At one time, the term "linebacker" conjured up images of middle-linebacker icons from the 1960s and '70s like Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert, Willie Lanier, and Ray Nitschke.
Since fellow Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor's arrival on the scene during the New York Giants' run in the '80s, though, most teams -- especially those that have switched to three-man fronts in recent years -- concern themselves with trying to find rush linebackers coming off the edge. The need to pressure quarterbacks and removal of typical run-stuffing "Mike" linebackers in sub-packages has changed the evaluation of second-level defenders.
Last year, the Denver Broncos selected linebacker Von Miller with the second overall selection, despite new head coach John Fox's reputation as a defensive coach using a base 4-3 alignment where most of the pass rush came from defensive ends. Fox adjusted his scheme to incorporate Miller's talent, which resulted in the former Texas A&M Aggie picking up 11.5 sacks as a rookie.
The other two linebackers selected in the first round of the 2011 draft, Aldon Smith (by San Francisco with the seventh pick) and Ryan Kerrigan (Washington, 16th), combined for 21.5 sacks in 3-4 schemes.
Inside linebackers, however, won't be shut out of Thursday night's proceedings this year. The overall depth for both inside and outside 'backers is not very strong this year, though, leaving only the most astute general managers able to find capable starters, valuable reserves and consistent contributors on special teams on each day of the draft.
Here are nine linebackers, both inside and outside, in different tiers of this year's draft class who could make an impact at the next level.
Impact first-round linebackers are either the quarterback of the defense or among the best in the league at attacking the opposing quarterback.
Luke Kuechly, Boston College: The nation's leading tackler averaged nearly 16 stops per game in 2011. Considered a high-motor middle linebacker with average athleticism before the combine, Kuechly's fantastic effort in Indianapolis (he finished in the top five among all linebackers in every test) caused some teams to project him as a potential Sean Lee-type coverage 'backer if moved outside. Any defender capable of tracking down ball carriers to either sideline as well as making plays in the passing game is an impact player -- especially if he also proves a capable blitzer, something he wasn't asked to do often in college.
Andre Branch, Clemson: Though Branch usually manned the 4-3 rush end spot for Clemson, he stood up or dropped into coverage on occasion, showing off the agility and length to transition to linebacker at the next level. If added to the roster of a playoff team late in the first round, he will become a starter sooner than later, harassing quarterbacks as he did in 2011 (10.5 sacks) and preventing running backs from reaching the sideline.
Shea McClellin, Boise State: McClellin is a hot name in NFL circles right now, but he actually gave all of us an early glimpse at his talent in the 2011 season opener when he consistently beat top-50 prospect Cordy Glenn on his way to 2.5 sacks in Boise State's win over Georgia in Atlanta. His combine test results were similar to those of Houston Texans 2011 rookie starter Brooks Reed, who showed enough ability as a pass rusher to be a terror to opposing quarterbacks for the foreseeable future. McClellin's rush skills and ability to play with leverage on the edge makes him a player opponents must be aware of.
Friday night lights
Impact linebackers picked in the second or third rounds always seem to be around the ball (or in the backfield), despite average size or athleticism.
Mychal Kendricks, Cal: Linebackers barely reaching the 5-foot-11 mark on the measuring tape can be overlooked by teams relying on size minimums in their evaluation process. But any scout who has watched Kendricks diagnose plays and explode into ball carriers knows he will find the ball whether inside or outside. That sub-4.5 speed he showed at the combine might force some defensive coordinators to make exceptions to their height restrictions and project him as a playmaking Will 'backer with pass-rush ability. Just ask new Patriots left tackle Nate Solder about his difficulties against Kendricks when Colorado faced Cal in 2010.
James Michael-Johnson, Nevada: This draft is truly lacking in athletic, between-the-tackles Mike linebackers, so don't be surprised if Johnson gets pulled up into the late-second or early-third round like Jonas Mouton (Chargers' second-round pick, 61st overall), Nate Irving (Denver, third round, 67th) and Kelvin Sheppard (Buffalo, third round, 68th) did last April. Johnson's ability to come downhill versus the run and scrape to attack stretch plays makes him a probable starter inside early in his career.
Demario Davis, Arkansas State: The late arrival to the Senior Bowl flashed the same closing speed he showed on tape, piquing the interest of coaches and scouts on hand in Mobile. Davis' explosiveness (4.61 40, 38.5 vertical jump) and strength (led all linebackers with 32 bench reps) at the combine just confirmed what teams had seen in Mobile and during his ASU career, allowing NFL teams to picture him as an all-around rush/coverage threat in a 4-3 or 3-4 system.
Impact late-round linebackers often make their name on special teams before becoming too consistent or explosive to keep off the field on defense.
Audie Cole, North Carolina State: If the 6-4, 246-pound Cole lasts until the third day of the draft, he will be as strong a bargain as long-time NFL starter Scott Fujita was coming out of Cal as a similarly-sized fifth-round prospect in 2002. Cole played multiple roles in the Wolfpack defense the past three years, effectively blitzing and using his instincts and quick reactions to stop the run, too. Scouts also appreciate Cole's Golden Gloves boxing accomplishments from before his N.C. State days.
Josh Kaddu, Oregon: Some NFL linebackers don't make a lot of tackles or sacks, but simply earn their paychecks by handling tight ends and running backs in coverage while playing their containment assignment on the edge. Kaddu looks to be that sort of player at the next level, making his impact in a quieter manner than most, but still filling an important role as a Sam 'backer in a 4-3 scheme.
Alex Hoffman-Ellis, Washington State: The lack of team success realized by the Cougars over the past few years has hidden the talent of players like Hoffman-Ellis. He is smaller than most teams prefer at the position (6-0 1/2, 232), but it is difficult to ignore his ability to slice through creases to attack the ball. A certain special teams contributor as a rookie, don't rule out Hoffman-Ellis' ability to step into a starting 4-3 weak side position in a year or two because of his read-and-react skills, secure tackling and ability to read the quarterback and receivers in coverage.
Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter