As NFL offenses evolve into their own extreme sport of Air Raids and Star Wars, linebackers are caught in the middle. Literally.
Once featured as the masters of mayhem who primarily ruined running games, linebackers now increasingly must possess some special weaponry to deflate those prolific air attacks.
After all, this same offensive evolution already effectively grounded the running game. In ratings by NFLDraftScout.com, the 2014 NFL Draft has no running backs projected in the first round for the second consecutive year while seven wide receivers are expected to be called on the first day.
With run defense devalued, and persnickety safety rules that discourage old-fashioned head-knocking anyway, the checklist of prerequisite abilities for linebackers now emphasizes terms such as agility, athleticism, space, chase, coverage and, especially, pass rush. Toughness and in-line tenacity seem almost optional.
The list of top linebacker prospects in this year's draft demonstrates that identity crisis as scouts debate the value of athleticism vs. instincts and toughness while seeking that rare, ideal mix in a single body.
Rugged, talented Khalil Mack, an outside linebacker from the University of Buffalo, is the consensus choice as the best of the bunch, rated No. 6 overall by NFLDraftScout.com and even higher by others. He tops a list of four outside linebackers with first-round potential, including UCLA's Anthony Barr, a great example of how athleticism is valued over instinct and toughness.
At inside linebacker, Alabama's non-stop C.J. Mosley is the complete package and then some. He is rated No. 21 overall by NFLDraftScout.com, but might have been a top-10 pick if stopping the run were still a major concern.
Here is a closer look at the linebackers projected to be selected among the top 100 (well, approximately) as rated by NFLDrafScout.com.
Rank/Player/Position/School/Height/Weight/40 time/Proj. Round
1/6. Khalil Mack, Buffalo, 6-3, 251, 4.65, 1
One-time lowly two-star prep recruit was overlooked by the big-time football schools. Buffalo benefitted from his combination of strength and speed that created consistent production as he set school records for sacks (28.5), tackles for loss (75) and forced fumbles (16). Played hybrid linebacker role in a 3-4 scheme, lining up with his hand on the ground and also standing up off the edge. Workout madman who is aggressive to the point of abrasive, evidenced by locker-room scuffle that resulted in suspension for 2012 season opener.
Frankly: Versatile, aggressive athlete with impressive experience all over the front seven and a work ethic that should help him make the big step into the NFL.
2/8. Anthony Barr, UCLA, 6-5, 255, 4.66, 1
Former prep running back, whose father Tony Banks was an NFL runner, wanted to play offense and originally lined up as H-back. When coach Jim Mora asked him to try defense in 2012, Barr's world changed. Quiet team leader commands respect with speed and agility that allow him to cover a lot of area. In 2012, his historic, blind-side sack ruined the career of USC QB Matt Barkley. But Barr was unblocked on that one, which won't happen often in NFL. After a surprisingly slow 40 at the combine (4.56-4.66) he stopped watches in 4.41 seconds at his pro day, but his speed was never in doubt.
Frankly: A popular prospect, but all great athletes aren't great prospects for the NFL, where toughness and tenacity are a must. His fluid athleticism and speed are seductive, but Barr lacks innate read-and-react skills, rarely shows effort to disengage blockers and is missing the ferocity of a top level defender.
3/29. *Ryan Shazier, Ohio State, 6-1, 237, 4.58, 1-2
Former prep sensation as defensive end, played both inside and outside linebacker for Buckeyes and is the ultimate team-first player, although not a vocal leader. Rangy athlete with a combination of excellent instinct, explosive first step and stunning closing burst. His 101 tackles in 2013 ranks behind only Tom Cousineau (142) and Chris Spielman (105) at OSU.
Frankly: Other than being a bit lean and stiff, Shazier comes with everything it takes to be a consistent impact player in the NFL, including above-average instincts and quickness that helps him look like a natural.
4/39. Kyle Van Noy, BYU, 6-3, 243, 4.71, 1-2
An unusually disciplined player who combines natural read-and-react skills and fluid athleticism to make plays. Named All-Independent Defensive Player of the Year after a 2013 season that included 13 sacks and 22 tackles for loss. Showed off his coverage skills at the Senior Bowl practices, where he batted away several passes and looked at home in underneath zones. Even more effective going forward as a pass rusher, always looking for the strip sack and forced 11 career fumbles.
Frankly: Needs IT factor -- Increased Toughness. Well-built, three-down linebacker flashes the ability to do almost anything, but is a runaround-and-chase type and not as consistently dominant as his various abilities might indicate.
5/52. Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech, 6-3, 252, 4.68, 2
A native of Nigeria, Attaochu saw time at inside linebacker, outside linebacker and showed great versatility. At the Senior Bowl, he looked decent rushing from a three-point stance, but seemed lost in space when he played off the line in 4-3 setup. Plays with intensity that sometimes leads him to abandon discipline. Collected 12.5 sacks in 2013 and his career total of 31.5 is a school record.
Frankly: Can base his career on pass-rush ability alone as defensive end or OLB in the right scheme. If he manages to become more comfortable and consistent doing other things that will be a plus.
6/65. Trevor Reilly, Utah, 6-5, 245, 4.67, 2-3
As mature and responsible as you might expect of a 26-year-old married man with two daughters, an Eagle Scout badge and a resume that includes a two-year Mormon Mission in Sweden. He was Utah's best player last season, leading team in tackles (100), tackles for loss (16), sacks (8.5) and fumble recoveries (3). Versatile athlete with strength, agility and know-how to fit in either 3-4 or 4-3 schemes. Had ACL surgery in 2012 and clean-out surgery this January 14, but came back at March 19 pro day to run 40 yards in 4.66 seconds.
Frankly: He could be a little tougher on the field, but it is hard to criticize a guy with his credentials in life and in football and whose youngest daughter (Shayn, 19 months) had a kidney tumor removed and is battling cancer. Best wishes to the Reilly family.
7/68. *Carl Bradford, Arizona State, 6-1, 250, 4.76, 2
Played "Devilbacker" as hybrid, physical defender who split time among defensive end, outside and inside linebacker. Shows exceptional initial quickness off the snap, especially out of the three-point stance, and then can confound blockers with a club, rip or spin move. He started final 28 games of a 40-game career in which he recorded 154 tackles (110 solos) with 21.5 sacks (155 yards), 43 tackles for loss (213 yards), six quarterback pressures, eight deflected passes and two interceptions.
Frankly: Bradford was the benefactor of an aggressive, disruptive college scheme and may not have instincts to play in space, but he can make a career out of that explosive pass rush and complementary moves.
8/85. Telvin Smith, Florida State, 6-3, 218, 4.52, 2-3
Rangy athlete with loose hips and springs in his legs. Aggressive blitzer with explosive first step and closes quickly with evil intent. His intriguing ball-hawking and leaping skills give rise to a possible move to strong safety, which was also enhanced when he intercepted three passes and returned two for touchdowns last year, tying an FSU record with Deion Sanders (1988), Terrell Buckley (1990, 1991) and Derrick Brooks (1993).
Frankly: Intense athlete who just might be a playmaker no matter where he lines up, but as a true OLB in a 3-4 scheme, he might not have the instinct or patience to consistently play in space.
9/94. Jordan Tripp, Montana, 6-3, 234, 4.67, 3
He followed family tradition as the third generation of the Missoula, Montana Tripps that starred at linebacker for the Grizzlies (father Bryan, 1989-90; grandfather Gene, 1963-64). Started 25 of his 40 games, collected 335 total tackles (115 solo) and his 10 fumble recoveries are a school record. Looks and plays like a linebacker should with instincts and all the right foot and handwork, which served him well at Montana and even looked good at Senior Bowl. Next step may be big one.
Frankly: Looks and acts the role, straight out of central casting, but there is a reason some (other) corny journalist didn't nickname him the Missoula Mauler. Game tapes show that despite big reputation in a smaller school, Tripp plays with more runaround finesse than in-your-face force. Just sayin.
1/21. C.J. Mosley, Alabama, 6-2, 234, 4.65, 1
Leader of the Crimson Tide's suffocating defense, Mosley is highly regarded in the scouting community and could end up as a top-10 pick in May. He made dramatic debut as freshman with two interception returns for touchdowns and improved since then. Says NFLDraftScout.com senior analyst Rob Rang: "Tough and athletic, with the keenest instincts of any linebacker I've scouted since Lofa Tatupu. ..." Thanks Rob. Mosley is all that and more.
Frankly: Underrated here. He is a must-draft, mobile mass of natural football genius who has no negatives and works full speed, full time. Mosley is even a blocker on punts, covers kicks and if you want more, just ask.
2/77. Chris Borland, Wisconsin, 6-0, 248, 4.83, 2-3
Passionate in all endeavors, Borland more than earned the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year Award. On the field he maximized his average speed and below average height with amazing ability to read, react and reject most plays before they developed. Forced 15 career fumbles, second most in FBS history. Plays with discipline in space and decisiveness at the line. Off the field, he is active within city of Madison community and led teammates in supporting a local cancer patient through the "Badgers Lift for Life" program.
Frankly: A taller Zach Thomas. And while you debate that comparison, consider this is the only time he will be described as taller.
3/93. *Yawin Smallwood, Connecticut, 6-2, 246, 5.01, 3
Based on diverse use in college, Smallwood is a prospect capable of being efficient against both the run and the pass in either a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. He moved from outside to inside linebacker in 2011, which brought him closer to the center of action, but didn't prevent the Huskies from deploying him in coverage even against wide receivers. UConn's Defensive Player of the Year with 118 tackles, including four sacks among his 9.5 stops for a loss.
Frankly: Interesting, but not totally convincing. Production is impressive, but he needs to be tougher as ILB, maybe faster as OLB. Ignore that 5.01-second time in 40 yards at combine, where he pulled a hamstring. He will need to validate that production against a steady diet of top athletes in the NFL.
4/114. Shayne Skov, Stanford, 6-2, 245, 4.95, 3-4
Although NFLDraftscout.com ratings have Skov outside the top 100, the expectation here is he will go earlier. And this opinion has nothing to do with knowing his agent, Steve Baker, since he was a newcomer working for some other agent back in the 1980s. Skov is a complex person and athlete who showed first-round ability in 2010 before blowing out a knee in 2011. Last year, he finally played back to form as an enforcer with brutally strong hands and a knack at timing blitzes and causing turnovers. What he lacks in graceful agility he makes up for with a rudely abrupt style of play.
Frankly: Doubters be damned. Draft him. Pay him. Play him.
Players of interest:
Marquis Flowers, OLB, Arizona, 6-3, 231, 4.51, 7-FA
Former safety with big-time athletic skills.
Lamine Barrow, ILB, LSU, 6-1, 237, 4.64, 4-5
Has the tools, must learn to use them.
James Morris, ILB, Iowa, 6-1, 241, 4.8, 7-FA
Plays with infective confidence.
NEXT WEEK: Defensive backs
--Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, covered the NFL and the draft since the 1960s -- when the AFL and NFL hid prospects from each other -- and is a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.