Though the 2010 NFL draft class is known to be remarkably deep at several positions, inside linebacker is not one of them. Of the top five players on most lists, two (Penn State's Sean Lee and Washington's Donald Butler ) project better as outside linebackers in the NFL due to size concerns and specific positional traits.
This year, if you want to grab a dominant inside guy, it's pretty much Alabama's Rolando McClain – the one sure stud – and then a few guys (like Florida's Brandon Spikes) with as many questions as answers. Why did the Miami Dolphins sign former Cardinals ILB Karlos Dansby(notes) to a five-year, $43 million contract? Because reinforcements, especially players who can switch spots in hybrid defenses, are hard to find.
That said, someone needs to be measured against McClain. The choice is Lee:
Rolando McClain, Alabama
Sean Lee, Penn State
Pros: McClain reads what's in front of him quickly and well; he's able to diagnose and go without a lot of processing. Because of this, he can re-set against play action and misdirection and stay in the picture. Able to use an array of moves to cross the action and get past blockers, he can bounce off, sift through and run around obstacles while keeping his focus on the ball carrier. Uses his excellent upper-body strength to push and roll off larger blockers at the second level. Covers a lot of unblocked space in a hurry for his size; he explodes to the ball head-on. Outstanding sideline-to-sideline pursuit speed, and will make a real commitment to stopping the runner when he gets there. Avoids the temptation to go for the kill shot, instead focusing on solid tackling fundamentals to insure a stopped play. Drives through the offensive player and lifts to stop momentum. Uses closing speed well against underneath routes when he's dropped in zone coverage. Will use his height to bat passes down over the middle. Not an instinctive cover linebacker, but is effective in short spaces with slot receivers. Acts as a de facto defensive coordinator on the field; has a great knowledge and understanding of defensive adjustments.
Pros: Lee will occasionally get pushed back on first contact with run-blockers, but he's very quick in getting off blocks and continuing downhill or side-to-side to stop the play. Excellent speed to and through the line in run defense. Very agile player with excellent footwork. He's an excellent backfield tackler with the way he gets free of blockers – can quickly head back up to tackle if a ball carrier has passed him behind the line of scrimmage. Good zone pass defender, inside and outside, with the short-area speed to recover quickly if he's out of place. Won't generally bite on play fakes and misdirection. Not a full midfield zone defender, but could be trained in that role. Extremely intelligent player who took his lost season of 2008 very well (torn ACL), acting to inspire his teammates and traveling with the team as a coach. Reads offensive intentions as well as any defender in the nation.
Cons: As quick as McClain is against the run, he slows a step when diagnosing and covering screens and other pass plays. Not a natural dropback defender; seems to be lost in the middle zones at times. Not flexible enough in his hips to redirect in coverage against option routes. Will lose tackles on outside plays at times against inside cuts. Not a fully-developed blitzer, though he has the tools to be one over time. Diagnosed with Crohn's Disease, but never missed a game at Alabama.
Cons: Has the speed to blitz, but is too often walled off by blockers without the ability to disengage and get back in the rush. Not a prototypical "stack-and-shed" player at the line; his size prevents this. High-effort guy, but the downside is that he will occasionally run himself right out of tackle situations. Torn ACL in his right knee caused him to miss the entire 2008 season, though there don't seem to be any aftereffects. Lacks core tackling strength.
Conclusion: With his short-area speed and dominant strength, McClain could be a star in a 3-4 ILB role, or as a 4-3 Mike on certain teams. Tampa 2 defensive teams may want to take a pass because of his limits in coverage, but there's little doubt that he'll be outstanding in the right scheme. Given his grasp of Nick Saban's more complex 3-4 defenses, he'll show up ready for the NFL as quickly as anyone in this draft.
Conclusion: Though Lee frequently lined up in the middle of Penn State's defense, he's an outside linebacker, or inside 'backer in nickel sets, in the NFL. Teams that run their second-level defenders in equal run/pass reads will find his on-field intelligence and good overall speed to be great assets. But he'll be out of place in a defense that demands bigger defenders, and defenders who have no trouble handling power.
Doug Farrar is a regular contributor to Yahoo! Sports' Shutdown Corner