Linebackers have grown in prominence in recent years thanks to the expansion of the 3-4 defense around the league. Teams are looking for versatility from the position now more than ever. Linebackers that can rush the passer and drop into coverage are valued because they impact the game in multiple areas.
Fortunately for scouts and coaches looking for 3-4 help, the 2011 draft features a host of hybrid linebackers.
Texas A&M's Von Miller is the headliner. He produced big-time numbers in college (27.5 sacks the last two seasons) and opened eyes at the Senior Bowl. While Georgia's Justin Houston hasn't garnered the accolades as Miller, his pass rushing skills are just as tempting (10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss last season).
When examining the inside crop, there isn't a consensus first-round talent. However, intriguing possibilities include Illinois' Martez Wilson and North Carolina's Quan Sturdivant.
1. Von Miller, Texas A&M: He flies out of his stance and his body control allows him to bend around the corner without losing speed. With a speed rush that overwhelms most offensive tackles, Miller routinely gets to the quarterback. He has added a series of counters that allow him to defeat overaggressive blockers with inside moves. His ability to win inside or out forces offensive coordinators to take added measures to neutralize him, which frees up others to make plays. Although he rarely dropped into coverage in college, his feel and awareness were better than anticipated during the Senior Bowl.
Possible landing spots: Buffalo, San Francisco
2. Akeem Ayers, UCLA: He is a sideline-to-sideline chaser with good instincts and awareness. He flows well to the ball and shows a penchant for creating turnovers. In the running game, Ayers is stout at the point of attack. He has long arms to quickly separate and shed from blockers. As a pass rusher, he's capable of slipping past blockers and has the hand skills to win isolated battles. He has a good feel for reading the quarterback's eyes and his six career interceptions reflect his potential as a zone defender. While he continues to need refinement in man technique, he has the potential to develop into an every-down player.
Possible landing spots: New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago
3. Justin Houston, Georgia: As a pass rusher, few can match his first-step quickness and his closing burst rates off the charts. He brings an energy that produces garbage sacks. Houston is capable of playing in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. He blows past blockers thanks to his anticipation of the snap and bend. He tends to favor an up-field rush, but flashes violent hands and body control on inside counters. Against the run, he stacks blockers at the line of scrimmage and does a good job of working free to the ball. He's adept at diagnosing plays and his relentless pursuit on the backside frequently leads to big hits.
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4. Bruce Carter, North Carolina: He is a rangy linebacker and flows well from sideline to sideline. Carter has the potential to make plays all over the field. He quickly diagnoses plays, aggressively flies to the ball and is a sure tackler. In coverage, he has a solid feel for pass concepts and anticipates throws. Even though he wasn't incorporated into the rush package often, his athleticism would appear to make him an excellent blitzer as a pro. He also contributes on special teams, which gives him added value over others at the position. Carter suffered an ACL injury that ended his past season early and threatens his status as an early-round selection. His medical report at the combine will be vital to his stock.
Possible landing spots: Minnesota, Chicago
5. Dontay Moch, Nevada: He is a collegiate defensive end projected to move to outside linebacker. Moch is expected to run in the 4.30 range in the 40-yard dash and that explosiveness is apparent on tape. He flies out of his stance and shows a knack for getting to the quarterback. He can overwhelm blockers and routinely runs free to the quarterback. He has amassed 30 sacks in college, but lacks the size (6-foot-1, 245 pounds) and strength to consistently win isolated matchups. He gets knocked off his track and lacks the hand skills or strength to win physical battles. Against the run, he is better chasing from the backside due to his speed. He struggled making the conversion to outside linebacker at the East-West Shrine Game. Still, his speed will prompt a team to take a chance on him as a potential pass-rushing specialist in a 3-4 scheme.
1. Martez Wilson, Illinois: He will draw plenty of interest due to his versatility. He starred at middle linebacker last year and also has two years of experience on the outside, where he honed his pass-rush skills. He has an old-school game. As a tall, rangy athlete (6-4, 240 pounds), he does a good job of using his hands to keep blockers off his body and works quickly to shed and separate. He attacks runners in the hole and is explosive upon contact. He specializes in creating disruption (11.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, three forced fumbles, four quarterback hurries, four pass break ups and one interception). With more teams using multiple personnel packages and exotic blitzes, Wilson is a potential jack-of-all-trades defender. He is only a strong workout away from cementing his status as the top inside linebacker in the draft.
Possible landing spots: Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Miami
2. Quan Sturdivant, North Carolina: A rough, rugged linebacker, he quickly processes information and is an aggressive, downhill player at the point of attack. While his intensity produces big hits in the hole, it also leads to some missed tackles and reckless moments in the open field. He has a good feel for sorting through routes in pass coverage and maintains vision on the quarterback to get a quick jump on throws. He can also stick with running backs and tight ends in space despite limited experience in this area. Sturdivant can emerge as a solid starter, but a nagging hamstring injury limited his effectiveness last season. He will need to prove that he has regained his form by performing well in drills at the combine.
Possible landing spots: Tampa Bay, Buffalo
3. Colin McCarthy, Miami: He has a great feel for the game and his production is based on an ability to quickly read and react. As a run defender, he is most effective patrolling the tackle-to-tackle box. McCarthy aggressively works downhill and is a physical presence in the hole. He takes on lead blockers with force, and does a good job of separating quickly in the hole. As a tackler, he shows pop on contact and routinely wraps up runners around the legs. He rarely misses tackles in tight quarters. McCarthy appears limited working in space. He also lacks the athleticism and movement skills to be effective in coverage. Even though his instincts routinely put him a position to make plays on the ball, he often arrives a step late when closing on a receiver. This fact prompted Miami to exclude him from their sub-packages. He will need to show better than anticipated athleticism in workouts to be viewed as a three-down player.
Possible landing spots: Cleveland, Tampa Bay
4. Greg Jones, Michigan State: Highly productive, but lacks ideal size (6-1, 240 pounds) and athleticism. He plays quick and efficient between the tackles due to his anticipation. He shows an outstanding nose for the ball, which allowed him to get in on a high number of tackles despite his lack of athleticism. Jones simply finds a way to get the job done. He shows adequate awareness in coverage, but rarely gets his hands on the ball. Jones is far more effective when incorporated into the pass rush and shows a knack for getting to the quarterback. His rush skills might lead to a shift to outside linebacker as a pro. Given that possibility, Jones' workouts will play a significant role in determining his value.
Possible landing spots: Denver, Tennessee
5. Casey Matthews, Oregon: The ultra-competitive linebacker produces in every facet of the game and is a disruptive force. He quickly diagnoses information after the snap and flows aggressively to the ball. He plays the game faster than his workouts would indicate because of his superior instincts. His real strength comes as a rusher, where Matthews perfectly times going up the middle and often runs freely to the quarterback on blitzes. In coverage, he plays with vision on the quarterback and anticipates throws in his area. He lacks the size (6-1, 232 pounds) to take on blockers squarely in the run game, but uses his agility and quickness to slip blocks in traffic. His hustle pursuing runners often results in tackles behind the line of scrimmage. If he puts together an impressive showing in Indianapolis, he could vault over the competition at the position.
Possible landing spots: Tennessee, Cleveland