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2012 NFL Draft Preview: Linebackers

Posted Apr 12, 2012

Due to the evolution of the passing game in the National Football League and the sheer changes among the types of athletes on both sides of the ball, the position of linebacker is viewed differently now. College defensive ends are being converted to outside linebackers and some college linebackers are being looked at his 4-3 defensive ends.



This year’s draft class is the perfect hybrid for the NFL as based upon whose draft board you’re looking at, the likes of South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram and Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw are either penciled in high on the outside linebacker depth chart or the defensive end chart.

North Carolina’s Zach Brown is another appealing pure outside linebacker prospect, but inside linebackers like Miami’s Sean Spence and Boston College’s Luke Keuchly also are in high demand. Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower could sneak into the early rounds at inside linebacker as could Nebraska outside linebacker Lavonte David.

BREAKING DOWN THE TOP LINEBACKER PROSPECTS (in alphabetical order)


Speed is Brown’s most notable asset as he ran a 4.50 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine and consistently got around the edge for the Tar Heels. His numbers in 2011 stood out as he wreaked havoc in the ACC to the tune of 105 tackles (62 solo and 13.5 for loss), 5.5 sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles. Brown passes the look test in just about every category as he is strong in pass coverage on tight ends and running back, solid in the box and quick enough to not allow any type of runner to escape while also powerful enough to stop them in their tracks. The biggest question mark surrounding him involves his work habits and his knack for sometimes disappearing during games, but consistency and the proper approach to the game are things that coaches can work on with him at the next level.

Ingram has played just about everywhere along the front seven, starting out as an inside linebacker for the Gamecocks and excelling at defensive end and defensive tackle. He is athletic enough and strong enough to match up well one-on-one with anybody, but his short arms and stature would not translate well at the next level on the defensive line, which is why he is projected as an outside linebacker. Like Brown, Ingram had a monster 2011 season with 10 sacks, two interceptions (both returned for touchdowns), 48 tackles (31 solo) and one fumble recovery. Of his 21.5 career sacks, 19 came in the last two years and he even had a rushing touchdown last year and rushed for 87 yards on two carries. Ingram is always around the ball and should adapt well to the speed at the NFL level because he is very athletic and quick for his size.



If there is truly one dominant inside linebacker in this year’s draft class it has to be Kuechly, who terrorized the ACC for three years to the tune of 532 tackles (299 solo), seven interceptions and two touchdowns. Last year, Kuechly led the nation with 191 tackles (102 solo) and added three interceptions for the Golden Eagles. His instincts and solid technique are viewed by some to be the best to come into the draft in a long time, and at 6-foot-3 has the size to intimidate opposing blockers. There has been some criticism concerning his high tackle numbers as some critics contend that most of those came in pursuit beyond the line of scrimmage, but he did have 12 tackles for loss last year and 35.5 in his career proving he can get into the backfield. Kuechly only managed 2.5 career sacks but is more of a run stopper.



Spence was a four-year starter for the Hurricanes and combined for 210 tackles (112 solo) the last two seasons, with 10.5 career sacks. He is a bit undersized for some NFL scouts but makes up for that with his athleticism and explosive hips. Spence has a keen ability to shed blockers and stop opposing running backs in their tracks but he fits best in a 4-3 scheme where he can roam freely and be protected by the big bodies in front of him. The fact that he did start all four years at Miami is a positive and he represented himself well at the Senior Bowl and. Spence’s low number of 12 bench press reps at the Combine were a result of a bruised shoulder suffered at the Senior Bowl and once he is completely healed he wants to prove that was a fluke.

There were three outside linebackers/defensive ends that drew the most attention in Indianapolis – Upshaw, Ingram and Quinton Coples, and Upshaw to wait until his Pro Day to really show scouts what he is capable of. He did push out 22 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press at the Combine but ran a suspect 4.81 in the 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. Still, what Upshaw put on tape at Alabama should more than suffice at the next level as he anchored the nation’s most feared defense with 9.5 sacks, 52 tackles (37 solo) and one interception that he returned 45 yards for a touchdown. Nobody doubts his ability as a bull rusher and dominant pass rusher who can set the edge against the run as well, but where Upshaw gets exposed is on the outside when he has to chase down a running back or scrambling quarterback.



OTHER TOP LINEBACKER PROSPECTS AT A GLANCE (in alphabetical order)


Lavonte David
Outside Linebacker
6-1, 233
Nebraska

Dont’a Hightower
Inside Linebacker
6-2, 265
Alabama

Ronnell Lewis
Outside Linebacker
6-2, 253
Oklahoma

Shea McClellin
Outside Linebacker
6-3, 260
Boise State

Bobby Wagner
Inside Linebacker
6-0, 235
Utah State

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