NFL Prospects: Linebackers

Ole Miss' Willis and PSU's Posluszny top the list

April 17, 2007

By Rob Rang

Special to CSTV.com from the Sports Xchange

 

Teams needing impact linebackers will have to strike early in the 2007 draft, as this year's class is the weakest in years.

 

As many as four linebackers could be drafted in the first round, but only one -- Mississippi inside linebacker Patrick Willis -- is universally viewed as deserving of the honor. Three outside linebackers -- Penn State's Paul Posluszny, Florida State's Lawrence Timmons and Miami (Fla.) Jon Beason -- flash the talent to be among the first 32 selected, but also have their warts that concern teams.

 

Here is an in-depth look at the best inside and outside linebackers:

 

INSIDE LINEBACKERS:

 

1. Patrick Willis, Mississippi, 6-1, 242, Sr.:

 

Clearly the top linebacker in the draft, Willis is the surest thing among all defensive prospects in the minds of many scouts. The SEC's leading tackler in each of the past two seasons, Willis combines standout instincts with even better athleticism. With a career-high 137 tackles, including 11.5 tackles for loss, as a senior, Willis was recognized with nearly every possible award he was eligible for in 2006. A consensus All-American, Willis was voted the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year and won both the Butkus Award and Lambert Trophy as the nation's top linebacker. Scouts point to his instincts, speed and strength in disengaging from blocks as reasons for his success. Willis is better against the run than the pass, but strong workouts have eased concerns. His 4.51-second 40-yard dash and 39-inch vertical were the best of all the inside linebackers tested in Indianapolis. Not satisfied with just leading his position, however, Willis worked out again at his Pro Day and was timed at a shocking 4.37 at 242 pounds. Willis will enter his rookie season as one of the favorites to win Defensive Rookie of the Year.

 

2. Brandon Siler, Florida, 6-2, 241, Jr.:

 

With notables like Jarvis Moss playing in front of him and Reggie Nelson behind, it is easy to understand why Siler hasn't received the type of national acclaim that some of the other highly touted linebackers have. Siler certainly is viewed as a quality NFL prospect by scouts, however. Blessed with prototype size for the position and better instincts than he is given credit for, Siler is a classic middle linebacker who flashes enough athleticism that some teams are even considering him for the outside. If there is a concern with the 31-game starter, it is that Siler isn't the physical tone-setter in the middle that teams crave at the position. He would rather run around blocks than take them on squarely and, while an effective open-field tackler (218 career tackles), Siler isn't a punisher.

 

3. David Harris, Michigan, 6-2, 243, Sr.:

 

While Willis and Posluszny may get the headlines, there may not be a better run-defending linebacker in this draft than Harris. Michigan's ability to stuff the run was staggering last year. The Wolverines allowed just 43.38 yards per game, the lowest season team total since Arizona allowed only 30.1 yards per game in 1993. Wolverine coaches will tell you that Harris was as much a reason for the stout defense as any player on the roster -- including highly touted defensive tackle Alan Branch. Though Harris is remarkably stout at the line and surprisingly quick to the flanks, his lack of straight-line speed and instincts in the passing game limit his upside. For a team looking for an inside thumper, Harris is your man. Those seeking a more well-rounded linebacker would be advised to look elsewhere.

 

4. Justin Durant, Hampton, 6-1, 230, Sr.:

 

For "small school" players to earn attention from NFL scouts, they often need to either dominate their level of competition or work out exceedingly well. Durant took a novel approach: he did both. A starter in 39 games, Durant ranks second in school history with 353 tackles (185 solos), adding 10.0 sacks for minus-62 yards and 47 stops for losses totaling 156 yards. He then produced a workout at the Combine that ranked among the position's elite (4.51 40, 25 reps at 225 pounds, 36-inch vertical jump). Scouts will tell you Durant lacks great instincts and remains more of an athlete than a football player in terms of his overall technique. That said, he has rare measureables and the hope is that with time and NFL coaching, Durant can develop into a significant middle-round diamond in the rough.

 

5. Buster Davis, Florida State, 5-10, 239, Sr.:

 

Durant may get drafted on the first day due to his measureables. Davis likely will be drafted at a similar point despite them. Lacking prototypical size and speed, Davis has nonetheless developed into one of the more consistent and reliable inside linebackers in the country based on instincts, technique and surprising lateral quickness. He has some off-field concerns that scouts will need to sort out and, despite his steady play, Davis isn't considered a locker and weight room leader. It is hard to argue with his production at Florida State, however. A 37-game starter for the talent-laden Seminoles, Davis registered 265 tackles (127 solos) with 8.0 sacks for minus-69 yards, and ranks 11th in school history with 27.5 stops for losses.

 

Other Potential Impact Inside Linebackers:

 

--Michael Okwo, Stanford, 6-0, 232, Sr.: One of the more underrated defenders in the draft, Okwo led the Pac-10 and finished eighth nationally in tackles per game (9.56)

 

--H.B. Blades, Pittsburgh, 5-11, 236, Sr.: Son of Bennie, H.B. is an explosive hitter whose lack of prototype size/speed has scouts concerned.

 

--Zak DeOssie, Brown, 6-5, 250, Sr.: Huge linebacker who like his father, Steve DeOssie, can long snap in addition to playing linebacker.

 

--Jon Abbate, Wake Forest, 5-10, 231, Jr.: Gutsy, undersized inside linebacker who entered draft early after earning ACC honors each of his three starting seasons.

 

 

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS:

 

1. Paul Posluszny, Penn State, 6-2, 238, Sr.:

 

Posluszny is one of two linebackers in history to twice be honored with the Bednarik Award, given annually to the nation's best overall defender. Posluszny emerged as one of the elite defenders in the country in 2005, when he posted 116 tackles, including 11 tackles for loss, and beat out eventual No. 5 overall pick A.J. Hawk to win the Bednarik and Butkus (nation's top linebacker) Awards. Any thoughts of leaving school early for the NFL were dashed when Posluszny suffered partial tears of the PCL and MCL in his right knee during the Orange Bowl. Though the injuries did not require surgery, Posluszny didn't look as athletic as a senior, leading some to speculate that he is better suited to the inside. Posluszny's instincts and sure tackling certainly make him a good fit inside. While he lacks the speed to ever be a standout in pass coverage, Posluszny is among the draft's best linebackers in every other phase of the game. In a draft with few sure things at linebacker, his instincts, work ethic and underrated overall athleticism make him a low risk option.

 

2. Lawrence Timmons, Florida State, 6-1, 234, Jr.:

 

Timmons isn't the household name that Posluszny is, but his upside, especially as an edge rusher, is considered much higher. Timmons left the Seminoles hoping to capitalize on a junior season that saw him finish second in the ACC with 18 tackles for loss among his 79 total stops. Timmons remains quite raw. Scouts would like to see him develop more strength and certainly use better technique in disengaging from blocks. He possesses uncoachable athleticism, however, and is an instinctive, high effort player who makes plays all over the field. Timmons' speed to the flanks, agility in coverage and explosiveness as an edge rusher will almost surely make him a first-round pick despite the fact he enters the NFL with only 13 career starts.

 

3. Jon Beason, Miami, 6-0, 237, Jr.:

 

The wild card of the position, Beason is riding a significant wave of momentum as the draft approaches and could find himself selected as high as the first round. Though he lacks prototypical height, Beason's raw athleticism, explosive hitting and versatility have won him fans throughout the scouting community. Originally signed as a fullback, Beason moved to strong-side linebacker as a redshirt freshman. He moved inside for a few games that season before moving again to the weak side the next year. In reality, Beason's instincts and athleticism make him a nice fit at either inside or the weak side in the NFL. Though his lack of height is cause for some concern when disengaging from blocks, Beason, at 237 pounds, isn't small, and certainly has the agility to avoid blockers on his way to the ball carrier.

 

4. Tim Shaw, Penn State, 6-2, 236, Sr.:

 

After signing with Penn State as a running back, the multi-dimensional Shaw went on to star as an outside linebacker ... and an inside linebacker ... and a defensive end. Considered by some to be a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type, Shaw certainly has his share of admirers. He was characterized by Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis as "the Lions' most important player." That's significant, of course, in that Penn State also featured Posluszny. Asked to put the success of the team ahead of own accolades, the 236-pound Shaw was asked to play defensive end as a senior and racked up 44 tackles with eight tackles for loss, including 7.0 sacks. Shaw lacks the size to remain on the line at the pro level, but scouts needed to see the athleticism to warrant a move back to linebacker. Shaw certainly came through in the athleticism department, producing a workout at the Combine that was arguably the position's finest (4.51 40, 26 reps, 36.5-inch vertical). Raw due to spending his career at four different positions, Shaw's upside and high character have scouts circling his name as one of the more underrated defenders in the draft.

 

5. Rufus Alexander, Oklahoma, 6-1, 228, Sr.:

 

Alexander continues Oklahoma's tradition of sending high profile linebackers to the NFL. However, he is looking to reverse the trend of former Sooner 'backers struggling to make an impact in the pros. If he is to successfully transition to the pro game, Alexander may have to find a niche in a Tampa-2 scheme that can take advantage of his athleticism and instincts, while hiding his lack of size and physicality. In a scheme such as Oklahoma's, where he was allowed to simply pursue the ball carrier, Alexander was a star -- earning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year accolades in 2006 with a career-high 118 tackles, including 14 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. If not protected, Alexander's lack of size may become more of a problem. There are some teams that feel he is best suited to move back to strong safety, though disappointing 40 times (4.79 at the Combine) is a significant drawback to that plan.

 

Other Potential Impact Outside Linebackers:

 

--Stewart Bradley, Nebraska, 6-4, 254, Sr.: Rare size combined with surprising speed and instincts as a pass defender.

 

--Earl Everett, Florida, 6-3, 238, 4.73, Sr.: Considered a better athlete than a football player until he struggled at Combine with a 4.88 40-yard dash.

 

--Antwan Barnes, Florida International, 6-1, 240, Sr.: Collegiate defensive end considered a 'tweener by most scouts -- until he ran a 4.43 at 240 pounds at the Combine. 

 

--Quincy Black, New Mexico, 6-2, 240, Sr.: Bested Barnes' 4.43, running a 4.42 at the Combine -- though Black is plenty raw.

 

--Sam Olajubutu, Arkansas, 5-09, 227, Sr.: Short, but a terrific player who will surprise at the next level.