Rivers had an outstanding career at USC and was a consistent performer for the Trojans. He’s a great leader and commands respect in the huddle. He’s a versatile defender and has the ability to play all three linebacker positions, as he did at the Senior Bowl. He showed intelligence picking up the defensive scheme and was smooth on the field during practices in Mobile. Entering the Combine, Rivers is the draft’s top linebacker, and with another impressive showing he will solidify his status as a top-15 selection.
An undersized linebacker who plays bigger than listed, Highsmith always seems to be around the ball. He’s a hard-nosed player who moves well laterally and plays sideline-to-sideline. He’s active and is always around the action looking to make a play. He tends to get lost in the shuffle occasionally, and he has to get off blocks better. His size is a concern, and that’s something teams will evaluate closely in Indianapolis. But his motor and intensity will warrant first-round consideration for Highsmith.
Adibi is another undersized linebacker who has a nice frame, but who has to add bulk. He’s a playmaker on the outside and possesses great quickness. He had a nice performance in Mobile and displayed his elite speed and awareness. He’s extremely agile, and watching him perform at the Senior Bowl reminded you of how great an athlete Adibi is. If he blitzes through the 40-yard dash in Indy and has an off-the-chart time, look for Adibi to be a high second-round pick.
Maryland LB Erin Henderson reacts after making a tackle against West Virginia.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
4. *Erin Henderson, Maryland, 6-3, 242
Draft Projection: 2nd Round
The brother of Minnesota Vikings star linebacker E.J. Henderson, Erin has all the tools to become just as good or even better than his older brother. Erin is a tremendously talented player who can play inside or outside. He has great size, and good speed and agility. He’s a physical defender who tackles anything that moves. He has great instincts and flies to the ball. He’s a player who has a chance to impress at the Combine and move up draft boards as we approach April.
Davis produced outstanding numbers at UCLA during his career, but he was a streaky performer. Playing defensive end at his size doesn’t translate well to the NFL, and that’s why he’s switching to OLB. He lined up on the strong side in Mobile and played well, but he’s raw and still learning. He doesn’t move fluidly, and has to work on his awareness because he’s so used to blitzing and getting in the backfield. He has to learn how to drop back and defend. Scouts will critique Davis’ ability, but they won’t be too hard on him because he’s learning a new position and he already has a lot of ability.
Crable is an imposing, towering defender who happens to play linebacker. One look at him and you’d think he was a defensive end. He has the ability to rush the passer and collected 16 career sacks during his time at Michigan. Despite all the positives about Crable, he struggled in Mobile at the Senior Bowl. He was exploited in coverage and wasn’t fluid in pursuit. He suffered a back injury on the third day of practices and was unable to play in the game. The Combine is a place where Crable can position himself as a top linebacker in this class.
7. Ezra Butler, Nevada, 6-2, 248
Draft Projection: 3rd Round
One of the most underrated linebackers in this class, Butler has a chance to be special. He’s got all the qualities of an elite LB at the next level. He has great size, speed and instincts. He’s a good tackler who’s very physical. He attacks the line of scrimmage, positions himself well and is always around the ball. The problem is that he played in the WAC and didn’t play against top teams. But, he’s a player scouts will aggressively review at the Combine because of his attributes.
Extremely gifted and talented, Hayes has a world of potential and playmaking ability. He has a good frame, but lacks bulk. He has to get stronger and be more physical. He has great instincts and a nose for the ball. He’s quick on the edge and gets into the backfield — his 17.5 tackles for a loss last season were impressive. He has to shed blocks better and get in position to make more plays. Overall, he’s an outstanding player, but due to a sketchy past, he will have to interview well with teams to move up in the draft.
It’s hard to imagine that Dizon was an inside linebacker in college. He’s not an imposing figure and doesn’t look the part of a defender who can command the middle, but he’s an incredibly instinctive player. He doesn’t possess top-end speed, but he moves well laterally and positions himself to make plays. He’s a hard worker, and scouts will enjoy his attitude and passion for the game.
Howard’s performance in the Sugar Bowl made him a legitimate prospect and a player scouts should keep an eye on. He finished the season with 10.5 sacks (three came against Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl), but he’s a one-dimensional player who will have success at the next level as a pass rusher. He fits a 3-4 defense extremely well and can get on the edge and create havoc in the backfield. He’s not a physical player and will struggle getting off blocks. But, if it’s an all-out blitz, Howard will apply pressure and get in the face of the QB.
Woodyard is an undersized linebacker who has experience playing safety. It’s a possibility for him to make the move back to safety at the next level, but he doesn’t possess the fluidity in his hips to make the switch. Even though he’s undersized, Woodyard displayed great instincts and physical play at the Senior Bowl. He doesn’t shy away from contact and is deceptively strong. He struggles at the point of attack and gets knocked off by larger opponents. Scouts loved him in Mobile, but view Woodyard as a tweener.
12. Curtis Johnson, Clark Atlanta, 6-3, 239
Draft Projection: 4th – 5th Round
A small-school tweener who played DE in college and who is now forced to play OLB, Johnson has a lot of upside and displayed it at the East-West Shrine game. He’s an impressive prospect with very good pass rushing skills, and would fit in a 3-4 scheme perfectly. He has to get stronger and develop better technique. He will attract attention from scouts intrigued by small-school prospects and who’re looking for the next diamond-in-the-rough.
21. Nick Watkins, Clemson, 6-1, 220
Draft Projection: 6th – 7th Round
23. Thomas Williams, USC, 6-2, 240
Draft Projection: 7th Round
26. Kroy Biermann, Montana, 6-3, 242
Draft Projection: FA
27. Bryan Smith, McNeese State, 6-2, 228
Draft Projection: FA
28. Steve Octavien, Nebraska, 6-0, 239
Draft Projection: FA
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999.