(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft, set for April 26-28.)
With so many NFL teams now utilizing a 3-4 defensive scheme, and with the success of that scheme so dependent upon playmaking linebackers, and with so many colleges having to defend spread offenses themselves that would seem to create a breeding ground for playmaking linebackers, there begs this question:
Where are they?
They certainly weren't members of a 2011 class that sent just five linebackers – inside and outside – into the NFL via the first two round of that draft. And it doesn't seem as though there will be many more than that entering the NFL through the first two rounds of this draft.
Some of the low number of highly-drafted linebackers can be explained by the proliferation of players who have come to be known as tweeners, those guys who weigh between 250-265 and enter the league with some pass-rush credentials. They often end up on the defensive line and some become prolific sack artists – think Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney – but the true difference-making linebackers are ones who are capable of making plays in space against the pass – think James Harrison returning an interception 100 yards for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII.
In 2011, there were no inside linebackers drafted in either of the first two rounds, but that trend figures to end on April 26 when Boston College's Luke Kuechly and Alabama's Dont'a Hightower begin their pro careers as first-round picks.
Kuechly (6-foot-3, 240 pounds) was credited with 532 tackles in three college seasons, and while such a number undoubtedly has been inflated by over-eager statisticians, he was a guy who made plays consistently all over the field. Kuechly had three interceptions in each of his last two college seasons as a middle linebacker, seven for his career, and he returned two of them for touchdowns. He had a 38-inch vertical jump at the combine to go with 27 repetitions in the bench press. He is smart, a hard worker who studies the game. But can he get better, or is this as good as he'll ever be? That's the one question.
Hightower (6-2, 265) was good enough to start for the Tide as a freshman, but his career was interrupted by a medical redshirt the following year because of a torn ACL. After a 2010 season in which he re-established himself as a starter, Hightower blossomed in 2011 as the leader of Alabama's top-ranked defense. He had 85 tackles, 11 for loss and four sacks, plus an interception, a forced fumble and a blocked kick in 13 games. Also a two-time team captain, Hightower graduated last December.
The next tier of inside linebackers includes Cal's Mychal Kendricks (5-11, 240), Nevada's John-Michael Johnson (6-1, 240) and North Carolina State's Audie Cole (6-4, 245).
Kendricks is an aggressive, perpetual motion player who had some success at the college level rushing the passer – he had 8.5 sacks in 2010 – and in coverage – four interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, and five other passes defensed during his career. Johnson is a thickly-built guy who was a tackling machine in college, which should allow him to contribute immediately on special teams and give him a chance to develop into a solid presence against the run. Cole played both inside and outside for the Wolfpack, and because he had success at both spots this versatility could help him make an NFL roster as a rookie.
After the tweeners have been removed from the equation, including Melvin Ingram and Whitney Mercilius, the best prospect here turns out to be a guy some scouts would contend is a tweener himself.
Alabama's Courtney Upshaw (6-2, 272) is seen by some scouts as another LaMarr Woodley, but right now there seems to be a lot of hope mixed in with that evaluation. Upshaw has a lot of good qualities – he was a consistent playmaker on the nation's No. 1 defense, he was voted Defensive MVP of the BCS National Championship Game, he's a powerful pass rusher, a tough guy who finds the ball and arrives in a foul mood. But he's nowhere near as athletic and nifty as Woodley, even though he may end up playing a similar position in the NFL.
After Upshaw, in some order, it's North Carolina's Zach Brown (6-1, 245), Boise State's Shea McClellin (6-3, 260), Oklahoma's Ronnell Lewis (6-2, 255) and Nebraska's Lavonte David (6-1, 233).
Brown's speed is confirmed by him holding the North Carolina record in the indoor 60-meter dash, he was a special teams captain in 2010 and led the team in tackles in 2011. But Brown liked to freelance in college, and while that can lead to some dramatic splash plays, it also can cause the breakdown of the integrity of the defensive scheme, which infuriates coaches.
There is great variance of opinion on McClellin. He played defensive end and linebacker, and even a bit of safety, in college and finished with 16.5 sacks and three interceptions over his final two seasons. But is he special enough as an athlete to be able to duplicate that kind of production in the NFL?
Lewis has a passion for the game, and with his combination of size and strength seems to have everything it takes to be a run-hit linebacker in the NFL. Lewis also is categorized as being raw and somewhat undisciplined, and for all of the physical abilities he seems to possess, he recorded just 10 sacks over three seasons.
David was a junior college transfer who made a quick and dramatic impact as soon as he enrolled at Nebraska. He arrived weighing 210 pounds and after injuries quickly thrust David into the starting lineup, he finished 2010 with 152 tackles, six sacks and 10 passes defensed. All of that combined to earn him the team's Defensive MVP award. In 2011, David was a team captain who had 133 tackles, 5.5 sacks, two interceptions, two passes defensed and three forced fumbles. He is instinctive, competitive and coachable, but does David have enough size to be a big-time NFL linebacker?
THE 2011 NFL DRAFT, LB STATISTICS
Number drafted: Inside: 14. Outside: 22.
Picks by round: Inside: 0 in the first; 0 in the second; 5 in the third; 3 in the fourth; 0 in the fifth; 5 in the sixth; 1 in the seventh. Outside: 2 in the first; 3 in the second; 2 in the third; 1 in the fourth; 3 in the fifth; 6 in the sixth; 5 in the seventh.
Highest pick: Inside: Nate Irving, North Carolina State, Round 3, 67th overall, by Denver. Outside: Von Miller, Texas A&M, Round 1, 2nd overall, by Denver.
Biggest impact: Inside: Kelvin Sheppard from LSU was a third-round pick by the Buffalo Bills who played in all 16 games with nine starts. Outside: Von Miller started 15 games for the Broncos, and he finished with 11.5 sacks on the way to being voted NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.