Inside Linebackers Analysis
By Dave Te Thomas
This is by far the weakest position in the draft. With collegiate middle linebackers like Robert Thomas, Larry Foote and Levar Fisher being projected outside in the pros, there will be very few players getting their names called here in the first few rounds. However, there are a few surprises to be found, if you dig deep enough.
Ben Taylor looks the part and acts the part, but his medical history looks as if you'd need Alan Alda and the M*A*S*H unit following him around. Andra Davis bounced back strong from reconstructive surgery in 2000, but seems to have lost that foot speed that allowed him to roam the field earlier in his career. The same holds true for his teammate Travis Carroll, whose medical records may be enough to keep him out of the draft.
If you are looking for some talented sleepers to emerge, there is a pair that have been opening eyes in recent workouts. Josh Thornhill capped a very impressive Combine showing even better workouts back on campus, clocking a 4.58 recently. 250-pounder Kenny Harney topped those numbers by running a 4.52 for scouts and was the object of attention at his workouts by the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals. Dwayne Levels was mysteriously left out of the Combines, but more than made up for it with stellar performances at the Blue-Gray Game and Hula Bowl.
Times in the 40-yard dash around the 4.9 range did not enhance the draft stock of Trev Faulk and Tyreo Harrison. 260-pounder Bradley Jennings shows good run stuffing ability, but his poor footwork and slow times have seen him slip deep into the second day. Jermaine Petty, known for his less than spectacular running ability, turned in a 4.74 time at the Combines and continues to move up the charts.
Injuries keep hampering Billy Silva's career and it looks like he could still be around at the end of the draft. Other late round types to watch out for are Jamie Burrow, Quincy Monk and De'Andre Lewis, whose father suited up for the Cowboys in the 1970s. One inside man that has been moving up a bit is Max Yates, who can also play on the outside. Free agent types have tough odds in their hopes to earn a roster spot, but Aries Monroe and Tavarreus Pounds could force their way on to the Final 53.
MAKING THE GRADE…D-…If not for Rasheed and sleepers Josh Thornhill , Dwayne Levels and Kenny Harney, the grade here would be much lower.
Cream Of The Crop
Positives: Has a lean, well-defined frame with long legs and thick thighs…Quickly digests the plays, making instant decisions towards the ball…Shows proper hand placement to prevent blockers from attacking his feet…Moves well down the line, showing a good short area burst to close…Stays low in his pads, extending his arms to wrap and secure the ball carrier…Makes quick turns out of his backpedal and mirrors the tight end, doing a nice job of pressing the opponent at the line…Uses his rip-&-swim moves with force…Has great power for his lanky frame, setting four school lifting records for linebackers (clean, bench, incline, vertical)… Explosive hitter who closes incredibly quick in pursuit…Effective inside blitzer who backpedals smoothly in pass coverage…Does a nice job using his hands to avoid low blocks…Has the balance and redirection skills to flash into the plays…Good knee bender with a fluid change of direction.
Negatives: Gets out of control at times, trying to out-muscle blockers rather than slide off blocks…While he is effective in pass coverage, he seems to gather himself a bit before heading upfield…Needs to add some bulk to his frame to prevent punishment when trying to get through the inside trash…Seems to work better in space rather than up at the line and could be better suited for the outside…Can get off the edge on the blitz, but does not always locate the ball when in the backfield…Tends to lean into blockers rather than delivering a strong hand jolt in attempts to penetrate.
One of the finest linebackers to ever perform for the Crimson Tide, Saleem has also earned numerous honors for his excellence in the classroom…The Arthur Ashe, Jr., Sports Scholar and two-time Academic All-Southeastern Conference choice is only of only twelve players in school history to record over 100 tackles in a season…Ranks seventh on the school's career-record list with 279 tackles while appearing in 34 games…Added five sacks for minus 35 yards, 19 stops for losses of 58 yards and 19 quarterback pressures.
REMINDS YOU OF… Ed McDaniel, ex-Viking. Like McDaniel in his prime, he brings that combination of safety speed and down lineman power.
GAZING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL… Could end up becoming a Viking. With the cutting of McDaniel and the free agency loss of Kailee Wong, the Vikings are one of the few teams desperate for young blood in the middle. Still feel he's a strongside outside linebacker, though.
Best Of The Rest
Positives: Solid inside run stuffer who plays at a low pad level in order to take on blocks and stack…Has the functional strength needed to consistently gain leverage…Uses his power to jam and redirect the tight ends…Has the range to chase plays at the opposite side of the field and explodes into his tackles…Hits hard and wraps securely at the junction…Gets good depth on his pass drops, seeing the plays develop…Ideal gunner on special teams due to his hitting ability and straight-ahead acceleration…Emotional leader who is always trying to pick up his teammates… Excels at working in space, showing a sharp closing burst.
Negatives: Not very instinctive and is often positioned away from the play by the larger blockers…Shows little avoidance skills, preferring to crash into and combat the blocker rather than elude…Gets fooled a bit on the quarterback's pumps and fakes…Stiff in his backpedal, looking very choppy in transition…His lack of range prevents him from covering deep…Will crash into the backfield to flush out the quarterback, only to either over-pursue the play or bump into a blocker, preventing him from getting a piece of the passer…Has to do a better job of delivering a hand punch in tight quarters, as he has difficulties disengaging…Will take improper angles at times, generally when he bites on head fakes…More comfortable in the box, rather than in pass coverage.
Three-year starter known for his highly competitive nature…Natural leader who will "get in the face" of a teammate if he feels that player is not performing at his peak level…His impressive athletic ability allows him to play any of the three linebacker positions…Led the team in tackles the last two years, since taking over the middle linebacker spot from Rob Morris, becoming only the fifth player in school history to lead the team in consecutive seasons…Finished his career with 279 tackles (150 solos), four quarterback sacks, four forced fumbles and 29 stops behind the line of scrimmage.
REMINDS YOU OF… Frank Chamberlain, Tennessee Titans. Not the most polished that you will find, but always makes a big contribution in crunch time.
GAZING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL… His versatility could entice a team to vie for him before the first day of the draft is over, but my money says he's still around in the fourth.
Positives: Big, physical tackler with huge hands and thick legs…Probable inside line- backer at the pro level, but also has experience on the outside…Very aggressive taking on multiple blockers, using his leg drive and power to stack opponents at the line of scrimmage…Stays square when facing up to the offensive guards, getting good leverage with his strength and shedding quickly thanks to powerful hand swipes…Makes proper body adjustments to bring down the ball carrier in the open…Can play the trail and adjust to the quick cuts by tight ends in man coverage…Has a good feel for the pass, getting to the flats immediately…Gets a good jump on the ball working in the zone…Uses his lateral agility to bull rush into the backfield.
Negatives: Gets walled off by the larger blockers moving upfield…Can get sloppy making tackles, grabbing and lunging rather than playing under control to wrap… Sometimes has problems recognizing the underneath pass, biting on fakes…Does not have the natural hands needed to snatch the interception.
Unheralded athlete with tremendous quickness…Has been in the starting lineup, barring injuries, since late in his freshman year…Versatile defender with experience at both out- side and inside linebacker…Finished his career with 276 tackles (167 solos), 6.5 quarter-back sacks for minus 48 yards, 24 stops for losses of 99 yards, seven fumble recoveries and six forced fumbles.
REMINDS YOU OF… Randall Godfrey, Tennessee Titans. Has the ease of movement agility like Godfrey and the versatility to play any linebacker position.
Positives: Flexible defender who is quick to turn and close on the ball…Relentless in pursuit, using his hands effectively to steer and control the tight ends in the short area passing game… Maintains balance moving laterally and is a solid zone defender…Quick to react to the play and stays low when attempting to tackle.
Negatives: Has a narrow frame with marginal muscle development…Has a long history of injuries and his right ankle needs further medical evaluation…Plays too upright and with a very narrow base, which causes him to get knocked around quite a bit…Does not have the raw strength needed to face up and shed blocks…Needs to use his hands better to keep blockers off his feet…Not that physical of a tackler, struggling with his movements when working in space… Stiff knee bender who gets pushed past the ball due to a lack of leg drive needed to hold his ground…Fails to close on the running backs in man coverage… May be better suited inside due to his inability to work in space and his failure to generate much of a blitz coming off the edge.
Three-year starter who has performed as an inside and outside linebacker and strong safety during his time at Tech…The two-time Butkus Award semi-finalist was the unquestioned leader of Tech's heralded defense…He twice led the team in tackles, finishing his career with 318 tackles (178 solos), seven sacks for minus 55 yards and 32 stops for losses of 107 yards in 44 games.
REMINDS YOU OF… Lemanski Hall, Minnesota Vikings. Capable backup type, but his lack of brute strength leaves me unimpressed.
GAZING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL… Some publications have him ranked as high as second here. Good player, but nothing to write home to mother about. Besides, his long history of injuries scare me.
First Day Possibilities
Positives: Has a well-propportioned frame that can add at least ten more pounds with no loss of quickness…Has the ball awareness skills to string the plays wide…Shows good functional strength at the point of attack…Take proper angles and maintains body position when engaging the larger blockers…Flashes the ability to jab and jolt with his hands…Has the acceleration to reach the outside to make the cut-off plays…Reads the play quickly and knows how to avoid the low blocks, showing good range…Has the body flexibility, knee bend and lateral agility needed to knife through traffic…His change of direction agility allows him to protect himself from outside blocks and make plays on the side-lines…Shows explosion when striking and wrapping…Has the speed to trail and run with the tight end in the short area…Anticipates the pass, avoiding trash as he moves upfield to pick up his zone assignment…Displays proper wrap technique when tackling, using his leg drive to push the ball carrier back.
Negatives: Not always instant in his decision-making, taking a bit of time to properly digest the play…Has adaquate strength at the point of attack (gets narrow-based), but will struggle to hold and control blockers…Needs to show better hand usage to prevent blockers from standing him up…Has problems with trap blocks, which prevents him from consistently filling and stuffing the rush lanes…Struggles to anticipate the pass playing in the zone, appearing more comfortable working in the box (lloks lost in pass coverage, needing to see the ball before reacting)…Lacks the natural hands-catching ability, letting sure interceptions become negated as he lets the ball absorb into his body…While he takes good angles working the box, his angles appear off when dropping in space, which makes him look slow when attempting to blitz.
A mainstay at middle linebacker since his freshman year, Josh has also excelled in the class room, garnering academic honors to go with his recognition as one of the top middle linebackers in the game…A true powerhouse who three times was honored with the team's Iron Man Award, he finished his career with 395 tackles (240 solos), five sacks for minus 21 yards, 33 stops for losses of 88 yards and 24 pass deflections…Only Ike Reese (420, 1994-97), Percy Snow (473, 1986-89) and Dan Bass (541, 1976-79) had more tackles in school history…His 33 stops behind the line of scrimmage are topped only by Robaire Smith (38, 1997-99), Travis Davis (39, 1986-89), Larry Bethea (43, 1975-77) and Julian Peterson (48, 1998-99) on MSU's career-record chart…His 24 pass deflections rank seventh in school annals and set an all-time record for MSU linebackers.
REMINDS YOU OF… Mike Jones, Pittsburgh Steelers. Like Jones, a self-made player. Nothing flashy about this kid, but he keeps showing up on the films and you have to love his athletic ability.
GAZING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL… Will more likely be taken in the fourth-fifth round area, but with the lack of talent here, someone could reach early in the third. His post-Combine workouts have been equally impressive.
Second Day Possibilities
Positives: Well-defined athlete with long arms, thick thighs and excellent overall muscle defelopment…Moves well laterally and keeps his feet in traffic…Does an excellent job of riding contact down the line…Has explosive acceleration at the point of attack…Smooth dropping off in the zone, using his hands well while taking on blocks…Has exceptional quickness chasing down plays, with fluid lateral agility to zero in on ball carriers on the perimeter…Recognizes the plays instantly, using his superb lateral agility, while turning his hips smoothly to redirect…Natural hands battler who will deliver a solid jolt to escape combo blocks…Quick pass rusher off the edge, using rip-&-swim moves to cross face and flush out the trash in the backfield…Very effective attacking quarterbacks from the back- side, lowering his shoulders and driving with his legs to jolt his man back…Has the range needed to make the smooth transition out of his backpedal and the short area quickness to mirror the tight end's moves.
Negatives: Needs to add some lower body strength to prevent the larger blockers from riding him wide…While he does a good job of protecting his feet, he needs to take more forceful arm swipes to keep the linemen at bay…Works better in the open, as he's a bit under-sized, causing him to get bounced around in tight quarters…Relies too much on his upper body strength, trying to maul the blockers rather than elude…When in isolated situations, he will get a little too upright trying to overpower, causing him to lose balance.
The heart and soul of the Tigers' defense, Trev opted to test his skills in the NFl next year rather than return to campus…An excellent pass defender, he also excelled in the class- room, earning academic honors…A solid presence in the middle, his lateral agility and foot speed could see him shift outside in the pros…Finished his career with 300 tackles (194 solos), four sacks for minus 13 yards and 18 stops for losses of 49 yards, as he started 31 of 34 games he played in.
REMINDS YOU OF… Kory Minor, Carolina Panthers. Heads-up player, but disappointed most at the Combines with his lack of speed.
GAZING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL… Could have locked up a first day pick with a good showing at Indianapolis, but the lack of foot speed is evident.
Positives: Shows good awareness reading and diagnosing plays in the base defense… Anchors properly vs. the inside run, working through blocks…Shows good effort in his lateral pursuit… Strong wrapup tackler who will face up and drag down the opponent… Effective blitzer who plays with a high intensity level…Knows how to use his hands to lock out and shed blocks.
Negatives: Shows hesitation when asked to diagnose plays in schemes by formation… Does not use his strength properly to stack up the ground game…Hesitates at times, looking as if he's a step behind when pursuing the outside run…Gets replaced when it is time for passing situations…Lacks fluid man coverage skills, appearing stiff in the hips on the turn-&-go…Not a natural hands catcher…Settles into the zone, but is slow to break on the ball…Stiff hips prevent him from redirecting, causing him to struggle while trying to work through the trash…Has to develop better push-back power.
Three-year starter who was overshadowed most of his career…Came into his own as a junior, finishing his career with 286 tackles (172 solos) and 25 stops behind the line of scrimmage in 44 contests.
REMINDS YOU OF… Marvcus Patton, Kansas City Chiefs. Like Patton was earlier in his career, Levels is a raw talent, but he will crash into you with a vengeance and loves the physical aspect of the game.
GAZING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL… Could easily have been my Most Underrated pick, if not for Harney. Levels has that "pedal to the metal" style, that once harnessed, he could be a starter for years to come.
Positives: Has a thick frame with long arms and strong torso…Versatile linebacker who overcame a rash of injuries earlier in his career…Very dedicated in the weight room…Has a fluid change of direction and uses his hands aggressively to get a strong push off his blockers…Slides laterally with ease and has the strength to get through traffic…Very fast off the snap, consistently making tackles on the move…Shows good knee bend and uses his hands well to shed…Active pursuit defender who excels at stringing plays to his side.
Negatives: Seems sluggish in his turn-&-go coming out of his backpedal…Struggles to recognize the switch-offs in the zone…Must maintain better balance, as he does not extend his arms properly to keep blockers off his feet…Still not at full lateral agility due to 2000 knee surgery.
A redshirt senior who returned to action in 2001 after suffering a major knee injury in the 2000 season opener…The co-recipient of the defensive unit's most inspirational player award this spring, he started 23 of the 35 games he played in for the Gators…Finished with 232 tackles (154 solos), five sacks for minus 39 yards and 24 stops for losses of 83 yards…He also caused four fumbles and recovered three others.
REMINDS YOU OF… Brandon Spoon, Buffalo Bills. Like Spoon, college injuries may have cost him dearly.
GAZING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL… His recent poor workout (times in the 5.03 range) may have convinced many that he left his best game behind before 2000 knee surgery.
Positives: Has a good-sized frame with adequate muscle thickness and the frame that could add more bulk with no loss of speed…Shows good flexibility and short area quickness…Stays low in his pads when stepping up to fill the holes…Knows how to keep his feet while avoiding trash… Takes proper angles to flow to the ball…Extends and wraps with his arms when engaging ball carriers…Shows the hip snap and change of direction agility to flash to the play with speed.
Negatives: Lacks the hand punch needed to stack and control at the line…Struggles to disengage because of a lack of true power…Looks lost in pass defense, as his long angle pursuit is off…Lacks awareness to stay with the receivers in the zone…Does not read blocking schemes well…Seems to get passive when he should be fighting pressure… Shows a marginal use of his arms when attempting to separate…Has to make adjustments on the move, as he does not instintively key and diagnose the plays…More of a trailer type in man coverage, rather than one who would mirror the receiver's moves…Has good foot speed, but seems to get lost in transition with his backpedal, not getting proper depth… Rarely called upon to blitz as he is not always quick to anticipate to get upfield.
The most experienced of the inside linebackers back for Notre Dame in 2001, he has shown improvement in a variety of areas of his game…Physical tackler who has started the last two years…Finished his career with 185 tackles (102 solos), four sacks for minus 24 yards and 20 stops for losses of 41 yards…Caused three fumbles and recovered two others.
REMINDS YOU OF… Michael Young, Arizona Cardinals. Will be a capable backup, but hardly has shown pro starting ability.
GAZING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL… Situational type who will fill a roster spot, but nothing more.
Positives: Well-built, with thick, sturdy legs and impressive upper body power…Reads screens well and uses his hands forcefully to defeat blocks…Very productive tackler with sturdy legs & strong shoulders…Aggressive vs. the run, using his arm power to escape blockers to string the plays wide…Retreats fluidly off blocks & shows good short area quickness in pass coverage… Moves well laterally, showing a quick burst to the sidelines…Does a good job reacting to plays directed at him.
Negatives: Plays slower than his 40 times indicate…Not always quick to recognize the ball… Does not have the burst to mirror the tight end's moves past the short area…More of a crash and arm tackle type, rather than one who will go low to wrap and secure…Needs to keep his weight in check.
Became the 42nd player in school history to earn first-team All-American honors (2001, from the American Football Coaches Association)…The only player in the country to earn Bronko Nagurski National Player of the Week honors twice in 2001, he topped the Southeastern Conference in tackles for eleven straight weeks during the course of the season…In 33 games for the Razor-backs, he totaled 188 tackles (115 solos) with six sacks for minus 54 yards and 25 stops for losses of 99 yards…Recovered a pair of fumbles and caused three others.
REMINDS YOU OF… Levon Kirkland, Seattle Seahawks. Like Kirkland, he needs to control his weight.
GAZING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL… More suited for a 3-4 system, so he can act like a down lineman, rather than the traditional middle linebacker role.
Positives: Has thick muscle development with broad shoulders and a wide chest…Has the leg drive to step up and fill the inside gaps…Shows good vision searching for the ball…Very aggressive, taking on blockers with force while using his hands effectively to shed…Good at jamming the tight end at the line of scrimmage…More comfortable waiting for plays to come at him…Has a trememdous straight-ahead burst on the blitz…Solid run supporter who loves playing close to the line…Has the ball recognition skills to flow with the play, staying low in his stance to extend, wrap and drive back when engaging the ball carrier
Negatives: Has a very hard time making immediate keys and reads…Generally will be misdirected due to his inability to digest the play…More of an inside-the-gaps tackler, as he does not have the body flexibility or range to move laterally to make plays on the out- side…Very poor footwork is apparent when he feebly attempts to cover the backs coming out in the short area… Has poor shed ability, as he rarely uses his hands to get off blocks…Looks awkward turning his hips and dropping off in the zone, appearing too stiff to pick up the receiver…Reacts late to get to the ball in flight…His limited lateral agility causes him to be blocked out trying to get through the trash…Best when playing in the box, as he tends to lunge and leave his feet when having to turn upfield…Rarely on the field in obvious passing situations as he is too late to drop off in coverage…Will have problems digesting a complicated playbook (see Wonderlic score).
Three-year starter at middle linebacker…One of the hardest hitters the program has seen in recent years…Excellent as a run stopper in short yardage situations…Worked himself into the prototype a middle linebacker with strength to stop the run and speed to chase down the sweep…Finished his career tenth in the school's all-time record books with 341 tackles (164 solos)…Had two sacks, five stops behind the line of scrimmage, 12 pass deflections and three interceptions for his career…Had a string of 35 consecutive starts stopped when he missed the 2001 season finale (knee).
Positives: Has a solid frame with good muscle development…Tough, durable athlete with deceptive speed…Has started all but two games during his career…Excels at breaking down and tackling in the open field…Has a good feel for the box, using his power to stack the run up at the line…Makes punishing contact and shows good hand usage to tie up the tight ends…Takes proper angles to the ball carrier and has an explosive closing step…Sifts through the trash at the line and displays solid lateral agility to string the plays wide… Wrapup tackler who stays in control taking on the larger blockers.
Negatives: Has exceptionally bad speed (5.03) for this position, but can play faster than the stopwatch dictates…Has trouble at times on play keys and reads, showing hesitation before digesting the action…Tends to stand upright at times, when his initial move does not work against his blocker…Also has problems disengaging from the blockers, as he will get his arms tied up by his opponent due to improper hand usage…Seems to struggle filling the rushing lanes, coming in at a high pad level with his arms "short" to allow blockers to get their hands into his chest too quickly…Very tentative in his pass drops, showing confusion in regards to his assignment when switching off in the zone…Has the flexibility to turn-&-go, but is very late reacting to the ball in flight.
Another in a long line of talented Carolina linebackers…Provided needed leadership to a very young UNC defensive unit…A part-time starter prior to the 2001 season, he finished his career with 247 tackles (143 solos), four sacks for minus 45 yards and 15 stops for losses of 73 yards.
Positives: Has a solid, muscular upper body frame…Tough, smart athlete who has great vision and the ability to quickly diagnose the plays…Steps up with explosion when taking on the lead block and has impressive power at the point of attack… Has the lateral agility to clear the trash and stuff the outside run and the hip flexibility to drop into coverage and make plays on the move…Gets a good jump coming off the edge as a blitzer, maintaining his "high motor" as he flushes the quarterback out of the pocket…Quick to get his hands up to intercept or deflect the pass near the line.
Negatives: While he looks like Tarzan, he does play like Jane, at times…Productive in run defense, he is inconsistent to gather and drag down coming from the outside…Still has a lot to learn about pass coverage, as he appears too stiff in his backpedal and allows too much underneath cushion…Will get over-aggressive at times, missing a share of open-field tackles… Has to play under control in order to deliver his impressive knockout hit… Has problems with hand usage, allowing blockers to get into his chest too often…Needs to keep his pads low, as he is slow to adjust and react off blocks…Does not have that lower body initial burst to instinctively flow to the ball (plays too instinctive, at times)…Plays too high at times, which makes it tough to thread through traffic…Has to have an open lane in order for him to be effective on the pass rush…Has been bothered by bulging discs in his lower back the last two years…Suffered a knee injury (see 2001 notes) that could cause some medical concerns.
The anchor of the Wildcat defense, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (Outstanding Defensive Player) semi-finalist (one of 12 players nationally) in 2001 has been the glue to the Wildcat defense the last two years…A physical tackler, he can also drop back in pass coverage… Finished his career ranked eighth on the school's all-time record list with 330 tackles (169 solos)…Also had five interceptions and 13 stops behind the line of scrimmage.