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Tapping The NFL Draft: Linebackers

CraveOnline's NFL draft coverage continues with a look at a thin linebacker class.

Linebackers in the NFL have had to evolve quite a bit in the last few years, from changes to how you can hit players, to the evolution of the tight-end position; but the NFL linebacker remains the epitome of what you think of when thinking of a football player: big, fast, and athletically gifted. 

This year's NFL draft linebacker class has some elite talent at the top of the draft, but has a severe drop off to the second tier of prospects and lacks depth.

Inside linebacker(ILB/MLB): Usually the "quarterbacks" of the defense, inside linebackers are usually responsible for changing coverages on the fly.  ILB's need to be productive tacklers whether in a 3-4 or 4-3 system.  ILB's must also possess adequate zone coverage skills during passing plays.
Prototype players: Patrick Willis, Ray Lewis, James Laurenaitis

Luke Kuechly, Boston College, 6'3", 242 lbs
Kuechly (pronounced kee-klee) is the top linebacker prospect in this class and is best suited for a 4-3 system.  He wracked up 532 tackles in three years (177.3/yr) which is unheard of, but some scouts looking for flaws in his game point out his 2.5 sacks in three years at BC even though getting after the quarterback wasn't his job.  There were some concerns about his measurables, but an impressive combine quieted his doubters.
Draft projection: #11 overall to the Kansas City Chiefs

Dont'a Hightower, Alabama, 6'2", 265 lbs
A two time captain at Alabama, Hightower would have been a four year starter had he not injured his ACL his sophomore year.  His sheer mass and power combined with his superior athletic ability make him a perfect fit in a 3-4 system.  Though he has the ability to pressure the quarterback and could play on the outside, Hightower still needs to improve his pass coverage skills.
Draft projection: #24 overall to the Pittsburgh Steelers

Mychal Kendricks, California, 5'11", 239 lbs
Hendricks raised the most eyebrows among linebackers at the NFL scouting combine, moving him up from a borderline 2nd-3rd round pick into easily being the #3 ILB on the board.  His height is a slight issue for most scouts, add that to his limited pass coverage skills and his inexperience as a signal caller, and he may be moved to OLB (a position he played his first three years at Cal).
Draft projection: Early 2nd round

Other ILB's to keep an eye on: In order of rank/projected draft position;
Late 2nd – early 3rd round
James Michael-Johnson, Nevada, 6'1", 241 lbs
Bobby Wagner, Utah State, 6'0", 241 lbs

3rd – 4th round
Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State, 6'1", 248 lbs

Outside linebacker (OLB): OLB's are more responsible for blitzing and putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.  Smaller, quicker OLB's with better pass coverage skills are usually slated for the 4-3 scheme, while bigger, more physical OLB's will be targeted for 3-4 schemes.  Some DE's will also be converted to 3-4 OLB, to see who may fall under that category, follow the link at the bottom of this page for my analysis of this year's defensive ends.
Prototype players: James Harrison, Terrell Suggs, Von Miller

Courtney Upshaw, Alabama, 6'1", 272 lbs
Upshaw's size may bring a rare situation, moving a college OLB to play DE if a 4-3 team selects him.  Upshaw is a big physical player and hits ballcarriers hard, but his short arms could make him a liability at times when taking on elite offensive tackles.  He also needs to polish his coverage skills.
Draft projection: #13 overall to the Arizona Cardinals

Lavonte David, Nebraska, 6'0", 233 lbs
The best 4-3 OLB prospect in this draft, David's stock is hurt slightly by most NFL teams using the 3-4 defense.  David has exceptional instincts, coverage skills, and is a superior tackler.  His lack of size means he sometimes gets gobbled up by blockers, especially on the pass rush.
Draft projection: #32 overall to the New York Giants

Zach Brown, North Carolina, 6'1", 244 lbs
Possibly the best athlete in this draft, Brown is best suited for the 4-3 with his speed and quickness.  He sometimes does rely too much on his ability and at times lacks the discipline to follow his assignments on certain plays.  Brown has great cover skills and can play from sideline to sideline, but sometimes plays a little too soft for a linebacker.
Draft projection: 2nd round

Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma, 6'2, 253 lbs
Raw and needing some time to fully develop, Lewis needs to show more consistency to become an impact player in the NFL.  He has the ability to become elite, and at times will show off his skillset and make big plays, but his numbers in college showed how incomplete his game really is.
Draft projection: 2nd round

Other OLB's to keep an eye on: In order of rank/projected draft position;
2nd – 3rd round
Nigel Bradham, Florida State, 6'2", 241 lbs
Bruce Irvin, West Virginia, 6'3", 245 lbs
Sean Spence, Miami (FL), 5'11", 231 lbs

Photo Credit: Michael Tureski/Icon SMI


For more information on the upcoming NFL draft, keep logging on to CraveOnline.com for pick by pick projections and analysis.

J. Lance Moose is a contributor and lead football writer for CraveOnline Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @JLanceMoose, and subscribe on Facebook facebook.com/CraveOnlineSports .

For more coverage and analysis, click the links below
Full first round mock 2.0

Quarterbacks

Defensive tackles

Tight-ends, fullbacks, special teams

Defensive ends 

Offensive line