|Greg M. Cooper / US Presswire|
|An intriguing prospect such as Bruce Carter adds depth to an otherwise weaker LB class.|
The headliner in the linebacker class of 2011 is clearly Texas A&M's Von Miller. He is a smooth athlete with pass-rush skills, who can also cover just as well. He's a top-five selection.
After Miller, we might see one or two more outside linebackers in the first round. However, in general, this is not a very good year for premiere outside 'backers, and it's even worse for inside 'backers. There will be solid players drafted in Rounds 3 through 5 who will make teams and possibly start as rookies.
With the steady rise of teams going to a 3-4 base defense, that puts an extra linebacker on the field. Look to the hybrid defensive end population for some players who might be listed as linemen but will convert to 3-4 outside 'backers. Ryan Kerrigan, Jabaal Sheard and Sam Acho are just a few of the potential crossovers. My guess is there will be about seven players drafted in the first 64 picks that teams will have the intention of playing at a linebacker position.
Player with most upside
North Carolina's Bruce Carter probably would have been a first-round pick if he didn't tear an ACL in December. Modern medicine will give him a great chance to regain his former athletic ability and maybe even improve his strength. He has natural linebacker skills and could easily return to the top of this class in a year or two. He might never catch Miller, but whoever takes him and is patient is going to get a terrific player.
Biggest boom-or-bust prospect
Martez Wilson is the speed linebacker from Illinois who looks much like Keith Bulluck. Wilson ran a 4.66-second 40-yard dash at 250 pounds, with a 36-inch vertical leap and 10-foot-4 broad jump. When you watch him on tape, Wilson flashes big-time plays, but he also looks stiff in space. Wilson does not always play like the athlete his measurables would suggest he should.
My favorite sleeper(s)
This is a sleeper draft for linebackers. Some team is going to take a guy in the fourth or fifth round, and hit it big. Two guys to keep an eye on because they are slated to go in those rounds are LSU's Kelvin Sheppard and Connecticut's Lawrence Wilson. Both players showed me plenty of potential at the Senior Bowl, that is if they are drafted to play in the right style defenses. Sheppard fits as a strong-side inside 'backer in a 3-4 defense. He is big and can take on a guard. He can call the defensive plays with effort and demonstrated an ability to diagnose plays. Wilson belongs in a 4-3 defense as a 'Will' linebacker. He's a run-and-hit guy who needs to play behind a defensive tackle so blockers can't get a shot at him. Wilson demonstrated very good coverage skills against backs and slot receivers.
Players with most to prove
Boston College's Mark Herzlich is a guy every one in the country should be cheering for to make it. After the 2008 season, he was on course for a high first-round grade and then was diagnosed with cancer. He made it back to the field in 2010 in what some would call a miracle. He wasn't the same player he once was, which he has admitted to me, but he really is starting to regain some of what he once was as an athlete. I hope the team that drafts him has patience to let him fully recover because he could be a leader, as well as a very productive player. I have interviewed him three times about his story and how he attacked his disease, which would be enough for me to draft him. However, I'm not picking players, and he has to prove he can play in the NFL.
Small-school prospect with a chance
Keep an eye on Mario Harvey from Marshall. He will get a chance to play middle linebacker at some point. He's a run stuffer at close to 250 pounds. He was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, but neither were a dozen or more guys who will be drafted. He had 200-plus tackles, 28 tackles for a loss, 18 sacks, and six forced fumbles at Marshall. He starts out as a special teams player, and we will see where he goes from there.
Debunking a myth
Granted, colleges are all throwing the ball now more than ever, and you'd think linebackers would come to the NFL with better coverage skills than ever before. The truth is the young players still struggle in pass defense because of the quality of quarterbacks, the route-running abilities of the receivers and all the coverages teams play. It is still a struggle to get linebackers ready to defend the pass.
Teams with the greatest need
This is a tough year for the teams that desperately need linebackers, but teams still have to draft them somewhere in the selection process. Teams most likely to pick a linebacker include the Saints, Giants, Chargers, Cardinals, Ravens, Texans, Patriots, Buccaneers, Bears, Titans, and Lions.