This is the sixth of an eight-part series previewing the NFL Draft on May 8-10. Today’s installment: Linebackers.
By Jay Skurski //
NEWS SPORTS REPORTER
Versatility is the key word for linebackers at the top of the 2014 NFL Draft.
The ability to rush the passer, defend the run and cover tight ends is a valuable commodity, which helps explain why the University at Buffalo’s Khalil Mack is likely to be chosen in the top five next month at Radio City Music Hall.
“I don’t want to limit myself to just playing one specific thing. I feel like that’s the biggest thing for me,” Mack said. “I work out with the defensive ends, I work out with the linebackers, I also go over and work out with the defensive backs, just to stay fresh.”
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said Mack has the ability to play either strong- or weak-side linebacker in a 4-3 scheme.
“I think the important thing is that if you are drafting him as a 4-3 team, you have to make sure that in nickel and sub situations, you’re freeing him up to go get the quarterback.”
Mack can truly do it all, which can’t be said of every linebacker in the class. More often, a player excels in one area – like rushing the passer – but is a liability against the run or in coverage.
True “three-down” linebackers are not always easy to find. The Buffalo Bills hit a home run in the second round of the draft last season when they selected Oregon’s Kiko Alonso, who went on to play every defensive snap as a rookie.
Mayock feels like he may have identified an Alonso in this year’s class: Wisconsin’s Chris Borland.
“Borland is one of my two or three favorite players this draft, and the way I came on him was funny. I was getting ready to do a Notre Dame game and ... the tape I happened to put in was Wisconsin and I was like, ‘this 44 is everywhere.’ I was kind of hooked on him early, and every tape I’ve seen since then reinforces that he could have the ability to be the Kiko Alonso of this year’s group,” Mayock said. “I think he’s probably going to go in the second round. He’s going to start for whatever team takes him and as long as he stays healthy, he’s just going to keep making plays. The kid makes plays. He’s around the football all the time, and I love watching him play football. “
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has a slightly higher opinion of Borland, projecting him as a late-first round pick.
“He’s one of the best pure football players in this draft,” Kiper said.
Alabama’s C.J. Mosley, who made a pre-draft visit to the Bills on Thursday, is another player likely to be taken in the first round next month. Mosley has top-notch instincts and recorded more than 100 tackles in each of the past two seasons.
“He’s a guy who’s got pretty good coverage,” Kiper said. “Doesn’t have great hands for the interception, but he’s a good cover guy. I just wish his hands were a little better. I think he missed some interception opportunities this past year.”
As the value of running backs continues to decrease in the NFL – 2013 marked the first time since the merger in 1970 that a running back wasn’t selected in the first round – the same is true of linebackers to a degree.
“I think it certainly is a case where they have been, I think, phased out a little bit in terms of their importance. It’s not the days where you need that great middle linebacker that could be your run stuffer,” Kiper said. “That’s just not the case any more. You’ve got to be able to cover or pressure the quarterback. That’s the one thing that some of these outside linebackers can do.”
Kiper identified Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier as a player with the versatility to play in either a 3-4 or 4-3 defensive scheme and stay on the field for every down.
“My speed is what I’m known for,” said Shazier, who also made a pre-draft visit to the Bills earlier this month, “but I can also play inside ’backer and do everything they want me to do.”
Shazier, 6-foot-1 and 237 pounds, had a 42-inch vertical jump at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, tops among linebackers. He compares physically to Tampa Bay star Lavonte David, who has 284 tackles, nine sacks and six interceptions in his first two NFL seasons.
The second linebacker to be taken behind Mack is likely to be UCLA’s Anthony Barr – thanks mostly to his abilities as a pass rusher. He’s a converted running back who has spent the past two seasons at outside linebacker and is just tapping into his potential.
“I’m far from a finished product,” said Barr, who registered 23.5 sacks the past two seasons.
The 6-5, 255-pounder estimated he dropped into coverage about 30 percent of the time with the Bruins.
“Not very often, but when I was asked to do it, I thought I did a pretty good job at that,” he said. “I think moving backwards, going back in coverage, was something that was new to me. But now I feel comfortable with that. Just sort of getting used to the position. It’s still sort of new to me in a sense. It’s exciting. If I continue to work, the sky’s the limit.”
BYU’s Kyle Van Noy is a fringe first-round prospect.
“He’s a guy that can hold up in coverage very well and give you a pass rush,” Kiper said. “Now, he missed some opportunities to get some sacks, missed some tackles on quarterbacks that he should have had for sacks. But I think Kyle Van Noy is a very underrated player.”
Georgia Tech’s Jeremiah Attaochu is a native of Nigeria who attended high school outside Washington, D.C. He played his first three collegiate seasons at outside linebacker before switching to defensive end for his senior season after a scheme change.
Attaochu’s 31.5 career sacks are a school record and the most in the ACC since 2005. He’s got the type of athletic ability that could lead to him being an unexpected first-round choice.
Utah’s Trevor Reilly is entering the NFL at 26 after serving a two-year Mormon mission before entering college. His advanced age may drop him down a round, but Reilly was highly productive in 2013, with 100 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks. He played every linebacker position in college.
Day three candidates with good coverage ability, according to Kiper, include Penn State’s Glenn Carson and South Florida’s DeDe Lattimore.
Next: Defensive linemen