Unfortunately, this year's group is lacking in top-tier talent, as just one prospect figures to have even an outside chance of being selected in the draft's opening round.
POSITION REPORT CARD: This group was already thin without an elite prospect, but even the top player in the class may prove to be a better fit on the outside. The same can be said of many in the second-tier group and the best value inside linebackers could end up being some of the later-round prospects. From top to bottom, the 2011 crop of inside linebackers is below average and thus earns a C-minus grade.
Martez Wilson, Illinois
Good News: Definitely looks the part…Possesses great measurables…Excellent straight-line speed…Good run stopper between the tackles…Uses good length and strength to shed blocks…Can get to the sideline thanks to his speed…Strong wrap-up tackler…Provides a good pass rush due to his athletic ability.
Bad News: High-cut defender that looks stiff in the hips and can struggle in coverage…Instincts are so-so and can be susceptible to play-action and misdirection, although he has the speed to recover…Could play with more intensity…Plays too high at times…Needs to take better angles to the ball.
2010 Statistics: All-Big Ten Conference first-team selection…Registered 112 total tackles with 11.5 tackles-for-loss and four sacks…Added four quarterback hurries, four pass deflections, three forced fumbles, one interception and one blocked kick.
Prediction: Wilson looks like he was manufactured at a football factory and has excellent natural athletic talent. He's strong as a run defender and has the speed to make plays sideline to sideline. He also displays the ability to generate a pass rush. Some 4-3 defense may prefer him on the strong side, but his skill set also projects well inside in a 3-4 defense. There's an outside chance he could be selected late in the first round due to his upside, but will likely hear his name called early on day two.
Quan Sturdivant, North Carolina
Good News: Great overall instincts and recognition…Reacts quickly and has good awareness to locate the football…Aggressive and attacks the line of scrimmage, but is also disciplined enough not to bite on play-action and misdirection…Good overall speed and burst…Solid pass defender and is able to get good depth in coverage…Very good instincts in coverage for the position…Breaks on the football well and has good closing speed.
Bad News: Doesn't necessarily get off blocks well…Lacks great size and strength…Solid tackler who looks to wrap up but is not an explosive hitter (two career forced fumbles)…Flashes the ability to rush the passer but is inconsistent in this area…Some character concerns and missed time with a hamstring injury as a senior.
2010 Statistics: Missed five games due to injury…Registered 61 total tackles with 8.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks…Added two pass deflections, an interception and a fumble recovery.
Prediction: Sturdivant isn't always the flashiest of players, but his steady and consistent play will make him a hard guy to take off the field. He's smart and instinctive with enough athletic ability to become a starter. Sturdivant is versatile enough to play inside or out and will likely come off the board at some point during the second day.
Colin McCarthy, Miami (FL)
Good News: Solid instincts against the run and aggressively attacks the line of scrimmage…Fills the hole quickly and isn't afraid to take on the lead blocker…Strong tackler that can stand up the ball carrier in the hole…Plays with outstanding effort and intensity…Solid straight-line speed.
Bad News: Lacks great athletic ability…Lateral agility is average at best and can miss quicker defenders in space…Instincts in coverage are decent, but is stiff in the hips and struggles in man coverage…Overly aggressive against the run and can be susceptible to play action…Needs to take better angles to the ball and get off blocks more effectively.
2010 Statistics: All-ACC honorable mention…Registered 120 total tackles with 11.5 tackles-for-loss and two sacks…Added four quarterback hurries, one forced fumble, one pass deflection and one interception.
Prediction: I admit I'm not McCarthy's biggest fan. He's fairly instinctive and plays with very good effort and passion. He's also a pretty solid tackler that can stand up the ball carrier on contact. However, he's very aggressive and can play a little out of control. What stands out more to me on film aren't the plays that he makes, it's the tackles he misses. In my opinion he's a bit of a pile jumper (more than half of his tackles were assists), but he's a likely third-round pick who will contribute early on special teams.
Greg Jones, Michigan State
Good News: Displays good overall instincts for the position…Keys the run very well and reacts quickly, sometimes flashing the ability to attack the line of scrimmage and stop ball carriers in the backfield…Solid tackler…Good speed and effective coming on the blitz…Great intangibles – hard working team leader with experience playing inside and out.
Bad News: Too often lacks aggression and waits for the play to come to him…Diagnoses the run quickly but is inconsistent attacking the line of scrimmage…Lacks agility in the open field and appears stiff…Doesn't have the fluidity to stay with quicker running backs or tight ends in man coverage…Could get off blocks better and will get engulfed at times.
2010 Statistics: Unanimous first-team All-American…Registered 106 total tackles with 10 tackles-for-loss and one sack…Added six quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles, three pass deflections and two interceptions.
Prediction: Jones has been one of the nation's most productive linebackers over a brilliant four-year career. He appeared to have the athletic ability to excel in a Tampa 2 defense as a junior, but chose to return for his senior season boasting over 10 additional pounds on his frame. I think the additional weight has caused him to become a bit stiff, but Jones is still a solid run stopper with instincts and pass-rushing ability. He could excel inside a 3-4 defense or outside in a 4-3 and should be selected in the third or fourth round.
Kelvin Sheppard, Louisiana State
Good News: Solid overall instincts…Good straight-line speed and can be effective on the blitz…Strong against the run and flashes the ability to meet the back in the hole and stand him up…Aggressively attacks the line of scrimmage…Good enough agility and speed to be solid in zone coverage…Good lateral pursuit and effort.
Bad News: Flashes strong hands to get off blocks, but needs to be much more consistent at shedding and will get tied up too often…Possesses a taller frame and can struggle to shed/avoid when he plays high or when blockers go for his legs…Instincts and awareness are solid, but not great – will take false steps from time to time and can be fooled by misdirection/play-action…Not overly agile and can be juked by quicker defenders in space…Could take better angles to the ball.
2010 Statistics: All-SEC first-team selection…Registered 116 total tackles with 11 tackles-for-loss and four sacks…Added two quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, two pass deflections, an interception and a fumble recovery.
Prediction: Sheppard has experience both at weakside linebacker and in the middle. He displays solid overall instincts and plays with aggression and intensity, but needs to stay more disciplined. Sheppard can take false steps and will bite on play-action and misdirection. Teams running the 3-4 could see him as a nice fit in the middle, while 4-3 defenses may prefer him back on the weakside. He should be selected early on day three in the fourth or fifth round.
BEST OF THE REST
Ross Homan, Ohio State
Notes: Speed could allow him to excel in the Tampa 2, but struggles to get off blocks against the ground game.
Projection: 4th-5th round
Casey Matthews, Oregon
Notes: Great instincts and effort make him a strong candidate to contribute on special teams and grow into a quality player.
Projection: 5th round
Nate Irving, North Carolina State
Notes: Bounced back after a devastating car crash cost him the 2009 season and displays great athleticism that could allow him to excel inside a 3-4 or Tampa 2, as well as at the weakside linebacker position.
Projection: 5th-6th round
Josh Bynes, Auburn
Notes: Thick inside linebacker that's effective against the inside run, but lacks the athletic ability to excel in coverage and might be limited as a two-down player.
Projection: 6th round
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