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Top prospects are all OLBs

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(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft, set for April 28-30.)

With regard to the prospects at linebacker for the 2011 NFL Draft, it pretty much comes down to this: teams looking for outside linebackers are in luck, but those looking for inside linebackers, well, good luck finding one.

The top prospect here is Texas A&M's Von Miller, and there is some opinion that he might be the safest pick for teams in the top part of the first round. Miller (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) began his college career as a defensive end before being moved to what the Aggies call their Joker position, and he recorded 27.5 sacks over his final two seasons there.

There are no inside linebacker prospects who are considered first-round worthy, and so the other guys to come off the board on April 28 figure to be outside linebackers/pass-rush specialists.

These include Missouri's Aldon Smith, UCLA's Akeem Ayers, Georgia's Justin Houston, and possibly a guy like Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, who is being considered a defensive end by some teams and an outside linebacker by others.

Smith (6-4, 265) had his most productive season in 2009 when he finished with 19 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks and five passes batted down. His 2010 season was marred by a broken fibula that caused him to miss three games, and his statistics fell to 10 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and an interception.

Ayers (6-3, 254) had 10 sacks and four interceptions over his final two college seasons, and opinions on him vary greatly. Maybe that's because Ayers isn't outstanding in any one area of playing the position but rather more of a diversified guy who was able to stay on the field at UCLA regardless of the opponent or situation. Or maybe it's because he reminds scouts of Bruce Davis, another former UCLA player who put together some nice sack statistics in college but who was a bust in the NFL.

Houston (6-3, 270) missed two games in 2009 for violating team rules, and he finished with 7.5 sacks. In 2010 he had 18.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in 13 starts, but the question surrounding him is whether he has the athletic ability to play in space the way 3-4 outside linebackers are required to do in the NFL.

Kerrigan (6-4, 265) is a dream-come-true for teams that like to make picks based on college production. In 2010, Kerrigan had 26 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks and 5 forced fumbles. An academic All-American as well, Kerrigan had at least one sack in nine of 12 games, and one tackle for loss in 11 of the 12 games.

The best of the inside linebackers is Illinois' Martez Wilson (6-4, 250) and if he manages to squeeze into the first round it'll be because he ran a 4.46 at the Combine. A team captain in 2010, Wilson missed the 2009 season with a herniated disc in his neck, and he has been judged as a player whose instincts for the game doesn't necessarily match his physical abilities.

Other interesting prospects include Michigan State's Greg Jones and North Carolina's Quan Sturdivant at inside linebacker, and Texas' Sam Acho and Marshall's Mario Harvey at outside linebacker.

Acho (6-2, 260) played defensive end in college, and he was honored for his play on the field as well as his work in the classroom and in the community. Jones (6-0, 240) led Michigan State in tackles in all four of his seasons there. Sturdivant (6-1, 240) played both inside and outside for the Tar Heels, but he missed five games in 2010 with a hamstring injury. Harvey (6-0, 247) was Marshall's best defensive player during his time there, and he made a lot of plays, a lot of tackles.

THE 2010 NFL DRAFT, LB STATISTICS
Number drafted: Inside: 11. Outside: 23.
Picks by round: Inside: 1 in the first; 2 in the second; 1 in the third; 3 in the fourth; 0 in the fifth; 1 in the sixth; 3 in the seventh. Outside: 1 in the first; 5 in the second; 2 in the third; 6 in the fourth; 2 in the fifth; 2 in the sixth; 5 in the seventh.
Highest pick: Inside: Rolando McClain, Alabama, Round 1, 8th overall, by Oakland. Outside: Sean Weatherspoon, Missouri, Round 1, 19th overall, by Atlanta.
Biggest impact: Inside: Rolando McClain, Alabama, Round 1, 8th overall, started 15 games for Oakland and finished third on the team with 85 tackles. Outside: Koa Misi, Utah, Round 2, 40th overall, played in all 16 games, with 11 starts and finished with 4.5 sacks for the Miami Dolphins.

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