|Speedy linebacker Lavonte David (4) was a major playmaker at Nebraska. (Getty Images)|
Who's that No. 4?
I remember watching Nebraska football the past couple of years and I always found myself drawn to the guy in jersey No. 4 playing linebacker for the Cornhuskers, a tackling machine who played with great speed.
His name is Lavonte David. Get to know him. He will also be an NFL tackling machine. Think Derrick Brooks. Yes, that's high praise, considering Brooks is a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But David has the same kind of ability Brooks had. He is undersized, but fast and tackles well and should make a smooth transition to playing weak-side linebacker on the next level.
When Brooks came out of Florida State, there were some scouts who told him he had to move to safety because he was too small to play linebacker at 215 pounds. Brooks told me once he wanted no part of the safety talk, and went on to re-define the weak-side spot in the NFL, a run-and-chase, cover linebacker who flourished in the Tampa-2 scheme.
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David is not quite 6-foot-1 and weighs 233 pounds, which is why some suggested he should move to strong safety, the same move Brooks rebuffed. Twenty years ago, it might have made sense. But the NFL is an "air" game now, which means the old-time strong safeties are now linebackers who can run.
David, who is from Miami, fits the criteria perfectly. Watching him on tape you see a player who chases down plays from the backside, never lets up, excels in coverage and tackles much better than his size would indicate.
That's why David is the headliner of my annual Better-Than team, made up of players I like better than some of the scouts.
David makes the kind of plays that open eyes. He flashes. He shows off that 4.6 speed.
I saw him in man coverage on Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray, now with the Cowboys, in 2010. David did a nice job. I saw him run stride-for-stride with Oklahoma State's Kendall Hunter, who played for the 49ers last season, on a wheel route.
In 2011, he got to Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson on an inside blitz so fast that Wilson didn't know what hit him. He later sacked Wilson off the edge after beating the tackle with his speed.
But the best play against Wisconsin came when he was lined up on the right side of the defense and the Badgers ran Montee Ball to the right side of the offensive formation. David saw the play, filled the hole over right guard to show off his speed, forced Ball to bounce it outside and then tackled him as he tried to get loose for no gain.
It was a wow play. Even when the Huskers were down big late in the fourth quarter of that game, David was still competing. I loved that.
David probably won't go in the first round, but he should. If he were an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier, he'd be a lock. That's the stupidity of evaluations. He's plenty big enough. Some will say he ran around blocks, but I think he used his quickness and speed to beat the blocks. I saw him take on huge guards, pop them, and shed them. He can do it. The one knock might be he overruns plays some of the time because of his speed.
Every year, I seem to find a guy I can't stop watching on tape. David is that guy.
He's No. 4 for Nebraska, a bundle of tackling energy who will be an NFL Pro Bowl player for whichever team drafts him.
Here's the rest of the Better-Than team:
Cordy Glenn, G-T, Georgia: He can play both guard and tackle, but I think he's a right tackle. He will be a mauler in the run game, and has nice feet in pass protection. The right tackle spot in the NFL is weak. This kid could own it for a long time. If he stays at guard, he's Carl Nicks.
Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina: He might be the best corner in this draft. He's a smooth cover player who will push Morris Claiborne as the best rookie corner this coming season. Played a lot of zone at South Carolina but has the speed to play man whenever needed.
Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford: I love this kid to be the next great NFL tight end. He has big-play ability with 4.4 speed and he weighs 260 pounds. So he might not be a great blocker, but this kid will be special in a wide-open NFL.
Jared Crick, DE, Nebraska: He tore a pectoral muscle last season, which might be hurting his draft stock. But he was a force in 2010. At 6-4, 28 pounds, he is a tough guy who was considered a potential high pick last year. I still like him. He reminds me of Aaron Smith, who was with the Steelers.
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Shea McClellin, OLB, Boise State: The team that drafts him might not be getting a Pro Bowl player, but they will be getting a quality starter for a long time. He can play inside linebacker, outside linebacker and was a defensive end at times at Boise. He plays hard and tough.
Brock Osweiler, QB, Arizona State: The raw tools are there. I watched every game he played because I went to ASU and I think he was miscast in their offense. He has a big arm and can make all the throws. He's raw, but there is talent there.
Chase Minnifield, CB, Virginia: The son of former NFL corner Frank Minnifield has decent speed, but he knows the tricks of the position. He is smart and knows how to use his hands. Did have a knee scope after the season that has limited his ability to impress in workouts. But his tape shows he can be a solid NFL corner.
A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois: Has good speed and at 6-foot, 195 pounds he's big enough. Was hurt by playing with bad quarterbacks at Illinois. His speed will be a big asset on the next level. Averaged 14.2 per catch last season.
Michael Egnew, TE, Missouri: In a league starved for receiving tight ends, here is one who has good size and good speed. He isn't a great blocker, but pass catching is the important thing now for tight ends.
Omar Bolden, CB, Arizona State: He tore an ACL last year and didn't play for the Sun Devils, but he has outstanding cover skills and appears to be recovered. Some team will steal this kid.
Neiko Thorpe, S, Auburn: He played both corner and safety in his college career, but looks like a free safety on the next level. With so many teams looking for coverage safeties, Thorpe makes sense. He started 40 games at Auburn and always seems to show up around the football.
Joe Adams, WR, Arkansas: He is perfectly built to be an NFL slot receiver at 5-11, 180 pounds, although he does need to get stronger. Adams has good quickness and speed that will help him make a transition to the next level.
Nate Potter, T, Boise State: He needs to put on some weight on his 6-6 frame since he's 305 pounds and get stronger, but he knows how to pass protect. That's key in the NFL these days. He might not be a star, but he should be a consistent starter.
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Bobby Rainey, RB, Western Kentucky: He's a small back at 5-7, 205 pounds, but he runs hard and tough. He had 155 yards against Nebraska last year and looked good doing so.
Kevin Zeitler, G, Wisconsin: When watching the Nebraska tape of David, I really was impressed with Zeitler. He is a tough, mauling guard. Can get out on linebackers with his good feet. Also can handle big defensive tackles.
Mike Martin, DT, Michigan: He lacks prototypical size, but he will be a good NFL player. Reminds me of Kyle Williams of the Bills. Has a thick lower body to hold the point. Plays hard all the time. Background as a wrestler helps him.
Malik Jackson, DE, Tennessee: Transferred from USC because of sanctions and played more defensive tackle at Tennessee. But he isn't big enough to be an every-down tackle in the NFL. I think he can be a nice anchor at left end and then move inside on passing downs.
Mitchell Schwartz, T, California: He started 51 games at Cal and played both right tackle and left tackle. Had a good week of practice at the Senior Bowl, which could keep him at left tackle in the NFL. Might not be a Pro Bowl tackle, but should be a quality starter.
Danny Trevathan, LB, Kentucky: He is a little undersized at 6-1, 237 pounds, but he always shows up around the football. He's worth a late-round pick.
Brandon Washington, G, Miami: He played left tackle last season for the Hurricanes, but he also started at guard. He is an imposing run blocker who will move back inside on the next level.
Keshawn Martin, WR, Michigan State: Here's another receiver who has the look of an NFL slot receiver. He can also return punts. He was a productive player at Michigan State.