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Rating the linebackers

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A conference-by-conference look at the top senior NFL linebacker prospects.

ACC

Philip Wheeler, Georgia Tech – Could be the best all-around linebacker for a 4-3 team as he can play either side or the middle. He moved to the middle as a junior to replace Gerris Wilkinson, now with the New York Giants. Wheeler does a good job of blitzing and has the strength to take on and shed blockers. He has good speed but will not make as many plays in pass coverage. He plays faster than he times.

Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Boston College – Dunbar plays with great instincts and passion. He's a little undersized, but runs very well and always seems to be around the ball. He came back quickly from a high-ankle sprain this year. He can shed blockers and fires into the backfield on blitzes. Has shown the ability to create turnovers and should be a tackle machine at the next level.

Xavier Adibi, Virginia Tech – A fluid outside linebacker, Adibi has also lined up inside. He runs well for his size and position (4.55 range) but is also flexible and shows the hips to turn and run with receivers lined up in the slot. Has been more of a zone defender, but can adapt to most schemes and also gets after the QB. Struggles when attacking the line of scrimmage since he lacks strength and bulk. Will grade out higher for teams using the Cover-2 defense.

Vince Hall, Virginia Tech – Another good to above-average college defender who could struggle in the NFL. He lacks ideal speed and lateral quickness, but has made up for it with good read-and-react skills. If he were to run between 4.8 and 4.9 in the 40-yard dash, his draft grade will slip.

Tavares Gooden, Miami – Gooden has played both outside linebacker spots while showing smarts and hustle to get to plays that you don't expect him to make. Strong upper body, shows the ability to weave through blockers and makes good use of his hands. He is not overly fluid in pass coverage, but gets to his spot and hits with authority. Some scouts wonder if he can adapt to a complex NFL scheme.

BIG EAST

Ben Moffitt, South Florida – Hard-working leader of the Bulls' defense. He is not a great athlete and might lack the speed to impress scouts. Looks better the more you watch him on film.

Jameel McClain, Syracuse – A productive, undersized defensive end, McClain will be converted to linebacker. Probably will play special teams as a rookie until he can find a spot on the field. McClain has found a way to get to the quarterback throughout his college career and should continue to do it in the NFL.

BIG TEN

Dan Connor, Penn State – The nation's best all-around senior linebacker, He is very tough, works to get through blockers and will come back to make plays in pursuit if he is initially blocked. He can also make plays when asked to blitz. Needs to do a better job in the open field as he will leave his feet at times, but is strong in pass coverage. While not a vocal leader in the locker room, he is respected.

Shawn Crable, Michigan – Tough to get a read on when breaking down his film. He does not always show up every week and makes a few poor reads/decisions. If he is paired with the right coach and football becomes a top priority, his career could take off.

J Leman, Illinois – The classic overachiever who has taken his game and his teammates' games to a new level. Leman plays with tenacity, sees the ball quickly and plays much faster than he times, although he struggles to get to his spot at times in pass coverage.

Mike Humpal, Iowa – Good, straight-line type athlete but is seen as more of a mid-to-late round prospect. Humpal shows good hustle, smarts and creates a punch when he gets to the ballcarrier. He gets the most out of his ability, which should help him earn a spot in the back of the draft.

BIG 12

Alvin Bowen, Iowa State – An active outside linebacker who shows the range and speed to make plays. Bowen has been the team's big play defender while improving his game. Still has room to improve as he could get bigger/stronger. He moves well for his size, can cover most players in man coverage, but needs to do a better job in zone. Locates the ball very well and is aggressive once he reads/reacts.

Jordon Dizon, Colorado – Although he lacks the natural size of others in this group, Dizon attacks the play and uses his instincts to rack up tackles. Has played both inside and weak-side linebacker, so he can be tried in a number of roles at the next level. Good overall athlete who should go between the third and fifth round.

Steve Octavien, Nebraska – Octavien will stand out to position coaches when they start breaking down game film. He has the range to cover tight ends and backs and can also shed quickly and make plays at the point of attack. Strong upper-body, reads the play quickly and has improved his draft stock this season.

Corey McKeon, Nebraska – Active but undersized inside linebacker who has started at both middle and weakside during his college career. He runs well, makes a fair amount of plays in pursuit and gives the type of effort that gets him noticed. Versatility and the temperament to be a do-it-all type guy on special teams could earn him a late-round grade.

Rodrick Johnson, Oklahoma State – Stocky, inside linebacker who is a steady run stuffer. Johnson is able to make most plays in front of him, but struggles in pursuit as he is a little tight in the hips. Regarded by most as being a two-down linebacker who will also play special teams.

PAC-10

Keith Rivers, USC – Active and athletic outside linebacker who makes plays from sideline-to-sideline and shows the instincts to be around the ball. Rivers has made some plays as a pass rusher, but is not always the most physical defender at the point of attack or when taking on blockers. Moves well for his size. His long arms allow him to get his hands on the ball in pass coverage, but he will over-run some plays. Some believe he is a high first-round pick, while others believe he deserves a second-round grade.

Spencer Larsen, Arizona – A smart, instinctual leader with a good skill set, but just average speed and range. Larsen is very well prepared and reads the play quickly. He has the ability to make all the calls for a defensive set. Position coaches will fight for a guy such as this on draft day.

Derrick Doggett, Oregon State – One of the most productive defenders in the Pac-10, but the undersized outside linebacker might have to convert to safety or be used as a situational defender at the pro level.

SEC

Ali Highsmith, LSU – An athletic outside linebacker who has led the Tigers in tackles. Some scouts wonder if he has the instincts to continue that in the pros. Highsmith seems to be more of a straight-lined athlete who struggles at times to turn-and-run in pass coverage. He will run in the 4.5s and show outstanding athleticism during the NFL Combine, but scouts are more interested to see his read/react skills during the practice week at the Senior Bowl.

Wesley Woodyard, Kentucky – Has flashed the ability to make big plays thanks to his instincts, speed and all-around athleticism. Some teams are evaluating him for possible conversion to safety. A smart, durable tackler who gets into good position, but is more of a straight-line athlete who is not as agile as he is fast. Would do well to add 8-10 pounds in the postseason. Cover 2 teams will like his ability to become a playmaker at weak-side linebacker.

Jonathan Goff, Vanderbilt – An underrated inside linebacker. Goff is an average athlete, but does a good job of reading and reacting to the play quickly, so he plays faster than he times. Scouts wonder if he can get to all the plays he did at the college level in the pros.

OTHER CONFERENCES

Ezra Butler, Nevada – A supremely gifted athlete who has become a force since moving back to outside linebacker. Butler is very aggressive off the ball and combines that with rare speed and an extra burst to the ball. He had 66 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and two interceptions this season. He missed a game this season for violating team rules, which has scouts wondering about his maturity. Butler is a very talented defender who will get a look at either weakside in a 4-3 or outside in a 3-4.

Beau Bell, UNLV – Bell has a terrific size/speed combination, but he needs to continue working on his read and reaction skills. At 6-2, 250 pounds he has been timed in the 4.55 range, but is not great in pass coverage. He has played both middle and outside linebacker. Sometimes is a step slow to react after the ball is snapped. Would like to see him play tougher/stronger at the point of attack, but his workout numbers might be too hard to pass up.

Marcus Richardson, Troy – Fast, athletic outside linebacker who has started making more impact plays. He has been timed in the 4.5 range to go along with a 39-inch vertical. Looks more comfortable if lined up on the weakside where he can roam and not have to worry about engaging a blocker. Should be a great special teams guy early in his pro career.

Dante Floyd, New Mexico State – A stocky middle linebacker who has gone from unknown junior college transfer to potentially attractive inside linebacker prospect for a 3-4 team. He is about 5-10, 245 pounds and led the Aggies with 115 tackles, 10 for loss and four sacks. Best in a zone defense. His tapes are impressive and he should also stand out on special teams.

Bryan Kehl, BYU – Solid outside linebacker who has experience on the weakside. Good size (6-3, 235) and strength he has been estimated at 4.65 in the 40-yard dash. A good open-field tackler, but he can be a little over-eager and does not have great range in pass coverage. Impressive postseason workout results could raise his grade above mid-to-late round.

David Vobora, Idaho – Led his team with 136 tackles using a combination of instincts, motor and passion. He is undersized (6-2, 230), but has tried to bulk up. Has earned praise from scouts, but could be overshadowed in the postseason by fellow senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree, who has had some injury issues, but recorded 82 tackles this season.

SMALL-SCHOOL PROSPECTS

Shonda Faulkner, Indiana State – A Jamaica native who grew up in New York, Faulkner is a potential weak-side linebacker prospect. He has the speed, range and coverage skills to be considered. Led his team with 113 tackles. He has as strong build for a 220-pound defender, knows how to use his hands to shed blockers and flashes an extra burst when chasing the quarterback. He has been timed in the mid-to-high 4.5 range.

William Hayes, Winston Salem State – A developing pass rusher who could be evaluated as either a 4-3 defensive end or a standup linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Has been timed in the 4.6 range in the 40-yard dash at roughly 6-3, 265 pounds. He recorded 78 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, four fumble recoveries and seven forced fumbles as a senior. His pass rushing totals and ability to create turnovers have him on scouts' radar.

Shane Simmons, Western Washington – An athletic but undersized outside linebacker who transferred from Idaho and led the North Central Conference with 126 tackles as a senior. Simmons is always around the ball and plays with intensity. Moves well in space, but has trouble at times shedding blockers. Has experience at both inside and outside linebacker, which helps his grade, but a serious stinger he suffered in his right shoulder during his junior year is a concern.

Lenny Trusnik, Ohio Northern – The younger brother of New York Jets DE/OLB Jason Trusnik. He led his team in tackles, while being named the conference's top linebacker. Has been timed in the 4.6 range; also does mid-20 reps of 225 pounds. Ultra-productive on the field as he has recorded more than 200 tackles and 12 sacks over the past two years. He played all three linebacker spots as well as fullback at the East Coast Bowl.

Alex Hall, St. Augustine (Va.) – A pass-rushing defensive end who is undersized, but flashes the ability to get off the ball quickly. Hall has gained nearly 20 pounds since the spring, but has trouble holding his weight above 230 pounds. Has a long, lanky frame, long arms that allow him to shed blockers, but lacks lower body strength. He led his team with 20 sacks over the past two seasons, including 15 tackles for loss and seven sacks as a senior. Has run in the high 4.6 range.

Christian Serena, Western New Mexico – A junior college transfer who led the Mustangs in tackles the past two seasons. He's a solidly built 6-1, 240-pound defender with the ability to make quick reads and the strength to take on and shed blockers.

Ronnie McCullough, Bethune-Cookman – A South Florida transfer who led the nation with 149 tackles. Well-built, compact defender who does well moving forward and reading the play. Has to show scouts that he has the foot-speed to continue making plays at the next level. Was estimated at 4.9 in the 40 last spring.

Vincent Redd, Liberty U. – A Virginia transfer who opened eyes by leading the team in tackles for loss and sacks in his first season with the Flames. He might receive an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA. At 6-5, 260 pounds he has ideal size and was timed in the 4.6 range with the Cavaliers, while also showing an added burst to the ball. Could be a priority free agent.

Matthew Rugenstein, Hope U. (Mich.) – Division III pass rusher who has shown the athleticism and skills to get after the quarterback when lined up at either defensive end or linebacker. He is roughly 6-3, 255 pounds. He has the determination and skill set to play on special teams.

Russell Reeves, Delaware State – A big, physical linebacker, Reeves is not as fluid as you would like in pass coverage, but he has adequate straight-line speed. He could fight for a roster spot as a reserve/special teams guy.

Steve Allen, West Texas A&M – Allen will need to prove the speed of the pro game is not too much for him. He has played mostly inside at the college level, but his game translates more to weakside in the NFL.