ever seen in over 30 years of watching them.
Negatives: Not blessed with a great deal of natural upper body strength despite being the son of a pro wrestler. Struggles to get off blocks, though he does a better job than most of avoiding the head-on block. Had an up-and-down senior season despite being healthy, as if he wanted his teammates to step up and do more instead of doing it himself. Doesn?t turn and run in coverage very well. Played deeper than most in college to keep blockers away from him, which doesn?t fit with some schemes.
Forecast: An exceptional football player but not an exceptional athlete, Laurinaitis fits best in the middle for a 4-3 base defense. Could sneak into the bottom of the first round, but more likely fits in the 33-40 overall range.
3. Gerald McGrath, Southern Miss. 6?3?, 224.
Summary: Prolific tackling machine with great height for an ILB. Real instinctive against the run, locates and fills the hole quickly. Very good at flowing outside against screens and misdirections. Fundamentally sound tackler who takes very strong angles and keeps his balance until the tackle is complete. Has shown the ability to blitz successfully. Has good coverage instincts and the fluidity to stay tight in coverage, where his height is a real asset. Physically slight, does not have a big frame or a great deal of natural strength. Doesn?t always run at full speed, though he does have very good straight-line speed. Really struggles in the wash and to get off blocks. His hits aren?t as hard as the others in this class and he often has to regroup after the hit to make the tackle.
4. Scott McKillop, Pittsburgh. 6?0.5?, 234.
Summary: Highly productive middle backer who racks up tackle after tackle and always winds up near the ball. Very old-school style of play; hard-nosed, snarling, relying more on guile and effort than athletic talent. Has all the intangibles and fundamentals you can ask for. Not a great athlete, very little quick-twitch muscle. Lacks speed and does not play as fast as he timed in Indy. His lack of speed and athleticism is even more of a problem because he?s undersized. Not very quick flowing outside or changing direction. Has almost no experience dropping in coverage and looks stiff in dropping back. Benefitted from the action often being funneled to him in college.
Forecast: If this was 1978 he?d be a 1st round pick, but his old-school style doesn?t mesh well with the faster/stronger/quicker skill position players of today. Could sneak into the 3rd round but most likely will go in the 4th-5th.
5. Darry Beckwith, LSU. 6?0?, 232.
Summary: Very athletic backer who excels in coverage. Flows inside-out very well, very quick to react and close on the ball. Real strong coverage skills; stays on the hip of TEs and sits patiently in the zone. Solid fundamental tackler, though he doesn?t sink his hips well. Generally shows good instincts and quick play diagnosis. Short, light, and lacking upper body strength for the position. Really struggles to sift through traffic and get off blocks. Takes some poor angles when chasing the ball outside. Not much of a blitzer or run blitzer, does his work in the open field and at the second level.
Forecast: His size is a real detriment, but his coverage skills are best in class and he?s rangy enough to merit a 3rd-4th round pick.
6. Jason Phillips, TCU. 6?0.5?, 239.
Summary: Compactly built striker who flows to the ball real well. Plays angry. Solid instincts against the run. Explodes into the hole and not afraid to engage larger blockers. Good lower body strength. Can handle middle coverage required in Cover-2 adequately. Doesn?t have great lateral agility. Speed is very straight-line and somewhat stiff. Hits with force but doesn?t always make the tackle with his primary hit. Gives up his balance and base when he hits. Did not look comfortable playing outside the tackle box. Tore his meniscus during pre-draft workouts and his availability as a rookie is questionable.
Forecast: His knee injury really knocks down his draft status, but assuming a full recovery Phillips is the type of physical, downhill ILB that more aggressive 4-3 defenses love to have in the middle. 4th-6th round depending on his knee recovery reports.
7. Jasper Brinkley, South Carolina. 6?2?, 265.
Summary: Very bulky for the position but athletic. Big-time hitter who packs a major punch. Adept at filling the hole and forcing the play elsewhere. Has some blitzing ability, and he closes with great burst. Has great strength to bring down ball carriers in the open field even if he doesn?t get a good shot. Not real instinctive; he looks like an athlete who developed early and never had to really learn how to play. Tore his ACL as a junior and it impacted his senior season, where he looked much slower to flow outside and often looked like he was afraid to stick his nose in traffic. Not strong in coverage, very rigid and straight-linish. Does not shed blocks as well as someone of his build should.
Forecast: His size merits 4th-5th round consideration for a 3-4 front, though his knee injury could cause him to drop further.
8. Morrty Ivy, West Virginia. 6?1.5?, 239.
Summary: Played the middle of a 3-3-5 defense, which played well to his assets, namely his strength and downhill speed. Real tough, sound tackler who loves contact. Correctly reads and fills the hole with authority. Plays bigger and stronger than he measures. Hard to block cleanly and he uses his hands to get off blocks well. Another function of the funky defense is that he almost never had to drop more than a couple of steps in coverage. Very good attacking the ball, but he does not change direction well or react quickly to backside cuts. Real tight in the hips and he doesn?t stay on his toes. In real trouble when the play isn?t right in front of him. Not an explosive athlete, and his Combine numbers disappointed somewhat.
Forecast: Best fit is as the SILB in a 3-4 front. 4th-5th round and gaining momentum.
9. Antonio Appelby, Virginia. 6?3?, 243.
Summary: Real strong, physical, intimidating presence in the middle. Comes from a 3-4 where he thrived stuffing the run between the tackles. Very straight-linish, north-south athlete. Gets off blocks well and can control the confrontation better than most at his position. Looks real stiff and upright when he runs. Crosses his feet and twists his back awkwardly when he moves to the side. Not fast enough to make a difference in coverage, though he has shown good closing burst and instincts on crossing and underneath routes.
Forecast: Teams looking to get bigger and more physical against the run will look at Appelby in the 4th-5th round.
Others, in some semblance of order
Derek Burrell, Kent State--Between-the-tackles run thumper with good size but very limited foot speed and lateral quickness. Very instinctive and smart and at times he dominated in the MAC, but his lack of speed and issues in coverage limit him to 6th-7th round status.
Josh Mauga, Nevada--sort of the antithesis of the aforementioned Burrell; very quick and fast athlete who flies to the ball and has shown solid coverage skills, but really lacking strength, bulk, and toughness at the point of attack. Might need to move outside. 6th-7th round.
Brit Miller, Illinois--super-sized run stuffer who plays like an extra DT behind the line. Flashed the ability to flow to the ball at times but gets caught guessing and overpursuing too often. Good 7th round project for a 3-4 team needing size up the gut.
Dave Philistin, Maryland--Classic undersized, quicker-than-fast Tampa 2 MLB. Real smart and instinctive, hits hard and finishes well. Not as fast or nimble on his feet as ideal, and he?s been a little too easy to block at times. 7th round or UDFA.
Rashad Bobino, Texas--most notable for his height, or lack thereof, at just 5?9?. Better against the run than pass, and he looked real iffy dropping in coverage. That?s a real problem for a short guy whose skillset and size is almost exclusively limited to base Cover-2 teams, a dying breed in their own right. His effort and attitude give him a shot.
Kevin Grant, Akron--real big (6?3?, 252), strong, and ultra-competitive. Strictly a between-the-tackles run stuffer who will have to leave the field on passing downs, but he moves well enough and is smart enough to stick as a 3-4 ILB or even a 4-3 LDE in the right situation. UDFA.
Greg Trent, Washington State--experienced, savvy, reliable tackler with a distinct lack of size. More quick than fast and really struggles to get off blocks, plus blockers get into him easier than other guys. His hustle and smarts help his cause.
Stanley Arnoux, Wake Forest
Maurice Crum, Notre Dame
Worrell Williams, California
Brett Warren, Virginia Tech
1. Aaron Curry, Wake Forest
Positives: Excellent all around talent who can perform anything asked of him at the OLB position. Extremely fluid in moving to the ball. Fundamentally sound tackler who closes with quickness and power. Moves very well in space, avoids blocks and stays out of the wash. Has good hips, can turn and run in coverage. Shows good man cover skills and the ability to redirect the receiver. Closes on the ball like a lion on a wounded gazelle. Hits with compact power and force. Good lower body strength. Never stops moving his feet but stays in control of his motion, rarely gets caught off-balance.
Negatives: Some will criticize his lack of eye-popping turnovers produced or sacks, but the sack output was a function of his role in the defense and not an indictment of his ability. He does everything so smoothly and naturally that his prowess often goes overlooked. The biggest knock is that he can be a little late to find his man in coverage, but that is again somewhat a function of their defensive scheme at Wake.
Forecast: A candidate for the #1 overall pick, though the 3-5 range is more likely.
2. Clay Matthews, USC. 6?3?, 246.
Positives: Late bloomer physically who learned how to hone his craft with textbook fundamentals before he grew into a great athlete. Excellent blitzer, uses his hands and quick feet very well to avoid the block. Closes with his head up and in control. His work ethic is unquestionable. Has long arms and strong wrists to wrap on the tackle. Decent speed off the edge, but it?s his blend of speed and short-area quickness that stand out. Showed surprising acumen at the Senior Bowl at dropping into coverage and staying on the hip of TEs. Has the strong instincts you would expect for the son of an NFL great (Clay) and the nephew of the best OL (Bruce) of the last 30 years.
Negatives: Couldn?t crack the starting lineup until his senior year, where he played with a dominant, highly talented supporting cast. Still not as strong in the upper body as most of his peers. More weight-room strong than naturally strong, can get pushed back and steered when blockers get into his pads. Has little experience dropping in coverage. Runs somewhat upright, and he proved vulnerable to outside-in blocks (see the Ohio State and Oregon State games). Doesn?t hit with the violence or pop of some others in this class.
Forecast: Matthews exploded as a senior and proved at the Senior Bowl and workouts that it was no fluke. He?s not a finished product, but with his pedigree and work ethic Matthews is a pretty safe bet to develop quickly into an impact pass rusher and all-around LB. Fits in the 20-40 overall range.
3. Brian Cushing, USC. 6?3?, 243.
Positives: Physical freak with muscles on his muscles. Very instinctive, attacking outside backer who has also played DE and ILB, and came to USC as a safety. Very comfortable in his body, good balance and fluid motion. Naturally reads and reacts quickly to the offense. Good hands, can make the tough pick. Very fluid and technically competent in coverage, anticipates routes well and gives a great chuck on the TE at the line. Very sound tackler--head up, shoulders through the chest, lifting while he wraps with his long arms. Has the lower-body strength to anchor against the run. Not afraid to blitz inside, and he has excellent timing on his blitzes. Is usually the last player to stop for the whistle.
Negatives: Has suffered a number of soft-tissue injuries that caused him to miss time. Some NFL people (I?m in this camp) worry he?s too much of a body-builder and therefore more vulnerable to ligament injury. Never really put up big numbers despite having obvious talent, though some of that is a function of his great teammates. Was more of a clean-up tackler than an initiator, esp. during his junior season. At times looked too eager to engage the blocker instead of going for the ball.
Forecast: His injury history and lack of production are troubling, but his overall talent and potential is undeniable. 1st rounder, likely in the 10-20 range.
4. Cody Brown, Connecticut. 6?2?, 244.
Summary: Converted DE who lacks the size to play up front in the NFL, but he has shown he can handle playing OLB at UConn. Quick-twitch athlete with very good speed and short-area quickness for his size. Very good balance, which he maintains while at full speed. Gets to top speed right away. Quick to diagnose the play and has proven he won?t abandon his backside containment. Intense competitor who drives his teammates. Needs to work on using his hands to get off blocks. Doesn?t rush the passer with more than speed moves at this point. Doesn?t always finish his tackles, tends to hit guys high despite having a good low base, like he?s thrusting up too early. Did not get much work at LB during Senior Bowl week, so he wasn?t able to fully audition for his NFL role.
Forecast: Reminds me a great deal of a bigger, more instinctive Marcus Howard, a 5th rounder last year who they kept up front instead of moving to OLB. Brown fits best as a strong-side 3-4 OLB but can fit in a 4-3 as well. 2nd-3rd round; his stock is hindered by his ?tweener? status.
5. Clint Sintim, Virginia. 6?3?, 253
Summary: Versatile big man who has played both inside and outside in a pro-style 3-4 defense. Has great size for the position and looks big for his size. Good functional strength. Quick to diagnose the play and react properly. Brings the heat off the edge with more power and force than most OLBs. Has a variety of pass rush moves and the size/strength/speed to pull them off. 4-year starter who never missed a game, so he?s quite durable. Not a fluid athlete. Moves somewhat stiffly and choppy. His short shuttle drill time at the Combine verified his lack of short-area quickness and fluidity of motion. Gets caught reaching and lunging for tackles instead of closing hard for the kill.
Forecast: Sintim is built, and often plays, like an inside backer. But his top attribute is rushing the passer from the outside. Can you say ?Tweener?? His 3-4 experience and sack acumen will get him drafted in the 2nd round.
6. Jason Williams, Western Illinois. 6?1?, 241.
Summary: Speed is Williams? calling card, as he clocked a hand-timed 4.42 a Northwestern?s pro day. Has muscular physique and good control of his athleticism. Good nose for the ball, and he makes things happen when he gets there (forced 5 fumbles, broke up 5 passes). Good at avoiding blockers but when he does get engaged he seems content to just fight the blocker and not disengage. Smart blitzer with good timing, had a pretty high success rate despite more modest numbers than some others put up. Needs polish in coverage but has shown he learns from individual matchups quickly. Has strong special teams experience. Not a big thumper and he will go low with his head down at times. Chose to finish his degree rather than just work out to prepare and still looked extremely athletic during pro days.
Forecast: A rising star who is blessed with great speed and really made things happen at the FCS level. Could sneak into the bottom of the 2nd round for a speed-needy team, but more likely in the 75-100 overall range.
7. Marcus Freeman, Ohio State. 6?0.5?, 238.
Summary: Very quick, athletic, experienced backer. Extremely rangy, gets from sideline to sideline faster than most. Very aware of his responsibilities and shows a solid football IQ. Gets around and avoids blocks very adeptly. Strong in man coverage, shows proper drop technique and has the speed to run with most TEs. Undersized. Needs to add physical strength and his frame might not carry it. Struggles to get off blocks and will take an extra step to avoid the block, sometimes taking him out of the play. Though he is a sure tackler and reliable in the open field, his hits lack thump and he has needed help with tougher backs.
Forecast: A bum ankle his senior year hurt his stock, but if/when his speed returns, Freeman is a pretty safe pick in the 2nd-early 3rd round as an all-around 4-3 OLB.
8. Tyrone McKenzie, South Florida. 6?1.5?, 243.
Summary: 2-down 4-3 SAM who put up good numbers at two different schools. Very good in space and tackling in the open field. Keeps his shoulders squared and stays on his toes in bursting to the tackle. Good at chuck-and-release coverage on the TE. Flows well to the screen and stays at home on the draw and misdirection. Fights off blocks well, knows how to use his hands in close quarters. Lacks short-area quickness and was not part of the USF nickel package despite being the fastest LB on the team. That was verified during Senior Bowl workouts, where he was often lost in coverage. Has not blitzed much. Transferred twice (he never attended Michigan State but signed a commitment letter there), though he went to USF to be closer to family.
Forecast: His limitations in coverage and unproven pass rush skills limit his value, probably dropping McKenzie to the 4th or perhaps 5th round.
9. Ashlee Palmer, Ole Miss. 6?2?, 223.
Summary: Real fast and quick with an increasingly improving nose for the ball. Does a great job of waiting for the play to develop and then pouncing for the tackle. Drops into coverage naturally and can run with TEs and RBs. Holds the edge well for a guy his size. His weight is top-heavy, small legs and he doesn?t plant and explode off his feet while he?s moving to change direction, sort of hops instead. Has been a matador tackler at times. Undersized; built like a safety but he?s not suited for that position. Has had some serious academic issues.
Forecast: 3rd-4th round
10. Zack Follett, California. 6?2?, 236.
Summary: Plays with a throwback style. Extremely intense, physically strong backer who thrives on contact. Hits with pop. Closes with a strong burst. Good in short-yardage coverage. Very difficult to block and has the strength and fight to quickly disengage and continue into the backfield to make a play. His aggressiveness gets him into trouble; will overpursue and give up position and balance going for the kill shot every play. Has a neck injury from tackling with his head down that will bring flags from many teams. Does not decelerate quickly and he really slows to change direction.
Forecast: Your HS football coach from 1988 would worship Follett, and he has enough attributes that teams look for that he will get drafted in the 4th-5th round. His neck injury could cause a deep slide though.
11. Franz Joseph, Florida Atlantic. 6?1?, 242.
Summary: Super-productive BC transfer who jumps off game film, mainly because he winds up at the ball at the end of every play no matter where on the field the ball is. Real fundamentally sound tackler, wraps and finishes well. Instinctive and smart on the field, very quick to diagnose and react. Lacks bulk, strength, and pop in his hits. Does not get off blocks readily. Showed surprising vulnerability in coverage, as if he had no confidence in the task. Little experience rushing the passer.
Forecast: 2-down WLB with great leadership skills and intangibles, but his lack of size and strength are legit limitations for the NFL. 4th-5th round.
12. Nic Harris, Oklahoma.
Summary: Converting from safety, where he is too big and slow for the NFL. Lacks the upper body strength and base anchor to play LB right away, but his frame can take on more muscle. Big-time hitter who showed good coverage skills as a safety, and has some acumen as a blitzer. Uses his hands well and finishes his tackles strong. Not real fluid athletically, and he?s going to have to make it on special teams (where he?s excelled) while he learns the tricks of the trade at LB.
Forecast: 4th-5th round. Has a better chance of making the transition than Darnell Bing.
13. Jonathan Casillas, Wisconsin
Summary: Underized, speedy Cover-2 weakside backer in the mold of Ernie Sims. Very sound tackler who finds the play quickly and reacts with speed and control. Has a knack for the big play. Not real strong and has maxed out his frame, and he?s not as sound in coverage as you would expect for a player of his size and speed. Coming off a bad knee injury that could negatively impact his best attribute.
Forecast: 5th round, though if teams aren?t scared of his knee he could go as high as the 3rd.
14. Dan Skuta, Grand Valley State
Summary: Small-school DE who has dropped weight and amped up his quickness and lateral agility. Very good size (6?3?, 249) and speed (4.7). Natural pass rusher who has a variety of speed and power moves that should translate well to OLB. Very physical, not afraid to mix it up. Closes with strength and balance and uses sound fundamentals on his tackles. Needs to work on upper body strength and his footwork in space. Dominated at the D-II level for a program that regularly steals recruits from MAC and Big East schools.
Forecast: The word is spreading quickly on Skuta, who jumps off film and showed at his impressive pro day that he has the physical attributes to move to OLB. It might take a year or two before he learns to handle himself in space, but a patient team should be handsomely rewarded. 5th-6th round.
15. Kaluka Maiava, USC
Summary: Best known now as the #4 USC LB, Maiava is a better football player than athlete who was greatly helped by his awesome surrounding cast. Undersized, not real fast, and relatively easy to block. Rarely misses a tackle or an assignment, and he takes great angles to the ball. Sound in coverage, could stick as a nickel backer.
Forecast: 4th round reputation but a 6th round talent.
16. Robert Francois, Boston College
Summary: Power-packed with a great physique. Big-time hitter who finished his tackles with aplomb. Plays with an edge. Very north-south but he wreaks havoc on anything that gets in his way. Inexperienced and played behind two NFL tackles that often overmatched opposing OLs, giving him free reign that hid his lack of range. Would rather fight the block to the whistle than disengage and make the play.
Forecast: 6th-7th rounder and a better prospect than his more heralded teammate Brian Toal.
17. Moise Fokou, Maryland
Summary: Undersized but very quick and athletic. Comfortable in open space and does a good job keeping the play in front of him. Not real instinctive and has struggled when given additional responsibility by coaches. Looked out of place at the Senior Bowl but has the attitude and athletic potential for improvement. Real intelligent young man, though he is overaged, will be 24 before the season starts.
Forecast: 6th-7th round.
Victor Butler, Oregon State--a good East/West Shrine game helped elevate this athletic former undersized DE. If he can build on the cover skills he showed there, he?s got a real chance to contribute so long as he doesn?t forget how to rush the passer, which is likely how he?ll get his start.
Steven Hodge, TCU--Another speedy, oversized safety moving to OLB. Has some character flags but showed he has a knack for blitzing and finishing the play.
DeAndre Levy, Wisconsin
Russell Allen, San Diego State
Brad Jones, Colorado
Lee Robinson, Alcorn State
Corey Smith, Cincinnati
Cody Glenn, Nebraska
Johnny Williams, Kentucky
James Holt, Kansas
- Jeff Risdon is RealGM's senior football writer and draft expert. He may be reached at Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com