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2012 NFL Draft: Linebacker

By: Robert Davis

Traditionally, the linebacker position does not produce very many elite draft prospects. Von Miller was an exception last year, but this yearŐs class will be a more traditional one. There are a couple 4-3 linebackers that could hear their name called in the first round, as well as a few 3-4 edge rushers.

Boston College's Luke Kuechly is arguably the top 4-3 linebacker prospect, as well as the top mike linebacker. He has solid physical tools across the board, but his toughness and instincts are what set him apart from the pack. He is a true football player, and quickly diagnoses the action, which usually results in him being the first defender to arrive on the scene of a tackle. He will not wow anyone physically, so he isn't likely to land in the top ten, but any team truly needing a leader in the middle of their defense would be very wise to consider taking Kuechly at some point in round one.

ILB RANKINGS
  1. Luke Kuechly, Boston College
  2. DontŐa Hightower, Alabama
  3. Mychal Kendricks, California
  4. Bobby Wagner, Utah St.
  5. Tank Carder, TCU
  6. James-Michael Johnson, Nevada
  7. Audie Cole, North Carolina St.
  8. Vontaze Burfict, Arizona St.
  9. Emmanuel Acho, Texas
  10. Travis Lewis, Oklahoma

Vontaze Burfict is one of the biggest wild cards available in the 2012 draft. He is a game changer from his middle linebacker position. He is an anti Kuechly of sorts. He is a physical specimen. Burfict has a strong, sturdy frame but combines it with very good athleticism, and the speed to chase plays down all over the field. His tools allow him to play sideline to sideline and plug the run between the tackles, but also drop into coverage and make plays. Burficts blend of skills could allow him to play a strong side position in a 4-3 alignment. In addition to his natural gifts, Burfict also has the type of mean streak and aggressiveness you like to see in a linebacker. Unfortunately, as much as his aggressiveness is a positive, it can also be a detriment at times. Burfict has a penchant for being too aggressive, overrunning a lot of plays, allowing the offense to make big plays by blowing his assignment. It's also led to his fair share of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. There are some questions about Burfict's coachability as well, so he is the type of player that has a lot to prove in the interview process. He is a first rounder on talent, but could easily side into the third round or lower if teams are pushed off by his character.

There is a bit of a drop off in talent at the inside linebacker position after those two, but Dont'a Hightower is a solid prospect in his own right. The leader of the Alabama defense, Hightower is the typical thumper in the middle of the defense. He has a massive frame, is very strong, and tough to block between the tackles. He lacks the athleticism and speed to make a lot of plays, but he will be a great addition to a team needing some help stropping the run.

California's Mychal Kendricks, Nevada's James-Michael Johnson, TCU's Tank Carder and NC State's Audie Cole are more names to keep in mind as potential day two picks as 4-3 inside linebackers.

North Carolina has two linebackers to keep an eye on during the 2012 NFL Draft. Zach Brown is a phenomenal athlete and playmaker, while Kevin Reddick is a little more consistent. Brown has tremendous speed, and athleticism, which he uses to make plays in every facet of the game. As a senior, Brown had 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and three interceptions. He is not very big and can be engulfed at the point of attack, but for a team that wants speed and a playmaker, he is a definite first round talent. Reddick is a junior and has solid physical tools, but isn't as physically gifted as Brown. But he does have better instincts and is a lot stronger. He won't make a lot of big plays, but he will consistently get to the ball and make the tackle.

OLB RANKINGS
  1. Shea McClellin, Boise St.
  2. Lavonte David, Nebraska
  3. Zach Brown, North Carolina
  4. Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma
  5. Bruce Irvin, West Virginia
  6. Sean Spence, Miami
  7. Terrell Manning, North Carolina St.
  8. Demario Davis, Arkansas St.
  9. Brandon Lindsey, Pitt
  10. Keenan Robinson, Texas

Nebraska's Lavonte David and Miami's Sean Spence are your prototypical weakside linebacker prospect in a 43 alignment. Both are a tad short and definitely need to bulk up and get stronger. But, they have excellent football instincts, and have the speed and aggressiveness to make a lot of plays in pursuit.

Texas' Keenan Robinson is a talented all around linebacker prospect. While not a physical freak, Robinson does have solid tools to work with at the next level. He has decent size and the frame to get bigger, and possesses the athleticism and speed to make plays in space. Robinson will need to get a bit stronger and better at taking on blocks, but most college linebackers do need improvement in those aeras. There are a number of talented 3-4 hybrid linebackers, but unlike most years, there aren't any truly elite talents in this role. Whatever each team prefers will ultimately determine the order of these players.

Alabama's Courtney Upshaw has the skills to play with his hand up or down in the NFL. He is a tad short for a defensive end at 6'1, but also a bit heavy for an OLB at 270. The unusual frame draws the obvious comparison to LaMarr Woodley. He has the instincts and speed to stand up, but is also strong enough to play with his hand on the ground once he gets used to it. He is a borderline first round talent, with more of the questions based on his frame and how he fits each defensive scheme.

Brandon Jenkins of Florida State is a flashback of the old Seminole standout ends of a decade ago. With more teams utilize a 3-4 now, he is better suited for NFL success than many of the Noles that entered the league in the late 90's. He definitely has the athleticism and speed to stand up and rush the passer off the edge, and could potentially come off the board at the tail end of the first, but will be a valuable commodity on day two for sure.

USC's Nick Perry definitely has the skills to play with his hand down in a 4-3 alignment, which may be his best position in the NFL. But he has the speed and natural athleticism to stand up and rush off the edge. He has some experience dropping into coverage for USC, so he won't be totally new to the transition.

Oklahoma's Ronnell Lewis has experience as a hybrid end, so the transition shouldn't be too difficult for him either at the NFL level. He has the athleticism and speed to make the switch, but definitely needs to add some bulk to his frame and get stronger at the next level. He's a bit light for a 3-4 OLB, despite playing end in college.

Jonathan Massaquoi of Troy is an underclassmen that has not declared his intentions yet, but has the talent to make noise on draft day. When you think of a pass rusher from Troy, everyone immediately jumps to a DeMarcus Ware comparison. Massaquoi is not as big or talented as Ware, so that's a bit unfair. He is however a great athlete with the burst off the edge and natural pass rush ability to be a very attractive second round selection.

Pitt's Brandon Lindsey and West Virginia's Bruce Irvin could provide solid value in the middle rounds as a 3-4 OLB as well. Lindsey has experience playing both end and linebacker, and has the natural gifts to make the transition. Irvin has big upside, but has major questions. He's light in the pants for a 4-3 linebacker, let alone a hybrid DE/OLB. He has the speed and athleticism to be a real threat off the edge, but unless he can sustain added weight and get stronger, he will only be able to contribute on passing downs.

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