Thanks in part to the NFL's evolution into an offensive air circus, only four true middle linebackers have been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft during this century. So, while this year's draft offers up the usual array of athletic, rush-or-cover outside linebackers, the biggest intrigue surrounds an inside linebacker, Alabama's Rolando McClain, who could be selected in the top half of the first round.
At No. 12 overall, McClain is the highest rated linebacker by NFLDraftScout.com, which lists four outside linebackers among first-round prospects and eight in the top two rounds, as opposed to only four insider 'backers in the first three rounds.
McClain is a team-leader, a thinker and a thumper, but where he is selected may be determined by the NFL's need for speed to defend against those wide open offenses.
Last year, USC's Rey Maualuga and Ohio State's James Laurinaitis waited until the second round, largely because of clocked times no better than 4.76 seconds in 40 yards. By contrast, Patrick Willis was taken No. 11 overall by San Francisco in 2007 after being timed at 4.51 seconds in the 40 and Jared Mayo was taken No. 10 by New England after running a 4.54.
McClain, a huge force at 6-feet-4, 254 pounds, did not run at the Indianapolis Scouting Combine, but was timed in the high 4.4-second range by scouts at his March 10 pro day.
The top outside linebackers expected to join McClain in the first round are two pass rushers who played defensive end in 2009 -- Brandon Graham of Michigan and Sergio Kindle of Texas -- and versatile Sean Weatherspoon of Missouri. Here is a closer look at this year's top linebacker prospects:
Rank/Player/School/Height/Weight/Projected Round (*Underclassman)
1. Brandon Graham, Michigan, 6-2, 268, 1
Before straining a hamstring at the Scouting Combine, Graham displayed the speed and agility to make the transition to outside linebacker. The No. 5-rated defensive end by NFLDraftScout.com due to his lack of prototype size for the position, Graham could be the first outside linebacker off the board if he performs well at his April 8 workout. Graham finds a way to overcome larger opponents with a relentless attack. He uses just enough speed and surprising power that comes from his understanding of using leverage from his 6-1 frame. Despite only average footwork, he shows enough awareness to help in underneath zone coverage. After leading the nation with 26 tackles for loss and recording 10.5 sacks in 2009, Graham was the most dominating player on the field during Senior Bowl week.
2. Sergio Kindle, Texas, 6-3, 250, 1
Instinctive, athletic big-play maker at outside linebacker in the 3-4, but might be a terror as a 4-3 pass-rushing defensive end if he adds about 20 pounds. He is tightly wound and competitive, yet has natural balance and athleticism to play under control. He started 24 games in his career, including 13 at defensive end in 2009. Kindle is a two-time All-Big 12 selection with career stats that include 168 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 39 tackles for loss, 56 pressures, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He has a history of nagging injuries and some off-field issues, including being treated for a concussion last year after crashing his car into an apartment building while texting in July.
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3. Sean Weatherspoon, OLB, Missouri, 6-1, 239, 1
The "Spoon" plays bigger than he measures and his impact includes motivating teammates with his infectious enthusiasm. He impressed scouts at the Senior Bowl with his play and leadership, and his engaging personality didn't hurt. As a freshman he led Missouri in special teams tackles, then became a starter on the weak outside as a sophomore, where he collected 127 tackles (9.5 for a loss). In 2008 Weatherspoon had 155 tackles, including 17 in his MVP performance in the Alamo Bowl. Last year he had 104 tackles, including 14.5 for a loss and 4.5 sacks. He has the athletic ability to run around and make things happen, but he will need to show he has the strength to be a consistent defender in the NFL.
4. Daryl Washington, TCU, 6-2, 230, 1-2
If his production ever catches up to his potential he can be special. However, he just doesn't appear to be instinctive. Washington manages to get in on more than his share of plays with sheer aggression and sideline-to-sideline speed. After playing behind Jason Phillips for most of his career, Washington became a starter for the first time last year and made the most of it. He helped TCU repeat as the top-rated defense in terms of total yardage allowed, leading the team with 109 tackles, 11 for loss, two sacks and three interceptions. To maximize his positives in the NFL, a team may need to restrict his assignment to a simple attack mode.
5. Ricky Sapp, Clemson, 6-4, 252, 2
Moved from defensive end to standup linebacker last year and responded with career highs in tackles (60), tackles for loss (15) and sacks (5.0) to go along with a forced fumble. That became even more impressive when he revealed at the Combine that he played the entire season on a right knee that was "at 60 percent strength" stemming from a torn ACL in November of 2008. He did have surgery to repair the injury. Whether he plays outside linebacker in a 3-4 or defensive end in a 4-3, Sapp's promise is as a pass rusher. A high school track sprinter and basketball star, Sapp's overall athleticism is more striking than his football ability. If he learns to harness all his talent he can become an elite pass rusher in the NFL.
6. Koa Misi, Utah, 6-3, 251, 2
He is a pick-your-poison type athlete who is powerful enough to take on and shed a blocker on the spot and fast enough to run around you and chase down his victim. Put that together with excellent instincts, a high-rev motor and team-leader type personality, and this prospect should fit well into somebody's roster. A standout in his one year at Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College, Misi then moved on to terrorize opponents for three more years with the Utes. Misi impressed scouts at the Senior Bowl with his overall ability.
7. Eric Norwood, South Carolina, 6-1, 245, 2-3
The only player in South Carolina history to earn first-team all-SEC honors three consecutive years, Norwood was a productive college player at defensive end, inside and outside linebacker. He is far better going forward, especially as a pass rusher, than he is going laterally or backward, so he is expected to be moved to defensive end or pass-rush outside linebacker in the NFL. His athletic ability is not obvious, but his production shows his well-honed instincts and a high-rev motor. Team captain in 2009, his hard-work ethic is reflected in a Criminal Justice degree he earned in 3 1/2 years.
8. *Thaddeus Gibson, Ohio State, 6-2, 243, 2-3
As a college defensive end he had 10 career sacks and 25 tackles for a loss, but he may be more productive as an outside rush linebacker in the pros. When the NFL Advisory committee projected him as a second-round prospect in January he said he opted to enter the draft in order to help pay family medical bills. His natural athletic ability is obvious, but scouts wonder how quickly he will be able to diagnose and react properly when confronted with complex NFL offenses. His strong point is as a fluid, hard-to-hit athlete in open space as a pass rusher, but needs to show the ability to disengage when a blocker gets on him.
9. *Jason Worilds, Virginia Tech, 6-1, 254, 3
Although he may lack the bulk to be an every-down defensive end in the NFL, Worilds should be able to help some team immediately on special teams as a situational pass rusher. He will need to add at least 15 pounds to stay at defensive end or he might be able to parlay his tremendous athletic ability, quickness and agility into a job as an every-down outside linebacker. Worilds underwent shoulder surgery in January 2009 and sat out spring training before earning his second All-ACC selection last season with 49 tackles, including 11 for a loss, 4.5 sacks, one forced fumble, one pass breakup and a team-leading 32 quarterback hurries.
10. *Navorro Bowman, Penn State, 6-1, 242, 3
On the field, Bowman may be short in stature but he is long in production. He is especially impressive coming off the edge, where he is both quick and agile, although he can take on a blocker with a decent bull rush. Off-field issues have been a concern as he was suspended two games and received one year of probation and 100 hours of community service following a fight in October 2007, and then received another year of probation for violating the terms of the original sentence by admitting he didn't complete the 100 hours of service and smoked marijuana. But last year he changed his jersey number (to No. 11) and possibly his life style. Last summer he became a father and in December he graduated with a degree in Crime, Law and Justice.
11. Dekoda Watson, Florida State, 6-2, 240, 3-4
Watson is fast and athletic enough to find a role in the NFL. Although he is one of the most impressively built athletes in the draft, his sculpted body has not resulted in consistent production and he had durability issues. He missed time last season with a groin injury and had problems with his left elbow, left hamstring and a three-game suspension for his role in the infamous Florida State academic scandal. Despite the limitations last year, he played in all 13 games and had career highs in tackles (65), tackles for loss (13) and sacks (6). An outstanding week of Senior Bowl practices was noticed by scouts.
12. *Rennie Curran, Georgia, 5-11, 235, 4
Curran opted to enter the draft after his junior season because there was nothing another year in college could do to improve his most obvious shortcoming. He is short at 5-11. But he is not short on athletic ability, instinct or intensity. Gets in on far more than his share of plays, evidenced by his SEC-leading 130 tackles last year and 115 in 2008. He will probably do the same in the NFL if he manages to get a spot on somebody's defense. If not, some team will get a hellacious special teams player, especially on kickoff coverage.
|Rolando McClain's size and speed numbers are only part of the impressive pro package. (US Presswire)|
McClain was to national champion Alabama's No. 1 defense what Ray Lewis is to the Ravens or what Patrick Willis is to the 49ers -- a leader who commands respect and leads by example. Some scouts wonder how much he benefited from playing in coach Nick Saban's hyper-aggressive, 3-4 defense that kept him free to roam behind the likes of huge nose tackle Terrance Cody. McClain won the Butkus Award as the top linebacker in the country. He collected 105 tackles, including 14.5 for a loss, four sacks and two interceptions. McClain's quiet demeanor in combine interviews was curious to some, but teammates say he is more a man of action than words. He was unable to finish his pro day March 10, and revealed after the workout that he has been battling Crohn's disease for the past seven years. NFL teams were aware of the condition, which is controlled through medication and diet, and multiple NFL sources told NFLDraftScout.com that it won't affect McClain's draft status.
2. Brandon Spikes, Florida, 6-3, 249, 2
Spikes has the instincts, quickness and aggression to be consistent against the run and very good against the pass despite a lack of elite speed. That said, he is alert and opportunistic, evidence by the fact that since 1996, he is one of only three linebackers in the nation to have four interceptions returned for touchdowns. Gained negative notoriety last season for attempting to gouge the eyes of Georgia running back Washaun Ealey, for which he was suspended for the first half of the Vanderbilt game. He excused himself from the entire game so as not to become a distraction. He is the cousin of San Francisco linebacker Takeo Spikes.
3. Sean Lee, Penn State, 6-2, 236, 2-3
Lee tore his right ACL in spring 2008, forcing him to redshirt his fourth season at Penn State rather than taking over for Dan Connor at middle linebacker. After a year spent acting as a coach from the sideline and in practice, the team captain earned second-team all-conference honors in 2009 with 86 tackles, 11 for loss, and seven pass breakups. Doesn't have great speed, but has that combination of anticipation, instinct and aggressiveness that is common among successful journeyman NFL linebackers.
4. Donald Butler, Washington, 6-1, 245, 3
Butler's stock has been rising quickly the past few months, especially after a strong showing at the Senior Bowl workouts. Based on that he became a late addition to the invitation list for the combine, where he put up a position-best 35 bench reps at 225 pounds. Because of injuries to others, Butler moved between inside and outside linebacker in 2008 and did it well enough to be voted most improved defender on the team. He was then selected team captain in 2009, going on to lead the Huskies with 94 total tackles, 15.5 for a loss. He added two interceptions, a fumble recovery and three forced fumbles.
5. Jamar Chaney, Mississippi State, 6-1, 242, 4-5
Chaney started at both inside and outside linebacker in college and was just beginning to show outstanding pro potential when his progress was interrupted in 2008 with a fractured leg. He returned in 2009 to lead the team with 90 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss, two sacks, two interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles. After making the Senior Bowl with a late invitation, Chaney impressed some scouts in practice and was named defensive MVP after collecting eight tackles and fumble recovery.
6. Phillip Dillard, Nebraska, 6-0, 245, 4-5
After missing the first two games of the season, Dillard made a conspicuous ascent into the consciousness of teammates, opponents and scouts with a series of take-charge performances. This really began before the 2009 season when he worked off extra weight and got into the best shape of his life. A heady, intense team leader, Dillard finished last season with 83 tackles, second on the team only to All-American defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, including 11 for a loss. His nine starts was one more than he had total entering the season due in part to injuries (ACL in 2006, ankle 2008).
7. Pat Angerer, Iowa, 6-0, 235, 5
With anger in his name, he must be a linebacker, right? Well, he was in college, and a pretty good one considering that his 135 tackles was among the top five in the nation last year. But now pro scouts aren't sure how well he will fit into the NFL. In college he was able to rely on exceptional instincts and physicality to get the job done. But he didn't look fast enough in game tapes and sure enough he ran in the mid-4.7-second area at the Combine. That's not bad, but it certainly isn't good if you're only a hair taller than 6-feet and weigh under 240 pounds. Everybody loves his attitude, but college overachievers have a difficult time in the pros.
8. Darryl Sharpton, Miami, 5-11, 236, 5-6
To be precise, Sharpton measured 5-feet, 11 3/8 at the Combine. Other than that, he seems to measure up as an excellent pro prospect whose exceptional athletic ability was used at several positions in college. However, scouts are not sure that his obvious athleticism translates to football well enough to consider him an elite candidate. He appears to be inconsistent diagnosing plays, is suckered by fakes and then there's the size issue. Regardless, he managed to lead Miami with 106 tackles last year.
Frank Cooney is the publisher of NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by the Sports Xchange.