Ranking The OLBs
Pity Brian Orakpo. When Washington slapped its franchise tag on him in March, it set him up to make a $11.4 million in 2014 -- the highest base salary among all linebackers.
And yet had he been considered a defensive end, he could've made some real money, like Chris Long ($13.2 million) or Greg Hardy ($13.1) money.
Outside linebacker, particulary those who are their team's primary edge rushers in a 3-4 defensive front, must be feeling like second-class citizens these days. For more than 30 years, it's been the home of some of football's most ferocious players. And yet in the run-up to the draft, it's seen as the spot where college defensive ends are banished when their NFL employers realize they're too small to line up at the next level with their hand on the ground.
This year's draft class is slightly different -- at least at the top. Two of the top four defensive prospects this year are natural outside backers. Both of them should be drafted in the top 10, and a third is top-25 prospect. There's a bit of a dropoff after that, but there is some interesting potential to be found among the top 10 outside linebacker prospects.
1. Khalil Mack, Buffalo: I wish I could say that I was the first guy outside of the MAC to tout Mack as a top-tier talent. I wasn't. That distinction belongs to Football.com's Bill Lund, who first hinted last May that Mack could be something special. By the time we all watched the destruction he wrought upon Ohio State on the opening weekend of the 2013 college football season, we all had a sense we were seeing a unique prospect. Some have gone slightly overboard, calling Mack the best player in this year's draft. He's not. But he's top 5, and he is the second-best defensive prospect on the board. Mack is an explosive athlete who will be effective rushing the passer both with speed and strength. He may be just as good a strong side backer against the run as he will be a pass rusher off the weak side. He does everything asked of an outside linebacker and will be an impact player from Day One, regardless of whether he winds up in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme.
2. Anthony Barr, UCLA: As intrigued as I was by Dion Jordan a year ago, I think Barr has an even greater upside than the player taken third overall in the 2013 draft. While Mack is a force, Barr is a blur, with exceptional quickness and fluidity. Mack has a tremendous advantage in terms of experience; Barr has spent only two seasons on the defensive side of the ball. Still, he has shown terrific instincts as a pass rusher, with double-digit sacks in consecutive seasons. And he has a knack for penetrating and making plays in the backfield, with at least 20 TFL in each of his two seasons on defense. Barr will need work taking on and shedding blockers at the next level, and he's going to need to develop his coverage skills, but there's little reason to think he won't be able to excel in both areas. Barr is not yet on Mack's level; in three seasons, they will both be dynamic edge defenders.
3. Ryan Shazier, Ohio State: I have only one knock against C.J. Mosley, my top inside linebacker prospect -- he lacks ideal size. I feel the same way about Shazier. There is nothing not to like about his game. He's aggressive, makes plays in the backfield, can chase down ballcarriers all over the field. He'll rush the passer and hold his own in coverage. The only problem is that he's 6-foot-1, 237 pounds, and I wonder whether his body will hold up to the pounding it's going to take playing the position the way he plays it, with as much relentless energy as he does. Because Shazier is not merely a pass rush specialist, he won't be engaged with 300-pound blockers on every play, which will enable him to avoid some of the inevitable wear and tear. He'll be an immediate contributor as a Will backer.
4. Trent Murphy, Stanford: Murphy received a lot of criticism during Senior Bowl practice week, when scouts started to question his overall athleticism. Undeniably, he is not near the athlete that Mack, Barr or Shazier is. Still, he's no stiff; he can be tough and physical and is so technically sound he knows how to make the most out of every opportunity. Murphy did, after all, lead the nation with 15 sacks in 2013; you can't do that if you're lacking as an athlete. At 6-5, 250, there's a chance Murphy could see time as a 4-3 defensive end. But he's better served starting on the second level, where he can avoid the close quarters combat that goes on every play. Whether he has the quickness to stay with smaller, faster players through his coverage responsibilities will determine how much time he'll earn as a rookie.
5. Kyle Van Noy, BYU: When you watch Van Noy, you can't help but be struck by his one great asset -- finishing speed. Whether he's taking on a ballcarrier or taking down a quarterback, Van Noy seems to kick into a different gear his last few strides before impact, exploding through tackles. Van Noy was a playmaker throughout his college career, and he'll continue to make plays at the next level. He is smooth and quick and always seems to take the right angle of pursuit. There were times in game film when Van Noy looked smaller and leaner than his Combine measurables (6-3, 243). He might find it hard to separate from blocks against NFL linemen, but when he can stay clean and unblocked, Van Noy will find his way to the ball with consistency.
6. Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech: It's hard to look at a season in which you earned third-team All-America honors and racked up 10.5 sacks as a missed opportunity. Attaochu had a terrific year in 2013, the one season he spent as a 4-3 defensive end. Had he been able to stay at his natural position -- 3-4 rush linebacker -- he could be looking at a first-round selection in 2014. Instead, he remains a bit unrefined as the kind of pass rusher he's going to need to be at the next level, and he lost a year of learning to play in coverage. There's little question about his ability to return to the position and become a solid all-around OLB. Still, it's hard not to wonder what he'd look like a year further into his development at the position he'll play as a pro.
7. Trevor Reilly, Utah: Tweeners are prospects caught between positions. Versatility is the ability to play multiple positions. There's a huge difference, and Reilly is one of the few outside linebackers who truly falls into that second category. He arrived in Utah as a safety, and he leaves as a 6-5, 245-pound end/linebacker hybrid. He has the strength to take on tackles and hold the edge against the run, and he has the agility and instincts to cover tight ends and running backs. Reilly can make plays all over the field and line up anywhere in a defensive formation -- he could even see snaps as a middle backer in a Tampa 2. He's a football player more than an athlete, and his versatility will appeal to creative defensive minds all over the league.
8. Jordan Tripp, Montana: Tripp is one of the few OLB prospects whose isn't seen first as an edge rusher. He has the quickness and motor to be an effective blitzer at the next level, but Tripp is a far better fit as a 4-3 Will backer, where providing a pass rush will not be his primary responsibility. He is a high-energy defender, who flies to the ball and has a knack for staying clean throughout pursuit. He avoids traffic well and will get his hands on the ballcarrier. Then he just has to complete the tackle -- which he's perfectly capable of doing, though in college he sometimes relied too much on arm tackling; he will not have the strength advantage against NFL backs that he did in the Big Sky. Tripp showed a good understanding of coverage at the Senior Bowl, and put up numbers in the Combine testing that compared to any of his FBS counterparts.
9. Ronald Powell, Florida: He was once the No. 1 recruit in the country, ranked by Rivals.com as the top prospect in the high school Class of 2010. That was before tearing the ACL in his left knee twice in the same year. Now, he's a bit of a mystery, a raw linebacker in the process of converting from defensive end, a position where his success once came so naturally. At 6-3, 237, Powell won't be able to play end in the NFL (like Reilly, he saw regular snaps at both spots in college). If he is able to put any medical concerns to rest and convince NFL coaches that he's committed to learning how to play linebacker, Powell's upside is worth the risk of an early Day Three pick.
10. Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas: Dee Ford, Demarcus Lawrence, Marcus Smith, Michael Sam. These are this year's marquee tweeners. Those four are likely to remain DEs, whereas Jeffcoat has a decent shot at making the switch that may be asked of him. At 6-3, 247, he's at best an undersized end. Whereas Ford really needs to play with his hand on the ground to maximize his greatest asset -- that first-step quickness -- Jeffcoat would benefit from switching positions. He showed athleticism at the Combine that will convince someone to move him off the line, where he'll often face a physical mismatch. Jeffcoat was a bit of a one-trick pony as a pass rusher in college; he beat his blocker with speed. He can effectively use his speed as a rusher in the NFL, and though he's a bit stiff for some of a linebacker's other responsibilities (in coverage and in run pursuit), his speed remains an asset, particularly as he adjust to lining up as a linebacker and pursuing plays from new angles. Jeffcoat could be a situational pass rusher if the rest of his game fails to develop.