As a scout, you often compare prospects against current and former pros to provide coaches with perspective on their potential. Although these visual clues don't always bear out, they are an essential part of the scouting process.
When looking at outside linebackers, I've often used Derrick Thomas as the standard. My former teammate transformed the game with his exceptional rush skills and his ability to produce game-changing plays as a catalyst to the Kansas City Chiefs' defense in the 1990s.
His first-step quickness was remarkable, and I've rarely seen an edge rusher possess the balance, body control and burst that he exhibited while amassing 126.5 quarterback sacks in his Hall of Fame career. He perfected the "Tomahawk Chop" off the corner and produced 41 forced fumbles using the technique.
Given the significant impact that sacks and turnovers have on the outcome of games, Thomas' penchant for disruption was a primary reason the Chiefs were perennially among the ranks of the elite in the AFC during his tenure.
Recently, we've seen the likes of DeMarcus Ware, James Harrison and Clay Matthews provide similar sparks to their respective teams with their stellar play. Their ability to pummel quarterbacks, while also producing turnovers has altered the course of the game and helped their teams earn hard-fought wins.
This year, coaches and scouts looking for outside linebackers capable of providing an instant impact will find the draft littered with possibilities.
Texas A&M's Von Miller ranks as the headliner after enjoying an outstanding career as an Aggie. He finished with 33 career sacks, including 27.5 over his final two seasons. His initial quickness and rush skills have been likened to Thomas, and that overall ability makes him a likely top-five selection.
Let's take a look at the top outside linebackers in the draft and the challenges scouts face in making their evaluations:
Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
Miller might be the best player in the draft regardless of position. He is a sensational edge rusher with a combination of speed, quickness and athleticism that makes him nearly impossible to block. His first-step quickness and "bend and burst" are remarkable, and it is easy to envision him amassing double-digit sacks on a consistent basis. Although he still needs some refinement and polish on his hand skills, he is as natural as you will find as a pass rusher. Miller has limited experience dropping into coverage, and his lack of awareness and instincts could be an issue if a team is looking for a conventional drop linebacker. However, his ability to impact the game as a pure pass rusher is so great that it would be hard to imagine a team severely downgrading him due to his cover skills.
Scouts have cited immaturity issues in the past as a possible concern, but Miller's track record over the past two seasons at Texas A&M has been solid, so it isn't likely a big issue for most teams. He is the top player at the position and might come off the board as early as the third selection on draft day.
Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA
He has cemented his status as the second outside linebacker on most draft boards following a solid workout at his pro day. Although his 4.69 40-yard dash time isn't impressive at first glance, his blend of quickness and athleticism makes him a credible threat off the edge. He uses a crafty arm-over move to win quickly with his hands, and his burst allows him to corral quarterbacks.
As a run defender, he is stout at the point and does a good job of setting the edge against power plays. His superior arm length allows him to hold blockers at bay, and he shows awareness locating the ball quickly while engaged. While he fails to make impact plays on a consistent basis, his flashes of brilliance against Texas provide a peek at his immense potential.
Ayers' inconsistent production and disappointing workout numbers prevent scouts from pushing him into the middle stages of the first round. However, his tape is fairly clean from a playing standpoint, and his talent is intriguing as a potential hybrid player. If he can show versatility and athleticism in his remaining private workouts, he will be heavily discussed by all of the 3-4 teams near the bottom of Round 1.
Justin Houston, OLB, Georgia
Houston has quietly flown under the radar during the run up to the draft despite having a dominant final season at Georgia. He finished with 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss as a hybrid edge player. His explosive first-step quickness and exceptional body control allow him to routinely run past blockers on rush attempts. He also shows the ability to turn speed into power by attacking offensive tackles squarely on bull rushes. His rush skills make him a natural fit as an edge player in a 3-4, but that athleticism allows him to play in space in coverage. He drops with adequate awareness and has a feel for route recognition. Although he is best suited to get after the passer, his versatility will make him difficult to account for in pass protection.
Houston shows inconsistencies as a run defender. He possesses the strength to stack and hold the point, but he plays with poor leverage at times and gets driven off the ball. He also fails to display aggressiveness and urgency when facing runs to his side. He hesitates before pulling the trigger, and his cautious nature allows backs to find cracks in the defense.
Houston intrigues scouts with his blend of athleticism and rush skills, but his inconsistent production against the run makes them worry about his ability to thrive as an every-down player. If he can convince coaches that he has the physical and mental toughness to become a better player in that area, he could be a strong possibility to come off the board at the end of the first round.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.