Draft Notes: LB superlatives and rankings

Happy Friday, friends.  With Doc continuing to work through the offensive and defensive line prospects for the 2013 Draft, today I’m skipping forward to the linebacker group.  I spent some time thinking about how I wanted to do this, and what I decided is that I’m only looking at players who fill a traditional linebacker’s role. 

That is, I’m leaving the edge rush guys who may play in 3-4 schemes to Doc.  I’m interested in all inside linebackers, and also outside linebackers who are more coverage players than pass rushers.  The way that some 4-3 defenses now play a lot like 3-4s, and a few 3-4s play like 4-3s, I’ve come to believe that it’s better to call a linebacker a linebacker, and an edge rusher an edge rusher.  The distinction between whether an edge rusher is a DE or an OLB is increasingly narrow and irrelevant.

As a side note, on my way into work today, I was thinking about how schemes in the NFL seem to be getting more simplified and homogenized.  There are really only about four different offensive schemes, and probably three different defensive schemes being used, if you think about them at a high level.  The level I’m referring to breaks on differences in staffing requirements.

Wade Phillips runs a 3-4 defense for the Texans, for example, but it’s a one-gap 3-4, and defensive linemen in that scheme can play in one-gap 4-3 systems, and vice-versa.  The Broncos run a mostly two-gap 4-3, and they can get big guys from two-gap 3-4 teams to play in their defensive line.

When it comes to linebackers, there are really only two kinds.  You have the big, downhill thumper types, who are asked to take on blocks and fill gaps.  These are traditionally favored by 3-4 teams, but not always.  To give you an example, Bill Parcells called Nate Irving (a downhill thumper type) a first-round talent a couple years ago on an ESPN special.  Irving, of course, was drafted by the Broncos, who nominally play a 4-3.

The other kind of linebacker is a run-and-hit flow player.  Think Wesley Woodyard, or more historically, Derrick Brooks.  These guys have primarily been favored by 4-3 teams, but now, you see some 3-4 teams like Houston and San Francisco using run-and-hit guys like Brian Cushing and Navorro Bowman as inside linebackers.

Part of the point is that we shouldn’t get caught up in the media naming conventions of 3-4 and 4-3 defenses anymore, or think that those names confer upon a defense a uniform set of personnel assumptions.

The larger part of the point is that all schemes are becoming more homogenized and simplified to allow for journeyman role players to come in and out of teams from year to year, and still be able to plug into what the team is trying to do quickly.  This is a byproduct of the new CBA, which has created and exploded a class of Justin Bannans and Ahmad Bradshaws around the NFL – good players who can fit in as starters for many teams, but who aren’t going to get much more than the minimum salary in any year, and who’ll have to play on a series of one-year deals once they get into their late 20s.

Smart teams know that they need to rely on this class of player to fill out several starting roles in any year, so it seems to me that they’ve begun to configure their schemes and positional requirements to accommodate itinerant veterans.  Justin Bannan will look pretty good in May to teams that two-gap, and who need a starter, if those needs aren’t filled in the draft.  He might get $1.2 million for one year at that time, instead of the $940,000 minimum.  I’m sure that’s the kind of scenario he’s waiting for.

Anyway, back to linebackers, who again, fit the two archetypes above.  Some teams like downhill thumpers, some like run-and-hit players, and some like a matched set (it appears the Broncos are one of those teams, with a downhill Mike, and a run-and-hit Will).

Fastest in a Straight Line

Zaviar Gooden, Missouri – Gooden blazed a 4.47 second 40 in Indianapolis, at 6-1, and 234 pounds.  He’s a fast player on the field too, and very much one of the run-and-hit LBs that I discussed before.  I expect him to be most favored as a Will LB by a team that likes to play a lot of Cover 2.

Best Position/Scheme Versatility

Sio Moore, UConn – Moore is fast and strong, and I think he’ll have a good chance to play any linebacker position in a typical 4-3 scheme, and anything but the rush OLB in a 3-4.  I think he’s probably a third- or fourth-rounder, but Moore is going to challenge for playing time on defense, while probably being a Nick Roach-type of key swing backup, and special teams contributor.

Most Explosive Tackler

Vince Williams, Florida State – Williams is a downhill thumper, and while he’s probably only a two-down MLB, he can be excellent in schemes that are designed to funnel runners inside.  I view Williams as a Joe Mays-type who takes better angles to the ball, and misses fewer tackles.  I think he’ll be a starter in the NFL.

Soundest Inside Run Player

Kevin Minter, LSU – There’s been some rumblings that Minter may go ahead of Manti Te’o, and I could see it happening.  He’s much better at taking on blocks than Te’o is, and he has a fantastic understanding of angles.  He also has relatively light wear and tear, because he only started for one year, after backing up a pretty good player in Kelvin Sheppard.

Overrated, but Still Pretty Good

Manti Te’o, Notre Dame – Playing at Notre Dame has always been a great way to get hype, and with Mike Mayock calling their games on NBC, I think that his (almost universally) positive commentary on Golden Domers tends to inflate their draft stock.  Te’o was a top recruit, and then he was a pretty average player for three years, before getting a bunch of interceptions and hype as a senior.  The interceptions are misleading, because he’s not much more than adequate in coverage.  Further, he struggles to disengage from blocks, as Alabama showed in the National Championship game.  I think Te’o is a second-round talent, who will be limited to teams that like run-and-hit LBs.   I think it’s likely that he’ll be off the field on third downs, too.

The Big-Time Talent

Alec Ogletree, Georgia – Ogletree isn’t the fastest guy, but he has a pretty exceptional combination of recognition skills, quickness, and feel for taking good angles to the ball.  He gets sideline-to-sideline, and sometimes, he looks unstoppable.  What’s interesting about Ogletree is that he played in one of the few 3-4 schemes used at the college level, but I think he’s pretty scheme versatile in the NFL.  If a team is comfortable that Ogletree can stay out of trouble off the field, he’ll be a first-round pick.

Best Nickel LB

Kiko Alonso, Oregon – Alonso is a fast player, and while he may be a little thin for first and second down, I think he’ll make a nice fit in nickel coverage at the NFL level.  He played against the pass a lot at Oregon, where the Ducks had a habit of getting out to big leads early.  I especially think he can help a team that likes to play man-to-man.

Not That Fast on Film

Jon Bostic, Florida – Bostic ran a 4.61-second 40 at the combine, but on film, he’s more of a C-gap-to-C-gap MLB.  He’s nearly as explosive a tackler as Vince Williams, and if he can learn to play as fast as he runs on a track, he may be able to play three downs in the NFL.  For now, though, I view him as a two-down thumper.

Best All-Around Player

Arthur Brown, Kansas State – Brown is an excellent player on film, and he’s the only player that I’m sure is a three-down ILB in this class.  He’s just a little undersized, but his combined ability to play the run and cover downfield remind me of Navorro Bowman, and I think that he’ll be picked in the late first round before it’s all said and done.

My Rankings

  1. Arthur Brown
  2. Alec Ogletree
  3. Kevin Minter
  4. Manti Te’o
  5. Vince Williams
  6. Kevin Reddick, North Carolina
  7. Jon Bostic
  8. Sio Moore
  9. Zaviar Gooden
  10. Kiko Alonso 

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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