(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2015 NFL Draft, set for April 30-May 2.)
An NFL team looking for an inside linebacker with a knack for finding the football would do well with Dawson, who rolled up 136 tackles, including 20 for loss, plus four interceptions on the way to being voted Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2014. At 6-foot, 235 pounds, Dawson didn't get many scholarship offers coming out of Dallas Skyline High School, and so he enrolled at Trinity Valley Community College as a receiver. He transferred to TCU in 2012, and he led the Horned Frogs with 91 tackles in 2013. Dawson has the instincts of a middle linebacker, and there have been comparisons made to the Bengals' Vontaze Burfict. Those comparisons are complimentary in some respects, but he has had some of the same issues with punctuality and accountability that had dropped Burfict off many teams' draft boards. Dawson plays hard and practices hard, but his off-field work in terms of video study and classroom preparation have come into question.
His father, Marv, led UCLA in rushing in 1970-71, and his older brother, Mychal, is a linebacker with the Philadelphia Eagles. Eric Kendricks (6-0, 232), won the Butkus Award in 2014 after leading UCLA with 149 tackles. A fifth-year senior, Kendricks became a full-time starter in 2012, and as a two-time team captain he graduated with a degree in political science and 481 career tackles. Kendricks played for two different head coaches, three different coordinators, and three different linebackers coaches. With the exception of his size, there's not a lot to dislike about Kendricks, who is intelligent, a leader, productive, and he wants to succeed. For a 3-4 team, Kendricks is an inside linebacker, but some scouts believe he has the athleticism and demeanor to be an impactful, productive outside linebacker in a 4-3 for years.
McKinney (6-4, 246) started every game and led Mississippi State in tackles in both 2013-14, and he brings more than a little bit of athleticism to the position. As a senior at Rosa Fort High School in Mississippi, he was a starting quarterback who finished his senior season with 15 touchdown passes and seven rushing touchdowns, in addition to adding 34 tackles on defense and serving as the team's punter. McKinney has the size to deal with the blockers and running backs he'll find in the middle of an NFL field, and he also is smart enough not to over-pursue and create cut-back lanes. He will have added value on special teams and as a blitzer, but he may not have what it takes to be effective in coverage. Some scouts see McKinney as an above-average NFL inside linebacker who could become part of a really good defense, but he's not going to be the star.
View some of the top 2015 NFL draft prospects at the inside linebacker position.
As a freshman in 2011, Anthony (6-3, 243) started at middle linebacker in three of Clemson's last four games, and in 2012 he started six games at the position. He became a full-time starter for the Tigers in 2013, and in his final two college seasons he accounted for 206 tackles, including 24 for loss, plus 6.5 sacks. He was suspended for the first half of a bowl game because he was flagged for a targeting penalty vs. rival South Carolina. Anthony was a team captain, and he graduated in December with a degree in sociology. Anthony is a physical competitor, he has good size, and he impressed his coaches with the way he competed to regain his starting job and then produce after losing it as a sophomore. Anthony and teammate Vic Beasley put on a show during Clemson's pro day, and if he can add the above-the-neck game required to make it in the NFL it's believed he could become a starter in the league.
This is a player who defines versatility. In 2014, Thompson (6-0, 228) was the winner of the fifth annual Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation's most versatile player. For the Washington Huskies that season, Thompson started all 14 games at inside linebacker and had 81 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, one sack, four passes defensed, a 36-yard interception return for a touchdown, three forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries he returned for touchdowns totaling 184 yards. Thompson also started two games at tailback, during which he rushed for 456 yards on 61 carries (7.5 average) and scored two touchdowns. As a tailback he also caught four passes for 56 yards. All of this could indicate some arguing in draft rooms across the NFL about where best to deploy Thompson, but whatever his position he'll also play special teams because he had 19 special teams tackles in 2013-14. Thompson could become an interesting chess piece for some defensive coordinator, or he could end up being a guy who never really settles in and takes charge of a position.
As a freshman in 2011, Perryman (5-11, 236) made three starts at weak-side linebacker for the Miami Hurricanes. In 2012 he also played outside linebacker, and he started six games and missed three others with a high ankle sprain. In 2013, Perryman started all 13 games at outside linebacker before moving to the middle in 2014 and blossoming. He was Miami's defensive MVP in 2014, a season in which he led the Hurricanes in tackles for the second straight season. He was a team captain. Perryman is an old-school inside linebacker in that he is stout, punishing, finds the ball, and arrives in a foul mood. But the NFL isn't necessarily that kind of a league anymore, because offenses will find old-school inside linebackers and expose them in coverage. There also is some concern among scouts by the way college offenses were beginning to attack Perryman in the passing game in the latter stages of the 2014 season.
THE 2014 NFL DRAFT, LB STATISTICS
Number drafted: 37
Picks by round: 5 in the first; 3 in the second; 3 in the third; 5 in the fourth; 10 in the fifth; 4 in the sixth; 7 in the seventh
Highest pick: Khalil Mack, Buffalo, Round 1, 5th overall to the Oakland Raiders
Biggest impact: The argument is between C.J. Mosley, picked 17th in the first round by Baltimore, and Anthony Barr, picked ninth in the first round by Minnesota. Mosley started 16 games for the Ravens and finished with two interceptions, three sacks, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. Barr started only 12 games but ended up with four sacks, three passes defensed, two forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries, one of which he returned for a touchdown.