If you are in need of a linebacker this year, unfortunately you may leave unhappy as this is not a good year for talent at this position. I have already covered some of the rush OLB guys in the DE section, and those will be the primary ones who will have first round grades. As for true LBs, only two have first round grades in my opinion (with a third on the very fringe). Texas A&M’s Von Miller was someone who I left last year saying ‘prove it to me’ as I felt he was a one trick pony that used nothing but speed on the corner to rush the passer. I think he really proved himself well and showed that he worked hard on improving his overall game. He looked much more comfortable dropping back in coverage and he showed that he has learned how to engage blockers, fight with his hands, and make plays with more than speed. Miller is an extremely clean prospect who will continue to get better as a Pro, and I don’t see him sliding any further past the Cardinals with pick five overall. The next one with a first round grade is UCLA’s Akeem Ayers. I really liked Ayers last season, and once again this year he really stood out. He’s a guy who can fit well as a SLB in a 4-3 or as a rush OLB in a 3-4. He can get after the passer well, but he’s also affective dropping into coverage. I know he had a disappointing combine performance, but he just makes plays when you watch him in games. Because of that I don’t think he makes it out of the first round as someone will realize he’s better than his measurable numbers may indicate. The third LB on the fringe of the first, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see move into the first round when it’s all said and done is Illinois’ Martez Wilson. What may keep Wilson out of the first round are two things: his neck surgery from last year and the fact that he’s not stayed at one position for more than one season. The second issue is not really his problem, as Illinois has changed defensive schemes several times during his tenure. I also think that this somewhat plays well in regards to his value though, as he’s shown the versatility to play several positions. I actually don’t know what Wilson’s best position is at the next level. What I do know is he is extremely fast and athletic, and he has the size to hold up in the middle or the outside. If he does fall into the second round, it won’t be very far.
After these guys, the next level of players will go anywhere from the mid second round onward, and many of them really aren’t guys who I think will be immediate contributors. UNC’s Bruce Carter is probably the next best prospect and will be a solid SLB in the NFL. I think he can be had in the mid to late second round and could start right away. A guy I have liked for several years but really took a large step back this year was Michigan St’s Greg Jones. I think teams attacked his weaknesses this year, and got bodies on him quicker, which he struggled with. I really like Jones’ instincts and ability to diagnose plays and get there quickly. His slow times at the combine and stiffness in the drills mean that his ability to read his keys quickly helps him make up for this lack of athleticism. I think he’s probably best fit inside a 3-4 where he can be covered up a bit or play next to a more athletic inside guy who can help in coverage. Dontay Moch of Nevada is definitely this year’s workout warrior. He absolutely killed the combine, especially considering they had him listed as a defensive lineman. My problem with Moch is not his speed, as he has this in bunches; it’s his ability to change directions quickly. It’s why he played DE in college as he will struggle to cover as a LB. But his speed and explosive power are going to intrigue some team to take him in the second and work with him to hopefully develop an edge rushing terror.
Two underrated guys who I think will be absolute steals are Miami’s Colin McCarthy and LSU’s Kelvin Sheppard. Sheppard is a true MLB and can play in a 3-4 or a 4-3. He’s stout, takes on blocks with power, sheds, and makes plays. He has the size, strength, and short area quickness to play right away and he might be available as late as the third round (which would be a steal). McCarthy is very similar but I think he’s a bit more versatile. He’s plays SLB and MLB, and I’m not sure what his best position will be in the NFL. What I do know is that while my coaching staff figures that out, he will be an absolutely ace on special teams. He’s the type of high effort and high energy guy who at worst will annually be one of the top tacklers on special teams and will be able to provide flexibility in backing up all three LB spots.