Monday, May 05, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Inside Linebackers

In this post we're going to look at the prospects at the inside linebacker position, both from 3-4 and 4-3 defenses. Though judging by some of the lists I've previously worked from there is a good chance some of these prospects will have played other positions in college and the person assembling the list merely thinks that they will end up as inside linebackers.

On that note it's worth mentioning that as well as being able to play their college position, many inside linebackers will be capable of filling other roles. Inside backers in a 3-4 will play in almost the same positions as they would if they were a middle ("Mike") or weak side ("Will") linebacker in a standard 4-3 scheme, so the transition is not huge between those systems with the exception of having to learn a new set of rules for run defense.

Under sized inside linebackers might even make it as weak side outside backers in an NFL 3-4 defense, while slightly larger, heavier, slower inside backers might have to transition to the strong side in the NFL, either in a 3-4 or 4-3.

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

C.J. Mosley, Alabama
So erm, why is Mosley a first round pick?

I mean he's good, don't get me wrong. But he's not a first round pick. Not by a long shot. He's not going to help your team the way a Dee Ford or an Odell Beckham Jr or a Zach Martin would. He's a competent linebacker, but he's not the playmaker you would expect from a first round pick.

He's a solid contributor. He could probably play in the NFL as either an inside backer in a 3-4 or potentially as a strong side ("Sam") backer in a 4-3. He might even be able to play as a Mike backer. But he's a third round pick. He's not a priority, he's not going to improve your team massively, he's just going to be ok. He's most certainly not worth first round money they way someone like Lavonte David was.

I just don't get it. Alright, sometimes he sheds blocks well and he's not bad in pass coverage, but he's not the special type of player you would expect from a first rounder. He often makes poor decisions against the run, he's hesitant, and he's not really a superb athlete. When you take into account his injury proneness, I just cannot see how anyone sees him as a first rounder.

He was distinctly average against top competition in college. Again, not awful, but just average. He was ok. He did alright. But first round picks don't just play "alright" against top opponents. They stand out. They're the ones who change those games, or at least make a solid impact on them. Mosley didn't. He hung in there and contributed, but he looked like the fifth or sixth best defender on his team.

And don't give me the whole "Alabama is loaded with talent, that's why" spiel. Normally they are and they have lots of highly starred recruits on their team, but they are not the mythical team of Gods among men that some people seem to think. That Alabama defense was ok, but it gave up a hell of a lot points against good opposition last year.

So yeah, C.J. Mosley; good but not a first rounder.

Christian Jones, Florida State
Two questions; Why is Christian Jones on this list? And why is he this high?

He seemed to play every position except inside linebacker. Most of his time was spent as an outside backer. And honestly I defy someone to explain why he's the second highest rated inside linebacker on anyones list. Why? Not only did he not seem to play that position in college, but he sucked at the stuff he did do!

Against quality opposition he was nothing more than a warm body that required blocking. He showed no real standout physical, technical or mental traits. He wasn't even average. He just ran around getting blocked and watching other people make all the plays. Pass.

Chris Borland, Wisconsin
This is more like it.

Could play as an inside 3-4 backer or pretty much any backer spot in a 4-3. Ideally suited as a "Mike" linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. Displayed an exceptional work ethic on the field, even getting up off the ground if he missed a tackle going one way only to chase the play down from behind in the other direction. Tremendous, tremendous determination.

Borland was also very instinctive, seeing the hand off and shooting downhill for his gap. He seemed to have a great sense of timing and being only 6ft tall he was great at getting his pads down below the running back and jacking him up when they met in the hole. He was well balanced and strong, able to shed blocks and get to the ball carrier.

The downsides of Borland would be two fold. Firstly his pass coverage wasn't brilliant. It was ok, but it's definitely not his strong point. For this reason there would be question marks over whether Borland could really be a three down linebacker in the NFL. The second issue is his shoulder, which apparently will need another surgery after a metal pin from a previous surgery slipped out of place. This, coupled with prior surgery on his other shoulder, raises some question marks about his long term durability.

He seemed fine during the season though. He didn't seem to be protecting either shoulder and didn't hold back on any tackles. His performance remained at the same high level.

So is he perhaps good enough to sneak into the first round? Hmm, that's probably a little too high. This is a passing league and the question marks over his pass coverage ability would probably warrant a risk premium that puts him back down in the second round, but from there downwards he's a very good linebacker who represents good value.

Preston Brown, Louisville
Brown is difficult to place because his pass coverage skills are insufficient (mainly he's just too slow) but his tackling and inside play against the run are not bad. Can't say as he demonstrates any exceptional physical attributes, but then he is a little heavy for a linebacker.

I think as a late round guy, rotating on and off the field and playing just the main running downs Brown might have some value and could potentially put together a multi-year career for himself as essentially a back up and special teams blocking/tackling guy. Me personally? I think I'd pass.

Telvin Smith, Florida State
Fairly average inside backer. Did nothing special. In fact, did nothing of any real note, the odd tackle here and there being the basic requirement that you would expect of a linebacker. I'd pass.

Shayne Skov, Stanford
Bit dodgy in pass coverage, especially man to man against a tight end. For me that - along with some old injury history that he appears to have gotten past - is the only thing keeping him out of the first round.

Because other than that Skov is a superb inside backer. He's not the fastest in the world (which is why he struggles a little in pass coverage) but he makes up for it with great instincts and by taking great angles against the run. He's the definition of that old phrase "not a great athlete, but a great football player". 

He can easily play either inside position in a 3-4 and pretty much all three of the linebacker spots in a 4-3, though his lack of top end speed might cause him a few problems as a Will backer. He's probably marginally more suited to play as a 3-4 guy, though I can see him playing the Mike role in a 4-3 (and I can see myself during this offseason doing a series of posts about basic terminology and roles etc for people to reference back to at times like this).

Skov is just a great football player. He sees what is happening in front of him, understands it, and then takes appropriate action. Against the run he's a real force and even though he's not the biggest guy in the world he has a great talent for standing up running backs in the hole and stuffing them. 

Projected at the minute as a 4th to 5th rounder by most it would seem, with some mocks having him taken in the third, I think that would be really good value. For me he's worth a second round pick.

Avery Williamson, Kentucky
Not bad at sliding his way through traffic to make the tackle on run plays. That's about it though.

His pass coverage is not great, he doesn't have especially great athletic ability, and he doesn't read and react to plays the way that some of the linebackers above like Skove do. He just kind of sits back, follows the crowd laterally across the field and then makes the tackle. Like I said, he's quite good at picking his way through the crowd of people to get there, but it's the only one skill that he really excels at, and it's of marginal value without the rest of the package.

I'd be tempted to pass on Williamson myself, but he might find a role somewhere as a backup, early down backer. 

Max Bullough, Michigan State
Got in trouble for unspecified reasons relating to breaking team rules which caused him to be suspended for the Rose Bowl. Normally if it's bad enough for you to be suspended, but not enough for you to get in trouble with the law or for a team mate or coach to come out and say something to the media, then 9 times out of 10 it'll be something related to academics. But that's speculation.

What's not speculation is that Bullough has put on pounds during the offseason, which for a player not exactly renowned for his speed is probably not a great idea. On top of that, I don't get the hype.

First off, I don't care if your dad played football. His skills, his instincts etc are not genetically passed down to you. Just having a football dad is not a guarantee on its own that you will have success. Being average at reading and reacting is not something for great celebration either. 

His pass coverage is ok, but he gets away with a lot of plays that in the NFL will attract flags for holding. He in no way is ready to go toe to toe in coverage with top tight ends or running backs in the NFL. 

I just get the feeling watching him that he benefits greatly from playing on a defense that earned a reputation for being very good. He's not a player that elevates everyone around him through his presence and playmaking ability, rather it's the other way around. Me personally, I'd pass.

Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA
Eventually he'll make a play in most games. That's because eventually the other offense will smell a weakness and leave him unblocked. Other than that, he does nothing. He'll struggle to win a roster spot I think and for that reason I'd pass.

Marquis Spruill, Syracuse
Spectator for the most part, always behind the play. Pass.

Devekeyan Lattimore, South Florida
Coming down hill Lattimore has speed. And when I say speed, I mean speed. If he's just sitting back in coverage and sees the running back stay in to block he comes zooming downhill to get to the quarterback. He might actually have been a better outside backer in college with that speed, but still, he can play.

The problem he has is in coverage. He doesn't pay enough attention to what's happening around him and in front of him, so for example in zone coverage he'll see a running back out of the backfield hook up just past the line of scrimmage and not realise that that's the main threat to his zone. Instead he'll look across expecting to see a tight end on a crossing pattern.

So there are doubts. Doubts about whether you can use him on all three downs and doubts about how he'll cope against the pass when he does make it onto the field, especially in the modern pass first league. However, there is a lot to like as well.

That speed, the instincts about when to rush the quarterback or when to come down hill and stiff a running back in the hole. He is a very intriguing prospect who's projected to go in the late rounds or even undrafted and down in that sort of region I can see the value. He might even be worth as much as a fifth depending on what your board looks like by that point, especially when you consider that late round prospects are mostly hit and miss guys, so a bit of a risk at this point isn't an issue.

Glenn Carson, Penn State
Slow to react to the play. Combined with a lack of appreciable speed that means he's always two steps behind each play. I'd pass.


Short list in the end, but that's helpful to me with the draft only a few days away now. Next up is corners and then safeties, both of which I think I can squeeze in just in time. We'll see, might have to cut them a little short.

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