Outside linebackers: Who? Where? When?

It's no secret. The Falcons are going to be in the market for one if not two outside linebackers to plug into their defense. And what better place to get some young, talented playmakers to fill in than at the NFL Draft next month. Here's a look at some of the top prospects who will be available when Atlanta's selections are about to be made...

I have always thought of the Outside linebacker position as being arguably the best athletes on a defense.

Typically, they are asked to cover tight ends, backs and slot receivers at different times while also being counted on to stop the run and rush the quarterback depending on the scheme and the down-and-distance.

They are typically the biggest playmakers on the field and they can be the difference between a great defense and one that wreaks havoc on the offense.

With that being said, here's a look at some of the top outside linebacker prospects and who will be available when it becomes Atlanta's turn to pass their selection to the podium.

First Round

A lot of people, myself included, love the game of USC's Brian Cushing, a player who started for three years and whose resume speaks for itself.

Cushing has a huge frame, measuring in at 6-3 and weighing in at 248 pounds, but it's his athleticism and instincts that really set him apart.

He runs well and he's a sure tackler, but he's a bit stiff in coverage and he's not a great pass-rusher/blitzer.

If Cushing is available at the 24th selection, Atlanta and the Falcons' scouting and coaching staffs will have to take a long look at him. However, one of his teammates may end up being the selection and here's why...

Clay Matthews, whose NFL bloodlines are second-to-none, has skyrocketed up draft boards and he's a player that intrigues quite a few coaches and GMs. What Matthews lacks in bulk -- he's 6-3, 240 -- he makes up in quickness and tenacity.

It's hard to say if Matthews is as good as his reviews have shown or if his negatives -- inability to disengage from blockers and suspect coverage abilities -- were covered up by the talent around him, but there's no denying he's a player on the rise.

What Matthews brings to the table, is a winning mentality and some untapped potential.

I've always seen Matthews as a player who would be a solid pickup in the second round, but more and more I'm hearing he's a definite possibility late in the first.

Will the Falcons give him a long look?

Second Round

If Matthews drops this far I really believe the Falcons will look at him with their second selection, but Northern Illinois' Larry English is another player who may have pushed himself into the first round, however because he's mainly played with his hand on the ground for the past four years it remains to be seen how he plays in reverse.

If he falls a bit, look for Atlanta to possibly look at trading up in the second to select him.

English has a lot of potential as a 3-4 rush linebacker, he finished second on NIU's All-Time sack list with 23.5, but he also could play a conventional weakside position if he proves to be good in coverage.

Third and Fourth Rounds

A player that a lot of scouts like is South Florida's Tyrone McKenzie, a player who has the versatility to play inside or outside, but sometimes that can work against a player since teams will have figure out if he will be adequate at both or if he could be great at one.

Because he's not very good in coverage, the USF coaching staff regularly pulled him in nickel situations and that's likely to be what happens to him in the NFL, making him a two-down 'backer at best.

I believe he could make a name for himself on special teams and eventually be a solid depth-player who can back up any of the three linebacker positions and he would be a high-value pick if he fell to the end of the fourth round.

Fifth, Sixth and Seventh round

Some late rounders to keep an eye on as we come down the stretch are Alcorn State's Lee Robinson, Oregon State's Victor Butler and TCU's Stephen Hodge.

All three would be great special-teams players, but I really liked what I saw of Butler the past four years with the Beavers.

The knock on Butler is that many think he's one-dimensional, but I've seen enough of him to know he isn't just an excellent pass-rusher. He's a bit stiff in coverage and he wasn't asked to stop the run much, but he plays with good leverage and at the East West Shrine game he showed an excellent initial pop and the ability to hold strong at the point.

Hodge could end up going in the fifth round because of his speed. He's one of the fastest linebackers available in the draft and he's a good open-field tackler.

Right now he's carrying a sixth round grade, but after his pro day and individual workouts he could vault himself up into the middle portion of the draft.

We'll take a look at defensive lineman in our next installment to give people some names to keep an eye on as we draw closer to the NFL Draft.


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