With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David. After a game against South Dakota State University in 2010, David decided that he needed to have a heart-to-heart talk with then-defensive coordinator Carl Pelini about his performance. "I just told him the truth about everything," David told the Lincoln Journal-Star at the time. "How sometimes I probably need more time in the film room or individual (drills). I knew the defense, but at the same time I didn't know the why."
This moment of doubt and self-criticism came after a game in which David had 19 tackles.
David clearly figured out the "why" as the season progressed, amassing152 tackles and six sacks. He answered several other questions last year en route to an All America selection. The only question that David does not like answering these days is, "How big are you?" He weighed in at 233 pounds at the Combine but played in the 225-range, and a linebacker of his size may be limited to a career on the weak side of a classic Cover-2 defense.
Pros: David is a fun player to watch on tape because he makes about a dozen tackles per game: you don't have to wait for him to show up! Some of those tackles come in short yardage situations, when David waits for the blockers to engage his linemen before shooting the gap, then meets the running back before he reaches the hole. David made big short-yardage tackles against Michigan, South Carolina, and Penn State last year, so it's no coincidence: David has a knack for shooting gaps when he lines up 5-7 yards behind the line.
David is very fast in the open field, allowing him to pursue plays to the far sideline and clean up the ends of running plays. He sifts through blocks well, allowing him to play bigger than his size on the interior. He diagnoses plays well and makes good decisions. Michigan's zone-read option plays gave him no trouble, and David sniffs out counters, screens, and play action well.
David has the speed and instincts to drop into zone coverage and cover tight ends in man coverage. Nebraska even used him in a slot-nickelback role at times last year. He gave up a touchdown while covering a Colorado wide receiver, but while that showed his limitations as a defender, the fact that he was even assigned to a receiver in man coverage shows the confidence coaches had in him. There was some talk of David moving to safety in the pros, but that does not look like a natural fit, and the fact that David beefed up a bit probably signals the end of that experiment.
Cons: David does his best when plugging gaps, but at his size he inevitably gets engulfed. His sacks come from plays where coaches schemed to get him an inside lane. When David is blocked as a pass rusher, he stays blocked.
Overall, David gets high marks for tackling, but he will lunge at times. If he overpursues a play, he has difficulty gathering himself and regrouping, so ballcarriers sometimes blow by him.
I could go on and on to try and pad out the "cons" section, but it all boils down to "very good, but small for his position."
Conclusion: A few years ago, when there were more Dungy disciples coaching around the NFL, David's stock would be higher. He is an excellent fit as the weakside linebacker in a Cover-2 scheme: he can play seven yards behind the line, flow to the play, and drop into coverage. Now that 3-4 schemes are more stylish, David won't be in many teams' draft plans, which will make him slide down the draft board, possibly even out of the first round.
The team that ultimately drafts David, however, will know exactly what they are getting: a dozen productive tackles per game, a little bit of big play ability, and a hard worker who takes his craft seriously.
NFL Comparison: Gary Brackett, Indianapolis Colts
More Shutdown 50:
#43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska | #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia | #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami | #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State | #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy