This is the fourth of an eight-part series previewing the NFL Draft on April 25-27. Today’s installment: linebackers.
By Jay Skurski
NEWS SPORTS REPORTER
With the increasing reliance on spread formations and the utilization of tight ends who can be size and speed mismatches, the qualities sought in today’s NFL linebacker have changed.
“When you’re looking at linebackers, you want a guy who can run and cover and can match up against a slot or a tight end,” Bills General Manager Buddy Nix said earlier this year at the Senior Bowl. “See if that guy’s got enough mobility in space to cover.”
When assessing the available players who fit that mold in the 2013 NFL Draft, the list starts with Kansas State’s Arthur Brown. The much-hyped high school recruit started his career at Miami (Fla.), but transferred home. In two years with the Wildcats, Brown racked up 201 tackles, including 16.5 for loss. The 6-foot, 241-pounder has been timed between 4.55 and 4.65 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He’s got good instincts. It’s questionable as to whether Brown will be available when the Buffalo Bills make their second-round selection.
“He can run. He’s a playmaker. I like him a lot,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock.
Another linebacker noted for his coverage skills includes Rutgers’ Khaseem Greene, a 6-1, 241-pounder.
“He’s in kind of that Lavonte David type of mold,” said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said of Greene, referring to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ linebacker.
Kiper continued: “Zaviar Gooden from Missouri can fly around the field, one of the fastest outside linebackers in this draft. Jelani Jenkins from Florida is another kid. Sean Porter from Texas A&M, I think, showed the ability to get after the quarterback and play in reverse … playing in two different during his career.
“So those are some of the cover guys I think can help you. Taylor Reed from SMU is another one who’s a late rounder, priority free agent.”
If it’s pass rushers teams are after from the outside linebacker position, the list starts with Oregon’s Dion Jordan. The 6-foot-6, 248-pounder had only five sacks for the Ducks last year, but was often asked to drop into coverage.
“His fluidity and range in coverage are rare for a DE/OLB prospect with his length,” wrote ESPN’s Todd McShay in his latest mock draft, which projects Jordan going second overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars. “He wouldn’t be a great fit in many 4-3 defenses, but his ability to get after the passer when turned loose upfield, as well as drop into coverage from a two- or three-point stance, is ideal for the scheme new head coach Gus Bradley and defensive coordinator Bob Babich are bringing to town.”
LSU’s Barkevious Mingo and Georgia’s Jarvis Jones are two more outside ‘backers who are likely to go in the top half of the first round. Jones, 6-2 and 245, led the nation with sacks with 14.5 and tackles for loss with 24.5. He ran a disappointing 4.92 seconds in his 40-yard dash at Georgia’s pro day.
“I’m a football player,” he told the Associated Press after the workout. “It’s about football, right? I’m a football player. That’s what I do. At the end of the day, you get those drills – I’m not saying they ain’t worth nothing – but you get those drills, running the 40 and all that stuff. You could get someone off the street who can run a 4.3, but they can’t play football. That’s easy.”
While Jones will be drafted high based on production, Mingo will go early based on potential. He had only 4.5 sacks last season for the Tigers, but the 6-4, 241-pounder has 4.58 speed. He’s got a long wing span and might have the best first step of any pass rusher in this draft class.
The crop of inside linebackers leads with Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o. He’s projected to go somewhere in the bottom half of the first round, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him fall into the second.
“He should have a very good career. Whether it’ll be great or not obviously is debatable. But he’ll have a good career,” Kiper said.
Te’o has competition to be the top inside ‘backer taken.
Georgia’s Alec Ogletree is a converted safety who has 4.68 speed at 6-3, 242 pounds. He was arrested for DUI shortly before the combine in February.
“I’m scared to death about Ogletree, both for on- and off-the-field issues. When you put the tape on, he has not clue what he’s doing,” Mayock said. He looks like a safety that somebody plugged inside at inside linebacker.
He’s going to go in the first round. Some of the Cover-2 teams will love him because he can run down the middle of the field like a safety. If you can train him, and he loves the game, and he has a work ethic, all of which are question marks right now, the kid can be special. But I’m very hesitant about this kid. I recognize his athletic ability. I know he fits today’s NFL.”
LSU’s Kevin Minter is right with Te’o and Ogletree as potential first-round picks at inside linebacker.
Sio Moore of Connecticut ran 4.65 seconds at the combine and did 29 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press. He’s got the versatility to play either weak- or strong-side ‘backer. He’s a little light at 245 pounds, but would be a steal for teams if he slipped to the third round.
Other day three candidates include: Oregon’s Kiko Alonso, Florida’s Jon Bostic, Alabama’s Nico Johnson, Southern Mississippi’s Jamie Collins and Auburn’s Corey Lemonier. Alonso plays with an aggressive style that would seem to fit with new Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s approach. He’s got good coverage skills. Collins, who has visited the Bills, had a 41.5-inch vertical at the combine. He had big production over his final two seasons with Golden Eagles, including 10 sacks in 2012.
Next: Defensive backs.