Inside linebackers are important on Sundays, but they don't tend to go in the first round in the draft. In the past five drafts, just four inside 'backers have been first-round picks. They're like running backs in a way: You want good ones; you just don't want to have to draft them in the first round.
As it stands, it appears no inside linebackers will go in the first round of this year's draft. The group as a whole lacks star power, though there are a handful who certainly will be off the board by the end of the draft's second day.
Here's a quickie look at linebackers in this draft.
Teams with greatest need (in draft order):New York Giants (pick 9th), Minnesota (11th), San Francisco (15th), Houston (16th), San Diego (17th), Arizona (24th), Green Bay (30th).
Biggest upside: TCU's Paul Dawson. Dawson (6-foot-0, 235 pounds) had a poor combine and has some character issues. But he also was incredibly productive -- 227 tackles, 30 tackles for loss -- in his two seasons as a starter for the Horned Frogs, who annually have one of the most aggressive and highly ranked defenses in the nation. TCU uses a 4-2-5 set and asks a lot of its linebackers. Dawson also did all that while being relatively unschooled at linebacker: He was a high school wide receiver in Dallas who attended junior college for a year before moving on to TCU. Imagine how good he can be once he truly understands the position. He is a big-play guy with excellent instincts, which help make up for his lack of sheer speed. Dawson does have some quickness, though, and seemingly always is flowing to the ball. He also changes direction easily and smoothly. He's a solid pass defender, too. Dawson could play inside in a 3-4 but seems best-suited to be a weakside 'backer in a 4-3.
Most underrated: Kansas' Ben Heeney. Heeney (6-0, 231) lacks ideal size, has short arms (30 3/4 inches) and a less-than-ideal wingspan (74 3/8 inches). But you know what? The guy makes a ton of tackles in a league (Big 12) known for its wide-open offenses, suggesting that though he might lack measurables, he doesn't lack for football IQ or a high-revving motor. Heeney does run well (4.59 in the 40) and had 35.5 tackles for loss in his final three seasons at Kansas. His pass coverage needs work, but he's a heady guy who understands angles and always seems to be around the ball.
Most overrated: LSU's Kwon Alexander. As LSU fans well know, Alexander is another in a long line of Tigers standouts who left school early. And as with many Tigers, he would've been best-served by staying in Baton Rouge for his senior season to become a better-rounded 'backer. He was a two-year starter, though, who had a team-leading 90 tackles last fall. Alexander (6-1, 227) moves well and has good quickness, but lacks size. He is not as instinctual as you would like and appears to fit only as an outside guy in a 4-3. Alexander also has had some injury issues.
Biggest sleeper: Toledo's Junior Sylvestre. Sylvestre was one of the best defenders in the MAC and a tackle machine in his final two seasons at Toledo (218 total tackles, 19 tackles for loss). But he didn't go to the combine. The biggest reason? It's his lack of size. Sylvestre is 6-0 (wink wink, nudge nudge) and 222 pounds. But there's still a lot to like, including that he plays much bigger than his size would indicate. He runs well, not surprising considering he played wide receiver and defensive back in high school in the Fort Lauderdale area; he also ran track on a state-ranked team. In addition, he hits a ton and moves well laterally. He does a nice job finding the ball and arrives in a bad mood. Teams that overlook his lack of height will find a guy who can play in the NFL.
Better pro than college player: BYU's Alani Fua. Fua (6-5, 238) certainly looks the part of a big-time player, but he never really found an important role at BYU, finishing his career with 124 tackles, eight sacks and just 18 starts. But he is athletic and was used in a variety of ways by BYU defensive coaches, including a lot of snaps in coverage. He has to get tougher and stronger, but an upside is there. Fua, who is married with two children, looks to have the needed athleticism to become an effective pass rusher. That he has a proven ability in coverage is another selling point.
Top small-school prospect: Newberry's Edmond Robinson. Robinson (6-3, 245) played outside linebacker at Division II Newberry, which is in Newberry, S.C., but he wasn't used as a pass rusher. Instead, he was solid against the run and usually dropped into coverage. His experience in coverage, even against Division II players, is intriguing, but he needs technique work and must add strength and bulk. He is athletic and has an upside, and looks like a final-round prospect.
First-round grades: None.