Wednesday, April 30, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Outside Linebackers

The NFL is a quarterback driven league these days. That is until everyone realises how most of the successful college teams have run orientated offenses, at which point everyone in the pros will begin to switch, especially after seeing the recent success of San Francisco and Seattle. Maybe.

Regardless, right now good pass rushers are at a premium and because 3-4 defenses are the current en vogue thing that means outside linebackers get a lot of attention this time of year. In this post we'll have a look at some of them.

Predominantly what we're looking at are both 3-4 outside backers and 4-3 outside backers, with the former being more rush orientated and the later being slightly more pass coverage orientated. The list I'm working from has, I think, a couple of 4-3 college ends on it who most people suspect will become linebackers, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

And as always this list is ordered the way it is because that's how the list I'm working from is ordered.

Khalil Mack, Buffalo
If I see one more comment around the web from a fan or analyst talking about how they "love so and so's motor" I swear I will scream. Can we not just use real words like effort? Effort is a word, a word that means a "vigorous or determined attempt". If a player runs hard, can we not just say "he gives a lot of effort" instead of "he has a great motor". We're literally using one completely inappropriate word to replace another just because that's how scouts talk. Or at least that's how people think scouts talk. They know it's how Mike Mayock talks at any rate.

Sorry, what was I doing? Oh yeah, Khalil Mack.

The story of Khalil Mack is basically the story of two events; Buffalo's season opener against Ohio State and his performance at the combine. To get the combine aspect out of the way first, just remember that two of the top combine performers from 2013 were Zaviar Gooden and Jamie Collins.

Gooden was drafted in the third round by the Titans and picked up precisely zero sacks last year and just 12 tackles in his nine appearances. Collins was drafted in the second round by the Patriots and had precisely zero sacks last year through 16 games, including 8 starts.

As for the Ohio State game, Khalil did most of his good work in that game against a newly installed sophomore right tackle who prior to that had mostly been a special teams guy (and who got beaten badly not just by Mack, but others).

If you sit down and watch the Baylor and San Diego State games, which are the only games where Mack was really tested against NFL representative opposition (and even that's pushing it a little), and you get a combined sack total of, erm,  zero sacks.

That's my concern about Mack. He is quick, that's indisputable. His combine performance wasn't a fluke or a result of an intensive workout schedule. You can clearly see how fast he is both in a straight line and cutting side to side. He can even cover most running backs and some receivers on pass patterns due to that pure speed. Come to think of it, with his size and athletic ability Mack would probably have been an awesome running back.

As an outside backer? Well that quickness will cause some people some problems, but he's so light and lacks any real strength, which means that once you get your hands on him he's usually dead to rites. He doesn't have a refined pass rushing technique either. Against Ohio State it was just pure speed against a tackle who was in out of his depth.

So where to put Mack? His speed alone has to generate some interest, but I look at that production and I can't shake that question mark in the back of my mind that wonders whether he'll be able to match up at the next level against the Joe Staley's and Joe Thomas's of the world. For me I'd put him in the second round knowing full well that he'll be gone by that point.

Anthony Barr, UCLA
Barr on the other hand I'd give a first round grade to. He was very productive playing as an outside backer in UCLA's 3-4 defense, and did so against some pretty tough opposition. Even in some of the games where he didn't record a sack (such as against Stanford) he was still disruptive and created opportunities for team mates.

As well as rushing he did a fair amount of pass coverage, but if we're being honest then that's not really his strong point. He can do it in a pinch, but he's more of a pass rusher. Against the run I thought Barr held up ok. Even if he's not the strongest guy in the world he at least holds his position and turns running plays back inside where his help is, which is what you want to see him doing.

Overall then, yeah, I think Barr is a really good pick. For teams that are determined to take a pass rusher in the first round at any cost then I think Barr is your man if you run a 3-4, whereas a 4-3 team would probably be better off taking Dee Ford because he's a little better fit for that system. But yeah, Barr, good stuff. First rounder for me.

Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
Seemed to play more as an inside backer, but he did have a fair few snaps that I saw on the outside in Ohio's 4-3 scheme. Another combine superstar who looks as quick in his pads as he did in shorts.

Which is kind of his strength and his weakness at the same time. A strength because he's so damn quick getting to where he wants to go. A weakness because often that's away from the play, and because he's so slightly built it's like watching a wide receiver trying to take on the offensive linemen. He sticks his head into danger willingly and you have to love that, but he gets absolutely blown up by blockers and his tackling is poor.

The problem with running to the wrong place is because he's what I'd call a 'hunter'. So in other words against running plays he's hunting for the running back and he's trying to figure out which hole the running back is going to take so he can meet him there. Well that's fine in most 3-4 schemes, but in a 4-3 scheme like Ohio's you have one gap to fill. That's your gap and if you don't fill it, nobody else will. So if you read run you don't follow the running back, instead you go straight downhill and hit your designated hole.

This is the problem Casey Matthews had a few years back coming out of Oregon (and is seemingly still having). In a 3-4 scheme in college Matthews was free to hunt for the running back, but when he was drafted to the Eagles he came into a much more rigid scheme, at least in terms of his gap responsibility. The old playmaking flair I saw from him in college was gone, replaced with someone who didn't seem to understand their fit in the wider scheme.

Now Shazier may even benefit from a bit of coaching and perhaps some tough love at the next level, but if he's been playing in this scheme all this time and hasn't gotten the hang of it yet then I can't see him taking a great leap forward in the NFL.

Indeed the only really good thing about him is his man to man pass coverage. He can jog quicker than a lot of tight ends and running backs can sprint, so he has no problem keeping up with people. Like Mack maybe he would have benefited from a different career choice, perhaps as a corner.

Of course if you're creative then you can use that blistering speed on blitzes and Shazier actually picked up six sacks in 2013. For that reason I think Shazier has some value, at least for me, as a weak side or "Will" linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. That's the only spot where I can see him using the best of his skills and not getting completely shut out of the game. He'll probably get targeted a fair amount for weak side rushing plays, but he has enough talent to cause people problems.

Tempted to say I would put him down in the 2nd-3rd round crossover point if it was me, based on his utility being somewhat limited and him requiring help to achieve an NFL standard.

Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech
Ok, I'm going to issue an open challenge to anyone that thinks they have the answer; tell me why Attaochu is not considered a top ten pick but guys like Clowney, Mack, Manziel, Evans and Watkins etc are.

It's a simple challenge. I want someone to give me credible reasons why those players are considered to be ten of the best prospects in this years draft, but Attaochu is not. I would love to know. I would love to hear peoples reasons as to why they think Khalil Mack is not just better, but apparently 30 odd places in the draft better, considering that Attaochu is ranked as a second round pick by pretty much everyone.

Speed? Attaochu has speed. Size? Attaochu has prototype size for his position. Production? Attaochu out produced all those players at his position last season.

I really don't get it. I just don't understand. Attaochu ripped people to shreds in college. He's exceptionally fast off the snap. Not only does he have a great reaction speed to the ball being snapped but he's very quick covering those first five yards. He uses his hands well to beat people, he's pretty strong, he's clearly intelligent and has great instincts, he's disciplined in his gap responsibilities, he takes great pursuit angles and will run down multiple plays per game from behind.

Oh, and he had 12.5 sacks last year, including 4 against Georgia in a game where he was routinely doubled teamed and chipped.

The guy is basically a complete player at his position. He originally was a 3-4 outside backer but with the introduction of the former BCS championship winning Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof, Jeremiah switched to defensive end for the most part. And continued to dominate.

I literally am struggling to find faults. You could argue that as a 3-4 outside backer then his pass coverage is not the greatest in the world and I'll give you that, but then you don't draft a guy like Attaochu because of his coverage skills. You draft him because he's going to rush the quarterback and generate sacks. And that's something he does superbly well.

I have to apologise to Dee Ford at this point because I gushed over his pass rushing ability at the start and now this is the second time I've found a pass rusher who I would put above him, but Attaochu really is that good. Keep in mind as well he did this at Georgia Tech, not a team that has outstanding talent all along the defensive line to take pressure off him.

He busted double teams and frequently ran through two people even if it was just to pursue a play from the backside. He really does represent a complete package and might actually be slightly more suited to playing as a 4-3 end. Right now, of all the players I've seen, I think he's the number one overall.

You could argue that because he's rated as a second rounder that - if you were a high picking team - you might take someone else like an Aaron Donald first, due to the low number of top tackles that come after him, which means you'd be betting on Attaochu being present in the second round, but I think that's playing with fire.

The way I always look at it is this; you cannot tell me that 32 teams looked at Attaochu and none of them are tempted to take him as say a middle to late first rounder. The 49ers could be a team looking to replace Aldon Smith after yet another off field incident, and picking that late in round one Attaochu must be a tempting prospect (please, please, make this pick!).

I'm just a little stunned. Again, I refer back to that open challenge. I defy anyone to come up with solid reasons why Mack or Mike Evans or Sammy Watkins are considered so much better as prospects than this highly productive, well rounded pass rusher.

Trent Murphy, Stanford
Played a number of positions during his time at Stanford; 3-4 end, 3-4 outside backer, and 4-3 end, as they moved him around and did different things with him.

Murphy's pretty good. I wouldn't describe him as a "top pass rusher" like some, but he's quick, reasonably strong and uses his hands well to fight through to the quarterback. Despite appearing on this list of outside linebackers I think his best fit would probably be as a 4-3 end as that seems to be where he's most comfortable.

If you're going to draft him as a linebacker then I think putting him on the strong side, regardless of it being a 3-4 or 4-3 defense, is probably a good spot for Murphy. He's strong enough to be able to contribute in the run game as well as pass rush on occasion. In fact I'd be intrigued to see what happens if someone like the Giants pick him up and put him out there on the strong side. I think it might be a good fit.

For me Murphy is a second round pick. Good, but not quite good enough to get paid top money. Not yet anyway.

Adrian Hubbard, Alabama
Like Murphy I think Hubbard would be intriguing as a strong side ("Sam") linebacker. I don't think he's consistent enough as a pass rusher to play as an end or as a weak side, pass rush first type backer, but on the strong side he has a number of attributes which favour him.

He does have some limited pass rush ability, he's quite disciplined and he holds up reasonably well against blocking. The major problem with Hubbard is that mentally he does often seem a step behind the game. You get the impression watching him at times that if he could just think a bit quicker on his feet then he might make a few more plays.

For me I think Hubbard does enough to earn a second round pick, but I do think he's in that borderline region with the third, which pretty much matches his projections from around the drafting community.

Kyle Van Noy, BYU
Interesting kid.

His 40 time at the combine doesn't really do him justice, he plays much quicker than that. He certainly has the speed and the hand technique to be an outside pass rusher in a 3-4 scheme, but not sure if he's quite strong enough to consistently take on and beat the bigger offensive tackles.

As a result Van Noy might be better suited as a weak side ("Will") linebacker in a 4-3, where his speed is better suited. His pass coverage is pretty good, mostly on account of the speed. From that Will position I could see him picking up a decent number of sacks from blitzes.

Overall I think Van Noy is worth some attention. Probably a second round pick on balance, his speed and potential pass rushing ability is very intriguing.

Lamin Barrow, LSU
Played for LSU and sticks to his run assignments.

That's pretty much the only good things I could muster to say about Barrow. Other than that he doesn't do a lot. He just kind of stares at other people making plays. His pass coverage is nothing special either. This is just a pure hunch but I'm willing to bet there will be better linebackers further down this list. Other than his quick forty time at the combine (for a linebacker) I'd love to know why he's this high.

Ronald Powell, Florida
Quick outside rusher who looks every part as quick as his combine numbers suggest. Not sure he's really built for the long term as a pass rushing backer though.

If he's unblocked then he has the quickness to get to the quarterback before the pass gets off in most cases, but he struggles to generate the pressure himself one on one through technique. I think he's probably better suited to being a 4-3 Will backer, where his speed and fluid movement can be used in pass coverage, and where his pass rushing potential can be tapped on occasion when blitzing.

For me I think he's probably worth a third round pick.

Carl Bradford, Arizona State
Not sure what he's doing on this list really. Bradford spent most of the time with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end.

Throughout the season Bradford was able to maintain a steady stream of production, but it normally tailed off against decent opposition. He did come up with a sack against Stanford, but it was one of only two good plays he made in the entire game.

I just get the sense that his production has been inflated when you compare his performances against good teams vs average/poor teams. He has speed and by all accounts is a remarkable athlete in the weight room, you just don't see that on the field.

I think he's probably a rotational pass rusher at the end position in the NFL, with the potential to perhaps over time develop into a starter. From the fourth/fifth round downwards he's worth some consideration, depending on the make up of your board.

Prince Shembo, Notre Dame
Another player who shouldn't have been on this list. I wish people would group players by where they actually played most of the time and not by their personal ideas about where a player might end up in the NFL.

Erm, the problem I have with Shembo is simple; he's not good enough as a pass rusher to warrant being drafted for that and yet he's not athletic enough to play coverage either. So my question would be 'what do you do do with Shembo if you draft him?'

I have no answer for that and so for me, I'd pass.

Shaquil Barrett, Colorado State
Barrett made a name for himself against Alabama ("the" Alabama) with 1.5 sacks and showed some pretty good skills. He's reasonably quick, was able to use his hands to fight his way past blocks to get to the quarterback and showed good awareness of what was going on around him.

I didn't see much of Barrett, but he strikes me as being not that bad at all. Maybe a fourth round guy or below, he has the potential to play as a 3-4 or 4-3 outside backer. Time will tell whether that Alabama game was a one off or the beginning of something special.

Christian Kirksey, Iowa
Played as an outside backer in a 4-3 scheme and that's probably his best fit in the NFL.

His pass coverage is ok, though he does have a tendency to be a bit grabby which won't go down well in the NFL and the ultra-sensitivity to defensive fouls against receivers. He can rush on occasion and plays well against the run. From the fourth round down I think he represents good value and could probably win a starting job at the Will spot somewhere before his rookie contract is out.

Kevin Pierre-Louis, Boston College
Couldn't cover. Couldn't rush. Had difficulty tackling. I'd pass.

Morgan Breslin, USC
Again, another player who should really have come under the defensive ends. Breslin did ok. Nothing special, but competent enough to compete as a rotational pass rusher I think, probably worth a look in the sixth or seventh round.

Devon Kennard, USC
Uninspiring outside backer. Has a bit of speed, but always seems to be on the fringe of the action and never in the middle of it. I could live happily knowing Kennard had slipped by.

Boseko Lokombo, Oregon
Blurgh! Normally Oregon players are pretty quick, but he couldn't even manage that. Pass.

Brandon Denmark, Florida A&M
Only saw one game. When he wasn't being blocked out of plays like he wasn't there, he was busy losing track of receivers in pass coverage.

Denicos Allen, Michigan State
Stood around spectating for the most part.


Just 19 players covered, but that's still a decent amount I think. Next up is inside linebackers, and always if you enjoyed this post then feel free to share it, you're doing me a big favour.

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