Ranking The ILB
It was once the dominion of the game's giants.
Bednarik. Nitschke. Butkus. Huff.
The NFL didn't need to build a statue to honor middle linebackers; the men who played the position looked as if they themselves had been hewn from granite. When you read their names, you hear John Facenda's voice in your head.
Lambert. Singletary. Seau. Lewis.
In today's NFL, as tight ends have become oversized receivers and running backs reduced to a necessary evil in pass-crazed offensive schemes, the middle linebacker position is perceived as a built of an anachronism as well. A Members Only jacket in an UnderArmour world.
That perspective is not likely to change. NFL defenses are playing 3-4 fronts more than ever, even if only as part of a hybrid scheme. Colleges aren't producing middle linebackers of that vintage anymore. You'll see, as you review this list of the top 10 inside linebacker prospects, that there's a shot we could get through two rounds of the NFL Draft with only one ILB off the board. Almost certainly, no more than three will be taken before the start of the third round.
1. C.J. Mosley, Alabama: What does it say that the best middle linebacker prospect in the draft is just as likely to end up playing outside, as a Will backer in a 4-3 front? Mosley might just be the second-best defensive prospect in this draft, behind Jadeveon Clowney. But because he doesn't play the position the way Khalil Mack or Anthony Barr do (translation: he's not primarily a pass rusher), he gets none of the pub that they do. Still, Mosley is about as complete a defensive prospect as there is available. He's a three-down backer who will make plays all over the field. Mosley is a textbook tackler, making the most out of his 6-foot-2, 234-pound frame to take down ballcarriers with technique and force. He is quick and agile, which helps him avoid bigger blockers trying to get their hands on him; those traits, when combined with his instinctiveness, enable him to pursue the ball all across the field. As good as he is against the run (including running QBs), Mosley may be even better in coverage. There is nothing he can't do at the position -- with the one possible exception being an ability to stay on the field. He suffered hip, shoulder and elbow injuries in college, which might suggest that his body can't handle the toll taken on such a physical player. If there's a red flag on Mosley, that's it. Otherwise, he's one of the most talented prospects in this draft (he's my No. 6 prospect overall).
2. Chris Borland, Wisconsin: I'm not sure if he's seen "Midnight In Paris," but I'm guessing Borland would relate to Owen Wilson's character, who spent his life awash in nostalgia, wishing he'd lived at another time. Borland would have fit right in playing middle linebacker in the 1970s. He plays the position the way it used to be played, as a cannonball, pummeling his way through blocking schemes and overmatched ballcarriers. You don't cause 14 fumbles over the course of your career by reaching in and stripping the ball; you knock it out, and Borland plays the game with a sort of relentlessness that old school coaches will love. The issue for Borland is the same as for Mosley -- can he stay on the field playing the way he plays? He's short but solidly built (5-11, 248), but his short arms means he needs to be a full-body tackler. Like so many Wisconsin running backs who enter the NFL without a ton of tread left on their tires, Borland's long-term potential will factor into where he's taken in the draft. Teams will love him for as long as they can have him.
3. Lamin Barrow, LSU: Now we get to the dropoff. Mosley is Tier 1 of the inside backers, unto himself. Borland, alone, is Tier 2. Tier 3 begins with Barrow and Shayne Skov, who are similar to Borland in the way they play the position. Barrow is a full-speed-ahead middle backer, whose size (6-1, 237) might necessitate a move outside to play the Will. He has the speed and quickness to play either spot, and he has a knack for getting to the middle of the action. Watch any defensive series from LSU's 2013 season; play after play, you will see No. 18 flying to the ball. He's not as good a finisher as Mosley or Borland, occasionally hitting his target rather than tackling it -- without the requisite size to put behind the hammer.
4. Shayne Skov, Stanford: Ditto. Skov is similar to Barrow in size (6-2, 245) and style, though he might be a notch below athletically. Skov blossomed into a leader of Stanford's defense in 2013, and plays the position fast and confident. He's probably the best blitzer of the bunch, though he also might be limited in his ability to cover athletic tight ends and the more elusive backs.
5. Christian Jones, Florida State: I've said throughout this year that Florida State did Jones no favors this year, bouncing him around between positions the way they did. From the Seminoles' perspective, the end -- a national championship -- justified the means, and I'm guessing Jones would agree. But now as he tries to land work in the NFL, Jones might be frustrated being the enigma he seems to be in the eyes of the NFL. He played a season at strong side linebacker, moved to Will back for a season, then began the 2013 as the Mike backer. After a few games, they moved him back to Sam backer, and he saw more than a few snaps as a defensive end. Such versatility will be viewed by some as a plus. But for those who look at Jones as a middle linebacker, they see a guy who has not had a chance to develop in that position. He plays a bit slower because he's still learning the nuances of the position -- even more in coverage than against the run. It's like playing outfield in baseball; the ball appears to come off the bat differently to a right fielder than a left fielder, and a split second's hesitation could mean the difference between making the play or not. Jones will take some time to get his feet under him, at whatever position he plays. But he has the makings of a potentially strong Mike backer in a Tampa 2 scheme; not a Brian Urlacher talent but a backer potentially in that mold.
6. Yawin Smallwood, UConn: I'm willing to overlook the shockingly slow 40-yard dash at the Combine (5.01 seconds), writing it off as a cranky hamstring at the wrong time. But I'm finding there are a lot of caveats when you watch Smallwood work. He often seems either a step slow or slightly out of position or unable to finish cleanly. He was a productive player in college, and I can't help but wonder whether he's a guy who will be ready to blossom at the next level or someone who might be overmatched. Maybe he's another Tampa 2 type who will be comfortable in coverage; we already know he can make plays behind the line, too.
7. Preston Brown, Louisville: As physical a Mike backer as there is in this group, he's another guy who should have played in the day when teams would run the ball 35-40 times a game. He steps up against the run, takes on blockers and delivers the hit consistently. Unfortunately, he's exactly the kind of middle backer who has to come off the field in obvious passing situations. When teams play either nickel or big nickel with three safeties, the guy who goes to the bench is the guy least capable of tracking a back or sticking with a vertical threat tight end. Brown's limitations make him a rotational player, who will contribute when he's on the field
8. Max Bullough, Michigan State: Few players in the 2013 college football season had a greater presence than Bullough, the lunch-pail leader of the best defense in the land. At 6-3, 249, he's a bigger version of Borland -- a hard-edged, physical force who makes the most out of limited athleticism. Bullough will make plays between the tackles all day; he may have trouble chasing down ballcarries on the sidelines. And, like Brown, he may struggle in coverage and have to rotate out in passing situations. Since those are most plays these days, his inability to stay on the field in all situations will diminish his draft stock. I could easily see him going to a 4-3 team playing in a division that features physical running games (maybe St. Louis, or any of the 4-3 teams in the NFC North -- Detroit would be an interesting landing spot).
9. Avery Williamson, Kentucky: This is going to sound unreasonable, but I'm slightly concerned about the range of a guy who made 237 tackles over the last two seasons at Kentucky. Williamson tested well at the Combine, but he doesn't look particularly fast or quick on tape. He makes plays, taking down whomever he gets his hand on -- an ability to tackle consistently is no longer a given among NFL defenders. Williamson's a late-round pick who will get his chance to impress coaches with his effort and Football IQ. If he can improve his speed (or his read speed), he might be a late-round find, a guy who one day could crack a starting lineup.
10. Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA: See what I mean about this being a short list. There were a lot of guys to consider here at No. 10, all of whom could go in the 7th round or become UFAs: Lots of guys to choose from for this 10th spot, all of whom could go in the 7th round or undrafted entirely. Andrew Jackson (Western Kentucky), Glenn Carson (Penn State), Jeremiah George (Iowa State), Zumwalt gets the nod here because he's exactly the kind of guy to take a shot on in the late rounds. He has good size (6-4, 235) and athleticism, plays with an edge (ask Logan Thomas, whom he flattened in the Sun Bowl) and is a high motor guy. You get the sense this is a guy who will do anything to make an NFL roster, and I know he opened some eyes with his effort during the Senior Bowl practice sessions.
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