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Bullough Vs. Smallwood: Who's The Better ILB Prospect?

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Photo by Mark Cunningham/Getty Images.
Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images.

Michigan State's Max Bullough and Connecticut's Yawin Smallwood were productive if not flashy players during their college careers. In a league that demands athletic prowess, both of these players will fall short of the measurables that turn a scout's head. They make up for it with grit, instincts and toughness, traits that every great linebacker must possess, and the type of characteristics that will help put these players in a position to become NFL starters.

Each of these prospects has tools to become successful at the next level, but who is the better selection come draft day?

Max Bullough, Michigan State

Bullough is a 6-foot-3, 249-pound classic middle linebacker. He is from a football family and has the instincts to command a defense and check his unit into the best call. He is throwback the type of player who will be more productive than flashy. Bullough has been a stalwart for the Spartans the past three seasons and was the team captain in 2013. He has average speed, but his diagnosing of plays makes him look faster than his forty time. He reads keys and zeroes in on the ball quickly, beating blockers to the point of attack. He can play high at times when taking on linemen, losing leverage and getting pushed out of his gap. 

Bullough has a good sense of play-action pass and rarely is caught out of position. He displays good awareness in the underneath zone and can make up for his average athletic ability with good breaks on receiving threats. 

He is a good sideline to sideline defender that takes appropriate angles to the football, though he is a bit of a liability in the open field as a tackler versus quicker backs. Bullough's instincts must supersede his athletic ability to be a three-down linebacker in the NFL. Overall, Bullough posses the knowledge, toughness and ability to be a Mike backer in the 4-3, as well as the versatility to play inside in a 3-4 scheme given his football acumen.

Yawin Smallwood, UConn

Smallwood declared early for the draft after serving as a three-year starter for the Huskies. At 6’-2, 246, Smallwood is another meat and potatoes player that shows his blue collar attitude on game day. He plays faster than his 40 times indicate, thanks to his solid instincts.

He shows good functional strength to take on blockers and tackle bigger backs at the line of scrimmage. When taking on blockers, Smallwood shows a good punch to gain leverage. Smallwood plays within the defense and fits properly into his gap responsibilities. Against outside runs, he naturally flows over the top while keeping shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. Smallwood plays with control, not running himself out of plays or getting out of balance.

He shows fluid hips to turn and run to gain depth in zone coverage. His biggest flaw may be he is not a physically or athletically dominant as linebacker. He lacks significant closing speed in the open field and doesn’t show any burst to clear away from blocks. Smallwood misses a lot of tackles for a linebacker, playing too high and not wrapping up properly on contact.

Smallwood may best fit in as a Mike LB in a 4-3 defense, but his inability to make plays off of big blockers may make him a liability in a 3-4 scheme.

Who is the better selection?

Both prospects appear to be mid-round selections at best. They both can provide value and production for a team with the right fit. Bullough has the instincts, moxie and toughness to thrive as a player in any defense. He may be a bit more athletic than Smallwood and was more productive in leading what some have qualified as the best defense in the country in 2013. Smallwood is solid prospect who may only be a two-down linebacker, given his average measurables and athleticism. In the right situation Smallwood has the blue collar mentality to carve out a niche in the NFL, but if you are looking for a quality starter and a no-nonsense leader, Bullough may give you that, and more.