|Bill Haber/Associated Press|
|LSU's Barkevious Mingo is one of the fastest pass rushers in college football, recording eight sacks in 2011.|
Football season is right around the corner! Not only in the NFL, but at the college level, too. As a resident guru of the Saturday standouts, Chad Reuter provides the top draft-eligible college players at each position in a 10-part series. Today's group is the linebackers (inside and outside).
The changing role of the NFL linebacker and proliferation of 3-4/multiple-front defenses can be summed up with one simple fact: Five of the NFL's top 10 sack producers in 2011 were college defensive ends converted to outside linebacker.
Four of the five (Tamba Hali, Aldon Smith, Terrell Suggs and DeMarcus Ware) were top-20 picks in their respective drafts, while Connor Barwin (who played tight end his first three years at Cincinnati) lasted until the second round, with the Houston Texans selecting him 46th overall in 2009.
A sixth, Jason Babin, was a defensive end at Western Michigan who was drafted late in the first round (27th) by Houston back in 2004 to play outside linebacker. His eventual move back to end has resulted in a starring role for the Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles over the past two seasons (30.5 sacks).
In April's draft, the Texans again picked a defensive end to convert him to a rush linebacker (Whitney Mercilus), as did the Green Bay Packers (Nick Perry). Expect more of the same in 2013, as the concept of standing up and moving around defensive ends infiltrates the college ranks, meaning many players listed at DE will get a chance to show their agility and edge-rush ability to 3-4 teams in the market for a pass rusher.
This is not to say middle linebackers play a less important role -- 15 of the NFL's top 20 tacklers last season lined up between the tackles. Many inside 'backers are forced to stick with slot receivers and tight ends that have become integral parts of today's passing attacks. Thus, a lot of the league's top stoppers also hit double-digits in passes defensed and were credited with multiple sacks and/or interceptions.
Consequently, NFL general managers will be happy to watch a number of intriguing linebacker prospects able to fill holes as starters inside or outside at the next level.
* Denotes underclassmen.
1. Barkevious Mingo, 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, OLB, LSU*
Mingo looks almost too lean to handle the physicality of NFL linemen. But at the same time, he possesses surprising strength to go along with the elite length and straight-line speed to rack up double-digit sack numbers (he had eight in 2011) and track down ball carriers (15 tackles for loss) at the next level.
NFL comparison: DeMarcus Ware
|Georgia's Jarvis Jones recorded four sacks against rival Florida last season. (Margaret Bowles/Associated Press)|
2. Jarvis Jones, 6-3, 241, OLB, Georgia*
The Peach State native suffered a neck injury his true freshman year at USC, but returned home when cleared by Georgia doctors. The consensus All-American impressed scouts in 2011 with his ability to rush the passer (ranking fifth in the FBS with 13.5 sacks), play the run and get the job done in coverage.
NFL comparison: Julian Peterson
3. Manti Te'o, 6-2, 255, ILB, Notre Dame
Te'o has become the All-American middle linebacker (three-year starter, 324 career tackles, 28.5 for loss) everyone expected coming out of high school, receiving high marks for his character and leadership abilities. He'll be highly coveted by 4-3 teams needing a hammer between the hashes.
NFL comparison: Rey Maualuga
4. Shayne Skov, 6-3, 251, ILB, Stanford
A knee injury prematurely ended Skov's junior season, potentially keeping him from declaring for the draft with his more high-profile teammates. Scouts had already taken note of his size, strength and hustle, though, projecting him as a potential difference-making starter at the next level.
NFL comparison: Brian Cushing
5. Sean Porter, 6-2, 230, OLB, Texas A&M
Though not quite as big, long or explosive as former teammate Von Miller, Porter is athletic and productive enough (17 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks in 2011) to handle all starting linebacker duties in any defensive scheme.
NFL comparison: Will Witherspoon
6. Brandon Jenkins, 6-3, 260, OLB, Florida State
The next NFL-caliber Florida State pass rusher saw a drop in production in 2011 (eight sacks, down from 13.5 in 2010), but Jenkins still possesses the quickness off the snap to make plays in the backfield, as well as more strength than most expect.
NFL comparison: Nick Perry
7. Chase Thomas, 6-4, 245, OLB, Stanford
An aptly named defender who earned All-America accolades as a junior (17.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks) with great hustle and instincts, Thomas displays potential as a starter for teams wishing to use his versatility in multiple fronts.
NFL comparison: Connor Barwin
8. Nico Johnson, 6-3, 245, ILB, Alabama
Assignment-sure and athletic, Johnson is a strong run defender who has been overshadowed as a part-time starter (80 tackles, 10 for loss in 2010-2011) on a star-studded Alabama defense. But Johnson, who dedicates his play to his late mother, Mamie, will get his chance to shine as a senior leader in 2012.
NFL comparison: David Harris
9. Kevin Reddick, 6-3, 240, ILB/OLB, North Carolina
Reddick is yet another North Carolina defender who possesses the size and athleticism NFL scouts covet but has endured a somewhat turbulent career. The versatile senior could start in the middle in the NFL or cover tight ends and stuff runs as a strong-side 'backer.
NFL comparison: Kevin Burnett
|Gerald Hodges is the latest NFL-caliber linebacker out of Penn State. (Rob Christy/US Presswire)|
10. Gerald Hodges, 6-2, 233, OLB, Penn State
Hodges is a converted safety who is growing into an NFL starting Sam linebacker's frame. Yet he still boasts the movement skills to bring down ball carriers in space (he led Penn State with 106 tackles in 2011), stay with receivers and tight ends in coverage and chase down quarterbacks in his occasional forays into the backfield (10 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks last season).
NFL comparison: Quincy Black
11. Arthur Brown, 6-1, 228, ILB, Kansas State
The brother of 2012 seventh-round running back Bryce Brown (Eagles) transferred from Miami to see the field more regularly. He was named Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year last season (101 tackles, 9.5 for loss), using his quickness and playing much bigger between the tackles than one would expect given his smallish frame.
NFL comparison: D'Qwell Jackson
Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter