Perhaps the best linebacker-specific quote I’ve ever heard came from Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher:
I always say this: running backs and linebackers are very easy to recruit. When you hand them the ball and watch them, and you have to tell him where to run and what's going on, he's not a running back. If he's a linebacker and he's standing around the pile, he's not a linebacker. If he's at the bottom of the pile, he's a linebacker.”
I think that pretty much covers it. I want the guys who you find at the bottom of pile after pile. They generally have that only-slightly-controlled insanity that a top LB, particularly a middle linebacker, tends to carry, and finding them at the bottom of the pile tends to mean that they either made or helped make the tackle, or they've stolen the ball.
It’s official - according to the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective, there is no correlation between Combine tests or drills and success in the NFL. This is not news to me. The drills give me a chance to look at postures - how do they set their feet? Do they drop their hips easily on the backpedal? Smoothness? Power? The tests - the 40, three-cone and so forth - can confirm what you see on film, and they can sometimes give a marginal player’s scouts a reason to review his film, but they don’t prove much about future success. I list them for what they do or do not confirm, not what they predict.
I’ve said this before, but with John Fox’s strong feelings on smaller, faster LBs, DC Jack Del Rio’s personal experience, and linebacker coach Richard Smith’s intense knowledge, Denver is in a better place to analyze linebackers and understand exactly how they’ll fit into the Broncos scheme than probably at any time in Denver’s history. Looking over the candidates this year, though, there aren’t all that many that seem to fit the mold that I’m looking at, and the re-signing of both Wesley Woodyard and Joe Mays tells me the team may feel similarly. Either I’m missing something on which kinds of players they’d consider, or the pickings are slimmer this year. Let’s see who’s out there:
First, there’s Luke Kuechly, whom Denver has little chance at unless they trade with Jacksonville (and no, I’m not suggesting that they will). He’s going to go in the top 15, and could even be in the top 10. Kuechly is a rarity, an NFL-ready MLB/ILB with speed, intellect, a desire to hit, and the ability to cover. He’s got the intellect of James Laurinaitis (and reminds me of him in some ways) and produced a remarkable 181 tackles last year for Boston College. Surprisingly, his weakness is rushing the middle and producing thumping tackles there - many of his tackles came 5-8 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and that’s an issue that many Broncos fans already have with D.J. Williams’s drag tackling. However, Luke produced 12 tackles for loss last year. At the NFL level he’s likely a technically talented field general who covers sideline to sideline and drops back well.
Additionally, Dan Pompei reported that he interviewed as well as he’s played:
Luke Kuechly, Boston College LB. His interviews confirmed he is the complete package, impressing numerous teams. One praised him for his leadership. Another said he was smart, well spoken and had an all-American type personality.
California's Mychal Kendricks is someone I’ve already talked about, so I’ll keep this somewhat brief. At 5’11” 240 lb, with a 4.47-second forty, he’s of the smaller, faster mold that Fox is said to covet. He also led the LBs in the vertical leap at 39.5 inches, the broad jump at a remarkable 127 inches, and the 20-yard shuttle with a time of 4.19. As you’d expect after that, he is extremely athletic and has played both inside and out in the past, so he’s also very scheme flexible. At just over 5’11”, Mychal is shorter than your average linebacker, but it hasn’t affected his play so far. Kendricks probably projects as an MLB/ILB at the NFL level, but he can also play Will. He keeps his head up, always looking for the ball.
Kendricks has had a couple of violations of team policy that he’ll have to explain. Once on the field, though, he’s a high-motor player whose biggest weakness is a need to develop his lower body power and to anchor better. However, he still plays pretty well against both the run and the pass and scored on two INTs last year. He also won the Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year award for 2011 and had 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss in 2010. The ability to drop into coverage or rush the passer is relatively rare.
Zach Brown out of North Carolina was the second-fastest linebacker at the Combine, just behind Kendricks with an average time of 4.50. How fast is he in a straight line? He set the school record in the indoor 60-meter dash for North Carolina with a 6.72 time in 2009. He plays every hundredth of a second fast in pads, too, which Kendricks doesn’t always achieve. Brown’s physical gifts scream ‘Potential!” but he sometimes shows a lack of effort on the field, knowing that his speed can make up for his lapses. That won’t be true in the NFL, so it’s up to Brown to convince the NFL teams that his occasional lapses are far outweighed by his gifts and his willingness to work on developing them.
He’s got a gift for disengaging from offensive blockers and is very quick to react to the play and attack the ball carrier. He tends to use his 33-plus-inch arms to wrestle ball carriers down rather than wrapping up - he needs work on his fundamentals. He’s also vulnerable to overpursuing, probably due to that blazing speed. This isn’t to say that he’s not a heck of a talent - he is. He’s a strong talent with a ton of upside, as they like to say, but he’s also got some weaknesses that will probably have to be exposed to be overcome. He looks a bit raw, with the potential to be developed into a top player. He’s got very fluid hips and excels in coverage. At the college level, he’s been covering TEs by constantly being in their hip pocket, and he’s got the speed to cover WRs.
The areas where his development still lags are pass rushing, tackling, reading some plays and, surprisingly, lateral movement. He’s faster than a leopard in a straight line, but he doesn’t have top-flight lateral agility. His tackling doesn’t have a lot of pop to it. He has a reputation for being fooled by play action, but his speed often makes up for that. He does keep his head on a swivel well and reads the QB’s eyes. He can usually get back into a play using his speed.
Brown is probably a weakside linebacker at the NFL level, and may need to add bulk (and certainly strength) to handle those responsibilities, but he’s still developing, and he’s going to be limited only by the level of commitment to effort that he puts out. He’s also very talented in coverage due to that speed - if he can learn to jam receivers as well as flip his hips, he could reprise his three-INT year of 2011 when he makes it to the NFL. I doubt that he’ll last past the early second round, and he could go sooner.
Nebraska's Lavonte David is quite a player and fits into Fox’s schematic theories - he’s fast, with a 4.65 40 that doesn’t really describe how he plays on the field. He’s got an explosive first step and a nice short burst. Equally importantly, he’s highly athletic, with a 36-inch vertical and a 4.22-second short shuttle to prove it. More importantly still, he proves it on the field.
I saw Nebraska three or four times this year, and David looked like a prospect worth considering each time. I’ve read several times about how he overcomes his size limitations on the field, but that’s misleading. He’s 6’1 and was at 225, but he has bulked up to 233 lb - right about Mike Singletary’s playing size and weight. They once talked about what Singletary needed to overcome, but with his attitude right, David could do very much what Mike did. His level of effort is commonly Herculean; he has the intellect to be a MLB in the league. A huge part of being a Mike is football intellect, and David seems to have that without question.
Another part is having the attitude that implies that no one can stop you. Lavonte makes the big play consistently and he clearly has the drive to find and stop the football. He reads plays very well and shows superb football instincts. I could see him as a Will or a Mike if he goes to a 4-3 base formation team (as he’s expected to do). Several people commented that they saw him as a nickel linebacker at the NFL level, but he’s had 285 tackles just in the last two years, and that kind of production will get him either drafted (highly likely, and probably in the upper rounds) or taken as a UDFA (not so much).
However - for those who see him at Mike, the fact that he was a community college transfer who’s struggled with grades could be a red flag. Intellect and football intellect aren’t always the same thing, but they overlap quite a bit. Still, tackling production is the name of the game. David also has a skill at stripping the football, even away from tight ends, and that might also help him to earn starters’ minutes.
David may even be a better coverage player than the explosive Zach Brown - in fact, both he and the next LB we’ll cover are both extremely skilled in coverage. That isn’t taking anything away from Brown, but it’s a welcome comment on this LB draft class. These smaller guys aren’t just faster - they’re also better in coverage than any group I recall offhand.
Sean Spence out of Miami isn’t as speedy as some, running his forties at an average time of 4.71 seconds. However - as we all know, running in shorts in a straight line isn’t always the same as running in pads and taking good angles. Spence may be the best overall Will linebacker option in the draft. His 12 reps on the bench press may scare some folks off, but even though he’s 5’11” and 231 lb, he’s an instinctive player who delights in stuffing the run and is incredibly effective in coverage. Also a potential nickel backer, Spence has covered tight ends effortlessly, and his skills in coverage liken him to Wesley Woodyard.
As much as I like Woodyard, Spence has the makings of an even better linebacker. He’s heavier, can be trained to be as strong or stronger, is faster on the field, tackles just as well (again, that’s in college and it’s also an area where he, like Wesley, could improve at times), and is better in coverage on both WRs and TEs, at least at the college level. Making the leap to covering NFL TEs is a different experience entirely, but the fact that he has done so well and that the TE is becoming the ‘new’ weapon (although Sid Gillman was using them in much the same way back in the 1950s) will attract teams to Spence.
Although he was suspended due to the Nevin Shapiro booster scandal at Miami, I’ve never heard anyone suggest that he has character issues. He’s a very hard worker, and if his Combine wasn’t spectacular, it showed a consistent level of athletic talent and, certainly, a need for development as a pro, which is true in degree of all of them. The specific scheme he’s chosen for will have a large effect on how well he does in the NFL, and the level of commitment to player development of his eventual team is also going to be key. Spence is a classic mid-round player whose value should outweigh his draft status. I’d expect him to be a special teams talent, given the angles that he takes and his speed in pads. I saw him in only two games, but you could see his level of skill easily - he stood out.
The first thing I noticed was his quickness at reading the play and getting himself in the proper position, playing his gap with discipline. He has great instincts and was rarely caught by the play. He reads the QB well and his pass rushing is excellent for his level - he has very good swim and spin moves and uses his smaller size to his advantage, forcing OTs to try and get low enough to stop him. Again - how he’s used will dictate how successful he is in adding sacks, hits and hurries. He will have to learn to redirect receivers at the line - he’s more of a mirroring cover man, and while he’s surprisingly fast and effective there, learning to press is the only way to really stop a timing route. He doesn’t have the fluidity in his hips to move to safety, but with proper upper body development, he’s an excellent ST/Will/nickel player. The fans who want a draft pick to walk onto the field and be game-ready his first year will probably be disappointed. Those who don’t mind letting young talent develop should be well rewarded.
As far as his issues in tackling, they’re just a matter of fundamentals. He gets to the ball carrier so quickly that he tends to lunge on the tackle at times. ESPN disease is a terrible thing - it leads to some massive hits on his tackles, and some very ugly whiffs. Until high school teams get serious about preventing injury by focusing on proper tackling fundamentals, and the colleges can be counted on to continue that focus, we’re going to see a lot of missed tackles in the pros. Body blocks aren’t tackling. Spence has shorter arms and has to get stronger to wrap up better. He will probably struggle at times with the sheer height of the NFL's tight ends - at 5’11” and with a vertical leap of 33 inches, many QBs will just throw over him to a 6’5” guy and trust the TE to get the jump ball. However, Spence also has great lateral quickness, and he can get himself into the way of the route. As he gets stronger, he’ll be able to be more effective.
By the way, despite his projection as a Will at the NFL level, Spence has been playing strongside LB for Miami. That alone tells you something about his innate toughness.
I think that Combine week ended the conversation on ASU's Vontaze Burfict being a high pick. After it surfaced that one of his teammates was feeding him calls during his junior year, and when Burfict became very ordinary once that player was injured, I wasn’t interested. The on-field problems were one thing. The refusal to listen to his coaches another. Then his teammate confirmed the issue with playcalls. At Combine, he went out to top his trifecta of foolishness - he blamed a teammate for being too physical with him during a non-contact drill, which is slightly odd for a Mike anyway, and then Burfict escalated an argument by throwing punches. He still blamed the teammate for it. He tried to throw his coaches under a bus by claiming that his lack of performance was their fault. He’s academically ineligible to return to school next year, which calls into a stronger light the story of his teammate feeding him calls, and then he ran his forties in 5.09, a mark that several of the defensive tackles and offensive linemen surpassed.
Someone might still take him. Maybe Mike Shanahan will believe he can fix him, I don’t know. He tried with Maurice Clarett and Travis Henry, but they were RBs. Shanny doesn’t do D.
Those five are the best options that I could find, bearing the Broncos' scheme and well-known preferences in mind. Of them, Brown, David and Spence have the best coverage skills, although all five have some talent there. Jack Del Rio might change the criteria somewhat - we’ll wait and see. Working off of what I know right now, though, these are the players who seem that they’d look best in Broncos orange.
One player who didn’t make it to Combine for the simple reason that he’ll be coming out next year is Kevin Reddick, a teammate of Zach Brown’s and perhaps an even better player, if not as blazing fast in a straight line. He’s an OLB out of North Carolina who toyed with leaving school, so I took a look at him.
He’s someone to keep an eye on - only slightly undersized at 6’2” and 240 lb, but powerful, speedy and aggressive, he’s a run stuffer who can also drop into coverage. I plan to watch a few extra UNC games next year to make sure that I get a firm grasp on the guy - he looks like he can be a three-down Will, with the potential to move inside. He’s got that MLB aggression, and with his coverage skills he’s quite a potential option. The question will be if he can stand up to NFL pounding, and that won’t be known until he plays there. His run tackling suggests that he will. He’s someone that will be worth watching over the 2012 season.