NFL Draft: 15 Linebackers To Watch

March 27th, 2010
Surely this guy will raise the Bucs collective eyebrows if hes sitting there for them in the second round

Surely this guy will raise the Bucs' collective eyebrows if he's sitting there for them in the second round

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It’s NFL Draft guru Justin Pawlowski’s analysis of 15 linebackers (inside and outside) to keep your eye on at the NFL Draft. Several other position breakdowns are archived here.

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Outside Linebackers

1. Brandon Graham – DE/OLB – Michigan
6’1’’ – 268 lbs – 4.72
Top 20

Why I’m taking him: Graham is a pure pass rusher. He had 20 sacks the last two years and has many moves in getting to the quarterback.  In his game against Iowa (Bryan Bulaga &Kyle Calloway) in 2009, Graham was simply dominant.  He does an excellent job at shedding blocks and not allowing offensive linemen to lock into him.  On film, Graham displays good strength and is a very good tackler.

Why I’m staying away: This is going to be a common theme with these hybrid outside linebackers, as many of them have the potential of struggling in pass coverage.  With a transition from defensive end to linebacker, Graham does not have much experience in dropping into coverage.  Graham also lacks the ideal height that scouts and coaches love.  Height might be overrated, but if the pick comes down to Graham and another player who’s 6’3’’ or 6’4’’, the team might choose the other player if Graham and that player are equally rated.  There are also times when Graham might also be a tad late off the ball.

Impact on the Bucs roster: I put Graham in the “linebackers” category because I feel that this might be the more likely position for him in the NFL.  Graham could easily play defensive end, but I still don’t see him being a factor for the Bucs unless they were to trade down.  The No. 3 pick is too early for him, and I can’t figure a scenario that has Graham falling to the 2nd round.  He dominated at Michigan, at the Senior Bowl, and at the combine.  That king of production can not go unnoticed.

NFL Comparison:   Anthony Spencer – Dallas Cowboys

 2. Sean Weatherspoon – OLB – Missouri
6’1’’ – 239 lbs – 4.68
1st Round

Why I’m taking him: {+++} I really like the size and speed combination Weatherspoon has.  He has the size to take on big offensive linemen, while also having the speed to chase down ball carriers.  Weatherspoon displays good awareness on the field, dissecting plays quickly, while also being a sure tackler.  Another thing to really like about Weatherspoon is his versatility; he can play inside or outside linebacker.

Why I’m staying away: The one negative that stands out to me more than others in regards to Weatherspoon is that I’m not seeing a mean streak at all. I like my linebackers to be violent, and I don’t see that with Weatherspoon. I’m also slightly concerned over Weatherspoon’s ability to shed blockers.

Impact on the Bucs: I really like Weatherspoon and think he is a perfect fit in a 4-3 defense while also being a nice fit inside in a 3-4 defense.  Much like Graham, the 3rd pick is way too early for him, and I doubt he’ll fall to the 2nd round.  I see Weatherspoon going somewhere in the middle of round 1 to a team like the Steelers or Falcons.

NFL Comparison:   Lawrence Timmons – Florida St.

 3. Jerry Hughes – DE/OLB – TCU
6’2’’ – 255 lbs – 4.69
1st – 2nd Round

Why I’m taking him: Much like Graham, Hughes is a pure pass rusher who just knows how to get to the quarterback.  He has great athleticism which he displayed at the combine in linebacker drills.  He also has good strength to go with that athleticism.  I really like Hughes’ burst off the ball and his motor till the end of every play.  There was also a few times where I saw Hughes getting offensive linemen off-balance.  Hughes might be a better rusher on film when he is standing up, which fits why teams consider him an ideal outside linebacker for the 3-4.

Why I’m staying away: I saw a few times on film where Hughes got pushed around by bigger offensive linemen or double teams.  He’s also converting to linebacker, so, despite his display at the combine, pass coverage is a concern.

Impact on the Bucs: This could be interesting if Hughes slips to the Bucs at the top of Round 2.  I see Hughes as a better fit for a 3-4 defense, but he is a pure pass rusher, which is a huge need for the Bucs. 

NFL Comparison:   Terrell Suggs – Baltimore Ravens

4. Sergio Kindle – DE/OLB – Texas
6’3’’ – 250 lbs – 4.71
1st Round

Why I’m taking him: Some scouts have said that Kindle is more NFL-ready than Brian Orakpo was last year, and Orakpo had 12 sacks his rookie season.  Kindle has very good quickness and awareness to read and dissect plays.  Although he doesn’t have elite speed, that quickness is lethal at times.  Kindle’s also very good with his hands and hand placement.  Leverage is another good part of Kindle’s game.

Why I’m staying away: I don’t see an elite rusher when I watch Kindle’s film.  I can’t see Kindle having near the production Orakpo had in his rookie season.  Kindle does not display very good strength at all.  He struggles against bigger offensive linemen or linemen with excellent technique.

Impact on the Bucs: I don’t think Kindle would be a very good fit for the Bucs defense.  He isn’t a good fit at defensive end, and isn’t good enough in pass coverage for the Bucs “Tampa 2” defense.

NFL Comparison:   Aaron Maybin – Buffalo Bills

5 . Thaddeus Gibson – DE/OLB – Ohio St.
6’2’’ – 243 lbs – 4.75
2nd Round

Why I’m taking him: I think there is a lot to like about Gibson.  He has very good combination of power and athleticism.  Gibson is also relentless in pursuit with excellent closing speed.  Gibson tested very well at the combine and shows good tackling ability on film.

Why I’m staying away: The biggest worry for me in regards to Gibson is that he might be a liability in pass coverage. 

Impact on the Bucs: Gibson isn’t the ideal fit for the Bucs.  He seems to small to be a defensive end for them, but no athletic enough to play outside linebacker in their “Tampa 2” defense.

NFL Comparison:   Bertrand Berry – Arizona Cardinals

6. Navorro Bowman – OLB – Penn St.
6’ – 242 lbs – 4.72
2nd – 3rd Round

Why I’m taking him: Bowman is another linebacker from “Linebacker U.”  He possesses great instincts and has a nose for the ball.  He’s also a very solid tackler.  Bowman performed very well at his pro day and should be able to hold his own in pass coverage.

Why I’m staying away: Bowman is a good linebacker, but far from elite. He lacks elite speed and is not overly athletic.  He also scored one of the lowest scores on the Wonderlic test.

Impact on the Bucs: Bowman isn’t a great fit for the Bucs because of his lack of athleticism.  I’m not sure Bowman would be an upgrade over any of the Bucs current linebackers.

NFL Comparison:   Paul Posluszny – Buffalo Bills

7. Eric Norwood – OLB – South Carolina
6’1’’ – 245 lbs – 4.70
3rd Round

Why I’m taking him: I have to admit it; I really enjoyed the tape I saw of Norwood.  I really like his tackling ability and the way he gets to the quarterback as a blitzer.  I don’t know if there is anything that frustrates me more than a blitzing linebacker who doesn’t come within five yards of the quarterback. Norwood is a powerful player who plays with a lot of swagger. He was a leader on South Carolina’s defense.

Why I’m staying away: Norwood does have power, but lacks athleticism.  This lack of athleticism hurts him in pass coverage. On film, Norwood sometimes finds himself out of position.

Impact on the Bucs: Despite my affection for Norwood, I’m not sure he’s a great fit for the Bucs. Him being a liability in pass coverage worries me in the Bucs defense.

NFL Comparison:   Kawika Mitchell – Buffalo Bills

8. Ricky Sapp – DE/OLB – Clemson
6’4’’ – 252 lbs – 4.70
3rd Round

Why I’m taking him: Sapp’s biggest assets are his speed and athleticism.  He also has experience in both a 4-3 and a 3-4 defense, making the transition easier to the NFL. Whether it is good or bad, Sapp seems to hop out of his stance at times.

Why I’m staying away: Sapp is a major liability in the run game with his lack of strength and power. He can be swallowed up by bigger offensive linemen and is too easily blocked one on one.  Durability is also a major concern after Sapp missed many games due to injury at Clemson.

Impact on the Bucs: The Bucs made this mistake a couple years ago when they drafted Gaines Adams. I just can’t see them making that same mistake twice, no matter what round it’s in.

NFL Comparison:   Gaines Adams – Chicago Bears

9. Nawa’akoa Misi – DE/OLB – Utah
6’3’’ – 251 lbs – 4.73
3rd – 4th Round

Why I’m taking him: Misi might be an intriguing prospect in the middle rounds.  He is very durable and has the strength and instincts I like in linebackers.  While at Utah, Misi played defensive end, defensive tackle, and outside linebacker. He’s the type of player that will do what he’s told, and do it well.

Why I’m staying away: There are a few questions about Misi’s ability.  The first is my concern about Misi’s open-field tackling.  Sometimes how a linebacker tackles in the open-field can define him.  Misi is also a big liability in pass coverage with his lack of speed and elite athleticism.

Impact on the Bucs: Misi is not a good fit for the Bucs. He’s probably best as a defensive end, but because of his size, he’ll play outside linebacker in the NFL.

NFL Comparison:   Parys Haralson – San Francisco 49ers

10. Jason Worilds – DE/OLB – Virginia Tech
6’1’’ – 254 lbs – 4.47
3rd – 4th Round

Why I’m taking him: Worilds is a firecracker who is active from the snap to the whistle.  He has superior speed and has a great burst off the ball. Worilds also has a nice array of pass rushing moves in his arsenal. His speed should help him in pass coverage.

Why I’m staying away: With all the speed that Worilds has, his strength is on the other end of that spectrum. He seems to rely so much on his speed because his strength is not there.

Impact on the Bucs: Worilds would be strictly a third-down pass rusher for the Bucs. I think the Bucs can do better with their 4th round pick.

NFL Comparison:   Quinton Groves – Jacksonville Jaguars

Inside Linebackers

1. Rolando McClain – ILB – Alabama
6’3’’ – 254 lbs – 4.68
Top 15

Why I’m taking him: I’m taking McClain because he is the best linebacker in the draft and one of the best players the draft has to offer.  McClain never missed one game at Alabama due to injury.  He is the leader of a national championship defense that lives in the weight room and the film room.  McClain wants to be great.  He is a great tackler and very instinctive.  McClain was recently clocked at 4.69 in the 40-yard dash, which is definitely fast enough for a 254 lbs linebacker.

Why I’m staying away: The biggest concern for McClain came at his pro day when it was revealed that he had Crohn’s disease.  Crohn’s disease is a disorder that causes inflammation of the digestive track.  This might be a reason why McClain wasn’t going more than 100% on the field at times.  Despite his 40 time, there are still concerns over his athleticism and speed.

Impact on the Bucs: McClain would be a huge improvement over Barrett Ruud.  Everything Ruud has been hyped to be, McClain is.  McClain would help one of the league’s worst run defenses finally improve on that stat, thanks to McClain’s physical play and willingness to SHED A BLOCK.

NFL Comparison:   DeMeco Ryans – Houston Texans

2. Daryl Washington – ILB – TCU
6’2’’ – 230 lbs – 4.66
2nd Round

Why I’m taking him: The first thing that stands out about Washington is his speed and quickness.  He’s also very disciplined and does not over run plays.  Washington is also a special teams standout as he blocked 4 punts in his collegiate career.  His speed and quickness helps him be effective in pass coverage and allows him to move freely sideline-to-sideline.  You’ll never find Washington giving up on a play as he is excellent in pursuit.

Why I’m staying away: I’d be slightly concerned about playing Washington in the middle with his lack of size.  He actually bulked up to 230 lbs.  At times, he looks like a safety playing linebacker.  He needs to get stronger.  His lack of strength hurts him in shedding blocks.

Impact on the Bucs: Well, Washington is the type of linebacker that fits the Bucs scheme.  He’s undersized and can run.  However, I don’t think he’d be an upgrade at middle linebacker or at outside linebacker, so I’d pass.

NFL Comparison: Jonathon Vilma – New Orleans Saints

 3. Brandon Spikes – ILB – Florida
6’3’’ – 249 lbs – 5.05
3rd – 4th Round

Why I’m taking him: I love the size of Brandon Spikes in the middle to take on opposing run games.  He’s a physical player who plays with a mean streak.  Spikes was a team leader and very durable during his time at Florida.  He has great awareness and has great football smarts.  Once he gets to the ball carrier, he’s a reliable tackler.

Why I’m staying away: Spikes is slow.  At the Gators pro day, Spikes ran over a 5.00 40-yard dash.  There were offensive lineman that ran faster forties than he did.  In college, teams can disguise a players weakness like that, but in the pros they exploit it.  This lack of speed will probably have Spikes falling on draft day.

Impact on the Bucs: Trust me, I’d love the Bucs to have a physical presence in the middle of their defense, but Spikes is just too slow to succeed in the “Tampa 2”.

NFL Comparison:   Jeremiah Trotter – Philadelphia Eagles

4. Jamar Cheney – ILB – Mississippi St.
6’1’’ – 242 lbs – 4.54
3rd – 4th Round

Why I’m taking him: I love the combination of size and speed with Cheney.  He can play like a missile on the field with great closing speed.  Cheney’s very aggressive, willing to take on blockers, and always hits the quarterback on a blitz.  In pass coverage, Cheney has the speed to cover the deep middle and does a good job of reading the quarterback.  Cheney possesses good leadership abilities as well.

Why I’m staying away: Durability and smarts are the big concerns with Cheney.  He was supposed to go to Georgia on a scholarship, but was not admitted due to academics.  Cheney also missed most of the 2008 season with a season-ending ankle injury. His aggressiveness is great, but sometimes he can be too aggressive and overrun plays.  Really needs to address his leg strength at the next level.

Impact on the Bucs: I think Cheney has been one of the more underrated prospects this year.  Watching him on film, he does everything I want my middle linebacker to do.  The Bucs have not signed Ruud to a long term contract, so if they’re looking to groom someone before Ruud leaves, Cheney might be the right guy.

NFL Comparison:   Jon Beason – Carolina Panthers

5. Sean Lee – ILB – Penn St.
6’2’’ – 236 lbs – 4.61
3rd – 4th Round

Why I’m taking him: Lee seems to be the prototypical Penn St. linebacker.  Coaches have raved about his hard work and leadership on and off the field.  His instincts and recognition are off the chart as he dissects plays before they happen.  He’s a sure tackler and a big hitter.

Why I’m staying away: I’m worried because Lee struggles to shed a block.  If you can’t shed a block, you become like Barrett Ruud and make your tackles 8 yards down the field.  Lee also is not elite in coverage and will need to work on that.  Durability is also a major concern as Lee tore his ACL in his right knee in non-contact drills in April of 2008 and missed the entire 2008 season.

Impact on the Bucs: The Bucs already have Barrett Ruud, don’t they?  All jokes aside, Lee is a decent player who could be a solid linebacker because of his work ethic and leadership.  I’m not sure he’s a good fit for the Bucs before the 4th round.

NFL Comparison:   Barrett Ruud – Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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