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Sudden impact: Linebackers pay immediate dividends in the NFL

Talk about a safe investment.

You want to use a first-round draft pick on a player who will have an immediate impact on your team? Go with a linebacker.

You want to use a first-round draft pick on a player who will promptly establish himself as a difference-maker? Go with a linebacker.

You want to use a first-round draft pick on a player who will leave you feeling comfortable about your decision (or as comfortable as you can get handing someone a check for millions of guaranteed dollars)? Right. Go with a linebacker.

"Sometimes, when it's a quarterback or a defensive lineman, a player will get forced up in the draft because it's a hard position to fill," former NFL general manager Charley Casserly says. "Other positions always kind of have a way of going in the second round: tight end, guard, safety. But linebacker, I think it just depends on the ability of the player.

"Linebacker doesn't seem to be overvalued or undervalued."

No. It's simply valued.

Consider that, in the past eight seasons, only one non-linebacker has been named Defensive Rookie of the Year: end Julius Peppers, Carolina's first-round pick in 2002. San Francisco middle linebacker Patrick Willis, another first-rounder, is the latest to win the honor, which he captured by demonstrating from the very start of last season his sideline-to-sideline playmaking prowess. In the 49ers' season-opening victory over Arizona, Willis had a team-high 11 tackles. He also forced Edgerrin James to fumble and his hit on Matt Leinart on a third-down blitz forced an incompletion.

The rest of the linebackers to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year since 2000: Brian Urlacher (first round, Chicago), Kendrell Bell (second round, Pittsburgh), Terrell Suggs (first round, Baltimore), Jonathan Vilma (first round, New York Jets), Shawne Merriman (first round, San Diego), and DeMeco Ryans (second round, Houston).

A long list of linebackers who started most or all of their rookie season includes: Willis, Urlacher, Bell, Vilma, Merriman, Ryans, Jon Beason (first round, Carolina), David Harris (second round, Jets), A.J. Hawk (first round, Green Bay), DeMarcus Ware (first round, Dallas), Lofa Tatupu (second round, Seattle), and Nick Barnett (first round, Green Bay).

Many NFL personnel evaluators believe that linebackers generally have the best chance for immediate success because they have the greatest freedom to utilize the full extent of their athletic skills. Find a linebacker who runs fast, changes directions quickly, and consistently puts himself in the vicinity of the ball, and you likely have one who will crack the starting lineup and stay there.

When discussing some of the reasons for Willis' outstanding rookie season, 49ers assistant head coach/defense Mike Singletary said, "He has great feet."

It wouldn't be a shock if another linebacker won the award this year. Although the college crop doesn't have an abundance of exceptional linebackers, it does have a few who figure to make their presence felt right away.

The ones commanding the highest grades from scouts are USC's Keith Rivers, Tennessee's Jerod Mayo, Auburn's Quentin Groves, Penn State's Dan Connor, Virginia Tech's Xavier Adibi, Maryland's Erin Henderson, Purdue's Cliff Avril, and Oklahoma's Curtis Lofton.

And that doesn't include Ohio State's Vernon Gholston, a potential top overall choice who is a defensive end but figures to move to outside linebacker in the NFL.

As Bill Parcells, the Miami Dolphins' vice president of football operations, has said repeatedly in his illustrious career of leading NFL teams, "You can never have enough linebackers." And he has coached plenty of first-round draft linebackers. His best: Lawrence Taylor, the New York Giants' second overall choice in 1981 and Pro Football Hall of Fame member.

The 6-foot-3, 241-pound Rivers is widely viewed as the best pure outside linebacker in this year's draft, largely because 52 of his 240 career tackles came on third down. He is considered a dynamic playmaker, capable of covering plenty of ground.

"He's got really good tools," USC coach Pete Carroll says. "He's going to be a real good fit for somebody. Whether he's the best guy in the draft, I don't know. I just know you're getting good value if you pick this kid. He knows how to play the game really well."

"He's a really competitive kid," says New Orleans Saints vice president of player personnel Rick Mueller. "He showed that at the Senior Bowl and he showed that at SC."

One team that hasn't exactly followed Parcells' approach is the Philadelphia Eagles. They haven't used a first-round pick on a linebacker in 28 years.

"I do think the positions we have drafted (in the first round) are the positions we feel are really tough to find, especially the offensive tackles and defensive ends and even the defensive tackles," general manager Tom Heckert says. "But it still comes down to if we have a guy graded that high as a first-round player, I don't think we wouldn't take a guy just because he's a linebacker."

History, at least as it applies to other NFL teams, suggests that using that choice on a linebacker just might be wise investment after all.

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