(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft, set for May 8-10.)
This collection has more star potential at the top of the class than either the 2013 or 2010 versions, and more top talent than the group from 2011. And if this 2014 group of linebackers can be better than those drafted in 2012, well, that really will say something.
In 2011, Von Miller, Aldon Smith, and Ryan Kerrigan entered the NFL as No. 1 picks, and while supremely talented the first two names on that list already have committed some suspendable infractions. In 2012, the linebackers to be picked on the first round included Luke Kuechly, Melvin Ingram, Dont'a Hightower, Whitney Mercilus, and Nick Perry.
Carolina's Kuechly is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year; Hightower has 157 tackles and five sacks in 27 starts for the Patriots; Whitney has 13 sacks in his two seasons with the Texans; and both Ingram and Perry have had their playing time hampered by injuries. Nevertheless, that represents five No. 1 picks who have had starting experience in their first two NFL seasons.
If there are five linebackers picked on May 8, most analysts would identify them as Khalil Mack, Anthony Barr, C.J. Mosely, Ryan Shazier, and Demarcus Lawrence.
Mack, 6-foot-3, 251 pounds, thrust himself into the NFL consciousness when he had nine tackles, 2.5 sacks, and an interceptions – with another sack and forced fumble nullified by a penalty on a teammate – in Buffalo's opening game loss at Ohio State. Mack was a Butkus Award finalist in 2013 after finishing with 100 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, three interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns, and five forced fumbles. Mack, who has run a 4.65, was a team captain and is described as highly motivated and highly competitive, which was exhibited when he had big games against the top competition on Buffalo's schedule. A four-year starter in college who should become a starter as a rookie in the NFL.
Barr, 6-5, 255, grew up with Notre Dame blood flowing through his veins. His father, Tony Brooks, played fullback at Notre Dame and was drafted by the Eagles in the fourth round in 1992; his uncle, Reggie Brooks, played running back at Notre Dame and was fifth in the 1992 Heisman balloting; and his uncle Cedric Figaro played linebacker for the Irish as well as 98 games for the Chargers, Colts, Browns, and Rams (1988-92, 1995-96). Notre Dame recruited Barr as a wide receiver, but having grown up in Los Angeles and wanting to play running back, he signed with UCLA. After a year at UCLA as a running back and then as a hybrid fullback/H-back, Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel was fired and Jim Mora Jr. took over. Mora is a defensive-minded coach who prefers a 3-4 alignment, and he converted Barr to outside linebacker. In his first season at that position, 2012, Barr had 13.5 sacks to finish second in the nation to Jarvis Jones. In 2013, Barr added 10 more sacks plus six forced fumbles. A huge talent, Barr is still learning to play OLB and he's still developing the mind-set of a defensive player.
Check out photos of potential draft prospects. (Photos by AP)
Mosely, 6-2, 234, was good enough to be a full-time starter as a freshman at Alabama, and he returned two interceptions for touchdowns in that 2010 season. Mosely missed fuive starts in 2011 with a dislocated elbow, but he still had another interception. In 2012, he played as a sub-package linebacker, and he had 107 tackles, eight tackles for loss, four sacks, two more interceptions, and a forced fumble. Mosely (pictured above) was a finalist in 2013 for the Butkus Award, the Nagurski Award, and the Lombardi Trophy, and Mosely leaves Alabama as a team captain for two national championships. As his college statistics show, Mosely has a good sense for pass defense, and he also has some ball skills. As an inside linebacker in the NFL, he'll have to learn to deal with the bigger bodies coming at him in the running game. The ball skills he brings give him Pro Bowl potential.
Shazier, 6-1, 237, originally committed to play for Urban Meyer at Florida, but Meyer resigned. Shazier then signed to play for Jim Tressel at Ohio State, but Tressel resigned five months later. He wound up playing for Luke Fickell for a season, then he was reunited with Meyer for his final two seasons in Columbus. The first of those, 2012, had Shazier finish with 115 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, five sacks, 11 passes defensed, an interception returned for a touchdown, and three forced fumbles. In 2013, he was a Butkus Award finalist after leading the Big Ten with 134 tackles, to go along with 22.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, five passes defensed, and five forced fumbles. At the Ohio State Pro Day, Shazier posted a 4.36 in the 40-yard dash. Shazier brings a unique combination of speed, athleticism, tackling ability, and coverage skills, and he is versatile enough to be an every-down player right away.
Lawrence, 6-3, 251, picked Boise State over South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Clemson, and in 2012 there he had 13.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, an interception, four forced fumbles, and a blocked kick. In 2013, he had 20.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, and two blocked kicks. For all his production, Lawrence may have hurt himself with a 4.79 in the 40, but he has shown a lot of natural pass-rush ability. He was suspended two separate times in college, and so teams will be looking into his character.
THE 2013 NFL DRAFT, LB STATISTICS
Number drafted: 33
Picks by round: 2 in the first; 6 in the second; 3 in the third; 8 in the fourth; 2 in the fifth; 6 in the sixth; 6 in the seventh
Highest pick: Jarvis Jones, Round 1, 17th overall, by the Pittsburgh Steelers
Biggest impact: Both Kiko Alonso (Buffalo Bills) and Alec Ogletree (St. Louis Rams) started 16 games as rookies and both of them were credited with a lot of tackles, which may or may not be a padded statistic. Since Alonso also had two sacks, four interceptions and one forced fumble, he gets the nod over Ogletree, who had 1.5 sacks and one interception that he returned 98 yards for a touchdown.