Analyzing The 2009 Drafts Top Inside Linebacker Prospects

Published on April 21, 2009 by     

20081101_jla_al2_505The dialogue was prompted by a question to an NFL team executive regarding this year’s inside linebacker prospects.

“There’s Rey Maualuga and……” the executive said.

“And….”

“There’s Rey Maualuga.”

Feelings about NFL prospects are subjective, and this team executive might believe that USC’s Maualuga is the only inside player who can fit his team’s scheme. Still, Ohio State’s James Laurinaitis is considered the only other possible first-round inside/middle linebacker prospect, and both him and Maualuga could be among the latter half of the first 32 picks.

The odd part of that scenario is that Maualuga and Laurinaitis were considered two of the best players in all of college football and definitely two of the best linebackers in the nation the past two years. Their talent and playmaking ability isn’t being devalued, but the position -– made famous by Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Harry Carson, Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher –- is.

The top linebackers in the NFL today mainly play on the outside: James Harrison, DeMarcus Ware, Terrell Suggs, Joey Porter and Lance Briggs. There are plenty of standout inside/middle linebackers –- Patrick Willis, Lewis, Urlacher, Jon Beason, Lofa Tatupu, Antonio Pierce, Bradie James and James Farrior –- but they aren’t considered game-changers like many of those who played the position before them.

The style of play in the NFL has changed to where middle/inside linebackers have become run-game specialists, often being pulled for a defensive back (nickel packages) in passing situations. Offenses are spreading the field more to open up running and passing lanes by alignment, in essence turning the game into a geometrical shell game in open space.

Very few teams run the ball straight ahead between the 20-yard lines, opting for more cutback-style runs where lineman can leverage defenders and wall off enforcers such as Lewis. The need for that “thumper” at inside linebacker has been replaced by the hybrid outside linebackers/end or multi-dimensional safeties, such as Troy Polamalu, who can track receivers and blow up ball carriers.

Even some of the top inside/middle linebackers in the game today, like Willis, are considered more “chase” linebackers, who clean up after other players have stuffed holes and done much of the dirty work.

Maualuga and Laurinaitis, along with mid-round prospects Darry Beckwith, Dannell Ellerbee, Jason Phillips and Jasper Brinkley, can still be difference-makers and are valued assets. The game, at its most fundamental point, is still about running, tackling and being more physical than the opposing player. One thing hurting those mid-round prospects, are red flags, mostly medical, that teams will have to address.

Top inside linebackers
Rank
Player
School
Height
Weight
Projected round
1.
USC
6-2
249
1
Analysis: Maualuga hasn’t dazzled teams with postseason workouts, but he has been good enough to confirm what they’ve seen on film, which is that he’s the most fearsome linebacker in the draft. He has good enough speed and agility to be a three-down linebacker, and he is a masher. He can blow up lead blockers and ball carriers, and he is a pretty sure tackler in the open field. He’s also an aggressive pass rusher.

NFL landing spot: San Diego (No. 16), Denver (No. 18) or Detroit (No. 20). St. Louis also could use Maualuga and might trade its high second-round draft pick to get back into the first round and have a shot at him.


Rank
Player
School
Height
Weight
Projected round
2.
Ohio State
6-2
244
1-2
Analysis: Laurinaitis is a highly decorated player who would fit in as a middle linebacker but might be better as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Laurinaitis’ aggressive and sure tackling makes him a two-down linebacker at worst. His coverage skills are adequate. He has to overcome the stigma of Buckeyes linebackers who haven’t translated well into the NFL.

NFL landing spot: Detroit needs size at the second level. Indianapolis and Baltimore could be good fits as well.


Rank
Player
School
Height
Weight
Projected round
3.
LSU
6-0
242
2-4
Analysis: Beckwith is a kamikaze-style hole plugger who teams had to account for in the run game. He could be best suited as a middle linebacker in a 4-3 or a strong-side linebacker in a 3-4. His aggressiveness and toughness are his strengths. He has endured some knee injuries, so his durability could be a question mark.

NFL landing spot: St. Louis, Detroit, Dallas, Kansas City, Denver or Baltimore.


Rank
Player
School
Height
Weight
Projected round
4.
South Carolina
6-2
252
3-6
Analysis: Brinkley has ideal size, but he is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament that cut short his 2007 season and still bothered him in 2008. He is incredibly gifted, but the injury red flag could harm his draft position. If he is healthy, as he was in 2006, Brinkley is a big-time player who loves to mix it up, but he could be a liability in pass coverage, making him a devalued two-down linebacker.

NFL landing spot: Green Bay, New England, Denver, Kansas City, Cleveland and Miami could use depth and a player who could emerge.


Rank
Player
School
Height
Weight
Projected round
5.
Georgia
6-1
236
3-6
Analysis: A string of good postseason workouts has helped the one-time promising prospect regain some traction after a down 2008 season. Big things were expected out of Ellerbe after a strong junior season, but he fell off considerably, in part because of a knee sprain. The multi-dimensional talent is a potential sleeper, but he has some off-the-field issues that could force teams to wait until well into the draft to call his name.

NFL landing spot: Cincinnati, Denver, Carolina, New Orleans, Cleveland or Kansas City.


Rank
Player
School
Height
Weight
Projected round
6.
TCU
6-1
239
3-6
Analysis: Phillips had to have cartilage surgery on his knee after the combine. It’s not a major medical issue, but it has kept him from private workouts. Phillips is a big-time banger who projects as a two-down, run based linebacker. He is skilled enough to develop into a starter. Some reports have him better suited as a 3-4 inside linebacker. He might have to add some size to maintain with the way he plays.

NFL landing spot: Dallas, Denver, Green Bay, Kansas City, New England or St. Louis.

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