Niners positional draft analysis: OLBs

Primarily because the team's previous management regime so stupefyingly neglected the position over recent years, the 49ers find themselves in a sorry state at outside linebacker as the draft approaches. Fortunately for the Niners, this is the right year to be looking for OLBs in the draft, which seldom has been stronger at the position. Here's a look at how SF shapes up at OLB entering draft weekend, along with an in-depth individual examination of the top OLBs available in the college lottery.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS ON 49ERS ROSTER: Corey Smith, Brandon Moore (may be better suited to ILB), T.J. Slaughter, Zak Keasey.

49ERS FIVE-YEAR REPORT: Total OLBs drafted – 1. Still on roster – 0. First-round picks – 0. Highest pick – Jamie Winborn, No. 47 overall pick in second round of 2002 draft.

2006 POSITIONAL DRAFT NEED: Although they may use their first pick on another position if Ohio State's A.J. Hawk already has been taken, outside linebacker clearly is the biggest need of several needs the 49ers have in this draft. The reasons for that are several. First, the previous regime headed by deposed general manager Terry Donahue allowed five of the team's top linebackers – three of them outside linebackers – to all become unrestricted free agents during the same year – 2006. Second, that same regime drafted only one outside linebacker in the past five years, and an argument can be made that Jamie Winborn – who no longer is on the team – is better suited for inside LB duty in some defensive schemes, though he was drafted to play the weak side by the 49ers. Because San Francisco never resolved contract issues with Julian Peterson over the years, twice tagging him as the team's franchise player in 2004 and 2005, the Niners watched the two-time Pro Bowler – the only Pro Bowl player drafted by the 49ers in the past seven years – walk without compensation as an unrestricted free agent during the offseason. Despite the 2004 Achilles tendon tear that diminished his skills last season, Peterson still was arguably the team's best player, but the 49ers weren't in a position to match the outlandish seven-year, $54 million deal Peterson got to bolt to the NFC West rival Seattle Seahawks. The 49ers also lost their other 2005 starting OLB in similar fashion, though Andre Carter – the team's first-round draft pick in 2001 – really was a defensive end who was attempting to make the transition to the wing in a 3-4. Nonetheless, as of today, the 49ers don't have one legitimate starting outside linebacker on their roster, considering that Moore – signed last month to a five-year, $8 million deal to return the team – probably is better suited to play the ILB positions while serving as an emergency backup on the outside. Smith is a promising player who has some potential as an edge rusher, but he also probably is better suited to be a backup. Recent free-agent addition Slaughter gives the team some established veteran depth, but he – yes, you've heard this already – is a backup-type player. Where does that leave the 49ers? You guessed it – looking for both starting talent and backup talent at this position on draft weekend.

POSITION OVERVIEW: This position will be critical to the draft. Hawk will be the first to go – likely in the top five or to the 49ers at No. 6 – but after that, it gets dicey. Scouts can't agree on who they like the best among the next half dozen players, meaning someone like Chad Greenway, Ernie Sims or 'tweener Kamerion Wimbley could slide into the deep middle of the first round. But there is plenty of top talent to be had, and 10 players on this list have the chance to go in the first two rounds. But beyond that, the talent is very similar and very nondescript – making this draft top-heavy at the outside linebacker position.

THE CREAM OF THE CROP

A.J. Hawk, Ohio State, 6-1, 248: Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who had 368 tackles, 37.5 tackles for a loss, 14.5 sacks and five interceptions in that span…Won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and the Lombardi Trophy as a senior…Plays like a Dick Butkus-type of old-time smashmouth football…Makes the big play at the big time…Has good range to chase down plays…Hard to block and maintain…Excellent blitzer who picks his shots and has good explosion through small openings…Doesn't quit on a play until he hears a whistle (if then)…Has good upper body strength and can keep blockers at bay with a stiff hand punch…Excellent football intelligence…Is a little short for a prototype NFL linebacker…Struggles occasionally in coverage with fast-running backs…Needs to improve lower body strength at next level…Leaves himself open for big hits when he's focused on a ball carrier…Ran a 4.42 40 at the Combine with 24 reps of 225 pounds, a 40-inch vertical jump, a 9-7 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 27.
Projection: There isn't much not to like about Hawk. He's a total package and his only real downside is being a couple of inches shorter than scouts like. He's a reliable tackler with a passion for the game and will likely go the Packers at No. 5 or the Niners at No. 6.

Chad Greenway, Iowa, 6-2½, 240: Fifth-year senior who went essentially unrecruited out of high school, where he played eight-man football and was the South Dakota Player of the Year as a senior…Three-year starter who missed time as a redshirt freshman after tearing his right ACL…Full-time starter his final three years, notching 401 tackles with 29 tackles for a loss, seven sacks and four interceptions…Sideline-to-sideline player who chases down every play…Has good explosion in run defense and blows up plays at the line…Takes good angles and doesn't get caught out of position…Has the change-of-direction skills to handle running backs, tight ends and slot receivers in coverage…Good tackler in the open field…Not an explosive tackler…Needs to improve lower body strength…Upper body strength was questioned after a sub-par lifting performance at the Combine…A little slow to make reads at times…Ran a 4.58 40 at the Combine with 19 reps, a 38½ inch vertical jump, a 10-0 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 29.
Projection: Has all the prerequisites to be a good NFL linebacker, works hard and is very coachable. He could go anywhere to the Browns at No. 12 or drop all the way to the Patriots at No. 20, but has a good chance to be the second or third LB off the board on draft day.

Ernie Sims, Florida State, 5-11¼, 234: Third-year junior who became a starter midway through his freshman season…Came to FSU as a high school All-American…In his two years as a full-time starter, he had 158 tackles, 19 tackles for a loss, seven sacks and two interceptions…Got permission from his hero, Ron Sellers (a former FSU wide receiver), to get his No. 34 out of retirement so he could wear it…Very high octane and plays sideline to sideline at all times…Makes the kind of hits that send running backs to the sidelines…Played on the strong side…Has very good upper body strength…Has the ability to move much bigger blockers out of the way…Good blitzer as an edge rusher…Strong lower body…Athletic enough to handle most RBs in coverage…Plays out of control too often and takes himself out of plays…Very short by NFL standards…Has a history of concussions for leading with his helmet and putting himself at risk…Had a sub-par junior season after breaking his leg in spring practice of last year…Ran a 4.48 40 at the Combine with 25 reps, a 41-inch vertical jump, a 10-5 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 22.
Projection: Viewed by scouts as a perfect weak-side LB in the Tampa-2 type of defense. A possibility when the 49ers select at No. 22 in the first round, but Sims could go as high as No. 12 to Cleveland and probably won't make it all the way past Miami at No. 16, Minnesota at No. 17, Kanas City at No. 20 and New England at No. 21.

Kamerion Wimbley, Florida State, 6-4, 248: Fourth-year senior who was a high school All-American…Didn't become a full-time starter until last year, when he finished the season with 26 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks while playing defensive end…One of the most hyped players coming into this year's draft, his ability to be a down-set defensive end in a 4-3 system or a standup OLB in 3-4 scheme make him attractive to a lot of teams for different reasons…Very athletic with explosion off the snap…Has good change-of-direction skills that will be needed in coverage…Came to FSU in 2002 as a 210-pounder and has gained four pounds since – with some thinking he can add the bulk to get up to 270 pounds…Good open field tacklers…Very raw and has only been a starter for one season…More than likely projects to a linebacker in a 3-4 system, but has never played the position with any regularity…Got by too much on speed and was a one-trick pony in pass rushing…Ran a 4.61 40 at the Combine with 24 reps, a 38½ inch vertical jump a 10-9 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 15.
Projection: Few players come into the draft with the hype Wimbley does. His athleticism makes you take notice, which could get him off the board as early as the Browns at No. 12, but a more realistic place for him to go would be much later in the first round. He'll likely get drafted higher than his experience and production warrant.

THE NEXT LEVEL

DeMeco Ryans, Alabama, 6-1¼, 236: Fourth-year senior who got almost no scholarship offers…Three-year starter at strong-side linebacker who had 280 tackles, 27.5 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks and one interception…An intelligent player who was a four-time Academic All-ACC…Set a school record as a sophomore with 25 tackles in one game…Has good quickness and chases plays down the line of scrimmage…Good open field tackler…Very strong character – he's a coach's dream as far as personality goes…Always on the move and never takes a play off…Wasn't used much as a blitzer, but was effective when he did…Has the speed to cover running backs out of the backfield on pass plays…Undersized and doesn't have the type of body that can add 20 pounds…Needs to strengthen his lower body…Didn't turn many heads at the Senior Bowl or the Combine…Tends to run around tacklers rather than fight through them…Ran a 4.65 40 at the Combine with 23 reps of 225 pounds, a 39-inch vertical jump, a 10-9 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 25.
Projection: Ryans is a very fluid and talented player, but doesn't have any of the top-end attributes or measurables that the top tier of linebackers have. Some scouts think he could be the second-best prospect behind Hawk at this position, but we're thinking he's closer to dropping out of the first round than being taken in the top half of the round.

Bobby Carpenter, Ohio State, 6-2½, 256: Fourth-year senior…His father (Rob) played for the Giants…A two-year starter who had 152 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss, 10 sacks and three interceptions…Missed the OSU bowl game after breaking his right leg early in the regular-season finale vs. Michigan…Has good speed and a body capable of adding 15 more pounds…Has the ability to turn and run with backs in pass coverage and not lose a lot of speed…Has good pass rush instincts…A high motor guy who rarely lets up on plays…Had to play at a high level because opponents came his way more often to stay away from teammate A.J. Hawk…Plays out of control and will overrun plays too often…Needs to get stronger in both his upper and lower body…Lets blockers get into his body and must learn to use his hands better to get separation…The broken leg remains a concern…Ran a 4.66 40 at the Combine with 20 reps and a Wonderlic score of 29, but didn't jump.
Projection: Has the prototype size and passion scouts look for, but may be best-suited for a 3-4 scheme. But, he does have versatility and a team in need of linebacker can plug him in as a strong-side guy in a 4-3, which should be enough to see him off the board in the top half of the second round. The 49ers have him rated higher because of his ability to fit their 3-4 scheme.

Thomas Howard, UTEP, 6-3¼, 239: – Fifth-year senior who came to El Paso as a walk-on weighing just 190 pounds who was slated to play safety…His father (Thomas Sr.) played in the NFL with the Chiefs and Cardinals…Became a full-time starter at weak-side linebacker as a sophomore and spent his final two years as a strong-side LB…In his three years as a starter, he had 265 tackles, 32 tackles for a loss, 13 sacks and four interceptions…Excellent speed and size and has the capability to play at more than 250 pounds without losing much, if any, speed…Makes plays everywhere on the field…Has lined up as a pass-rushing DE in third-down situations…A solid special teams player who will have an immediate impact in that aspect of the game in the NFL…At his best in the open field and closes quickly…Seems to play at times with tunnel vision and doesn't have great natural instincts…Takes himself out of too many plays…His recognition skills are lacking and he gets sucked in with pump fakes and play-action too often…Doesn't initiate contact with crossing receivers and is viewed as too apprehensive at times…Ran a 4.42 40 at the Combine with 21 reps, a 39-inch vertical jump, a 10-4 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 27.
Projection: A poor showing at the Senior Bowl, in which he dropped two potentially easy interceptions, didn't help his stock. He has a lot of natural gifts, but his deficiencies will likely drop him into the second round.

Roger McIntosh, Miami, 6-2¼, 237: Fifth-year senior who started half of his games as a freshman as a Sam linebacker…Suffered a knee injury prior to the start of the 2003 season and didn't regain his starting job…A two-year starter since then, in that span he had 200 tackles, 23 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks…Very disciplined and plays with a sense of urgency…Has long arms and uses them to keep blockers from getting into his body…Solid in pass coverage with the hip turn that allows him to maintain tight coverage with running backs and tight ends…Experience on special teams…Very hard worker who understands his role…Doesn't have great upper body strength (which was made known at the Combine)…Has missed time in each of his four seasons with injuries, ranging from his knees to his back to his hamstrings to his shoulder, so durability is a concern…Needs to improve his recognition skills and play with his head on a swivel much more than he does now…Ran a 4.63 40 at the Combine with 18 reps, a 42½ inch vertical jump, a 9-11 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 31.
Projection: Has a lot of positives going for him, but his injury history make him a risk any time before the third round. He will probably go somewhere late in the second round or in the third as a result.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Jon Alston, Stanford, 6-0½, 227: Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 114 tackles, 24 tackles for a loss, 16.5 sacks and two interceptions in that span…Good quickness…Doesn't overpursue and get caught out of position…Extremely muscular and built to hit…Extremely strong upper body, as proved by doing 30 reps with 225 pounds at the Combine…Flattens people when he hits them…Was able to stay in coverage with Reggie Bush when they played…Experience on special teams…Undersized for a NFL linebacker…Thin lower body that can only be bulked up so much…Will get caught and confused on play fakes and pump action…Gets overpowered by big blockers…Will get lost when turned around in coverage…Ran a 4.40 40 at the Combine with 30 reps, a 40-inch vertical jump, a 11-0 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 30.
Projection: Has all the measurables that scouts look for except height and bulk – and those are two big drawbacks. Is the ideal fit for a Tampa-2 system and somebody will take a long look at him before the draft's first day is over.

James Anderson, Virginia Tech, 6-2¾, 229: Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 130 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks and three interceptions in that span…Has very good speed and is at his best in the open field…Chases plays down everywhere on the field…Has good fluid hip movement to cover backs and receivers in the passing game…Has experience on special teams…Has the body type that could add 15-20 pounds without losing speed or quickness…Takes himself out of plays with his own aggression at times…Doesn't have great bulk or lower-body strength…Didn't help his cause at the Combine by not lifting after posting good numbers in the other measurables and in drills…Tends to run around traffic to get to a ball carrier rather than run through it…Will get eaten up and smothered by big O-linemen…Doesn't hit with explosive pop…Ran a 4.58 40 at the Combine with a 41-inch vertical jump, a 10-1 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 30.
Projection: He has many of the tools that coaches look for and has experience and versatility. Looks to be a weakside nickel linebacker who could thrive his best in a Tampa-2 system, but is a marginal Day One selection.

A.J. Nicholson, Florida State, 6-1, 242: Fourth-year senior who came to FSU as a high school All-American…Two-year starter who had 188 tackles, 21.5 tackles for a loss, five sacks and three interceptions in that span…Had surgery in 2003 after tearing his right MCL...Has had some run-ins with the law, including being dismissed from the team before the Orange Bowl in January after being accused of sexual assault, as well as being arrested for a bar fight and an alcohol-related disorderly conduct charge…A player who is always chasing down the ball and making tackles…Has excellent instincts and finds the right spot consistently…Looks the part and makes blockers miss…Has good blitzing prowess and makes a lot of tackles behind the line of scrimmage…Is undersized and tries to overcompensate by making unneeded mistakes…Durability is something of a concern with his injury history…Doesn't have good speed and that isn't likely to ever improve…Character may be his biggest downfall on draft day…Ran a 4.74 40 at the Combine with 25 reps, a 9-10 broad jump and Wonderlic score of 23.
Projection: History has told us that even a player with a grade of a second- or third-rounder will drop to the second day of the draft if he has a big character red flag. Nicholson does, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him still available on the fourth round.

Jamar Williams, Arizona State, 6-0¼, 236: Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who had 219 tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, five sacks and seven interceptions during that span…Played both strongside and weakside linebacker at ASU, giving him a lot of versatility…Team leader…Big hitter who looks for contact…Has solid recognition skills and doesn't get drawn in play action…Valued special teams player…Does a solid job in covering backs and tight ends…Doesn't have NFL speed for a starting linebacker…Is too short to take on NFL tight ends…Not a threat as a blitzer or outside pass rusher and doesn't have many skill moves in that department…Doesn't play with the same effectiveness from week to week…Ran a 4.58 40 at the Combine with 21 reps of 225 pounds, a 37-inch vertical jump, a 10-4 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 27.
Projection: A player with versatility that will likely be an NFL backup and special teamer. He's been a great teammate, even though he doesn't have elite athletic skill. A likely pick early on Day Two that will be popular with his teammates and a lunch-pail NFL backup.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Keith Ellison, Oregon State, 6-1¾, 230
Omar Gaither, Tennessee, 6-1, 230
Clint Ingram, Oklahoma, 6-1¾, 244
Brian Iwuh, Colorado, 6-0, 227
Brandon Johnson, Louisville, 6-5, 228
William Kershaw, Maryland, 6-2¾, 240
Terna Nande, Miami (Ohio), 6-0½, 229
Travis Williams, Auburn, 5-11¾, 222

John Holler of VikingUpdate.com contributed to this report


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