Draft value may have declined for linebackers, but not talent level

Michael Dwyer / Associated Press
Boston College's Mark Herzlich is an elite linebacker prospect entering the upcoming college football season.

Top college senior rankings: QB | RB | WR/TE | OL |DL | LB | DB
Photos: QB | RB | WR/TE | OL | DL | LB | DB

Editor's note: This is the fifth in a weekly series detailing the top senior prospects, by position, for the 2011 NFL Draft.

Did you know?
» In 1990, three linebackers were drafted among the first eight picks of the draft (the most ever). Find out who they were.

» Three linebackers have been picked first overall in the draft. Defensive backs are the only position to have less selected (one). The players are Aundray Bruce (Atlanta, 1988), Tom Cousineau (Buffalo, 1979) and Tommy Nobis (Atlanta, 1966).

» Thomas Henderson was selected by the Cowboys in the first round of the 1975 draft and received a $40,000 signing bonus. He has won the lottery in the state of Texas twice and earned more than $25 million in doing so.

Over the past 10 years (2001-2010), only four inside linebackers have been drafted in the first round of the draft -- the only position with less first-round picks over that time is fullbacks with none (not including specialists).

The reason for this is because unless a prospect can play all three downs as an inside 'backer, or can rush the passer and create big plays, teams are waiting until the later rounds to fill a need at the position.

Over the past three years, only 27 inside linebackers have been selected over the entire draft. One very good player (James Laurinaitis from Ohio State) did not get picked until the second round by the Rams in 2009. He played well and played all downs.

With outside linebackers, it is important to be able to use their hands to jam receivers, because they will be forced to cover. Speed and strength are also very important (speed to cover in space and strength to take on blockers). Recognition is necessary to be outstanding at this position.

Over the past 10 years, 20 outside linebackers have been selected in the first round. The 2011 NFL Draft should have about the same number of players talent wise.

Note: This list only includes players who will have exhausted their eligibility after the 2010 season. UCLA's Akeem Ayers and Oklahoma's Travis Lewis will have a year of eligibility remaining and were not included on this list.

Here are the top 15 senior linebacker prospects NFL scouts will be keeping a close eye on this fall.

Top senior linebackers

1. Mark Herzlich, OLB

College: Boston College
Height/Weight: 6-foot-4, 249

Herzlich did not play in 2009 due to a rare form of bone cancer (Ewings Sarcoma), which he overcame. He was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, and has 249 tackles in three years of play. As an outstanding athlete, he has speed, and can play in space. He had six interceptions in 2008, returning two for scores. He started two games in 2006 as a true freshman, and will be a first-round pick, if his health is ok.

2. Von Miller, OLB

College: Texas A&M
Height/Weight: 6-2 3/4, 240

Miller led college football in 2009 with 17 sacks. He plays a hybrid "Jack" position for the Aggies. He has good speed for the position (4.55 seconds in the 40-yard dash), great first-step quickness and is tough. He can also play in space, and had five pass breakups in 2009. He plays hard every play of very game.

3. Bruce Carter, OLB

College: North Carolina
Height/Weight: 6-3, 225

Carter is an outside linebacker who has started 33 games in the past three years. He is very athletic, has great speed (4.5 in the 40) and exceptional strength. He played as a true freshman, starting seven games. He is a good special teams player that can make plays in space.

4. Lawrence Wilson, OLB

College: Connecticut
Height/Weight: 6-0 3/4, 220

Wilson has outstanding talent and started 37 of 39 games played after being redshirted in 2006. He has 4.6 speed in the 40, has the ability to play in space and had 10 or more tackles in eight games last season. He is a good special teams player as well.

5. K.J. Wright, OLB

College: Mississippi State
Height/Weight: 6-3, 245

Wright played as a true freshman in 2008, and has started 22 games over the past two years. He is a very good athlete, who was a standout in basketball. He was the second-leading tackler on the team in 2009, has good speed and will compete. Like many others on this list, he has a good special teams player.

6. Colin McCarthy, OLB

College: Miami (Fla.)
Height/Weight: 6-2 1/2, 235

McCarthy played as a true freshman in 2006. He started 10 games in 2007 and the first four games of 2008, before receiving a medical redshirt year. He started 10 games in 2009, and was the second-leading tackler on the team. He was named second team all-ACC last year and has good athleticism. He played wide receiver and tight end in high school, and has smarts and special teams ability.

7. Greg Jones, OLB

College: Michigan State
Height/Weight: 6-0 1/2, 240

Jones was going to Minnesota until Glen Mason was replaced as head coach. He started seven games as a strong side linebacker, and moved to middle linebacker after eight games in 2008. He is a good blitzer, and had nine sacks in 2009. He had 154 tackles in 2009, the third-best in college football. He plays hard every down, is an outstanding person and projects to be a middle linebacker in the NFL.

8. Ross Homan, LB

College: Ohio State
Height/Weight: 6-0, 230

Homan is a fifth-year player, who played as a true freshman in 2006, and had a medical redshirt year in 2007. He led the team with 108 tackles and five interceptions in 2009. He made the second team all-Big Ten last year, and is a very good college player. He never takes a play off, but scouts still need to see how much speed he possesses.

9. Dontay Moch, OLB

College: Nevada
Height/Weight: 6-1 5/8, 238

Moch played linebacker in 2007 and moved to defensive end in 2008, and is projected to be an outside linebacker. He has great speed for his position and can run under 4.5 in the 40. He was first team All-WAC in 2009 and was also the Defensive Player of the Year. He was a good player, who should be able to make the move to outside linebacker.

10. Michael Mohamed, MLB

College: California
Height/Weight: 6-2 5/8, 238

Mohamed is a fifth-year player that has played both outside and inside, but his best position is in the middle. He is very smart, with outstanding competitiveness and led the team and the Pac-10 conference in tackles last season, while making the first team. Scouts still need to find out how fast he is next year.

11. Quan Sturdivant, LB

College: North Carolina
Height/Weight: 6-1 1/4, 230

Sturdivant was a high school quarterback and safety, and played as a true freshman in 2008. He started five games at outside linebacker in 2007 and 2008. He moved inside in 2009, and then back outside. He has very good speed to go along with, and above average competitiveness. He has been well coached and led the team in tackles last season.

12. Scott Lutrus, LB

College: Connecticut
Height/Weight: 6-2 1/2, 240

Lutrus is a fifth-year player, who has started 32 games, but played with injuries most of the 2009 season. He was a high school running back, and has great speed and smarts. If healthy, he should have a big senior season.

13. Kelvin Sheppard, OLB

College: LSU
Height/Weight: 6-2 1/2, 246

Sheppard is a fifth-year player, who will have started for 2 1/2 years at weak side linebacker. He started 11 games in 2009 and led the team with 110 tackles -- fourth-best in the SEC. He is a very good athlete with above average speed and strength, and has the talent to play in space and excel in special teams.

14. Quentin Davie, MLB

College: Northwestern
Height/Weight: 6-4 1/4, 240

Davie is a fifth-year, who has started 26 games. He needs to work on his agility, and was the team's leading tackler in 2009. He is a solid special teams player and a top character person. He played quarterback in high school.

15. Nate Irving, MLB

College: North Carolina State
Height/Weight: 6-0, 233

Irving is a fifth-year player, who missed the entire 2009 season with injuries related to a car accident. He may be granted a sixth year in 2011. He is a very tough player, and fits in the middle, but his status must be reevaluated after next season.



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