2010 NFL Draft Rankings: Linebackers
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In the pass-oriented modern NFL, the hard-hitting 290 lb linebacker has been replaced with two different prototypes: those who can rush the passer, and those who can drop and defend the pass. It’s incredibly rare to have a single guy who can do both of these things. Last year, Aaron Curry went in the top five picks because he was both believed to be an elite pass rusher and to possess great coverage skills for a linebacker.
On the whole, linebackers are now specialists. There’s room in any defense for a Demarcus Ware, Tamba Hali, or a Brian Orakpo, a college defensive end convert who can get after the passer, and there’s room for the players who line up on the interior, so long as they can make plays against the pass. The previous prototype of the sideline-to-sideline run defender is becoming marginalized: Jonathon Vilma, E.J. Henderson, Antonio Pierce and London Fletcher are a dying breed, with Patrick Willis, Jon Beason, Barrett Ruud, and Stewart Bradley as the next generation of 4-3 linebackers (or 3-4 OLBs). While that player type is on the rise, the next generation of Lawrence Taylor styled pass rushing LBs has already arrived.
In no uncertain terms: the best defenses employ the best linebackers. That’s not all you need to be successful as an NFL defense, but if you’re an elite unit, it’s probably built around it’s linebackers.
Class Strength: Average
(A note: Brandon Graham is (along w/Jason Worilds) listed with the defensive ends — or will be when I do the D-linemen)
1. Sean Weatherspoon, ILB, Missouri In the 4-3, he’s probably a weak side LB. In the 3-4, he’ll be an interior guy. I like him because I think he’s the best pass defense LB in the draft. He’s not in the Ray Lewis mold like Rolando McClain, so I understand why he’s getting overlooked just a bit, but he’s both the most complete player in the class, and the guy who figures to have the most immediate impact. I also think he’s one of two linebackers in a fairly underwhelming class that will be an NFL superstar someday.
2. Jerry Hughes, OLB, TCU For all the talk about how rare Jason-Pierre Paul’s athleticism is, or just how good Derrick Morgan was this past year, the best pass rushers in this class are Jerry Hughes and Michigan’s Brandon Graham. They’re the most refined of all the rushers, and are the most likely to make the jump to the next level while maintaining their great sack production. Hughes is a freakish athlete: it was pretty much unfair to have him playing in a conference like the Mountain West. He’s not a coverage guy by any means: he’s a 4-3 DE as opposed to a LB, but in the 3-4, he can be the kind of “joker” linebacker who aligns all over the formation and dictates his match-ups.
3. Rolando McClain, ILB, Alabama There’s nothing wrong with McClain, who is a very productive inside LB prospect. I think he should go in the first round, because he can be the face of a defense three or four years from now. His best attribute is his size, and since other LBs can grow into their frames, there’s no guarantee that McClain is a top 3 LB in this class. Furthermore, the type of role that a player like McClain would have once filled is being phased out in the NFL. He’s athletic enough to run the seam in the Tampa 2, but no one is really running this anymore. Could be a great fit on a team like Minnesota, who can’t seem to keep E.J. Henderson healthy.
4. Daryl Washington, OLB, TCU Such a fluid coverage linebacker that a bunch of scouts see him as a strong safety. Strong safeties don’t really exist anymore in the NFL, as free safety remains pretty much the only safety, so he’ll be an undersized LB who would be the ideal WLB in the 4-3. I think he could also play an ILB in the 3-4, if he could get some sort of protection against the bigger guards or centers. For a linebacker, he’s just preposterously fast, and better yet, productive. There’s really no good projection for him at the NFL level, so if you take one thing away from this scouting report, it’s that: he’s good.
5. Sergio Kindle, OLB, Texas I might be alone in this assessment, but I like Sergio Kindle as a 4-3 defensive end, which he played as a Senior at Texas. College LBs don’t ever put their hand in the dirt though, so we’re looking at a guy who can play pretty much any LB spot in the pros. His game is getting after the quarterback, so I think it would be a tough adjustment for him to move inside in the 3-4, but if your scheme values interior pressure (and not enough schemes really do), that could be a fascinating move. I think he’d be a fish out of water in the middle of a 4-3, but this is a minor shortcoming: Kindle is as close to a scheme-neutral piece as is offered in the draft. There’s just one caviet: no matter where you line him up, you have to let him go after the quarterback. He’s kind of like former Colts and Redskins LB Marcus Washington in that sense.
6. Sean Lee, ILB, Penn State He’s on the smaller side, but there are few plug and play linebackers I like better than Sean Lee as a MLB in the 4-3. Could be a great value pick for a team like the Giants.
7. Donald Butler, ILB, Washington His best fit would be as a 3-4 inside linebacker, because he’s really good at slipping around blocks — not so adept at taking them on. He’s also fluid enough to rush the passer and get back and play coverage, in a way, he’s kind of a poor man’s Aaron Curry.
8. Brandon Spikes, ILB, Florida Spikes might be THE value pick of the draft. He’s functionally athletic, which gets lost in the fact that he’s not fast or particularly agile. There will be character concerns mounting from his infamous eye gauge in the middle of last season, and no one is going to ask him to run the seam in the Tampa two, but he’s not bad against the pass, and he makes plays against the run and on the pass rush. He’s more in the mold of the long-time productive player than an NFL superstar, but this was the case before he failed to break 5 seconds in the 40.
9. Thaddeus Gibson, OLB, Ohio State As one of the many college DEs making the transition to LB, Gibson’s impact won’t be immediate on defense, but he can be a top special teamer for a year or so, and I don’t think there’s an NFL defense that wouldn’t have a place for him. Nominally, he’ll be tried as a 3-4 OLB first, unless the team that drafts him ends up being one that plays the 4-3 scheme, in which case, I doubt he’ll have too much of a problem being a contributor at OLB for them.
10. Koa Misi, OLB, Utah One of the things that separates Misi from the other 4-3 DE/3-4 OLB ‘tweeners is that as an OLB, he has to be accounted for in pass coverage, because he’s capable of making a game changing INT if left unaccounted for. Jerry Hughes and Sergio Kindle might be better pass rushing prospects, but they can’t make the same total impact on the game as Misi. Ultimately, I’ll take the specialist to the guy that does a bunch of things well while not excelling at any, but Misi’s upside on the pass rush is worth noting. He could end up being one of the top players in this class, if he can break the starting lineup early.
11. Ricky Sapp, OLB, Clemson Freakish athlete/3-4 OLB prospect who really wasn’t a “sack-master”. He’s the poor man’s Jason Pierre-Paul, in this draft, in that he has more than one year as a starter, though his second season was shortened by a red-flag ACL injury. There’s a lot of reason here to think there is more than meets the eye regarding his college production, and could go as high as the second round. He’s not unique in this draft, but will have to be accounted for on an NFL field.
12. Eric Norwood, OLB, South Carolina Spends a heck of a lot of time in the opponent’s backfield without drawing those nasty offsides flags. He’s a little more athletic than Brandon Spikes, but they play the same game. Norwood won’t necessarily have to be protected by the scheme, but he will find his greatest success when he’s part of a unit where he’s not the superstar. In the right situation, he can be a household name.
13. Arthur Moats, OLB, James Madison CAA player will probably start off as a special teamer while making the transition from DE to OLB like pretty much everyone on this list. College teams basically play five linebackers on the field at one time anyway. Incredibly balanced and productive the last two seasons, he’s excellent on the pass rush, uses good hand placement and can get up high to affect a pass even if he doesn’t quite get to the quarterback. I included him on this list not because I think he will make an immediate impact, but because I like his chances to stick around long enough to get a starting job in the NFL.
14. Pat Angerer, ILB, Iowa Got more and more productive with experience. He’s a sideline to sideline tackler with coverage ability. He’s weaker on the pass rush, which is okay, because pass rushers don’t exactly stand out in this class. A thumper who I like as a 3-4 ILB at the next level.
15. A.J. Edds, ILB, Iowa Projects best on the strong side for a 4-3, and can cover a lot of TEs man to man, as he was in fact one in a previous (college football) life. This athleticism and his ability to play special teams will keep him employed, although the mass transition to 3-4 schemes is working against him.