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Top tier of linebackers boost stock with work at combine

This year's draft class lacks depth at linebacker, but the talent at the top is as good as we have seen in recent history.

Led by Texas A&M's Von Miller, Illinois' Martez Wilson and Georgia's Justin Houston, the group features a trio with speed, quickness and skill.

Each has shown a propensity for coming up with critical plays at key moments, and their ability to take over the game sets them apart from the rest of the pack.

The NFL Scouting Combine provided a platform to further showcase their talent and the trio didn't disappoint.

Miller, a potential top-10 pick, continued to build momentum by posting outstanding times in the workout, while also showing explosive rush skills in drills. His anticipation of the snap is amazing on tape, and his initial burst frequently results in disruptive plays in the backfield. In his workout, you could see the quickness that gave blockers problems in college. It's easy to envision Miller duplicating his success on the next level based on his athleticism.

Wilson was equally impressive, as scouts were able to see an intriguing middle linebacker. As a freakish sideline-to-sideline player, his exceptional speed and burst stand out on tape. His 4.49 time in the 40-yard dash validated that quickness and acceleration. His explosiveness was also clear in a position-specific workout that showcased his versatility.

Houston, who played defensive end in college, is projected as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He showed that he has the athleticism to function as a rusher or in coverage. He has first-step quickness and the body control to bend and burst around the corner. His agility was more impressive in person than on tape, but his production suggests that his talent overwhelms blockers. If he plays with the speed and urgency that he displayed in the workout, it is clear why he is suddenly a hot commodity.

While the overall depth at linebacker is thin this year, the focus should be on quality over quantity. With that in mind, let's take a look at the top performers from the combine.

Von Miller, Texas A&M, OLB

After dominating the Senior Bowl as a pass rusher, Miller was only a strong performance at the combine to solidify his place as a potential top-10 selection. He blew the doors off the workout in all aspects (4.53 in the 40, 37-inch vertical, 10'6" broad jump, 4.06 short shuttle and 6.70 three-cone drill), and left Indy regarded as one of the top athletes in the draft. That measurable athleticism also showed up in the position-specific workout. He exploded off the ball, flashing acceleration and burst. His speed and quickness are rare for an edge rusher. Putting up 33 sacks in college prove the ability translates to the field. If he can continue to show coaches that he is capable of functioning in coverage as a 3-4 outside linebacker, he could creep into the first five selections.

Martez Wilson, Illinois, MLB

He seamlessly transitioned to middle linebacker after spending his first two seasons wreaking havoc off the edge, but his display during his workout might encourage a team to move him back outside. Wilson had the fastest 40 time (4.49) among linebackers and posted exceptional numbers in the remaining drills. He also posted a 36 vertical, 10'4" broad jump and 4.28 short shuttle. Those measurables showed up during position drills, where he fluidly changed directions and flashed acceleration out of breaks. He enhanced his value by also displaying natural rush skills in the blitz drill. Wilson is an intriguing fit in any scheme. If he blows position coaches away at his pro day, don't be surprised if he garners a first-round grade on some draft boards.

Justin Houston, Georgia, OLB

Even though he tallied 10 sacks in the SEC, few have pegged Houston as a potential first-round pick. However, his showing at the combine certainly put him in the conversation. He posted better than anticipated numbers (4.68 in the 40, 36.5 vertical, 10'5" broad jump and 6.95 three-cone drill), and showed skills as a pass rusher. His first-step quickness is impressive, and he shows tremendous balance turning the corner on rushes. Houston had surprising fluidity in his turns and transitions while dropping into coverage. He didn't look out of place in space despite spending most of his career with his hand in the dirt. Given his game film and workouts, Houston is in line to possibly go at the bottom of the first round.

Dontay Moch, Nevada, OLB

He was expected to post one of the fastest 40s at the combine and didn't disappoint with a time of 4.44 seconds. His straight-line speed stood out, but he still had problems changing directions in space. Those issues showed up when he played outside linebacker at the East-West Shrine Game and still persist when he plays upright. However, he shows better fluidity and movement when he comes off the edge as a rusher. His first step is impressive and he flashes natural rush skills on tape. Teams will likely peg Moch as a situational pass rusher. If he performs well at his pro day, he could come off the board in the third round.

Scott Lutrus, Connecticut, OLB

Injuries limited Lutrus during his senior year, but his spectacular workout put him back on scouts' radar. He posted outstanding numbers (4.68 in the 40, 38 vertical, 10'1" broad jump, 4.09 short shuttle and 6.89 three-cone drill) and showed surprising agility in the position-specific portion of the workout. Even though the skills don't necessarily show up on tape, his raw athleticism makes him a strong candidate to develop into a core special teamer.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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