Wednesday, April 20, 2005

2005 NFL Draft coverage - Linebackers

Included in this group of linebackers are two "tweeners", players who might play defensive end and/or linebacker in the NFL, but that I project to be "rush" linebackers instead of full-time defensive ends.

Inside linebackers
Top dogs
1. Barrett Ruud, Nebraska. Is Ruud the most talented inside linebacker available? Nope. However, Ruud should be the first one off the board. He's not the fastest at this position, but he has adequate quickness and great instincts. His biggest assets are his smarts (both on and off the field), his work ethic, and his overall character. Ruud is the highest-rated senior prospect in this class. While he might not be the first ILB off the board, he's the best overall prospect because of his tackling ability and overall character. Projected: 1st or 2nd round.

2. Odell Thurman, Georgia. Thurman is a talented linebacker, especially against the run. He fills gaps well and has a good feel for playing near the line of scrimmage. He's a sure tackler who takes very good angles when pursuing the ball carrier. He's a bit undersized for an inside linebacker. Thurman will struggle at times in man coverage because of his size, but he has the speed to be a factor in zone coverage. He may come off the board in the first round because of his talent, but teams must be wary of his off-field problems. Projected: 1st or 2nd round.

3. Channing Crowder, Florida. The most athletic of the top inside linebackers, Crowder has good size and speed, is very fluid both near the line of scrimmage and in the open field, and is the best of these top prospects in pass coverage. Crowder is athletic enough to run with a lot of running backs. He needs to be stronger at the point of attack and be more consistent in his reads. Crowder has a good motor, but can be pushed around at times and sometimes looks lost. Would have been a sure first-rounder in 2006 had he stayed in school. Projected: 1st or 2nd round.

Lofa Tatupu, Southern California. While Tatupu lacks ideal measurables (he's not very tall, and his 40 time is a pedestrain 4.8-ish), he's a football player. At this position, football players are often successful. Tatupu is a sure tackler, fundamentally sound in coverage, and always seems to be around the football. He's always playing hard, is a good blitzer, and has great character. Tatupu might last until the draft's second day, but he'll contribute immediately on special teams and could become a solid starter in the right system. Projected: 4th round.

Lance Mitchell, Oklahoma. I don't like downgrading players because of injuries, especially injuries suffered in 2003, but Mitchell is a rare exception. He grades out well, with good tackling skills and instincts and the speed to be a factor in pass coverage. His knee injury in 2003 seems to have sapped some of that quickness, as he wasn't quite the same player in 2004. Mitchell could rebound and become a solid pro, but teams should be wary of taking him too early and investing too much in him until he proves he's fully recovered. Projected: 2nd or 3rd round.
Other notables
Adam Seward, UNLV - 3rd round
Alfred Fincher, Connecticut - 3rd or 4th round
Mike Goolsby, Notre Dame - 4th or 5th round
Rian Wallace, Temple - 5th round
Martin Patterson, Texas Christian - 6th or 7th round

Outside linebackers
Top dogs
1. Shawne Merriman, Maryland. Merriman is the first of the big-time "tweener" players in this class. He needs to improve in pass coverage, because he spent most of his time in college rushing the quarterback, but the overall skill to improve is there. He has great straight-line speed, shows good recognition skills, and has that sixth sense (it seems that he's always around the ball). Merriman is a big hitter who will make plays, and he projects as a standup player (probably a rush linebacker in a 3-4) in the NFL. Projected: 1st round.

2. Derrick Johnson, Texas. Athletic, sideline-to-sideline playmaker who is a force both against the run and the pass. Johnson is a bit inconsistent when teams run at him, but he makes up for that with his tackling skills and athleticism. He's a sure tackler who hits hard enough to force fumbles, and he will get better as a pass-rusher in the NFL. Johnson has played inside linebacker, but doesn't have the bulk to hold up there in the NFL, so teams have looked at him as an outside linebacker. He should be the first "true" linebacker off the board. Projected: 1st round.

3. Demarcus Ware, Troy. It seems like teams are looking at Ware as more of a defensive end, but he needs to add bulk before he can seriously consider playing that position. For now, he appears to be a good fit as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, as he'd be engulfed by most blockers if he played as a down lineman because of his lack of upper-body strength. Ware has big-time quickness off the edge, and he is a fluid athlete. He's still raw, but Ware has shot up the board lately, and will go in the top half of the first round. Projected: 1st round.

Michael Boley, Southern Mississippi. After dominating over three seasons as a starter at USM, Boley takes his playmaking skills and football sense to the NFL. Boley was consistently productive in college, and he is a smart enough player to make it in the NFL despite ideal athleticism or strength. Boley is a smaller player who will struggle at times to shed blocks, but he is a nice prospect who will be picked late in the first day of the draft. Projected: 3rd round.

Kevin Burnett, Tennessee. Burnett is a good tackler who has plenty of upside. But his college career was filled with inconsistencies. The undersized Burnett has to improve in pass coverage, and he has to react quicker when the play is underway. Scouts differ incredibly in their opinion of Burnett because of his inconsistent production and solid upside. If he can develop a better sense of the play in front of him, Burnett has a chance to be a second-round steal. But he will need time to improve his game. Projected: 2nd or 3rd round.

Other notables
Darryl Blackstock, Virginia - 2nd or 3rd round
Ryan Claridge, UNLV - 3rd or 4th round
Matt McCoy, San Diego State - 3rd or 4th round
Roger Cooper, Montana State - 4th or 5th round
Tyson Smith, Iowa State - 6th round

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