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2014 NFL Draft: Linebacker

By: Robert Davis

Linebackers do not always carry a premium grade, but in two of the last three years, there has been one selected within the top three selections. This year could continue that trend.

UCLA's Anthony Barr is one of the elite players available for the 2014 NFL Draft. He is the prototype at the outside linebacker position, possession all the physical tools necessary to be a game changer at the position. He is a tall and rangy athlete, with tremendous burst and closing speed. Barr began his college career at running back but also spent time as an H-Back before shifting over to defense as a junior. He became one of the most feared edge rushers in college football immediately, and would have been a first rounder in last year's draft had he declared. His speed off the edge is phenomenal, but his agility and quickness are equally as impressive. He can drop into coverage and chase plays down from behind as well. His long arms allow him to keep blockers from getting into his pads, and as he continues to fill out, he should be great at the point of attack. Barr has the skills to land in the top five, and could play in any defense.

OLB RANKINGS
  1. Khalil Mack, Buffalo
  2. Anthony Barr, UCLA
  3. Ryan Shazier, Ohio St.
  4. Kyle Van Noy, BYU
  5. Christian Jones, Florida St.
  6. Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech
  7. Telvin Smith, Florida St.
  8. Trevor Reilly, Utah
  9. Jordan Tripp, Montana
  10. Carl Bradford, Arizona St.

CJ Moseley is the latest Alabama linebacker to be a coveted draft prospects. He has the skills and instincts to play inside or outside, so there will be a lot of teams interested in taking him come draft day. Moseley is a good athlete, showing the ability to change direction well, long with the speed to close on the ball carrier to make the play. He can play sideline to sideline, drop into coverage, and also has the speed to blitz and get to the quarterback. He is quick to diagnose the action which combined with his athleticism and speed, allow him to be around the action on every play. Those instincts, his versatility, and his leadership skills should allow him to become a defensive leader at the next level. The only obvious knock on Moseley's game is his lack of ideal bulk, which gives him trouble shedding blocks. He may profile as a weakside linebacker for most teams because he can be erased from the play when blocked. Moseley should be in demand on draft day, and should hear his name called in the first round at some point.

Buffalo's Khalil Mack could be as big of a household name as Anthony Barr had he gone to a bigger school. He is a tremendous physical specimen, with all the tools the NFL covets. He is the complete package. He can impact the game as a pass rusher, run stopper, and in coverage. Mack could be a terror off the edge at the next level. He relentlessly attacks the football and uses his tremendous athleticism, speed, and power to run by linemen and overpower backs and tight ends. He is a very fluid athlete and has a closing burst usually seen in the secondary. Not only does that allow him to pressure the quarterback, but he gets into the backfield to bring down ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage as well. Mack's natural athleticism and speed allow him to drop into coverage, which will make him an option for 4-3 defenses as well. He could be one of the more impressive players at the combine with his blend of natural gifts and could surprise some in how high he goes on draft day.

Clemson junior Vic Beasley has emerged as arguably the premier pass rusher at the college level this season. He's in the mold of a Bruce Irvin or Dwight Freeney: he doesn't do much else but rush the passer, but he's so good at it, you can live with his shortcomings. Beasley has a fantastic burst off the snap, making it hard for tackles to stay in front of him. He couples that initial burst with surprising power in his hands, giving him the ability to prevent blockers from squaring up on him. Once he gets a step, he uses his tremendous closing speed to disrupt the play. He really is a special pass rusher. Beasley does need to work on the rest of his game though. He is only 6'2 235, so he will be playing linebacker in the NFL. When blockers do get their hands on him, he's taken completely out of the game. He's so aggressive attacking the QB, he can overrun the action. Beasley has the physical tools to develop his game, and he has another year to develop the rest of his game. But NFL teams covet pass rushers, and he could be a very, very good one in the NFL. That type of ability could get him taken in the first round this year should he declare.

While Barr and Mack look like the ideal fits as 3-4 outside linebackers, Ohio State's Ryan Shazier is also a prototype for a 4-3 weakside linebacker. Shazier is a bit on the light side at 6'2 225, but he has a radar for the football and wastes no time getting there. He reads the action quickly, and attacks the ball. Shazier is a great natural athlete, with great change of direction ability and closing speed. He can run sideline to sideline with ease, and makes plays all over the field. While he does struggle at the point of attack and has trouble shedding blocks, he does play bigger than his size indicates. His aggressiveness and speed lead to some violent hits when he meets the ball carrier. Offensive players know he will deliver a hit when he makes a tackle. The lack of bulk is a bit concerning, but for teams needing speed and playmaking ability in an outside linebacker, Shazier would be a tremendous fit.

Devon Kennard has finally found a home at outside linebacker for USC. He began his career as a 4-3 defensive end, then moved inside as a mike man in a 4-3. He's now playing his ideal position, OLB in USC's 5-2 defense, which is essentially a 3-4 alignment. Kennard played well at his old positions, but has taken off this year. He has ideal size for the linebacker position at 6'3 250lbs, and is physical. He can take on blocks and shed, and stop the run. He can switch from power to speed well as a pass rusher. His athleticism and size allow him to match up well in coverage on tight ends. He's at his best attacking the line of scrimmage. He's become a consistent source of pressure as a pass rusher, but can also defend the run. The experience at different positions and football intelligence should allow him to fit in any defense. He can rush the passer in a 3-4 defense, but he could also be a solid strong side linebacker in a 4-3. He may not possess game breaking closing speed, but he's the type of player that can be a ten year starter as a second rounder.

BYU's Kyle Van Noy has been one of the biggest playmakers from the linebacker position over his career. He does an excellent job of reading and attacking plays in front of him. He is quick and has good closing speed to get into the backfield to make plays as a pass rusher and run stopper. There may be a little doubt about where Van Noy fits best. He has the instincts to make plays in zone coverage, but may lack the change of direction ability to play man consistently, which could limit him in a 4-3 defense. As a 3-4 defender, he lacks the strength at the point of attack to consistently shed blocks and make plays. If a team can find a way to let Van Noy be aggressive and attack the action in front of him, his playmaking ability could transfer over as an impact defender in the NFL.

ILB RANKINGS
  1. CJ Moseley, Alabama
  2. Chris Borland, Wisconsin
  3. Yawin Smallwood, UConn
  4. Shayne Skov, Stanford
  5. Lamin Barrow, LSU
  6. Andrew Jackson, Western Kentucky
  7. Preston Brown, Louisville
  8. Max Bullough, Michigan St.
  9. Avery Williamson, Kentucky
  10. Dede Lattimore, South Florida

Florida State's Christian Jones is one of the more physically gifted linebackers available this year. He is an explosive athlete, with sideline to sideline range and closing speed. He's got a great frame at 6'3 235, and he is physical. He's versatile, with experience inside and out in a 4-3 defense, along with possessing the athleticism to do anything he wants on the field. The problem with Jones is, he doesn't always play up to his physical gifts. Despite his size and natural athleticism, he doesn't always match up well in pass coverage. He is strong, physical, and has long arms, but doesn't always shed blocks well. Jones has the tools to fit in any defense and provides versatility. He may be the type of player that is a better pro than college player, or maybe he just needs to the right coach to tap into his immense potential. He's a solid player, but has the skills to be great. He probably lands somewhere on day two this year, but has much more potential than that.

Shayne Skov of Stanford isn't going to blow anyone away with his foot speed, but he is a throwback linebacker. He is extremely aggressive and physical, thriving on the action between the tackles. He is relentless attacking plays in front of him, making him a force against the run. He can sift through the traffic and meet ball carriers in the hole. He's so quick to attack, he can shoot gaps and get into the backfield to disrupt the play before it gets started. Skov is limited though, as he won't provide much dropping back into coverage. He lacks the change of direction ability and closing speed to match up down the field. He appears to get better every week after an ACL injury two years ago, so maybe there is some rust still left to shake off. His upside is limited because there isn't much big play ability, but he is a physical, run stopping linebacker that can definitely play a role at the next level.

Linebackers to watch: Yawin Smallwood(UConn), Lamin Barrow(LSU), Adrien Hubbard(Alabama), Jeremiah Attaochu(Georgia Tech), and Max Bullough(Michigan St.).

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