Texas A&M's Von Miller will almost certainly be the first senior drafted in April, and if outside linebacker was valued higher the Aggies' pass-rushing demon would be strongly considered by Carolina with the top overall pick.
Miller, who racked up 27.5 sacks the past two years, was rewarded for returning for his senior season by having a hybrid position created just to take advantage of his gift for planting quarterbacks. After Miller, the linebacker class drops off dramatically and becomes a mishmash of prospects scouts still have no consensus opinion on as they try to determine where several gifted athletes can make their mark in the NFL.
With roughly half the league running 3-4 base defenses, undersized defensive ends have more opportunity than ever to earn a sizable NFL paycheck. Six of the top nine outside linebacker prospects, as rated by NFLDraftScout.com, spent a large chunk of their college career at defensive end, which places the onus on scouts to project how well they can slide to outside linebacker, where there becomes a premium on open-field tackling and sticking with running backs and tight ends in coverage.
The athletic testing at the scouting combine was critical for the players attempting to separate themselves from the pack. UCLA's Akeem Ayers could even find himself moving to inside linebacker after posting a disappointing 4.81-second 40-yard dash.
For 4-3 defenses wondering where all their outside prospects went, they'll sort through the Calista Flockhart-thin group of inside linebackers. The top eight inside linebackers rated by NFLDraftScout.com have significant experience and the potential skill set to play outside. Considering only Illinois junior Martez Wilson is rated as a potential first-round pick, that versatility will be invaluable to this group.
A closer look at the top linebackers in this draft:
Rating, Player, Pos, College, Ht, Wt, Projected Round
1. Von Miller, Texas A&M, 6-3, 246, 1 Miller had one main job for the Aggies -- to get after the passer. The coaching staff even created a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position called the "joker" when Miller returned for his senior season to help him prepare for an edge rusher job in the NFL. Standing up on nearly every snap, Miller had 17.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in 2010 while playing through an ankle injury early in the season. His true explosion was on display in a junior season in which he racked up a nation-high 17 sacks to go with four forced fumbles and 21.5 tackles for loss. Miller still has to prove he can shed blocks and hold his own in run defense, but his athleticism is undeniable, including a 4.49-second 40-yard dash at his pro day last week.
2. *Akeem Ayers, UCLA, 6-3, 254, 1-2 There's a fine line between being a versatile athlete and being ill-fitted for multiple positions. Ayers flashed big-play ability as a sophomore with 14.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, four interceptions and two forced fumbles, and he improved his consistency in 2010 (career-high 68 tackles, including 10 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles). While Ayers is athletic, his 4.81 40 at the combine showed he might lack the speed to be an edge-rushing linebacker and chase speed backs to the sideline. He lacks great instincts, but he does maintain gap discipline and enjoys the physical nature of playing linebacker, so he could ultimately prove to be a good fit inside in a 3-4.
3. *Justin Houston, Georgia, 6-3, 270, 1-2 Another undersized defensive end, Houston's stock took off when Georgia's switch to a 3-4 scheme predicated a move to outside linebacker. He responded with 18.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in 2010, and then turned in an impressive 4.68 40 at a well-built 270 pounds at the combine. Teams looking for strength and speed on the outside will value Houston's physical tools. Like most converted edge rushers, he's still very raw dropping back in coverage. But he can flat out get after the passer with an explosive upfield burst. He'll have to add a few new moves to keep NFL offensive linemen guessing, but Houston's explosiveness gives him an excellent base to build from.
4. Brooks Reed, Arizona, 6-3, 263, 2 Reed worked out with the defensive linemen at the combine, but he projects best to outside linebacker in a 3-4. He only enhanced that probability with a 4.65 40, which was faster than 18 of the 24 linebackers tested in Indy. That included a position-best 1.54-second 10-yard split among defensive linemen, showing his explosive first step. Reed isn't quite as athletic as Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews, but he does change directions with fluidity and impressed in positional drills at the combine and the Senior Bowl. The three-year starter closed his career with 114 tackles and 17 sacks and was first-team All-Pac-10 in 2010.
5. Bruce Carter, North Carolina, 6-2, 241, 2 Carter has been true to his home state from the time he was a Carolina Panthers fan growing up in Havelock, N.C. A quarterback, running back and safety in high school, he chose to stay in-state with Tar Heels coach Butch Davis assembling a star-studded recruiting class. Carter broke onto the national scene with 68 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, five sacks and a nation-leading five blocked kicks as a sophomore. His numbers dipped a bit in 2009 with opponents avoiding him, but Carter entered his senior season as a Butkus Award candidate. The wheels came off the tracks for North Carolina due to the agent scandal, and Carter suffered a season-ending knee injury against N.C. State that required ACL reconstruction surgery Dec. 14. Scouts will have to rely on film as Carter won't be able to work out before the draft, and medical tests will be critical in evaluating whether Carter will reclaim his explosiveness.
6. Sam Acho, Texas, 6-2, 262, 2-3 Samuel Onyedikachi Acho is a Dallas native whose middle name means "one who is like God." Resisting poor puns, Acho is enjoying an excellent pre-draft season. After earning two-time Academic All-American and 2010 first-team All-Big 12 honors, he impressed at the Senior Bowl and then again at the combine. In 50 career games, including 26 starts, Acho posted 148 tackles with 23.5 sacks, 37 tackles for loss, eight forced fumbles and nine fumble recoveries. He played primarily at defensive end, taking over Brian Orakpo's spot as a junior, but also saw time at outside linebacker and even defensive tackle. Thanks to his strong pre-draft work, Acho is moving up many teams' boards as a conversion player showing the athleticism to hand the full-time move to rush linebacker.
7. Dontay Moch, Nevada, 6-1, 248, 2-3 Yet another defensive end looking to make the conversion to rush linebacker, Moch can flat fly. He ran a 4.40 40 at the combine to validate the straight-line speed he displayed at Nevada the past four years. That included 2009 WAC Defensive Player of the Year honors with 19.5 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks, and another 22.0 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks as a senior. He has speed and quickness to spare. The question is whether Moch can develop a secondary pass-rush move, prove he can hold his own against the run and handle coverage assignments as a linebacker. If not, he'll be a stiff-hipped athlete who will struggle much the same as former Jets first-round pick Vernon Gholston.
8. Chris Carter, Fresno State, 6-1, 248, 3 While scouts are debating where a few pass-rushing prospects will fit best in the NFL, Carter simply lacks the size to remain at defensive end. The 2010 WAC defensive player of the year finished his career with 19.5 sacks, including 11 last season to go along with 16.5 tackles for loss. Carter has long arms, a muscular frame and a good burst off the snap. He's also a heady player who studied philosophy and pre-law and should be able to handle the mental aspects of a move to outside linebacker. That won't help him in physical mismatches in defending the run and is another prospect who must prove he can handle coverage responsibilities.
9. Mason Foster, Washington, 6-1, 245, 3-4 Only the second pure linebacker in this group, Foster is a tackling machine with the athleticism to remain inside and the instincts to potentially play in the middle. He led the Pac-10 with 105 as a sophomore in 2008 and again in 2010, when his 163 stops were 58 more than anyone else in the conference. You don't rack up that level of production without strong instincts, and Foster plays with a good level of aggression without often getting fooled by misdirection. Where Foster gets in trouble is in coverage; he isn't an elite athlete and can't stick with running backs and tight ends, although he has been effective reading the action when playing in a zone.
10. K.J. Wright, Mississippi State, 6-3, 246, 3-4 An athletic and durable linebacker capable of playing outside in a 4-3 or a 3-4, Wright chose to stay in-state coming out of high school, spurning offers from Auburn, Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina. He played in 10 consecutive games as a freshman and has rarely come off the field since. Wright has good instincts, a quick burst and is athletic enough to cover in space. He ran a 4.75 40 at the combine, which was disappointing, and the rest of his tests were middle of the pack among linebackers. To move up draft boards, Wright will have to step up at the Bulldogs' March 22 pro day.
11. Lawrence Wilson, Connecticut, 6-1, 229, 4 Former Huskies coach Randy Edsall reached into uncharted waters when he landed Wilson, the first UConn recruit to ever come out of the state of Alabama. Wilson didn't disappoint, taking the opportunity created by an injury to Ryan Henegan during fall camp and going on to earn second-team freshman All-America honors. Wilson would close his career with a school-record 50 starts and a pair of first-team All-Big East honors, capped by 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in 2010. He's going to bring his lunch pail and put in a full day's work, which will endear Wilson to any coaching staff. Combined with his speed, instincts, pass rush and coverage skills, Wilson is an unheralded mid-round prospect who could prove a steal if he can handle the physicality of the pro game.
12. Ross Homan, Ohio State, 6-1, 240, 4 This three-time all-state recruit out of Coldwater, Ohio, didn't receive the hype during his career that former Buckeye linebackers such as Chris Spielman, James Laurinaitis and A.J. Hawk received, but he was every bit as productive. A three-year starter, Homan was first-team All-Big Ten in 2010 and a true warrior. He tried to play through a turf toe injury in 2007, didn't miss any time following a concussion in 2009 and sat out just two games with a sprained right foot last season. Homan has an excellent nose for the ball in run defense, and has enough change-of-direction skills to hang on for a few steps in coverage. However, his lack of size will prove a significant obstacle against larger NFL blockers.
13. Mark Herzlich, Boston College, 6-4, 244, 4-5 Herlich's well-known story is one of extreme adversity and perseverance. After posting 13 tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two touchdowns off of his six interceptions in 2008, Herzlich decided to stay at Boston College because he was enjoying the college experience. He was considered the top senior prospect in the country when he decided to have doctors look into a pain in his left leg. Then came the shocking diagnosis of Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. After seven months of chemotherapy and an additional five weeks of radiation, Herzlich was cancer-free and determined to play football again -- with a titanium rod in his leg. His play improved as 2010 wore on and Herzlich's big-play flair was evident with four picks. An all-out player on every snap, Herzlich is always around the ball and is an excellent open-field tackler. But a lack of elite athleticism and the battery of medical tests he has undergone will affect his draft status.
Rating, Player, Pos, College, Ht, Wt, Projected Round
1. *Martez Wilson, Illinois, 6-4, 250, 1-2 The Chicago native spurned prominent programs including Miami (Fla.), Southern Cal and Notre Dame to become one of the Illini's biggest recruiting coups in recent memory. His stated intention was to play three years and bolt for the NFL, but that plan was delayed by an underwhelming start to his career and then a herniated disk in his neck that kept him out of all but one game in 2009. Wilson returned for a monster junior season, including 112 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and three forced fumbles. He has the speed and length to play inside in a 3-4, but could also be a fit outside after running a 4.42 40 in Indy.
2. Quan Sturdivant, North Carolina, 6-1, 241, 2-3 A star high school quarterback and safety coming out of Oakboro, N.C., Sturdivant chose jersey No. 52 when he moved to linebacker for the Tar Heels in honor of his favorite players -- former Hurricanes Ray Lewis and Jon Beason. He sports a tattoo that says, "Only the strong survive" and plays linebacker with that mindset. Sturdivant is a tackling machine who attacks the line of scrimmage with speed and great instincts. He moved inside as a junior, where his limitations tackling in the open field and sticking with tight ends in coverage can be masked better.
3. Greg Jones, Michigan State, 6-0, 242, 3 The Spartans' coaching staff was the beneficiary of Jones deciding Minnesota was too long a drive for his parents after he committed to the Gophers. He went on to become Michigan State's on-field emotional leader while also pacing the team in tackles the past four years. Jones has experience inside and outside and was moved around by the Spartans to take advantage of his strengths, which coach Mark Dantonio said are his instincts and pass-rushing ability. Scouts remain split on Jones, who struggled during Senior Bowl week and didn't pop off the charts during athletic testing at the combine. With 16.5 career sacks, he ultimately could prove to be a better fit playing in space outside.
4. Colin McCarthy, Miami (Fla.), 6-1, 238, 4 McCarthy has been working hard to shed the "poor man's Dan Morgan" tag that has dogged him a bit since arriving in Coral Gables as an all-state linebacker out of Clearwater, Fla. Then again, he did wear No. 44 in honor of the former Hurricanes star. Like Morgan, McCarthy plays with excellent instincts and a passion for the game. He's not afraid to get dirty on special teams, and that's likely where he'll make his mark early in his NFL career, along with being a valuable reserve at all three linebacker spots. McCarthy lacks great athleticism, but he always finds his way to the ball carrier (214 tackles the past two seasons).
5. Kelvin Sheppard, LSU, 6-2, 250, 3-4 A track star in high school, Sheppard was one of three linebackers from his team to go on to player Division I football. He wasn't able to show off his track speed at the combine due to a hamstring injury, but scouts know he wastes little time in getting to ball carriers. What they want to see is increased upper-body strength if he's to remain on the inside. Sheppard started 30 of 53 games for LSU and leaves with 311 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and two interceptions.
6. Nate Irving, North Carolina State, 6-1, 231, 4-5 Irving missed the entire 2009 season after suffering a collapsed lung, cracked ribs, separated shoulder and a compound fracture in his left leg in a traffic accident. He slowly reclaimed his explosiveness throughout his senior season, and is flying a bit under the radar entering the draft. Irving produced 20.5 tackles for loss in 2010 and closed his career with 39.5. He lacks great bulk and strength, but is experienced inside and outside and has a great knack for making plays in the backfield.
7. Casey Matthews, Oregon, 6-1, 231, 4-5 Matthews' football acumen is off the charts. And it should be considering his bloodlines. His father, Clay, played 19 seasons in the NFL, and his brother, Clay III, finished second in the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting for the Packers. His uncle, Bruce Matthews? An NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman. Casey Matthews' instincts were on display as he helped keep Auburn quarterback Cam Newton in check during the national title game, and he projects as a solid and heady interior linebacker. However, he's not the caliber athlete his brother is, and a lingering shoulder injury that knocked him out of the combine will warrant significant medical checks.
8. Jeremy Beal, Oklahoma, 6-2, 262, 4-5 A three-time first-team All-Big 12 pick by the AP, Beal was also named the conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior by the Dallas Morning News after leading the Big 12 with 18 tackles for loss and pacing the Sooners with 8.5 sacks. Beal's consistency is one of his calling cards; he's the first player in school history with at least 8.5 sacks in three different seasons. That's a lot of production for someone who wasn't initially offered a scholarship due to underwhelming natural athleticism (5.14 40, 28 1/2-inch vertical at the combine). Beal has played with his hand down, standing up and in the middle, but will likely have to earn his NFL paycheck as an inside linebacker due to his lack of speed.
Derek Harper is Executive Editor of NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.