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Draft positional series: Inside linebackers, edge players

by | NFLDraftScout.com

Once seen as an overachiever, Kuechly showed at the combine he can be a legit performer. (US Presswire)  
Once seen as an overachiever, Kuechly showed at the combine he can be a legit performer. (US Presswire)  

At some point in his primordial evolution, man discovered that when he took his knuckles off the ground, he became more mobile. He used his newfound agility to outmaneuver and outrun his prey.

And thus was born the two-point stance, a significant step even if it did create a need for chiropractors.

The most talented descendants of those vicious hunters are now terrorizing offenses in the NFL as versatile enforcers who play inside linebacker or line up somewhere on the edge as outside linebackers or quarterback-sacking defensive ends.

This year's NFL Draft features an array of these hostile creatures, including one inside linebacker who makes tackles in such volume that he could package them for Costco resale, and pass-rushers of various types who will surely make life miserable for quarterbacks. And that misery will be compounded by those who can also drop into coverage out of that two-point stance.

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According to projections by NFLDraftScout.com, hyperactive Luke Kuechly of Boston College is one of two inside linebackers who figures to go in the first round, and as many as seven quarterback-threatening edge players may be called out on the first day of the draft.

Kuechly not only racked up 532 tackles in just three seasons, but he then surprised NFL teams by quantifying his excellent speed, explosion and agility at the scouting combine in Indianapolis.

The edge players are led by South Carolina defensive end Melvin Ingram, who had 8.5 sacks last year, and underclassman Whitney Mercilus of Illinois, who led the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles, a key hidden statistic for defensive success.

Many of the edge players listed here may become ends or outside linebackers, depending on their abilities and, mostly, which team drafts them.

Here is a closer look at this year's linebackers and defensive edge players (Player, position rank/overall, school, height, weight, projected round, *-underclassman):

Inside linebacker

1/14 *Luke Kuechly, ILB, Boston College, 6-3, 242, 1
Kuechly looks like Clark Kent, plays like Superman. At the scouting combine, Kuechly (pronounced Kee-lee) quieted anybody who portrayed him as a diligent overachiever. He validated his insanely prolific college performances with a dazzling unofficial 40-yard time of 4.58 seconds and a vertical jump of 38 inches. That should change notions that he projects as a two-down linebacker who would come out on passing downs, which is an antiquated notion in reality since all downs are passing downs in today's NFL. Kuechly looks like a modern three-down linebacker, which shouldn't be surprising to scouts who actually checked out that he played DB in high school and looked excellent in underneath zone coverage in college. His production in college was off the charts, with 532 career tackles in just three seasons -- 10 shy of the NCAA career record held by Tim McGarigle. That included 299 solo -- an average of 14 total/7.9 solo in his 37-game stay at BC. Like the linebacker himself, Kuechly's ascent was relentless. He was ACC Freshman of the Year in 2009; All-American and semifinalist for the Dick Butkus Award as the nation's top college linebacker in 2010; and consensus All-American last season when Butkus himself showed up to meet Kuechly and present the prized award.

1/34 *Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama, 6-2, 265, 1-2
Like most of his teammates, Hightower didn't give a full workout at his March 7 Pro Day. But Alabama coach Nick Saban gave Hightower, who turned 22 on March 12, an early birthday present when he offered plenty of data for those who would listen. "Inside linebacker, nickel backer, defensive end and odd rusher," recited Saban. "He does all those things very well, he is very smart and he has leadership qualities." As a freshman, Hightower was labeled "a freak who can play any position" by teammate Rolando McClain (No. 8 overall in 2010, Raiders). He played up to the hype until he blew out his left knee in 2009 and required reconstructive surgery on his ACL, MCL and meniscus. It wasn't really until last season that he was playing back to top form, which is comparable to a larger and more athletic Brandon Spikes (New England, second-round pick out of Florida, 2010). Hightower combines dutiful film work and great instinct to help get him quickly into position for plays, and then his substantial physical abilities take over. He is a natural leader and weight-room fanatic.

3/91 Mychal Kendricks, California, 5-11, 240, 2-3
At the scouting combine, Kendricks showed there was more to him than first appearance may indicate. His name, for example, is really Marvin Mychal-Christopher Kendricks. The Marvin is from his father, whose name some may remember as the leading rusher at UCLA in 1970-71. Mychal showed decent versatility in college, starting two years at outside linebacker, then moving inside last year in dramatic style. But scouts at the combine still had a "show-me" perspective on Kendricks, especially after he measured only 5-11¼. But he looked bigger by the moment as he benched 225 pounds 24 times, ran 40 yards in an unofficial 4.47 and added a vertical jump of 39.5 inches. That sent scouts back to double-check tapes, which showed how Kendricks used all that athleticism to earn Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2011. He had a team-leading 106 tackles, 14.5 for a loss, one sack, one forced fumble, one interception (returned for touchdown) and two fumble recoveries. There are some concerns, including an injured shoulder and thumb last year and two suspensions for violating team rules. But it still looks like he hasn't played his last season at inside linebacker.

4/116 *Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State, 6-1, 248, 3-4
Burfict rhymes with perfect, but that is only a coincidence. When he graduated from Centennial High School in California, Burfict was touted as the best prep middle linebacker in the country. It has been mostly downhill since then. Burfict has displayed the ability of a first-round prospect, but as an overall package some teams say they won't draft him, period. On the field he flashes excellent instinct and ferocity. He diagnoses and blows up plays with brutish hits, against the run and even as a pass-rusher. But he committed so many unnecessary and ill-timed penalties that he was actually kept off the field at times in college. He reportedly even punched a smaller teammate in the locker room. Last year Burfict led ASU with 68 tackles, but when he failed to make even the conference honorable mention list, it was thought that his bad conduct was the reason. At the combine, scouts wanted questions answered about his maturity and athleticism. He had all the wrong answers. He blamed ASU coaches for his inconsistent 2011 season and then he flopped in workouts, including an unofficial 40-yard time of 5.03 seconds, slowest among linebackers. To be clear, he has the ability to play. It will be interesting to see who gives him a chance and if/how he takes advantage of it.

Edge: OLB/DE

1/16 Melvin Ingram, OLB/DE, South Carolina, 6-1, 264, 1
Ingram showed versatility in college, playing both ends and even moving inside to defensive tackle. His combination of strength, leverage and speed made him a pass rush threat from all those positions, and NFL scouts think they might have yet another position for him -- outside linebacker, although he was listed as a defensive end at the combine. Last season, Ingram made All-SEC after leading the Gamecocks with 13.5 tackles for a loss and 8.5 sacks. He also intercepted two passes and scored three touchdowns, including a 68-yarder on a fake punt in a win at Georgia. Ingram finished his career with 21.5 sacks, fourth in team history. Originally recruited as a linebacker out of North Carolina, he played 12 games as a freshman when he even returned five kickoffs for an 18-yard average. After missing 2008 with a broken foot, he was moved to the defensive line in 2009. "Wherever they point me, I'm ready to go there," Ingram said when asked if he was ready to play as a 3-4 outside linebacker in the pros. He backed up his fine career with an excellent combine that included a 34½-inch vertical jump and an unofficial time of 4.79 in 40 yards.

2/21 *Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois, 6-4, 261, 1
Mercilus' startling 2011 season sent scouts scrambling to learn more about him, and the news was better than expected. After two mediocre seasons at Illinois, Mercilus used cat-like moves to become an All-American and win the Ted Hendricks Award as the best defensive end in the country. He led the nation with 16 sacks, nine forced fumbles and had 22.5 tackles for a loss. Of all his statistics, forced fumbles is the one that many scouts admire most. "I just have a knack for it," he said. "Throughout the game I was able to watch the quarterback's movements and just see him open up and then I just go in there and just knock it away." Scouts gush a list of positives traits, including quickness, agility, strength, instincts, condition, attitude ... and he is just beginning to mature and could be a great outside linebacker. Reaching for comparisons, they mention names like Simeon Rice, Dwight Freeney, Richard Dent and even the great Reggie White. The U.S.-born son of parents who emigrated from Haiti in the 1980s, Mercilus played mostly soccer until high school. His 2011 season had an inauspicious beginning when he lost the tip of his left index finger last spring in a weight-room accident. Teammates were shocked when he light-heartedly dismissed the injury as only a bother when he played the keyboard or tried to pick up coins.

3/22 Courtney Upshaw, OLB/DE, Alabama, 6-2, 272, 1
Alabama coach Nick Saban predicts Upshaw can play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense or "put his hand in the dirt and play defensive end" in the NFL. Based on his play in college, regardless of where Upshaw lines up, he will probably wind up in a quarterback's mug. Used as an edge rusher, sometimes as the Tide's so-called "Jack" linebacker and sometimes as an end, Upshaw thrashes blockers with great hand and arm action and shows ample speed and agility to find his way into the offensive backfield. He has instincts beyond that of a pure pass-rusher, with an uncommon awareness for draws, screens, counters and reverses. Although he was not asked to drop into coverage often at Alabama, he has a fluid athleticism that may allow him to adapt to such a demand. In Alabama's 49-7 thrashing of Michigan State in last year's Capital One Bowl, Upshaw was voted MVP after a pair of sacks, five tackles (three for a loss) and a forced fumble. Upshaw benched 225 pounds 22 times at the combine and, like several teammates at Alabama's March 7 Pro Day, deferred a full workout until March 29.

4/25 *Nick Perry, DE/OLB, Southern California, 6-3, 271, 1-2
Perry opted for the draft after being named USC's Defensive Lineman of the Year following a 2011 season in which he led the Pac-12 in sacks with 9.5. Considered a 'tweener who could be an outside linebacker or defensive end, Perry wants to play the latter. So he added more than 10 pounds of lean muscle since the season ended to convince scouts. Still, many believe he projects as a stand-up linebacker in a 3-4 defense, despite not showing instincts to play in the open. His natural athleticism was on display at the combine, where he had an unofficial 10-yard time of 1.57 seconds and showed tremendous explosion with a 38.5-inch vertical jump, a mark worthy of a good wide receiver. Scouts would also like to see more hustle on plays away and/or better conditioning, as he seems to fatigue in the fourth quarter. Perry was a prized recruit after he led Detroit's King High School to a 14-0 season and a 2007 state championship with 147 tackles and 36 sacks, a Michigan prep record.

5/26 Zach Brown, OLB/DE, North Carolina, 6-1, 244, 1-2
He is only beginning to learn how to maximize his exceptional ability on a football field, but Brown is fast and fascinating. He has an abundance of the one natural ability that can't be taught -- speed. Brown officially set a school record in track with an indoor 60 meters of 6.72 seconds in 2009. He checked in at the combine with an unofficial best of 4.44 seconds in the 40 and actually seemed off stride in the middle of the run. He added a vertical jump of 33.5 inches. His raw athleticism is tantalizing, but he lacks the instincts to be a great linebacker and may need to add even more bulk than the additional 6 pounds he put on for the combine. Meantime, at the very least, he can be a terror on special teams, same as he was in college.

6/33 Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson, 6-4, 259, 1-2
Branch is a raw, flashy, long-armed player with great closing speed but still has a long ways to go if he wants to excel in the NFL. He arrived at Clemson as a highly rated high school linebacker and lined up there occasionally in college, but he was usually at the team's "Bandit" or right end spot. He was selected first-team All-ACC in 2011 after leading Clemson in sacks (10.5) and tackles for a loss (17). He finished his career with 17.5 sacks and made at least one tackle in 41 consecutive games. There is nothing fancy about Branch's game, and he will probably best fit into an NFL defense that has a very specific role to take advantage of his exceptional straight-line speed, which was validated at the combine with an unofficial 4.70 in the 40.

7/45 Lavonte David, OLB/SS, Nebraska, 6-1, 233, 1-2
David is Mr. Max, as in maximum effort, attitude, results and, unfortunately, his size, which he cannot increase any more. He reaffirmed his athleticism at the combine with an unofficial 40 time of 4.65 and an explosive vertical jump of 36.5 inches. NFL scouts aren't sure whether to play him at linebacker or strong safety, but somebody will draft him and put him on the field somewhere, and he will do what he has always done -- tackle people. He worked hard to get this far, so being told he is too small won't faze him. David had a sensational high school career with Miami Northwestern's No. 1-ranked team, but because of low grades he played at Fort Scott Community College, where his team lost a national championship game to Cam Newton's Blinn College. When he finally arrived at Nebraska, David proved he was a tackling machine by setting a school record with 152 in 2010 and finishing his career with 285. He has pass coverage and ball reaction instincts to be an excellent nickel linebacker.

8/47 Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State, 6-3, 260, 2-3
McClellin has been known for his versatility since his days as a three-sport sensation at Marsing (Idaho) High school. And before he was able to play any of those sports, he got up before sunrise to feed the animals on the farm of the grandparents who raised him. He lettered in baseball, basketball and football, where as a senior he played running back and linebacker. He rushed for 1,893 yards and 22 touchdowns and added 126 tackles, six interceptions and seven touchdowns on defense. For that he had the unusual honor of being named Western Idaho Conference Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year. At Boise State he continued to do whatever was asked and do it well, which was somewhere between defensive end and linebacker. And that's how he enters the NFL, as a hyperactive, efficient edge player who has great field awareness and is as tough as, well, a good old farm boy. He was listed as a defensive end at the combine and weighed in with 12 more pounds of muscle than he had in college and ran an excellent 40, unofficially in 4.62.

9/55 Bobby Wagner, OLB, Utah State, 6-0, 241, 2
A four-year starter, two-year captain and three-time All-WAC honoree, Wagner can be called short, but he's not small. He packs the power of a man much larger and uses that effectively to tackle anybody with the audacity to be in his vicinity with a football. His senior year was his best, with 147 total tackles, including 67 solo, four sacks and two interceptions. His muscular build was impressive at the Senior Bowl weigh-ins, and he was hyperactive during the week of practice. But Wagner wasn't allowed to really tackle until the game, when he put on a clinic, leading everybody with seven tackles, including one for a loss, and an interception. For that he was named Senior Bowl MVP. Wagner was unable to take part in the combine because he was hospitalized in Arizona with pneumonia.

10/57 *Ronnel Lewis, DE/OLB, Oklahoma, 6-2, 253, 2
Nicknamed "The Hammer" by teammates for the way he hits, but coaches could never find the right nail for this unusually gifted athlete. After he played only eight-man football in high school, Oklahoma coaches knew they had a gifted, raw talent but never figured out where to best use his abilities. He played most of the front seven positions like a wild animal chasing his last meal, especially when in pursuit of a quarterback. College coaches say he is a good kid, willing to learn, but he has maturity issues and struggled with class work. Lewis was suspended at the end of last season for academic reasons, and his coaches suggested he turn pro. He was listed as a defensive end at the combine and showed up almost 10 pounds over his college playing weight. Along with persistent back problems, Lewis had minor knee surgery in 2010 that put him out of two games and a neck injury in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl that caused him to lose feeling in his arms for a short time. But in a little more than two seasons, he totaled 118 tackles (67 solo), 20.5 for a loss, 10 sacks and two interceptions. He looked good at the combine with an unofficial 40-yard time of 4.68 seconds and 36 reps with 225 pounds on the bench press.

11/59 Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall, 6-3, 266, 2
Here is that potential pass-rusher with a knack for causing fumbles, which is one of the most valuable talents on defense. Curry is strong and relentless off the edge, and so intent on getting to the passer that he is often too upright and vulnerable to a quick cut block. But he can get down and dirty with a decent bull rush and uses his strong hands well. Curry was named Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 when he had 11 sacks, seven forced fumbles and 22 tackles for a loss. After a great high school career, Curry went to Cincinnati's Harmony Community School in 2007 to prep for college. He played only seven games as a true freshman, then began to show up as a sophomore and finished his career with 26 sacks, 49 tackles for a loss and 10 forced fumbles.

12/62 Sean Spence, OLB, Miami, 5-11, 231, 2-3
Spence does everything he can to overcome lack of natural size and strength. He is already a coach on the field -- something teams may note for the future -- and shows amazing recognition skills that result from intense film analysis. Athletically, he reads and reacts quickly without wasted steps. Spence is not fooled often by play action, and shows above average skills as a pass defender. At the combine, he said "I think I am a three-down linebacker -- very fast, I can go sideline to sideline, I'm a smart, very instinctive player. ... I lead by example, and most of all I make plays." Indeed, Spence has been consistent throughout his athletic career, collecting more than 100 tackles as a senior on Miami Northwestern High School's 2007 national championship team (chosen by USA Today). In 2008, he earned ACC Rookie of the Year honors at Miami and his career totals include 317 tackles (169 solo and 46 for a loss) and 10.5 sacks. But he may be tagged as an overachiever based on his workout at the combine, which included only 12 reps with 225 pounds on the bench press and a mediocre 4.71 seconds in 40 yards. He said afterward he had a bad shoulder and usually benches at least 19.

Frank Cooney is the publisher of NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.


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