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6

Hold The Line

by DJ Boyer on May. 6, 2014

This is a deep draft when it comes to the linebackers available. There is considerably more talent along the edge which is good since teams are looking for edge rushers now more than ever. With the NFL turning into a pass first league, getting pressure on the quarterback is at a premium.

 

The Top Prospects:

 

Anthony Barr may have the highest ceiling of any prospect for the upcoming draft. Barr is considered a top 15 pick overall and the scary part is he has only played linebacker for two years.  In his two seasons playing the position Barr has an impressive 23.5 sacks and 41.5 tackles for loss. The numbers for Barr were better in 2012 but he showed he is more of a well-rounded prospect this season becoming more aware of his running assignments and lane responsibilities. Barr has running back speed running under 4.5 at his Pro Day and demonstrated why he has been a running back and an H-back in the past. Barr is entering draft day as the #5 overall prospect on the board at draftsite.com and he could be off the board as early as #5 and as low as #12. Teams know Barr still has a lot to learn at the position but he is way too talented to leave on the sidelines to learn from the bench, and he will be a starter from day 1 in the NFL no matter where he ends up.

 

Khalil Mack is rated even higher than the athlete profiled above, Anthony Barr. Mack spent most of the season #2 overall on the board at draftsite.com but he comes into draft day as the top dog…numero uno, the number 1 overall prospect. Jadeveon Clowney was #1 most of the season but Mack gets the nod due to the questions surrounding the work ethic of Clowney, which is the exact opposite from what we have learned about Mack. Mack has always had the numbers as he is the FBS all-time leader in tackles for loss (75) and forced fumbles (16). The question has always been the talent level for Mack and who he faced at the University of Buffalo. Those questions were answered early on as Buffalo lost to Ohio State at the start of the season but Mack opened a lot of eyes and showed how dominant he can be against elite talent. 9.5 tackles with 2.5 sacks and an interception return for TD against the Buckeyes is all anyone needed to see to show how legitimate he is. Mack has an amazing build and less than 5% body fat on his 251-pound frame. Mack can play in a 3-4 or 4-3 comfortable as he moved around at Buffalo and has always showed he is a dominant force no matter the front he faces or the scheme in which he is lining up.

 

C.J. Mosley could slip a bit on draft day even though he has helped himself with solid workouts and interviews. Mosley could go as early as #10 overall but could slip to the late stages of round 1 where he would likely be picked up by the Patriots at #29. Mosley seems best to be an inside linebacker but he can conceivably play any position. He is on the board for a number of teams but just doesn’t pop out as a can’t-miss prospect with these teams. Mosley isn’t the fastest linebacker but he has amazing instincts and his ability to change directions quickly, make him appear faster than he actually is. He will rarely overrun a play, keeps his assignments straight, and is great in coverage. He might not be a slam dunk Pro Bowler at the NFL, but he is gifted and a quick study, and starting as a rookie is very probable.

 

Ryan Shazier was one of the most active defenders in the country during the 2013 season and his draft stock soared. He is a prospect that can play in the 4-3 base and has the pass rushing ability to be a primary end in the 3-4. Shazier was banged up a bit this season and in years past but he stayed on the field and recorded 22.5 tackles for loss. The numbers for straight line speed and vertical jump are more impressive for Shazier than the hyped Anthony Barr. Shazier showed more consistency this season than in years past and seemed to embrace a leadership role on the team, traits that will help him at the next level. Shazier is likely to be drafted in the #20-#29 range and he will definitely be on the football field for pass rushing situations, if not a three-down linebacker.

 

 

Second Tier:

 

Kyle Van Noy is a prospect once thought to be a first round prospect. He didn’t struggle at all this past season, but just had the play of a few other players ahead of him, cause him to drop a bit. It looks like a 2nd round selection is now warranted but he will go in the top 50 overall. Ziggy Ansah went #5 overall last season and was the big mover on draft day rocketing near the top but when you watched BYU game film it was Van Noy making more plays than Ansah. The fact that Ansah showed success at the NFL level this year will help the stock of Van Noy. Van Noy is a more consistent performer than Ansah and BYU asked him to play a number of roles. He does not have the raw athleticism of Ansah or the upside but he is more pro ready and should show well for the team that selects him by the middle stages of round two.

 

Jeremy Attaochu played strong down the stretch and notched 12.5 sacks in 2013 placing him among the leaders for the ACC and leaving him with 31.5 for his career as the All-time leader at Georgia Tech. He looks better suited as an attacking linebacker in a 3-4 setup, but will just need a little more coaching if brought in to a traditional 4-3 setup. He has great closing speed and has improved his pursuit angles while in the open field. Numbers are very impressive when you factor in there wasn’t much pass rushing help around Attaochu for most of his tenure at Georgia Tech. He struggles with stronger lineman and when changing direction, but he will be a steal for a team looking for a prospect who can come in immediately and pressure the quarterback while learning the finer points of the position along the way.

 

Carl Bradford is a well-rounded linebacker that was asked to do a lot at Arizona State and the up-tempo pressure defense suited his style of play. He does not get the recognition he deserves for his coverage ability and playing in space. Bradford isn’t consistent in space but his play has noticeably improved and he has a knack for shedding blockers and making tackles behind the line of scrimmage. We thought Bradford would have benefitted going to school for one more season and being a 1st round pick but he projects as a 2nd or 3rd rounder coming out a year early. He still has room for improvement, as he needs to get stronger from the waist down, and he doesn’t take down enough ball carriers in a one-on-one situation. He is best as a supporter in causing a turnover, always trying to strip the ball or get into a throwing lane for a deflection or defensing a pass himself.

 

Chris Borland is a natural leader that refused to let his lack of size and athleticism stop him from making an impact on his team and the teammates around him. Borland was the Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten for 2013 as he regularly was in on plays and caused a ton of turnovers himself by stripping ball carriers. Borland finished his Wisconsin career averaging over 100 tackles per season (410 total) and you can count the ones he missed on one hand. He is a sure-tackler that relies on instints and fundamentals as his bread and butter. Borland does not have straight-line or change-of-direction skills that will leave you in awe, but he is rarely fooled on ball fakes. Looks like a solid 3rd round prospect that would fit in with a team with a hard-nosed attitude like Pittsburgh or Chicago.

 

Trevor Reilly still looks to be an early pick despite coming off a knee procedure performed in January. Reilly had 8.5 sacks this year and managed 100 tackles, proving to be better in run defense than many would have imagined. He is seen as a bit undersized and still needs to grow into his frame, as he doesn’t quite look like he has an NFL physique. Reilly excels though in an area you cannot coach, which is instincts. Many times it looks like he gets to an area in space before a ball carrier, anticipating correctly where the play is going to end up. Reilly has already had ACL surgery but his speed looks unaffected, as straight line speed and change of direction skills are on par with, if not better than, his previous marks. He should be taken in the 3rd or 4th round by teams like San Diego and Denver who are looking for obvious rushers off the edge.

 

Shayne Skov is working his way up the draft boards again despite obvious concerns about his health. Skov has had major knee surgery on two occasions and has battled issues with his ankle and hamstrings this season. Skov is a sure tackler, and although he doesn’t have the explosion off the line, he wastes no time shooting a gap and is very decisive with his decision making. Injuries have caused Skov to concentrate and put more focus into the weight room making him better in one-on-one battles winning many with sheer strength and technique. The crop is significantly more bountiful with outside linebackers than inside backers, so this should help his draft position. Skov could sneak into the third round but the fourth round seems more likely for the Stanford product.

 

 

Lurking:

 

Lamin Barrow shows promise but is a bit troubling at the same time. Barrow has the talent to be a 2nd or 3rd round pick but he seems to struggle in traffic, sometimes losing his way and not being able to take a clean route to the ball. He is good making solo stops or penetrating into the backfield, although he did not post a ton of tackles for loss, but that seemed to have more to do with the scheme at LSU and what the Tigers asked him to do. A team looking for an emerging tackler who can cover opposing tight ends should be interested. Barrow is inconsistent with missing tackles from time to time but the talent is there. With the right team, Barrow will continue the tradition of LSU being an NFL factory. Barrow seems to fit with a physical team that has some players around him from which he can learn. Teams like Miami and the New York Giants seem to have shown the most interest in Barrow and his services.

 

Christian Jones has been plagued with some “off the field” issues that seem to have pushed him down the draft board as he was a fringe 1st round prospect at the start of the season. Jones could be helped in the fact that he looks like he could play inside or outside linebacker at the next level and his versatility will cause many teams to look past the fact that he was suspended twice for rules violations at Florida State. Jones misses a few tackles in the open field but he has that typical Florida State swarm mentality and keeps his lane assignments not overrunning plays. Jones does well at disguising blitzes and with his ability to move all over the field using him as a blitzer is very appealing. He should go by the 5th round in the draft, though he has the talent to go much higher.

 

Yawin Smallwood is a versatile player without a true position. He moved from the outside to the inside but hasn’t mastered either place. Smallwood looked like a player that needed one more year of college to boost his draft status into a 2nd round prospect but draftsite.com anticipates he will go just outside the top 100 and likely by the later stages of the 4th round. Smallwood could be best inside because he does not possess blinding speed or explosiveness off the snap. He threw up an impressive nine passes defensed this season, despite his pass defense being spotty and inconsistent. Miami, Cleveland, Minnesota, and New Orleans have all had Smallwood in for multiple visits, so he is making the rounds despite being slowed by hamstring issues later in the season.

 

Telvin Smith may be the most explosive linebacker in the class when it comes to reacting to plays or play recognition. He is a bit inconsistent as a tackler, so this paired with him being undersized pushes him out of the first/second round and likely into third/fourth round consideration. While not the most sound tackler when it comes to wrapping up ball carriers, he can produce some big hits and this may lead to some teams trying him out as a strong safety. Best fit for Smith will be a team that can use help in both areas and to try him at multiple spots. He is a reliable worker on the field and coaches rave about his intensity and work ethic.

 

Jordan Zumwalt has really helped himself with his play late in the season and showings at various All-Star games, as he was once thought to be a fringe prospect just to be drafted. He now looks like a third or fourth round selection. The question no longer is if Jordan Zumwalt will be drafted but rather will he play the outside or inside for his new team. Zumwalt has more experience playing inside but watching him on film, he seems at ease playing the outside and his stats seemed to reciprocate this thought. Zumwalt will help on special teams and his versatility could land him a valuable job as a backup at multiple positions right away. He needs to improve his upper body strength but aside from that there are little questions about his ability to play or adjust at the next level.

 

Howard Jones tore up the competition at Division II Shepherd where he looked like he dwarfed many of the teammates around him. Jones moves well and is fast off the ball but this could be due to the fact that he was a running back in high school then came to Shepherd as a wide receiver before becoming a disruptive defensive end.  He plays very high and will need to work on getting lower under opposing lineman, because he will not have the size and athletic advantage in the NFL like he did at his small school. He will need to go to a team where he can wait in the wings and likely participate on special teams. A team like St. Louis or Philadelphia might be fits as both have had Jones in for multiple visits. Jones looked like a fringe draft pick just a month ago but now looks more like he will be off the board by the 6th round.