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On the Rise: Linebackers and defensive backs

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In Part III of our On the Rise series, we examine several fast-rising linebackers and defensive backs.

ILB Spencer Adkins, Miami (5-foot-11, 230 pounds)
It looks like Miami's streak of having a player selected in the first round will finally come to an end, but it doesn't mean the Hurricanes don't have talent to offer. One player who has risen up draft boards is Adkins, who had a productive workout at the Miami pro day and now has a shot to hear his name called late. He's a bit undersized but possesses elite straight-line speed (4.48) for the position and consistently makes plays sideline to sideline.

When I watch Adkins on tape, he plays just as fast as he times and does a great job closing on the football and making plays away from his frame. He isn't the most instinctive linebacker and struggles occasionally diagnosing plays, but he showcases the speed to consistently get himself in position to find the ball. He may be a bit scheme limited and looks to fit in best as a Cover 2 guy, but you can't ignore his ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage and get after the ball. Adkins finished the season second on the Hurricanes in sacks (four) and will bring some pass-rush ability to an NFL team at the next level. He's never going to be an ideal MLB who can read and react quickly to plays, but what he gives you is an excellent athlete who has great range, can help get after the passer and be a demon on special teams.

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Stephen Hodge
(Scott Boehm/Getty)

OLB Stephen Hodge, TCU (6-0, 234)
One of my favorite prospects in the draft is Hodge, a former strong safety who will likely to be asked to move to outside linebacker in the NFL. Hodge displayed impressive straight-line speed at the NFL scouting combine, running his 40 in a time of 4.59. However, he struggles when asked to cleanly transition out of his breaks in coverage and simply doesn't have the fluidity to play in space at the next level.

But what he does as well as any safety in the country is attack the line of scrimmage and make plays vs. the run game. He diagnoses run/pass quickly and has the body control and power to break down in space and consistently make the tackle. He plays with a real mean streak but always takes good angles to the ball and rarely runs himself out of plays. Hodge, a first-team All-Mountain West Conference selection at safety, has accepted the fact most teams are looking at him at linebacker, and his physical skill set should allow him to make a smooth transition to the position. He simply made plays in the TCU secondary last year, breaking on the ball, creating collisions and wrapping up ball carriers behind the line. He's a bit too stiff to play in space in the NFL but should be able to find his way at OLB.

CB Greg Toler, St. Paul's College (5-11, 191)
Toler, a Division II standout, has had one of the biggest climbs of any prospect in this year's draft. It isn't uncommon for small-school guys like Toler to garner attention from NFL scouts early in their careers and solidify themselves as draftable prospects by their senior years. However, it is rare for a virtually unheard of small-school player to have this kind of ascension up draft boards so late in the process.

Toler was considered more of a top-50 CB prospect at the start of the postseason, but now, after finally seeing some tape and numbers on him, I don't think it's a stretch to say he has a shot at coming off the board as early as the third round. He's a gifted athlete for his size and was able to run in the low 4.4 range at his pro day. He also posted 33½-inch vertical and showcased good change-of-direction skills with a 4.18 short shuttle time and a 6.95 three-cone drill. However, what's even more impressive is watching tape of the kid. Toler possesses some of the best feet and fluidity of any corner in the draft and is comfortable cleanly redirecting and getting out of his breaks. Toler had six interceptions and an impressive 19 passes defended last season, ranking third in the nation. It may take him time to adjust to the NFL game, and that's the biggest concern among scouts, but he definitely has the size, coordination and talent to make it at the next level.

CB/KR Michael Ray Garvin, Florida State (5-8, 174)
Garvin is a raw, undersized corner who didn't start one game last year on defense for Florida State and finished with only 15 tackles, two passes defended and one forced fumble. So why am I including him as a rising prospect in the 2009 draft? One word: speed. He's a world-class sprinter who registered the lowest 40 of the draft season with a time of 4.23 seconds and found a niche as a kick return specialist on the Seminoles' special team.

Garvin averaged an amazing 30.1 yards per kick return last year and went over 100 yards in returns three times in 2008, including a season-high 172 yards against Florida. He's a tough kid who actually led Florida State cornerbacks in tackles as a junior and may be able to help out in dime packages in the NFL. However, most of his value will come in the special teams department, where he has the speed, toughness and instincts to quickly become one of the league's top return men.

FS DeAngelo Willingham, Tennessee (5-11, 217)
No prospect in this year's draft class has endured the type of roller-coaster ride that Willingham has been on since September. He started the year as a mid-round cornerback prospect and was ranked by Blesto and National scouting services as a top-20 senior corner. Willingham's knack for the big play and timely hit early in the 2008 season got him flying up draft boards and moved him toward a possible first-day pick.

However, after being abused by Alabama WR Julio Jones in late October, his stock began taking a significant dive toward the back end of the draft. He simply didn't possess the footwork, balance or fluidity needed to play corner in the NFL, and his stock was affected by his weekly struggles. But during postseason workouts and the pro-day circuit, Willingham rebounded with an impressive showing, running a 4.46 40 and displaying good strength with 20 reps on the bench. Scouts started looking at his range, size and knack for the big hit as potential reasons to move him to free safety. In what's considered a weak FS class, Willingham's stock has once again seen a spike, and he is now projected to come off the board some time during the mid/late rounds.

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