Leading up to the NFL draft on May 8-10, Shutdown Corner will examine each position, rank the top players at each spot and try to identify some top sleepers, sliders and lesser-known gems.
There are, in very broad terms, two kinds of linebackers: off-the-line players and pass rushers. The latter tend to be drafted very high. The former, while still valuable, have fallen in value for many teams.
With the defensive sea change to smaller, faster defenses, teams often employ more nickel packages that take a linebacker off the field and replace him with a cornerback or a safety. That's what happens when you find yourself in the golden age of quarterbacking.
So it stands to reason that the linebackers who can do more than just stop the run — as opposed to the old hulking, punishing middle linebackers of yore — would be the ones who attract the most attention come draft time. Luckily, there are many who fit this description in this year's class.
There are strong pass rushers such as Buffalo's Khalil Mack, UCLA's Anthony Barr and Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu. But there also are well-rounded, three-down players such as Alabama's C.J. Mosley and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier.
Is there a dropoff thereafter? For sure. Even with some intriguing later-round possibilities, there isn't a lot of proven, clear-cut talent. But the depth of this class, more so on the outside than the interior, is evident.
Here are our top 10 linebackers for the 2014 NFL draft (not what order they will be drafted but how we think they ultimately will perform in the NFL, with their primary position listed first):
|1.||Khalil Mack (OLB-DE)||Buffalo||6-3||252||16 career forced fumbles, 75 tackles for loss||Energetic, motivated, John Abraham-like player who disrupts an offense in many ways|
|2.||C.J. Mosley (OLB-ILB)||Alabama||6-2||234||215 combined tackles past two seasons||Reports of balky shoulder concerning, but he's the best all-around 4-3 'backer in draft|
|3.||Anthony Barr (OLB-DE)||UCLA||6-5||255||42.5 TFLs, 23.5 sacks in only two seasons on defense||Converted RB has immense physical skill and yet is still learning finer points of game|
|4.||Ryan Shazier (OLB-ILB)||Ohio State||6-1||237||Ran insane 4.39 40 at pro day; 42-inch vertical jump at combine||Hyper-athletic, run-around LB compares to Alec Ogletree, but with no character issues|
|5.||Kyle Van Noy (OLB)||BYU||6-3||243||54.5 TFLs, 7 INTs past three seasons||Jack of all trades looked good in coverage and pass-rush drills at Senior Bowl|
|6.||Jeremiah Attaochu (OLB-DE)||Georgia Tech||6-3||252||GT career sacks leader with 31.5; fifth all time in ACC||Gifted, pure rusher who is just scratching surface at 21; bit of a one-trick pony, though|
|7.||Trent Murphy (OLB-DE)||Stanford||6-5||250||25 sacks past two seasons||Feisty, accountable, high-energy player with huge frame, rush potential, leadership qualities|
|8.||Telvin Smith (OLB)||Florida State||6-3||218||National champs' leading tackle in 2013 (90); also 3 INTs||Stick-skinny, high-effort player who inspires teammates; could be tried as big safety|
|9.||Carl Bradford (OLB-DE)||Arizona State||6-1||250||39.5 TFLs 20 sacks in two seasons starting||Intriguing project has some James Harrison-like skills to mold but not great in space|
|10.||Chris Borland (ILB)||Wisconsin||6-6||248||45 career starts, 15 forced fumbles||Incredibly short-armed playmaker with rare instincts, intangibles; can he get off blocks?|
UCLA LB Jordan Zumwalt
His personality can be a bit over the top for some teams, but Zumwalt is a high-energy, versatile linebacker capable of backing up any of the 4-3 positions (as well as perhaps playing inside in a 3-4) and being an impact special-teamer. He has played some of his best games on the biggest stages — he was co-MVP of the Sun Bowl, when he took out Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas — and plays with an edge to him. Some team will be wise to nab him somewhere in the third-to-fifth-round range.
Alabama LB Adrian Hubbard
With incredible physical tools, a massive frame and very good strength, Hubbard is the kind of height-weight-speed prospect who will enamor some defensive coaches. Until they turn on the tape and try to figure out exactly what he is and what he can be. Hubbard underachieved at 'Bama, a place where players with far less physical skills have flourished. In fact, most Bama defenders come into the NFL overrated for being maxed out as players, coached up to the hilt by Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, but with Hubbard, it's merely a projection because of Hubbard's raw skills at this point. The light might never go on (one team said he appeared disinterested in its interview with him) unless he starts to harness his ability more and a team figures out what role is best for him.
SMALL SCHOOL WONDER
Western Kentucky LB Andrew Jackson
Pardon us if we lump WKU in with the small schools, even after making the jump to I-A. But the elevation did not appear to faze Jackson, who displayed his strong play at the higher level. Jackson has plenty of red flags, including some character concerns after a high school arrest and a suspension this past season for a violation of team rules. Jackson's weight also has fluctuated, and he's a bit stout at 6-1 and 250 pounds, likely making him a two-down linebacker. But he can hit hard, plays with passion and has some real explosion to his game. Someone will bite.
Borland was the best-performing linebacker at the Senior Bowl, and he blew teams away with his maturity, preparedness and approach to the game — one team said his interview was one of the best they could remember. But the concerns about his surgically repaired shoulder are real, and he has almost comically short arms, which could hinder his ability to disengage from longer-armed blockers. Borland has the kind of determination and traits to make it no matter when he's drafted, but he might not be the second- or third-rounder some had him pegged early in the draft process.
After a slow start to the season, Attaochu adjusted to his role in Ted Roof's defense, a switch that had him playing as more of a true end rather than as a 3-4 outside 'backer in space. That's not where he's best. With his assignments more streamlined, you could see the light go on. Attaochu is an upfield rusher who could can wreak real havoc — watch the way he tormented Pitt's Tom Savage and affected his play, and Attaochu absolutely teed off on Georgia — as a situational rusher on either side of the line who can grow into a full-time role. You could see him going off the board somewhere in the second round now.
Notre Dame OLB Prince Shembo
Some teams have red-flagged him for character issues after Shembo admitted to being linked to an alleged sexual assault case on a girl who later committed suicide. That will hurt him in the NFL's eyes. But Irish officials have stood behind Shembo, and he never was charged in the case. He also has displayed rare wingspan, athleticism and strength as an outside rusher. Shembo had a strong pro day and is the kind of athlete who could become a demon on special teams if he passes the character test.
PLAYER WHO WILL GO UNDRAFTED BUT SHOULDN’T
Iowa State ILB Jeremiah George
Like Borland, he's short, incredibly instinctive and highly motivated. George has longer arms than Borland but suffered a stock hit when he was unable to run or perform drills at the combine following a hamstring pull. Teams might have forgotten about George a bit, but he's strong and intense and could make a solid weak side linebacker who cuts his teeth on special teams first.
Mack to the Jaguars
As much as the Jaguars need a quarterback, it would be hard for them to look past what appears to be a perfect match: Mack's skills in a Gus Bradley-coached defense. Mack could step right into the "Leo" rush role and will have a decent cast around him to deflect pressure. Plus, we like that he's going to an NFL city where the spotlight isn't as bright, so Mack can ease into the NFL without unreal expectations. In order to make his defense go, Bradley needs an edge disruptor, and Mack might be the perfect piece.
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