The Monday following the draft two seasons ago I spoke with great NFL analyst Gil Brandt and the first thing I asked him was why two of my favourite players Rey Maualuga and James Laurinitis had fallen into the second round of the draft. With their talent level I was shocked. Gil said that Laurinitis’ dad ( Animal from WWE fame ) had phoned him during the first round and asked the same thing. Gil said it wasn’t that they didn’t have first round or even top 10 talent but the position value wasn’t as high as it had been. And when you look at it, he was spot on.
Over the past 10 years (2001-2010), only four inside linebackers have been drafted in the first round of the draft — the only position with less first-round picks over that time is fullbacks with none (not including specialists). The reason for this is because unless a prospect can play all three downs as an inside ‘backer, or can rush the passer and create big plays, teams are waiting until the later rounds to fill a need at the position. Over the past three years, only 27 inside linebackers have been selected over the entire draft. And as I said earlier one very good player (James Laurinaitis from Ohio State) did not get picked until the second round by the Rams in 2009. He played well and played all downs.
With outside linebackers, it is important to be able to use their hands to jam receivers, because they will be forced to cover. Speed and strength are also very important (speed to cover in space and strength to take on blockers). Recognition is necessary to be outstanding at this position.
Over the past 10 years, 20 outside linebackers have been selected in the first round. The 2011 NFL Draft should have about the same number of players talent wise.
Here are the top 5 junior and senior outside and inside linebacker prospects NFL scouts will be keeping a close eye on this fall. I would not pigeon hole most of these as inside or outside backers as many will have the ability to play any linebacker spot.
5. Von Miller, Texas A&M, 6,2″, 240 lbs, Senior.
Miller’s role in the A&M defense over the past three years has been fairly simple: he goes after the quarterback on almost every play. The Big 12 sackmaster has been a thorn in the side of passers and offensive linemen since he arrived in College Station, but his breakout 2009 season put him in the national spotlight. Miller earned All-American honors, leading the nation in sacks in ’09 as a junior with 17, forcing four fumbles, broking up five passes; 21.5 of his 48 tackles resulted in lost yardage. This success was not a great surprise, as he earned Freshman All-American accolades in 2007 after making 22 tackles, four for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble as a situational pass rusher. He then earned four starts as a sophomore, playing in all 12 contests after moving to outside linebacker, accumulating 44 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. The highly-touted Texas recruit plays the Jack/Joker position, a defensive end/rush linebacker hybrid spot that almost always sees him stand up at the nine-technique position outside the left or right tackle. With the increased use of the 3-4 base scheme in the NFL, Miller’s prowess as a pass rusher (with improvement in his ability to stop the run and handle coverage responsibilities) could earn him a high draft slot – and millions of dollars.
4. Akeem Ayers, UCLA, 6,4″, 254 lbs, Junior.
Simply put, Akeem was a beast last season for the Bruins. He is very quick and tracks down ball carriers like a bloodhound. Is very alert and always around the football. Ayers is already big, but he could potentially add 15 pounds, maintain his speed, and play at defensive end full time as a pass rusher. Or he could stay as is and be a very talented SAM in a 4-3 or an Rush OLB in a 3-4. He has put up great numbers so far, but his best football is still ahead of him. There is so much talent and potential in Akeem that if he can keep improving as the focal point and leader of the UCLA defense, he will go early when he declares.
3. Jeremy Beal, Oklahoma, 6,3″, 261 lbs, Senior.
The injury situation of quarterback Sam Bradford and the outstanding play of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, two of the top three players selected in last April’s draft, kept Beal’s spectacular season from receiving the attention it deserved. He was a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Defensive End of the Year Award, the Associated Press named him a third-team All-American, and several media outlets placed him on their All-Big 12 first team (though he only made second team by the coaches’ vote). His 70 tackles, 19 for loss, 11 sacks, three forced fumbles and three pass breakups hint of the overall game that excites NFL scouts. Beal started all 14 games in 2008 as a sophomore, earning second-team all-conference recognition from league coaches after racking up 61 tackles, 11.5 for loss, 8.5 sacks, four pass breakups and three forced fumbles. He made a great impression as a redshirt freshman in 2007 with 25 tackles, five for loss and a sack — he even started twice in 13 games played and made six tackles with a sack in the Big 12 Championship Game win over Missouri. Beal’s production, strength and versatility give him a great chance to succeed at the next level. Oklahoma coaches stand him up, put his hand down, drop him into the flat, even stuck him at middle linebacker at times when needed in 2009. Defensive coordinators using 3-4 or 4-3 base systems, therefore, will covet his skills. NFL scouts will likely feel the same way Bob Stoops did when he saw Beal’s high school game film: they will want to have the well-rounded, hard-working and intelligent player.
2. Mark Herzlich, Boston College, 6,4″, 245 lbs, Senior.
Herzlich did not play in 2009 due to a rare form of bone cancer (Ewings Sarcoma), which he overcame. Herzlich is the blueprint for linebackers. He is physically imposing, gives 100% effort every down, and lays big production down on the field. You will be hard pressed to find any highlight or game film in which Mark isn’t around the football moving like a freight train. Does a great job of finishing tackles and tracking the ball in the run game. His cover skills have improved greatly over his career and he does a great job of reading routes and keeping up with slot receivers. In the 2009 Draft, there were many reports about how LB Aaron Curry out of Wake Forest was the surest bet player in the draft and even a few voices chimed that he was the best player overall. High praise indeed, but it is interesting to note that that year Aaron Curry wasn’t even the best defensive player, let alone linebacker in his conference as Mark Herzlich took home the 2008 ACC Defensive Player of the Year Award. Even people who don’t follow college football that closely have heard of Mark’s battle with Ewing’s sarcoma, a form of cancer found in his leg. He announced at an October 3rd football game against Florida State that he was cancer free and would be playing in 2010. Recovering from any cancer treatment takes a tremendous toll on your body and it shouldn’t be expected that Mark be back to his old form completely. From a scouting stand point his evaluation should be treated like any player returning for a major injury: knowing that he has a ton of potential and seeing how he and his body respond to these new challenges. However, there isn’t a lot of precedence for returning to play football after beating cancer and I am sure he will be eased back into it if the coaches can help it. Herz has been a massive inspiration in my life and I can’t wait to follow him on his NFL journey.
1. Bruce Carter, North Carolina, 6,3″, 230 lbs, Senior.
Bruce Carter is yet another top defensive prospect from the University of North Carolina. He is an explosive athlete that uses a disciplined approach to the game of football. He has decent size but good speed. He uses his speed and athleticism to create pressure in the offensive backfield. He covers a ton of ground and is threat to make a play form anywhere on the field, which is evident by the 6 blocked kicks he last season. He would fit nicely as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 defensive scheme because he has the ability to get to the quarterback on a blitz but also is sound when dropping back into coverage. Carter is a hard working individual and gains praise from his teammates about being a tremendous leader. He has a ton of physical ability that will allow him to overcome some size concerns. He is going to be the target of a 3-4 defensive team looking for a linebacker that could both rush the quarterback but also drop back into coverage.
5. Martez Wilson, Illinois, 6,4″, 250 lbs, Junior.
Wilson is cat-quick off the line and has very good quickness of the edge. He can speed rush right by you or use his natural power. Wilson can get after the quarterback and stop the run. He’s terrific in pursuit because he has a wealth of speed and he also moves well down the line of scrimmage. Wilson has the frame to add a lot of weight. He needs to use his hands more and learn technique but that should come in time at the next level. His 4.5 – 40 yard dash will blow scouts away at 250 plus pounds. Wilson can be moved around if needed.
4. Tank Carder, TCU, 6,2″, 232 lbs. Junior.
I can relate to this guy a lot as I know personally that although there’s no way to prove the theory, it’s safe to assume that Carder cherishes his success just a little more than the average college athlete. That happens when you come close to never walking again. Seven years ago, he was a passenger in a harrowing car accident that nearly made this chapter of his life impossible. He suffered serious injuries, including a punctured diaphragm, collapsed lung, and broken bones in his back, which required a six-week hospital stay and a hairpin shift in priorities. For a time, hopes of the NFL were replaced by the possibility of competing in the Wheelchair Olympics. It’s the transgression of dreams that occur when a young teen is flung from a moving vehicle that winds up rolling over him. Carder? Well, he had different plans for his future. Not only did he walk again, but he’d also play football, though contact was prohibited until his junior year of high school. Prior to then, he settled on handling kickoffs, provided he sprinted off the field shortly after picking up the tee. It was better than nothing as far as feeding the yen for competition, but not nearly enough for a kid pining to hit something.
Once Carder finally got the green light, his athleticism quickly bubbled to the surface. No, there weren’t a ton of offers coming out of Sweeny (Tex.) High School, but the one from TCU was more than enough. He jumped at it, knowing the reputation of Gary Patterson and his staff for turning decent recruits into defensive studs. Patterson saw something that absolutely no one else did, a familiar occurrence on this campus. After learning behind all-star Jason Phillips in 2008, Carder was turned loose last fall, making 89 tackles, 10 stops behind the line, and breaking up 11 passes in an All-Mountain West debut. With two years left and expectations percolating, he’s now bucking to keep the Frogs among the nation’s elite while further defying the odds that were stacked against him as a battered and broken 13-year old. TCU is a program that perennially develops at least one or two outstanding defensive players worthy of national recognition and attention from pro scouts. Carder has the potential to be that guy in 2011. In just his first season as a starter, he played an integral role on the nation’s top-ranked defense, earning a spot on the All-Mountain West second team. That year of experience coupled with the graduations of some key veterans means he’s poised for the kind of breakthrough junior year that reverberates outside the walls of the conference. Carder is a versatile 6-2, 232-pound athlete, with excellent instincts and a natural feel for the position. Not only can he go sideline-to-sideline effortlessly, but he’ll also make plays vertically as a pass rusher and a pass defender. There’s a reason why he was able to redirect 11 passes last season—he knows where he belongs on the field at all times. You want multi-dimensional? The junior could be the Horned Frogs’ choice to handle kickoffs and long-range field goal attempts in 2010. It’s pretty sad I know this but years before he ever took up football, Carder was a national and world BMX bike champion at the tender age of 9. Blessed with incredible balance as a toddler, he was riding without training wheels shortly after his second birthday. After seven U.S. crowns and numerous trips abroad, he retired from the circuit before the end of elementary school, citing a desire to compete in new sports and spend more time with friends. Like Herzlich, Carder is an incredible story and having gone through something similar as a rugby player growing up in South Wales in the United kingdom I can appreciate what he’s gone through to get where he is today.
3. Quan Sturdivant, North Carolina, 6,2″, 235 lbs, Senior.
Do-it-all linebacker Quan Sturdivant did not spend any time learning on the sidelines at North Carolina. As a true freshman he played in all 12 games and earned five starts, tallying 47 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, one interception and even blocked a punt. That set the stage for his breakout sophomore campaign. In 2008 Sturdivant started every game and led the team with an incredible 122 tackles, including an NCAA FBS high 87 unassisted tackles. For the 2009 season Sturdivant moved to the middle of the linebacker corps and his leadership has led to a stifling Tar Heel defense. He was not asked to do as much as far as tackling is concerned from his new position thanks to an improving defense around him, but he still lead the team with 75 tackles during the regular season and did a great job getting into the backfield, totaling 12.0 tackles-for-loss, one sack and six quarterback hurries. Sturdivant has turned into a leader during the 2010 campaign after many of the other stars on defense have been suspended. However, a hamstring injury has limited him to just three games so far this year. What makes Sturdivant so valuable is his versatility. He can play any linebacker position and once he is there he can do everything one would want a linebacker to do. He can obviously use his 6-2, 235 pound frame to fight his way into the backfield, but he is also more than capable of dropping back into coverage.
2. Greg Jones, Michigan state, 6,1″, 235 lbs, Senior.
After originally committing to Minnesota, Jones decided to go to East Lansing instead because of the Spartans’ more recent success and a shorter drive for his parents from Cincinnati. The Spartans have enjoyed having the relatively unheralded Ohio product in their defensive huddle — as a player and leader — since he arrived on campus. Several outlets named Jones a freshman All-American. He led the team in tackles (for the first of three straight years) with seven starts in 13 games from the strong-side linebacker spot. He also led Big Ten freshmen in that category with 78, accumulating 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. The league’s coaches awarded him first-team all-conference honors as a sophomore when he made 127 tackles (80 solo), 14 for loss and two sacks while starting at both SAM (eight games) and MIKE (five). In 2009, Jones was a consensus All-American and named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year by the league media with 154 tackles (67 solo), 13.5 for loss and 6.5 sacks. A similar prospect to former Missouri linebacker and 2010 first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon, Jones doesn’t wow scouts with his size (he hopes to weigh in at 240 pounds before the draft next April). But his production, leadership and speed in the middle may help NFL teams overlook his lack of height and slight frame. He is a likely starter in whatever defensive system he is asked to play, though some teams might choose to move him back outside with the hope he could be a pass-rushing force and factor in coverage at the next level. One of my favourite players in the draft.
1. Donta Hightower, Alabama, 6,4″, 260 lbs.
I know he’s not even a junior but if he went pro like I think he could do and I didn’t have him in I would not be able to forgive myself. This inside linebacker is an incredible physical specimen—he’s 6’4”, 260 pounds and incredibly athletic—and has healing powers that have to be considered otherworldly. Hightower’s remarkable recovery from a season-ending knee injury has been downright shocking. On the field the Tennessee native has impressive short-area quickness for a man of his size. Agile, he can change directions well; not many can sift through the garbage as well as he does. Even when Hightower’s quick feet aren’t enough to dance around blockers, he is more than strong enough to take them on at the point of attack. His powerful upper-body strength allows him to absolutely blow up fullbacks who try to block him one-on-one. He is thick, with the wide frame to anchor when engaged and the strong hands to shed blockers and complete tackles. As a blitzer Hightower could be the rare inside linebacker who averages over five sacks a season. The primary negative from a scouting perspective remains the horrible injury he suffered during his sophomore year. Yes, Hightower is on the fast track to recover and looked good during the spring, but that doesn’t change the fact that he tore his ACL, MCL. He is much more natural instinctively and athletically when moving forward as opposed to moving back. If he comes out and lights up the SEC with his aggressive brand of football and proves to have no lingering issues surrounding his knee, Hightower has the size, athleticism, and versatility to force his way into the first round of next year’s draft. According to scout-turned twitter god-turned scout Daniel Jeremiah, people around the NFL were buzzing more about the true sophomore than the guy playing next to him, 2010 top ten pick Rolando McClain. He said when the two linebackers played side by side, Hightower clearly was the more aggressive LB. Whether it was going in for the tackle after losing his helmet in the Virginia Tech game or using his nice closing burst to deliver some semi-late wallops to FIU’s QB, He said Hightower looked like the kind of linebacker who could intimidate opponents and take over games. And because Hightower had success both as a run stuffer and a pass rusher, he appeared to be one of the rare linebackers who could excel both inside and outside in a 3-4 defense. I agree with most of that but I don’t think you can compare him to McClain as McClain had his own assignments and offensive lines targeted him more last season than they did Donta but Hightower’ talents are incredible and the sky is well and truly the limit.
Tredegar, Wales, United Kindom.
Sport city chefs.