Finding linebackers to fit defensive schemes is critical

The depth among linebackers for the 2010 NFL Draft is a complicated subject, much like it is with the defensive line prospects, because defensive scheme dictates which traits are required to play in certin packages.

An inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense often lines up directly over a guard with no defensive line protection, requiring him to physically confront a much heavier player on a regular basis. A weak-side linebacker in a 4-3 defense might not be all that big, but often stacks behind a defensive tackle and runs sideline to sideline chasing down the ball without offensive linemen ever getting a clean shot on him. An outside 'backer in a 3-4 scheme is predominantly a pass rusher, while a "Sam" 'backer in a 4-3 has coverage responsibilities with the tight end.

The draft boards compiled by teams will be radically different when stacking the 'backers by grade. Here's a quick position breakdown with the top player at each spot. Keep in mind some players, like Alabama's Rolando McClain and Missouri's Sean Weatherspoon, can cross over and play in any scheme.

Top player at each category

»*3-4 inside linebacker:* The ideal size for this group is 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds. The best in this draft class is McClain, who measured at 6-foot-3 3/8, 254 pounds, and registered 247 tackles in Alabama coach Nick Saban's 3-4 scheme. I believe he will line up on opening day and run an NFL defense as a top-10 pick. Others that can play inside are Florida's Brandon Spikes and Kentucky's Micah Johnson.

»*3-4 outside linebacker:* Oftentimes, undersized 4-3 defensive ends are converted to this position. They need to be able to play the run on the line of scrimmage, drop into zone coverage and mostly rush the passer. The best of the class appears to be Sergio Kindle of Texas. He can run, rush the passer and is more than adequate in coverage. Other candidates include Brandon Graham of Michigan, TCU's Jerry Hughes, South Carolina's Eric Norwood, and Utah's Koa Misi.

Gil Brandt's scouting report

Brandon Graham, Michigan
Graham is strong. I think he's the one guy in this draft that probably has to play as an outside linebacker. He had 10 1/2 sacks last season. He's a Detroit youngster who was a very good high school basketball player. He plays physical, and he's a lot like LaMarr Woodley in Pittsburgh, only I think he might be a little bit better.

»*4-3 middle linebacker:* This player needs to be athletic enough and fast enough to drop deep into coverage in a Tampa 2 defense, and must run sideline to sideline in the run game as well as make all the adjustments. Weatherspoon has all the traits of a fine "Mike" linebacker. He had over 400 tackles in college, can call a defense and can really run. Others to consider include Washington's Donald Butler and Iowa's Pat Angerer.

»*4-3 outside linebacker:* These guys are broken down into "Will" linebackers (weak side) and "Sam" linebackers (strong side). The Will can be undersized if he's fast and must possess good instincts and be a tremendous tackler. TCU's Daryl Washington fits the bill with 4.66-second 40-yard speed and 222 tackles in college. Others to consider include Jamar Chaney of Mississippi State and Penn State's Navorro Bowman.

As for the Sam linebacker, Penn State's Sean Lee is versatile and tall enough to match up with a tight end. He also produced 11 sacks in college, and 4-3 teams like to send the Sam on blitzes. Others to consider include Clemson's Ricky Sapp, Thaddeus Gibson of Ohio State and Florida's Dekoda Watson.

Biggest boom-or-bust prospect

The biggest risk in recent drafts has been the number of teams taking a college 4-3 defensive end and asking him to stand up in a 3-4 defense and play linebacker. Rushing the passer from a two-point stance is different, as is defending their legs against a lead blocker. Dropping into coverage can be totally foreign. Graham is an excellent football player and will do fine attacking, but the coverage issues are still a question mark.

Player with the most upside

Kindle looked like the better prospect when he played with former Texas teammate Brian Orakpo, who had a great rookie season with the Redskins. Kindle has the ability to deliver an Orakpo-type rookie year in the right situation. I have interviewed him twice and believe his off-the-field issues from 2007 are well behind him.

Player with the most to prove

Spikes had a fine college career and entered this draft process as a sure-fire first-round pick until he ran the 40-yard dash in five seconds and slid right out of the first round. He displays good instincts, plays faster than his recorded speed and has leadership skills, but has to prove he will not be exposed in the NFL matchup game.

Small-school prospect with a chance

It's not a great year to identify a small-college player with a can't-miss grade, but Arthur Moats from James Madison has a chance to make it as a special teams player. The 6-foot, 246-pound defensive end/linebacker had 39 tackles for a loss and 23 sacks in the past two seasons.

Debunking a myth

Beware of acknowledging tackle stats when looking at college linebackers. It's an unofficial stat and some coaches and media relations departments are very generous when crediting tackles. Pay closer attention to tackles for a loss if you want to get a feel for a player's ability to read keys and diagnose plays. Kindle only got credit for 70 tackles, but he had 22 tackles for a loss last year.

Teams with the greatest need

»*At 3-4 inside linebacker:* Denver, Kansas City, Dallas and Arizona.

»*At 3-4 outside linebacker:* Buffalo, Miami, New England, New York Jets, Green Bay and San Francisco.

»*At 4-3 middle linebacker:* Oakland, New York Giants and Minnesota.

»*At 4-3 outside linebacker:* Jacksonville, Tennessee, New York Giants, Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta and New Orleans.

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