2012 NFL Draft Rankings: Linebackers
As tough and contested as the market for the few good pass rushers should be this year, there is plenty of value to be had at the linebacker position.
It is not a historically great class or anything, but there’s value at the top, throughout the first round, and deep into the middle rounds.
1. Luke Kuechly, Boston College, top five grade
I’m fairly certain that Like Kuechly isn’t the top inside linebacker ever to come out of the NFL draft. There are flaws in his game. When he doesn’t read a play almost immediately, he’s often late to get there. He is not a particularly big hitter or turnover maker.
But I also can remember ever having a top ILB ranked in the top five. Not since A.J. Hawk, at least, but even then, I think Kuechly is better coming out than that.
As to where he’ll go: I think top ten or twelve is reasonable. Carolina and Buffalo both need LBs. Kansas City is interested. Seattle should be.
2. Lavonte David, Nebraska, late-first round grade
3. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama, late-first round grade
4. Mychael Kendricks, California, second round grade
Of the two LBs in this second tier, I think David is the far more productive and far more useful player, though Kendricks is interesting because he’s a bit bigger, and runs just as well, rarely missing a ballcarrier in the open field. My problem with the fact that Davis could drop to the second round is how many 3-4 teams are unwilling to take undersized backers who can hit and take on blocks. I don’t get that. Players like Ray Lewis and London Fletcher have translated fantastically to 3-4 schemes.
Upshaw can play anywhere in any scheme. While that likely means “first round pass rusher”, I think he fits the NFL much better as a late one or early two middle player (DT-DE-MLB in a 4-3 scheme, or ILB-DE in a 3-4). He deserves opportunities to rush the passer, but his skill set (particularly against the run) is too diverse to limit to edge rushing.
5. Dont’a Hightower, Alabama, second round grade
6. Bobby Wagner, Utah State, second round grade
It is a bit remarkable what Utah State threw out there this season. Wagner isn’t all that far removed from Lavonte David as a pro prospect, and is probably looking at third round, with a shot to go in the mid second. Dont’a Hightower will not have to wait that long and I think he’s a better prospect in every way (except age) than his predecessor Rolando McClain was coming out. But I didn’t really like McClain a lot as a prospect and I thought the Raiders reached for him, especially considering that he was tasked right away with replacing Kirk Morrison. Hightower was the emotional leader of the National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide, and leaves college with two National Titles, but as a pro prospect, he’s not a great coverage guy, and he’s limited against spread sets. He will need to be protected against passing offenses by a strong pass rush. If he gets that help, he can be one of the premier downhill linebackers in the NFL.
7. Keenan Robinson, Texas, third round grade
8. James Michael-Johnson, Nevada, third round grade
9. Demario Davis, Arkansas State, third round grade
10. Zach Brown, North Carolina, third round grade
11. Terrell Manning, North Carolina State, third round grade
The third round level of this draft class is likely about where the supply of linebackers are going to exceed the demand: some of these guys will fall. As always, I remain partial to coverage and interior pass rush ability — so long as a guy can make tackles. Zach Brown in particular is a good tackler, but doesn’t take on blocks well (or at all, in some games).
12. Miles Burris, San Diego State, fourth round grade
13. Brandon Marshall, Nevada, fourth round grade
14. Audie Cole, North Carolina State, fourth round grade
15. Travis Lewis, Oklahoma, fourth round grade
16. Kyle Wilber, Wake Forest, fifth round grade
17. Sean Spence, Miami (FL), fifth round grade
The mid-round LBs group if full of flawed prospects who have interesting two or three year NFL projections. I don’t think Sean Spence is going to be able to translate to the NFL as an every down linebacker, but he was a heck of a player at Miami who has been viewed as an NFL prospect since high school, and those guys tend to do well. Travis Lewis was more of a safety/backer hybrid at Oklahoma who will probably play weakside backer in the pros (think a poor man’s Thomas Davis). Audie Cole could easily go a lot higher than this, but I believe Terrell Manning was the (slightly) better player this year for NC State.
18. Josh Kaddu, Oregon, fifth round grade
19. Danny Trevathan, Kentucky, sixth round grade
20. Jerry Franklin, Arkansas, sixth round grade
21. Emmanuel Acho, Texas, sixth round grade
22. Tank Carder, TCU, sixth round grade
Close to the level where the saying “linebackers of this quality are a dime a dozen” has particular meaning, these guys offer one or two skills that separate them from the category of ‘everyone else.’ In actuality, if more than one or two of these guys reaches a level where they aren’t a journeyman or organizational filler within three years, this is a stronger LB class than I’ve given it credit for. Kaddu has the best chance of this group to be a long term starter because of his quickness and fundamentals.
23. Shawn Loiseau, Merrimack College, seventh round grade
24. Adrien Cole, Louisiana Tech, seventh round grade
25. Nigel Bradham, Florida State, seventh round grade
26. Chris Marve, Vanderbilt, seventh round grade
27. Sammy Brown, Houston, Priority UDFA
Mostly coverage liabilities here. Marve or Bradham would be an interesting projection to the inside of a 4-3 defenses, but there aren’t a ton of needs there across the NFL. I’d like to see a bit more of Adrien Cole, but will not have time before the draft.
28. Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State, Priority UDFA
29. Najee Goode, West Virginia, Priority UDFA
30. Caleb McSurdy, Montana, Priority UDFA
31. Tyler Nielsen, Iowa, Priority UDFA
32. Tahir Whitehead, Temple, Priority UDFA
33. Nate Stupar, Penn State, UDFA
34. Chris Galippo, USC, UDFA
35. Ryan Baker, LSU, UDFA
36. Steven Johnson, Kansas, UDFA