Sunday, April 22, 2012

2012 NFL Draft: Linebackers

This is going to be quite the mix. Here we have linebackers, which is going to cover players who played the majority of their college snaps (at least recently) in any linebacker spot, be it inside or outside, 4-3 defense, 3-4 defense, 3-3 stack, whatever. And as has been the case with many of these other posts, I'm going to just focus in on some of the top players from this group.

It's now clear that my draft previews combined will probably cover most players in the top 2-3 rounds, and that after that I'll have probably covered the odd player here and there, but there will be some sizable holes in the coverage. After the draft has been completed my aim is to to cover at some point every player who was drafted, and then start working through some of the undrafted guys.

This should be quite a handy task given that the offseason is always a dead duck in terms of football news. My plan is to combine the ongoing analysis of rookie players with some coachy type stuff, maybe cracking out the play diagrams once again or doing some written breakdowns of... stuff. We;ll see.

For now, Linebackers. Starting with;

- Shea McCellin, Boise State: Although McCellin played some snaps with his hand in the dirt, he's really not big enough or strong enough to play defensive end for a 4-3 team. He just wont handle the run that well. That leaves outside in the 3-4 as the main home for him.

My issue with McCellin is that he's all about speed. He can chase down a play going in the opposite direction, but he's not going to stand up and hold the point of attack himself. That gives him rather limited utility, which I find odd given how everyone is raving about him being "versatile".

For my money, just because you rush the quarterback from a number of different positions that doesn't make you versatile. It just means your coach is being clever about trying to hide you from the quarterback and trying to get you good matchups. Nor does having two picks from odd plays make you a coverage linebacker.

And then we get to the pass rush itself and here we encounter the "Von Miller Dilemma". Von Miller, now of the Broncos, was pretty quick in college. He got a fair number of sacks just by speeding the long way around the outside of offensive tackle as the quarterback held the ball, or by being left unblocked. Typically he struggled when the tackle got his hands on him.

So should you credit Miller with hard work and having the speed to exploit broken protections. Or do you mark him down because in a technique battle he's often going to lose? This is the same dilemma I see with McCellin. Do I credit him for his speed as a pass rusher, for the fact that when he's not blocked he will almost guaranteed get to the QB before the guy can throw?

Or do I down grade him for being "lucky"? In a one on one match with an offensive lineman, usually a competent blocker will contain McCellin. He just doesn't have the strength to fight people off. So should I knock him down a peg or two because he might struggle against pro-tackles?

For me personally I think McCellin is a little too inflexible to warrant the high status he's getting. He's a pass rusher and not much else, played against a lot of not overly great tackles, there are some much better pass rushers in this draft, and overall he just doesn't jump out and grab your attention screaming that he's going to be a great linebacker.

While I see the merits in his speed and accept that he does chase plays all the way to the whistle, I can't shake that feeling that I think you could block this guy with a running back. I don't see him becoming an every down, high production pass rusher. I think he might end up as a 3rd down back.

- Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma: Alright, so we're two players in and already I've broken the initial premise of this post being about players who played most of their recent snaps at linebacker, whereas Lewis spent a lot of time lately as a defensive end. Screw it, my blog, my rules.

Lewis to me is quite interesting. I wouldn't say he's a natural pass rusher in terms of technique, but he is pretty strong and has great acceleration off the snap. However on the occassions where he did stand up to rush he - to me at least - appeared to lose some of that initial burst.

He is hard working and seems to have few qualms about getting stuck in to a tackle when needed. He showed some smarts at times but was still a little too easily tricked out by things like screen plays. He also has value on special teams which will attract some teams like the Patriots.

Personally I actually think he'll be better as a 4-3 defensive end, but everyone else seems keen on him as an outside backer, hence his inclusion here. To me he's just not quick enough to be that kind of stand up rusher, but I think as an end he has that good mix of speed and strength.

The trouble is that I think Lewis will need a fair amount of coaching in his first year to really get the best out of him. He doesn't strike me as a natural who can just go out on day one and perform to a high level. For that reason I have to be wary of making an predictions regarding Lewis (sorry!). I think he has some potential, but much will depend on his work ethic and the quality of his coaching.

- Lavonte David, Nebraska: If you asked me now which one player from this draft class I thought was going to go on and have a hall of fame career, I think it would come down to Justin Blackmon, Trent Richardson and Lavonte David. And a big part of me would be tempted to go with David. He's that good.

The real key to David's play is that he performs well against both the run and the pass. He has phenomenal instincts, on a par with some of the better NFL linebackers. He has a great feel for when to rush the passer. He's quick, and perhaps just as importantly he's decisive. He's a good, committed tackler. He may not be the biggest or strongest guy on the field, but he has no problem with throwing himself at offensive linemen in order to wad up a running lane. He works very hard when chasing plays.

All around, Lavonte David is a superb talent. He played most of his time in college as a linebacker in a 4-3 and because of the nature of the way Nebraska defended certain teams, especially spread teams, I think David has probably acquired the skills to play at any of the three linebacker spots in such a defense (Weak side, middle or strong). In addition, if taken by a 3-4 team, I think he has the mental capacity and skills to play at either of the inside linebacker spots.

As you can probably tell, I really like Lavonte David. I think if he makes it out of the first round that will be insane, especially given some of the names that look likely to go in the first round. I think the value of a quality linebacker whose job is not predominantly as a pass rusher is grossly under rated and I think David represents just that; a quality linebacker.

He's the kind of kid I can see someone building a team around. Yes, he's that good. On a team that already has a good system in place but is just lacking that something extra, I think David could push them over the top. I am very interested to see who takes him because I think he could have an immediate, week one impact.

- Luke Kuechly, Boston: I first came across Kuechly (pronounced "Key-klee") while looking at Mark Herzlich last year. Initially I was very impressed but since then I've kind of gone a little cold on him. Not to the extent of saying he's of no use, but just falling a little from my initial high impressions.

The problem I have with Kuechly is that while he does many impressive things on the field, I feel like he lacks impact for someone who is being touted as a first rounder. For example, he does move across the field, sideline to sideline, pretty well. But his tackling leaves something to be desired when he arrives. It's not bad, but it's really not great either.

Against the pass is probably the place where Kuechly has his most success. As a former safety in high school he has a reasonable understanding of how to play some of the various routes he encounters, but at the same time I still question just how good of a pass defender he really is.

On top of this he's not as instinctive as some linebackers. He certainly has some level of vision and awareness, but whereas some linebackers (like Lavonte David) can figure out what type of play they're facing pretty early and then respond to what they're seeing quickly, Kuechly strikes me as someone who needs a little more time to sit and wait for the play to develop.

Having said all that it sounds like I'm crapping on Kuechly but I'd like to think of it as just questioning some of the hype around him. I think Kuechly is more the kind of linebacker you'd look at in perhaps the later rounds of the draft and then mold under the guidance of your linebackers coach.

He's still fairly raw in my opinion and lacks some strength and technique at times when it comes to shedding blocks. I just have that gnawing feeling in the back of my mind which I can't shake that Kuechly wont pan out the way everyone is hoping.

- Dont'a Hightower, Alabama: Where in the name of God do people get these names for their children? Anyway, Dont'a Hightower, inside linebacker, Alabama. Projected by just about everyone as a first round pick, Hightower is another one of these player that makes me think that this is one of the worst draft classes (at many positions) in recent years.

If you think Hightower is legitimately good enough to be a first round linebacker then my name is Abracadabra and I have some magic beans that I'd like to sell you. Because this guy is nothing. Nothing. He doesn't do anything of value.

Alright, I lie. I've seen him make one great tackle in one game and he happened to be underneath a deflected pass in another. That's two things. But other than that, I've seen him do nothing except plod around the field in a very average manner, struggling to contribute. Other than the fact that he plays for Alabama I honestly can't give you any other reason why people seem interested in him.

- Mychal Kendricks, California: Perhaps at this juncture I should explain something. Wen I'm looking at young players entering the NFL, I'm looking for the players who make a difference. I'm not that interested in players that just hang in there and occassionally contribute. There is a whole league full of guys that can do that.

Just look at the free agent market for example. It's rife with players who are considered "serviceable". Granted, teams aren't tripping over themselves to sign these guys to big money deals, but a team in dire need of help at a certain position would be better off spending a few dollars to bring in a useful veteran hand than it would to waste a draft pick on someone who is going to be just average.

For my money, you're using the draft to a) sign a player who you believe is talented and will improve your team immediately, b) to sign a player who you believe has some raw talents and who just needs a bit of coaching to reach his potential or c) to take a chance on a young player who could be really good but equally might be a bust.

Kendricks is none of these. He is an average player who every now and again pops up to make a play, but for the most part stays hidden in the background, unable to break free from the pack. He offers no enticing prospect for the future. He's probably playing at about as high a level as he's ever going to play and frankly that's not all that.

He has basically zero chance of making any significant impact in the NFL and would be a waste of pick, at least that's how I feel about him.

- Zach Brown, North Carolina: Shite. Can't tackle, can't beat blocks, can't fill running lanes, can't cover against the pass. He's pretty quick (4.44sec 40 yard dash at the combine) which means that it's inevitable that occassionally he'll find himself in a position to make a play.

Other than that though, he's of no real value. Maybe someone will look at that speed and think to themselves "I could turn that guy into a pass rushing outisde backer" and maybe they might. It's going to be a struggle though, and don't say you weren't warned when he completely fails to show up against the run.

- Bobby Wagner, Utah State: Shite. Can't tackle, unbalanced, ungainly looking kid who will be doing well for his career if he can hang on someones team until next season.

Honestly this draft class has some stars in it, but it also has a ton of garbage.

- Bruce Irvin, West Virginia: Now we might be getting back to business again. Irvin is possibly one of the most bizarre defensive prospects going this year, but also one of the most interesting. He spent a lot of time playing as a 3-4 defensive end and some time as a 4-3 defensive end in college, despite not having the size at all to play these positions.

For that reason he was restricted mostly to being a third down, situational pass rusher. Until West Virginia realised that against pass heavy teams he could be very useful on every down. Of course some teams also realised that a dude weighing less than 250lbs was playing on the D-line and ran the ball right at him, knocking him clean out of the way in the process.

And herein lies the problem with Irvin, the decision that must be taken. Against the pass Irvin has a lot to bring to the table. His quickness, combined with a decent counter move designed to manipulate an offensive linemens over reaction to his speed, makes him a formidable foe in terms of pass rushing. Standing up as an outside linebacker or with his hand in the dirt as a D-linemen, Irvin is likely to get sacks in the NFL.

But he is a bit small and he does lack strength. Against the run it's almost a non-starter. About the only thing he contributes is to quickly get into the backfield when you're running away from him. Generally though his utility is limited to being a pass rush guy.

For that reason I can see Irvin slipping in the draft but still having a good career. There are many pass rushers who have made a career out of sacks... and really nothing really else (DeMarcus Ware). Irvin is a legit rusher who can give NFL tackles problems, but a team that takes him needs to recognise what they're getting into and cover in the run game accordingly.

- Nigel Bradham, Florida State: Lame. Just walks around doing nothing barely contributing. Again, I have no idea why you would even consider drafting him. He offers nothing. He stinks. I have no idea how players like this make it to the combine in the first place.

- Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State: Now here we have an intersting prospect. And by interesting, I mean in the sense of when you turn on the TV and at the end of the news they tell you some story about a complete idiot who somehow managed to get themselves into a hilariously stupid predicament.

Burfict was basically on course over the last few years to becoming a first round pick, possibly even a top ten. Now he's on course to go undrafted. Yes, from top ten to undrafted in one season. So how does one manage such a catastrophic fall from grace?

Well, you can start by going to the combine and during interviews with reporters you can completely throw your old coaching staff under the bus, blaming them for why you had a bad season. You can follow this up by blaming a team mate for a fight that happened in the locker room which was by all other accounts your fault, and then follow that up by basically disowning yourself of any blame for the many flags you drew throughout the season.

And there were many. Many, many. The majority of them for 15 yards and the kind of infractions that in the NFL would draw fines. If Burfict does make it into the league then I'll be surprised if he has any money left by the end of the first season.

Now in his defense, people have been complaining about his slow 40-yard dash time at the combine and my response to that would be "if you couldn't tell from the film he was going to be slow, then why are you a scout?". It should have been fairly obvious to everyone that Burfict is not a speed player.

The problem is that he's also not a very smart player. Or disciplined. Or technically sound. Or a whole list of things that he should be. He is aggressive, you have to give him that. But other than that he doesn't really have a lot in his favour.

Reaction wise he's quite slow and his lack of speed doesn't help. He gets turned around quite easily in the passing game and has a tendency to get blocked a little too easily for a man of his size in the running game.

It's a sad story really, but having regressed on the field he was always going to fall down the draft order. His serious issues with yellow flags on the field and red flags off it have only made it worse. I imagine he'll get a sniff somewhere, if not in the late rounds of the draft then almost certainly after it, but I'm guessing he'll be on a short leash.

One false move or verbal mistake and he'll be on the unemployment line faster than you can say; "personal foul, defense, number seven, unsportsmanlike conduct..."

- Kyle Wilber, Wake Forest: Christ this draft sucks. Wilber is a 3-4 outside linebacker who can't rush the passer, isn't very stout with the run coming his way and has the sole redeeming feature of being not that bad in pass coverage when picking up a back out of the backfield. But that's one feature on an otherwise featureless landscape so to speak.

- Tank Carder, TCU: Tank Carder is an impact player in the same way that I am a skilled pastry chef. Or in other words, he's not. Carder has moved up a number of boards based on his performance at the combine but I would strongly recommedn against getting too excited. He has difficulty shedding blocks, is not especially fast, he's quite clumsy and generally doesn't strike me as a particularly worthwhile pick.

- Audie Cole, NC State: Not too bad. The problem with Cole is really that he seems like he's in the wrong position as an inside backer. Despite his slow 40 time at the combine, on the field Cole is actually pretty quick, and would probably be better served as an outside backer in a 3-4. He tackles well and has reasonably good instincts, but I'm just not sure how much of an impact he'll really have in the NFL playing from an inside position.
Well, that's your lot as far as linebackers are concerned. For now anyway. I only have a few more days before the combine so I need the time to start covering defensive backs. I'm also sick and f**king tired of this new blogger interface and I've only been using it for about two hours.

I'm seriously considering moving to WordPress because this auto save function is horribly broken and constantly interrupts my typing.

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