2008 NFL draft/positional analysis: OLB

If there's one thing that the 49ers would like to get out of the 2008 NFL draft, it's a pass-rushing OLB to create havoc from the 3-4 edge. There are several quality prospects available in the college lottery, and one could still be there when San Francisco goes on the clock Saturday. Here, we go deep with analysis, statistics, measurables and projections with the top 10 OLBs in this year's draft.

POSITION ANALYSIS: The 49ers like their current linebacker corps, but there is definitely room for improvement, particularly in the area of getting pressure on the quarterback, which is vital for San Francisco to get from this position to be successful with its 3-4 defensive scheme. The team has shown a lot of interest in Auburn's Quentin Groves, and he could be available at the No. 29 slot in the first round. The position has a few players that will get taken in the early going, but it's far from a position that is stacked and will be on everyone's to-do list. There may only be a handful of OLBs gone by the third round, opening the possibility for some value picks in the middle rounds.


THE CREAM OF THE CROP

Keith Rivers, USC, 6-2½, 241: Fourth-year senior who came to USC as a Parade All-American … Three-year starter who started the final 36 games of his college career … In that span, he had 215 tackles, 15½ tackles for a loss, three sacks and seven passes batted down … Very good speed and chases plays sideline to sideline … Long arms and good upper-body strength … Leads by example and works exceptionally hard … Tackles with authority … Good field awareness on draws and screen passes … Is a very good blitzer, who, despite modest sacks numbers, gets a lot of pressure on QBs … Has played all three linebacker positions … Has the speed to take on backs and tight ends in coverage … Does not effectively disengage from blockers when they get their hands on him … Will lose a step when forced to turn and run in coverage … Will take himself out of plays at times with his own aggression … While consistently pressuring QBs, he had just three sacks in 36 starts and had many more chances to add to that total … Did not work out at the Combine because he was rehabbing an ankle that he had scoped after the season, but at his Pro Day he ran a 4.60 40 with 24 reps of 225 pounds, a 42-inch vertical jump and a 10-7 broad jump – both jumps would have been the best at the Combine.
Projection: natural athlete who does many things well. He has an excellent chance of being a three-down linebacker at the next level. While he won't be a lottery pick in the top five, he will be the first true LB off the board and will surely be gone by the time the 49ers pick at No. 29.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Quentin Groves, Auburn, 6-3¼, 249:
Fifth-year senior … A USA Today All-USA selection as a high school senior … His only full season as a starter was his junior year … In his four-year career – almost exclusively at defensive end – he had 119 tackles, 44 tackles for a loss, 26 sacks and eight forced fumbles … Is married and already graduated … Has a very quick first move and is explosive off the snap … Closes on the ball in a hurry … Chases down ballcarriers from the back side and hits full speed in pursuit within a couple of steps … Has experience dropping on tight ends and backs in coverage assignments … Makes a lot of plays behind the line by shooting gaps and getting clean shots at the player with the ball … Has a big transition ahead of him, because he doesn't project as a pure defensive end and doesn't have the size or base to hold up on running plays … Is not adept at pass/run recognition, which could be another red flag that will take a lot of time to improve … Viewed as a one-trick-pony pass-rushing DE that didn't have a lot of alternate pass-rush moves … Never played up to the level that his talent would make you think he should … Ran a 4.57 40 at the Combine, a position-best 31 reps of 225 pounds, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 10-0 broad jump.
Projection: A player to keep an eye on during Saturday's first round, because he could very well land with the 49ers. He has all the natural tools to eventually be a dominating weakside linebacker in a 4-3 system with use as a third-down defensive end or a pass-rushing outside LB in a 3-4 scheme. But his lack of production and sub-par senior season (he missed almost half of his starts after dislocating three toes on one play) make him a first-round talent with the "potential bust" tag being assigned to him. Early on, his only contribution may be as a third-down pass rusher – a steep price to pay in the first round. Perhaps too steep.

Dan Connor, Penn State, 6-2½, 232: Fourth-year senior … All-American selection by Parade and USA Today as a high school senior as well as being named Associated Press Big School Player of the Year … A two-year full-time starter who started 35 of his 46 career games in four years … In his final two seasons (26 games), he had 258 tackles, 24 tackles for a loss, 11½ sacks, eight forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries … Moved from outside linebacker to middle linebacker as a senior, replacing Buffalo's 2007 second-round draft pick Paul Posluszny … Won the Chuck Bednarik Award, given annually to college football's best defensive player … A tackling machine who averaged more than 10 tackles a game as a starter and finished as Penn State's all-time leading tackler with 419 … Doesn't get caught out of position on screen passes or draws … Can make plays from sideline to sideline … Is very adept at sifting through traffic to find a seam to get the ballcarrier … Has a high-running motor and is a team leader … Closes quickly on short passes to limit gains after the catch … Does not have the best natural athletic skills and has to work very hard to get similar production to more natural LBs … Does not have a lot of musculature and doesn't have the type of body that can add 15-20 pounds of bulk … Will have a harder time making up a step or two on NFL running backs … Can get engulfed by blockers when they get their hands on him … Did not work out at the Combine because he caught the flu shortly before going to Indianapolis.
Projection: A player whose college production is unquestioned, his limitations will count more against him than his gaudy numbers will help him, and he could fall into the second round. He may never be a Pro Bowl player, but he will earn his money every day and be a valuable guy to have on whatever team takes him.

Xavier Adibi, Virginia Tech, 6-2, 231: Fifth-year senior … His brother Nathaniel was a fifth-round pick of the Steelers in 2004 … Missed six games as a freshman with a torn biceps tendon that required surgery … Started all 40 games he played his final three seasons, recording 266 tackles, 24½ tackles for a loss, nine sacks, 14 passes broken up and seven interceptions … Very good speed and closing burst … A good open-field tackler who uses good technique in one-on-one situations … Has the speed to chase down plays to the sideline … Good on-field awareness to read and react quickly … Takes on lead blockers head-up and will destroy plays coming his way … Has long arms and uses them effectively to keep blockers at bay … Strong in dropping in pass coverage and keeps plays in front of him … Looked very smooth at the Senior Bowl … Is thin, especially in the lower body … Does not have the bulk that most NFL linebackers do and doesn't have the kind of frame that will add much more in the way of muscle (he added 12 pounds between the Senior Bowl and the Combine and was noticeably slower) … Played inside linebacker at VT, but doesn't have the size or strength to remain inside in a 4-3 defense … Does not take good care of his legs and will get chop-blocked and cut under a lot … Will try to make big hits and will miss some tackles that he shouldn't in pursuit … Ran a 4.69 40 at the Combine with a 29½ vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump, but didn't lift at the Combine because of a shoulder injury.
Projection: A player with great playing speed, but not bulk or top-end strength, Adibi is likely going to have to go a team that needs a weakside LB in a 4-3 only. Some think he may be effective as an inside linebacker in a 3-4, but his limitations might not make that the best fit. He should go in the second round, but, after gaining 12 pounds to get up to 231, it would be a lot to ask him to get much bigger without losing more speed – his biggest current asset.

Cliff Avril, Purdue, 6-2¾, 244: Fourth-year senior … Two-year starter who played his first two years at strongside linebacker, spent his junior year at weakside linebacker and his senior season at defensive end … Started his final 27 games, recording 125 tackles, 30 tackles for a loss, 12½ sacks, 13 passes batted down and two interceptions … Has good quickness off the snap and can re-direct his movement in an instant … His versatility is a huge plus … Has long arms and good upper-body strength to keep defenders off his body … Had a very good week in practice at the Senior Bowl and running linebacker drills at the Combine … An intelligent player who is a student of the game after learning several different responsibilities … Moves laterally very well … Chases down a lot of plays … Does not have the size to play DE in the pros and being moved there in 2007 retarded some of his progress to become a NFL linebacker … Too often tries to get cute and dip around defenders and, as a result, is often ridden out of plays … Does not use his hands effectively to jolt blockers and keep them from smothering him … Will need to greatly improve his drops into pass coverage … Had an impressive showing at the Combine, running a 4.52 40 (second best among OLBs) with 26 reps, a 36½-inch vertical jump (third-best) and a 9-9 broad jump.
Projection: Purdue has a history of producing effective, undersized DEs like Shaun Phillips and Anthony Spencer that turn into NFL outside linebackers. That should play in Avril's favor. He could be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 front or a weakside linebacker in a 4-3. His size will play against him, but with his talent and the need for active linebackers on teams that employ small, aggressive defenses, he won't make it out of the second round and could be a good sleeper pick to surprise some experts with how high he gets taken.

Geno Hayes, Florida State, 6-1, 226: Third-year junior who came to the Seminoles as a Parade All-American from Florida … A two-year starter who had 139 tackles, 29½ tackles for a loss, eight sacks, six forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries … Arrested in September 2007 after getting into an altercation with police that didn't end until he was Tasered … A high-intensity player who makes plays everywhere on the field … Hits top speed quickly and hits people with ferocity … Is able to chase plays through traffic and not get taken off his feet … Good at recognizing plays and reacting … Rarely loses body control and can mirror runner cut-back moves … Very undersized for the NFL … Has a lot of difficulty escaping from blockers that get into his body … Will miss tackles trying to apply the knockout hit … Will find himself in mismatches with most tight ends … Does not have top-end speed and will have trouble heading off running backs on sweeps around the corner … Ran a 4.64 40 at the Combine with 23 reps, a 26-inch vertical jump and a 9-7 broad jump.
Projection: Because of his limitations in size and strength, he seems destined to be a weakside linebacker in a 4-3 system. He has experience both in the middle and weakside and, while he can develop into a solid NFL player, his deficiencies will probably hurt him more than others on draft day. He could slide farther than some of the prospects we have rated behind him.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Erin Henderson, Maryland, 6-2¾, 244:
Fourth-year junior who came to Maryland as a quarterback in 2004 before moving to OLB midway through the season … The brother of E.J. Henderson, who was a second-round pick of the Vikings in 2003 … Tore his left ACL in 2005 and missed the entire season … A two-year starter who made starts in 25 of 26 career games … The only start he missed in 2007 was due to a left knee sprain … In his two years with the Terps, he had 247 tackles, 17½ tackles for a loss, two sacks, six passes broken up and three interceptions … Has long arms and big hands … Has very good on-field awareness and run/pass recognition skills … Very good blitzer who can move laterally to avoid blockers … Good open-field tackler … Solid in pass coverage … Is adept at reading the eyes of the quarterback and jumping routes for tackles, breakups or interceptions … Has had multiple knee injuries following his ACL surgery that could be a potential red flag – he wore a cumbersome knee brace all through his junior year that can't be missed on tape … Doesn't have great upper-body strength … Does not have great timed speed (see below) … Has trouble getting away from blockers once they get their hands on him … Doesn't fly into the hole with aggression in run support … Gets caught too often biting on play-fakes … Ran a 4.74 40 at the Combine (third-worst among OLB prospects) with 22 reps of 225 pounds, a 31½-inch vertical jump and a 9-4 broad jump.
Projection: A player who may have been much better served to go back to Maryland for his senior year, but with a weak crop of linebackers, he should still get selected early enough to keep him from completely regretting the decision. He will probably be downgraded for his physical shortcomings, but his athleticism will likely get him taken in the third round by a team looking for weakside help in a Cover-2 defense.

Jordon Dizon, Colorado, 6-0, 229: Fourth-year senior … A four-year starter who started all but four of his 50 career college games … Two-time team captain … Played his first three years at middle linebacker before moving to the weakside during the 2007 season … In his last two seasons, he recorded 297 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, eight sacks and two passes picked off … His 120 solo tackles last year were the most of any player in Division I … Extremely good production numbers, averaging more than 12 tackles a game over his final two seasons … Has the speed to chase down plays to the sideline … Keeps on his feet to sift through the garbage to get to the ballcarrier … Uses his hands well to avoid cut blockers … Has decent closing speed … Hits with some ferocity and is an aggressive blitzer and tackler … Smart and is loved by coaches and teammates for his dedication … Has almost no upper-body strength to speak of (see below) … Is very undersized … Can't hold his ground when blockers get their hands on him … Played in a defense that didn't give him much responsibility in pass coverage … Wears down during games and routinely received an I.V. drip at halftime of games to combat dehydration … Did not have a good week playing OLB at the Senior Bowl … Ran a 4.66 40 at the Combine with a woeful 12 reps (by far the worst among OLBs and just about everyone who lifted) with a 31-inch vertical jump and a 9-10 broad jump.
Projection: A productive college player who may have a niche in the NFL for teams that run variations of the Tampa-2, where smaller, speedy players can have a much bigger impact, but his lack of experience or skill in coverage could hurt him. After playing inside almost his entire college career, his move outside has been up and down and he will take time to mature in the NFL. If a team isn't patient, he could be a bust at the next level. But, with good teaching and the right scheme, he could be a productive pro that can be had in the third or fourth round.

Tavares Gooden, Miami, 6-1½, 232: Fifth-year senior … A Florida state high school champion in the discus as a senior … Got a medical redshirt as a junior in 2005 when he dislocated his shoulder in the season opener and sat out the rest of the season … While starting nine of 12 games as a sophomore, he didn't become a full-time starter again until 2007 – when he recorded 100 tackles, three tackles for a loss and one interception … A very good student who has already graduated and double-majored in criminology and liberal arts … Played weakside linebacker his first two seasons, strongside linebacker for a year and inside LB as a senior … Very well-built and has a strong lower body … Makes plays everywhere on the field and is extremely aggressive … Is agile and can make his way through traffic very effectively to get to the player with the ball … Covers a lot of ground in pursuit and makes plays from the backside … Looks natural in zone pass coverage and is good at reading the quarterback's eyes to jump routes … Does not have great size and seems to play even smaller … Does not have great reaction time to plays in front of him and can't afford a misstep or he's out of the play … Gets caught jumping on play action in the run game … Has a history of injuries and doesn't have a reputation of playing through pain – he went to the Senior Bowl but pulled himself out with what were described as mild groin and hip injuries … Ran a 4.57 40 at the Combine with 23 reps of 225 pounds, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 9-10 broad jump.
Projection: Not in the mold of other great linebackers from "The U," those expecting a poor man's Ray Lewis or even something similar to last year's first-round pick, Jon Beason, will be greatly disappointed. Gooden is a solid player with good production last year, but doesn't have the same fire as those guys. His is a ‘tweener in the sense that some view him as having potential inside and others see him as an outside ‘backer. Either way, he is going to take time and could be a find in the third or fourth round if he lands in a scheme that fits his strengths.

Ali Highsmith, LSU, 5-11¾, 229: Fourth-year senior … Cousin of former NFL RB Alonzo Highsmith, who was the third overall pick of the Houston Oilers in the 1987 draft and played six seasons in the NFL … Originally signed to play with the University of Miami but never enrolled due to academics and sat out a year … Became a starter early in his sophomore year and started his last 36 college games … Burst on the scene as a senior with 101 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, three sacks and eight passes broken up … A versatile player who spent his first two years at weakside linebacker and his last two playing on the strong side … Is good at reading the quarterback and making plays to break up passes … Is able to make plays to the sideline and has much better field-speed than his timed speed … Gets to top speed very quickly … Has mental and physical toughness and will play hurt … Does not have good explosive speed or quick-twitch movement … Is very short … Does not have great bulk and has a build that can't handle much more weight without slowing down considerably … Gets caught too many times on play-action or misdirection … Dives too often trying to make tackles and will miss … Plays out of control at times and gives up cut-back lanes … Will come to a complete stop on plays away from his side too often and doesn't give the extra effort other LBs do on every play … Has a history of ankle injuries, which could be a medical red flag for some teams … Ran a 4.96 40 at the Combine with 23 reps, a 29-inch vertical jump (second-worst among OLB prospects) and a 9-4 broad jump.
Projection: His 40 times sent some shock waves through scouts, some of whom timed him at more than 5.0 seconds. His selling point is his ability in pass coverage, which is better than most of the Class of 2008 linebackers. But his lack of size, height and bulk will limit interest in him by many teams and likely allow him to slide into or near the fourth round. He could become a solid pro, but his weaknesses are pretty pronounced and not all of them can be fixed.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Alvin Bowen, Iowa State, 6-1¼, 223
Curtis Gatewood, Vanderbilt, 6-2¼, 247
Gary Guyton, Georgia Tech, 6-1¾, 244
Robert James, Arizona State, 5-10¾, 226
Stanford Kegler, Purdue, 6-1¾, 235
Phillip Wheeler, Georgia Tech, 6-2, 240



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