Linebacker has been a bit of a forgotten position in the draft, at least the traditional, 4-3 ’backer. Pass-rushing 3-4 linebackers have been in vogue in recent years, and last year we saw the Pittsburgh Steelers take Jarvis Jones with the 17th overall pick.
The only other first-round linebacker in 2012 was Georgia’s Alec Ogletree, taken by the St. Louis Rams. Six more went in the second round, and only two more in Round 3. Only 10 linebackers were taken in the first 98 picks.
Compare that to a generation ago. In 2000, there were 16 linebackers taken in the first 98 picks — including six in Round 1.
Has the NFL devalued the position? The 2014 draft could be telling on that front, as there is perhaps more talent at the position than in the past several years. True, five linebackers went in Round 1 of the 2012 draft, but three of those were converted college defensive ends.
This year’s crop includes several prospects who could go early. UCLA’s Anthony Barr figures to be a top-10 selection, in the mold of Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller. Alabama’s C.J. Mosley is versatile, can play inside or out, and hails from an NFL factory talent in a pro-style scheme.
Down just a bit are Ohio State’s talented Ryan Shazier, BYU’s Kyle Van Noy and another Bama ’backer, Adrian Hubbard.
Some fast-risers at the position include Buffalo’s Khalil Mack, who put on some excellent tape against Ohio State, which surely will help his stock; Stanford’s Trent Murphy, who can be used as a rusher or dropping into coverage; and Clemson’s Vic Beasley — see the “Stock Rising” section below.
Other borderline first- or second-round prospects include Oregon State’s Scott Chrichton (who plays defensive end), Florida State’s Christian Jones, Tennessee’s A.J. Johnson and Connecticut’s Yawin Smallwood.
The early success of Ogletree (three forced fumbles, pick-six INT) and Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso (league-leading 66 tackles, four INTs) shows that linebackers can be plug-and-play additions. Next season could bear even more fruit at the position.
The premature 2014 mock draft, picks 1-16 (order based on inverse of current power rankings)
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater
Teddy followed Justin Blackmon last week on Twitter. Just sayin’. We covered just about every angle the past month with this quarterback and this team that, frankly, I fear you all will be worn out with it by December.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney
This easily could be a quarterback, depending on the play of Mike Glennon and, more importantly, the future of Greg Schiano. A new coach might want to bring in his own guy. It wouldn’t stun us if Oregon’s Marcus Mariota flies up into this range once the season is in the books.
3. New York Giants
Texas A&M OT Jake Matthews
This brings up an interesting debate: Who would the Giants consider if Clowney was off the board? They are not likely to go quarterback here because Tom Coughlin and Jerry Reese believe in Eli Manning, and neither coach nor GM is leaving (we don’t think) if they don’t want to. Matthews makes sense, given their needs, but UCLA’s Anthony Barr wouldn’t be out of the question.
4. Minnesota Vikings
UCLA LB Anthony Barr
Oh, there might be better pairings out there, but Barr certainly would be a fit — and his Von Miller-like skill set can help offset the coming of Jared Allen’s eventual twilight. Again, like the Bucs, a quarterback could be in play here if (a) Josh Freeman fails in his trial period or (b) Leslie Frazier is toast. Lots of variables.
5. St. Louis Rams (pick traded from Washington Redskins to Rams)
Michigan OT Taylor Lewan
There’s a need at tackle, just as there are needs on defense. Talent and draft stock point to the offensive line at this point. But this is very much open to change. As, well, all of these way-too-early projections are.
6. Buffalo Bills
Alabama OT Cyrus Kouandjio
Alabama head coach did his best to quash the experts’ feelings on Kouandjio’s draft stock last week, which doesn’t mean much. It could have just been a bad day for Nick. The Bills still need a right tackle, they love SEC players and would love to insulate the pocket better for E.J. Manuel.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota
Whoa, daddy. With two years and $23.7 million remaining on Ben Roethlisberger’s contract — and salary-cap hits at more than $18 million per — it very well could be time for a transition if things don’t straighten out there. We still have trouble envisioning a Ben-less Steelers team, but it also wouldn’t stun us. Mariota would bring a fascinating skill set to Steeltown; he shredded a good Washington defense last week. It’s at least fun to think about him here.
8. Oakland Raiders
Texas A&M WR Mike Evans
We’d love to see a Denarius Moore-Evans tandem rolling in Oakland, with the continued progression of Terrelle Pryor. Yes, offensive line help would be warranted — but not here. They’ll consider another elite offensive playmaker in the 6-5 Evans to make the chains move more freely.
9. Houston Texans
Georgia QB Aaron Murray
They’ll be picking a new quarterback next season, it appears; it’s just not clear if it will be a rookie or a veteran, considering the talent on the roster suggests they’re built as much for now as they are for down the road. If we’re going to project them to draft a quarterback, we might as well give them one with experience — 47 career starts and counting heading into Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt. The fact that he's working with so little talent around him now because of injuries shouldn't hurt his stock too much.
10. Arizona Cardinals
LSU QB Zach Metterberger
This is a pro-style quarterback with a big frame and great arm strength who throws a pretty ball — basically everything Bruce Arians seeks in a quarterback. In fact … doesn’t he remind you a tad of Carson Palmer? Hmm.
11. St. Louis Rams
Alabama S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Safety looms as a huge area of need for the Rams, and they clearly have shown a propensity to take players with character red flags that ward off some other teams. Clinton-Dix was suspended recently for associating with some people connected to an agent, so it’s not the most earth-shattering black mark in the world. The Rams easily look past this indiscretion and take a good talent to round out the back end.
12. Atlanta Falcons
Notre Dame DT Louis Nix III
Second time we’ve paired these two together, and it makes sense. Jordan Babineaux is great. Peria Jerry is not. Everyone talks about edge rushing, but more and more you’re seeing teams seeking to disrupt from the inside out. Nix can do that and help shield their linebackers, too.
13. New York Jets
Alabama LB C.J. Mosley
Can Rex (yeah, we’re saying he keeps his job) make a strong defense even stronger? The Jets need receiver help badly to assist Geno Smith but might not be convinced that Marqise Lee or Sammy Watkins is worth taking here. John Idzik, in his first Jets draft, went with two SEC players, and one Alabaman. Here’s another versatile piece who can play inside next to David Harris and start from Day One.
14. Carolina Panthers
Clemson WR Sammy Watkins
We don’t love the fact that Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris sort of called out Watkins after Florida State manhandled them and contained Watkins, but there’s a real need there. With Watkins and Brandon LaFell outside, Steve Smith can move into the slot, where he’s more effective now, alongside tight end Greg Olsen. That’s a viable quartet.
15. Philadelphia Eagles
Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel
Don’t think he’s going this high? You’re setting yourself up to be floored then. Sure, Manziel’s YOLO-style ball is not for everyone, but we can think of a certain coach who might just be endeared by it. We know that Chip Kelly wanted Johnny Football at Oregon, and we’re betting he’d take a flier on him in Philly. The wildcard: How well Nick Foles plays down the stretch. Seriously.
16. Tennessee Titans
Notre Dame DT Stephon Tuitt
The Titans have a building block up front in Jurrell Casey, and Derrick Morgan is starting to prove his worth as a pass rusher. But Tuitt would fill a big need inside as a run stopper and beef up what is a shallow front. A smart, unsexy pick in the mold of their first-rounder this year, guard Chance Warmack, whose play is rounding into form.
Clemson DE-OLB Vic Beasley
The nation’s leading sacker with nine is going to be a fascinating debate come draft season. His size (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) almost certainly will move him from his college position of defensive end into a stand-up linebacker role. But Beasley has lived in the backfield enough to merit serious attention, and NFL teams will have to find a way best to utilize his mix of power and speed.
That power might not translate to the next level against 320-pound offensive tackles, though, so the big question is whether he can play in a two-point stance, track the ball and make plays in that type of role.
Beasley also is a junior and could opt to stay in school. But more big games and eye-opening numbers, and the allure of the NFL might be too strong for him. He compares to Seattle Seahawks rusher Bruce Irvin and the San Francisco 49ers' Corey Lemonier, size- and style-wise.
Watching Beasley lock horns with Florida State tackle Cameron Erving, a potential first-round pick as well, should be fascinating. And, of course, chasing around FSU’s Jameis Winston will tell us even more about Beasley’s ability to finish.
Oklahoma CB Aaron Colvin
Colvin is a tough-willed player with the physical attributes to make the transition to the NFL readily. But Colvin has times where he looks out of place, especially in deep coverage.
In the upset loss to Texas, Colvin was active with nine tackles, and two for losses. But he drew a pass interference call for sloppy technique and also was beat deep in coverage another time. His aggressiveness works against him at times.
In addition, Colvin left the game with a left shoulder injury that bears watching.
He’s still likely to land somewhere in Rounds 2-4 when it’s all said and done, and his special-teams ability will help him, but he has yet to build on his resumé as a corner this season. The fact that recent Oklahoma defensive backs such as Jamell Fleming, Quinton Carter and Dominique Franks have yet to find their niches on the NFL level also is concerning.
SOME MORE DRAFT TIDBITS
Look for Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan to return to school next year. There had been talk that Hogan, who does possess some Andrew Luck-esque characteristics (he has been described by a few scouts as Luck Lite), could make the jump. But a crowded quarterback class this year and an underwhelming performance against Utah suggest that there is more incubation needed. Hogan can improve and be one of the first quarterbacks taken in the class of 2015. … it hasn’t been a great season — or career, for that matter — for once-highly touted Miami (Fla.) offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson, the former top-five high-school recruit. He’s returning to the field after a one-game suspension for breaking team rules and will have a good matchup with North Carolina defensive end Kareem Martin, another NFL prospect. Henderson has massive size and worthy ability, but he’s strictly a right tackle and has a lot to prove. … Another great DE-OT matchup to follow this weekend is Bama’s Cyrus Kouandjio vs. underrated Arkansas rusher Chris Smith. Although Smith lacks ideal NFL height for defensive end, his quickness is undeniable. Smith was dominant against Southern Miss this season, and he pressured Johnny Manziel a number of times last week.
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