The heart-and-soul of the unit where boys stay on the sidelines and men play the game.
Thus is the life of a middle linebacker. With more teams going to the 3-4 alignment, those that remain in a 4-3 scheme still covet, smart, instinctive and aggressive men in the middle of the field. The evolution to the 3-4 defense has seen this position evolve from small, squat, physical fireplugs into tall outside linebackers who lack great foot speed who move inside in order to retain employment.
That is why teams needing help in the middle are hoping to secure a stud like Luke Kuechly or Don't'a Hightower in the first round. Failing to do so could be costly, as the talent level after the two All-Americans drops off considerably. It would be surprising to see even 10 players targeted at this position hearing their names called on draft day.
As you will notice on the grade chart, Kuechly is highly regarded by this scouting information service, so much so that he receives the highest grade of any defensive player on our draft board. While he might lack great size, his pass coverage skills are likened to that of former Dolphins great Zach Thomas; his instincts and field vision are favorably compared to that of Baltimore's Ray Lewis; his penchant for being in the right place at the right time is reminiscent to that of former Chicago Bears perennial All-Pro Mike Singletary.
Ever since he entered college, Kuechly has been the featured player on the BC unit. The nation's leading active tackler (532 stops) is highly intelligent, with a natural feel for the play as it develops. He has some problems when he gets overaggressive, as interior blockers have success in attacking his feet, but he flows to the ball quickly and it is rare for any offense to fool him on play action and misdirection.
When you watch a Boston College game, it only seems that 11 defenders are wearing No. 40. Like Thomas, Kuechly easily races through a crowd and has the sudden burst through rush lanes to meet the lead blocker with force. He has the quick feet to get to the sidelines in a hurry and has a strong concept for taking proper angles going after ball-carriers attempting to turn the corner.
Kuechly is an athletic defender, showing the hip swerve and flexibility you find in a player that some teams might feel will be more advantageous as a weak-side outside linebacker rather than performing as a classic middle linebacker. He shows suddenness in his initial move off the ball and gets to top speed quickly. He has the lateral agility and change-of-direction agility to slip off blocks and string plays wide (see 2011 Central Florida, Duke and North Carolina State games).
The linebacker has good strength upon initial contact, and while he is not a blow-them-up type, he breaks down well on the move. His ability to quickly turn and run makes him an asset in pass coverage, as he has the foot speed to stay with most receivers through their routes. He is shorter than ideal and could use more bulk for the inside linebacker position, but compensates with good explosion coming off the ball and above average power behind his hits.
For someone his size, he moves well in space, thanks to exceptional change-of-direction agility. While Kuechly lacks the ideal size to take on the larger blockers, he compensates with proper pad level, good strength, excellent field savvy and tremendous instincts. He has enough hand strength to shed blocks quickly, doing a nice job of extending to keep blockers from attacking his body.
He constantly keeps his legs moving on contact, doing a nice job of driving the ball-carrier back (see 2011 Northwestern, Massachusetts, Wake Forest and Notre Dame games). When he takes on blocks with his hands, he will generally separate and get off blocks quickly. He has the functional strength to take on blocks and shed. He has no problems running downhill to fill the rush lane and plays with good leverage when taking on the linemen.
While not the tackling machine Kuechly has become, Alabama's Hightower comes to the NFL with a great resume, especially after his head coach, Nick Saban, told anyone within earshot at his pro day that the linebacker is one of the finest players to ever suit up for the university. He is a tireless worker in the weight room and plays with such vigor, the coaches sometimes have to ask him to tone it down in practice, fearing that he will hurt a teammate. He has good playing strength and an excellent burst, along with showing great urgency closing on the ball and will unload into running backs with no concern for his own welfare.
Hightower has excellent linebacker instincts for pre-snap movement. He consistently finds the ball and has plays with good field awareness. He is a much better hitter on the perimeter than in tight quarters, but does hold his ground well when he keeps his hands active to prevent blockers from attacking his feet, using strong rip moves to slip off blocks. Even when he gets cut working through traffic, he is quick to pop back up. He is a little stiff in his hips but active to shift down the line and locate the ball.
The Tide linebacker has good hand quickness and enough functional strength to stun, jolt and reroute tight ends. He uses his hands with force to hold the tight end at the line of scrimmage. He also shows natural hands to make the play on the ball in pass coverage, doing a nice job of tracking the pigskin in and getting to the pass at its high point. He stays low in his pads and generates enough burst to make plays in space. He shows excellent body control in the open and is a classic wrap-up tackler who will jolt the ball-carriers back upon contact.
The thing you see on film is his quickness to fill the rush lanes and the size and strength to stun offensive linemen. When he is active with his hands, he gets to the play and can string it wide. His speed makes it difficult for the offensive lineman to contain when coming off the backside. He has the speed and stride to reach outside and displays the instincts to sniff out the ball and make the play. His acceleration is the reason he consistently makes the cut off.
Flying under the radar, at least where the media is concerned, is Utah State's Bobby Wagner, who our service feels is the best inside linebacker for a team utilizing a 3-4 scheme. He is a versatile defender, beginning his career as a weak-side outside linebacker before shifting inside for his sophomore and senior seasons. Like Kuechly, he delivers tackles in bunches, coming off three 100-plus tackle campaigns, as he tied the school record with 446 stops.
Wagner is the type of athlete who plays quicker than his timed speed. He shows good flexibility and explosion coming off the snap and ease of movement when working laterally. He has sharp change-of-direction agility and enough functional strength to stack and control. He has excellent instincts and vision to spot misdirection and locate the ball. He does a good job of avoiding blocks and can see through blockers and get to the ball quickly.
This is a player with a good nose for the ball. Wagner plays on his feet with good ward-off and shed ability. He shows the strength, aggressiveness and quickness to make plays in pursuit. He is powerful when engaging blockers, using his hand swipes with force to shed blocks and create separation.
Wagner has the change-of-direction agility and burst to make plays inside and outside the box. He is quick to drop in coverage and has good hip flexibility to turn and cover for a middle linebacker. His ability to get through traffic allows him to easily flow to the ball. The thing you notice on film is his ability to square up at the line of scrimmage. He plays with desire and has the balance to avoid trash.
Cat-quick Mychal Kendricks of California opened eyes at the Scouting Combine, leading all linebackers at the event with a 4.44 clocking in the 40-yard dash. He then showed off his leaping ability (39 1/2-inch vertical jump and 10'7" broad jump) before putting up 225 pounds 24 times in the bench press.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US Presswire
Kendricks has above-average quickness and change-of-direction agility, looking fluid scraping down the line. He is not a blow-them-up type of tackler and can be engulfed by larger blockers in tight areas, but he uses his lateral movement to slip past and avoid blockers effectively.
The Cal linebacker might be a better fit for an outside position, as he shows a good flow to the ball, but I doubt he has the strength to match up to the more physical NFL blockers attacking from the middle (more of a pile-on tackler than one that steps up to initiate contact). He has the speed and range to cover the field coming from the outside, and that quickness seems a better fit for him to apply pressure coming off the edge. He has good lower-body flexibility, especially in the hips. He also demonstrates good balance on the move, along with the acceleration and burst to close on plays in front of him.
Nevada's James-Michael Johnson received a lot of "tough love" from Singletary, as the two were together in Mobile for the Senior Bowl, but the Vikings assistant coach was trying to see just how far he could push this impressive athlete before he broke. JMJ went home intact and might have earned himself strong draft consideration in the third round.
Johnson has a compact build with thick muscle structure and good core strength. He is shorter than ideal for a possible switch to outside linebacker, but has good lower-body thickness in his thighs, calves and ankles, along with a good bubble. He has good arm length and wingspan, along with adequate hands. He has room to add at least another 10 pounds of bulk with no loss in quickness if he is to remain at inside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive alignment.
Johnson is more quick than fast, but shows good closing speed vs. plays in front of him, as he has had success as a downhill thumper. He builds his acceleration steadily and stays low in his pads to slip under blocks and make plays in pursuit. He improved his change-of-direction agility as a senior but has some hip stiffness that causes him to struggle some when attempting to redirect, especially when he bites on misdirection.
The Nevada defender has a good short-area burst to string plays wide, showing good balance working his way through trash. He has enough speed to pressure the pocket on the blitz, but must work on opening his hips quicker in pass coverage. As his senior year progressed, Johnson displayed the quickness, agility, balance and body control that could see him be an efficient middle linebacker at the next level, but you would like to see him protect his legs better on the move (must keep hands inside his frame to combat chop blocks and double teams).
Texas will see two of their linebackers get selected in the draft, Keenan Robinson, likely a midrounder, and Emmanuel Acho, a late-round target. Robinson moved from weak-side outside linebacker to the middle as a senior, where he posted 13 quarterback pressures, 106 tackles and 10 stops behind the line of scrimmage. Acho completed his second season as the Longhorns' strong-side outside linebacker, delivering 131 hits with 18 pressures and 19 stops for losses, but most teams see him as a better fit inside than playing on the edge.
Robinson has a thick frame with room for additional growth. He has good chest and shoulder muscle definition, lean waist, good bubble, well-developed legs, long arms and thick thighs. He plays much faster than his timed speed and shows above-average balance, acceleration and change of direction agility. He is a fluid runner with good body control, getting to the ball quickly thanks to excellent hip fluidness.
Robinson plays with good field awareness. He has the ability to see plays develop and make quick adjustments on the field. He takes the plays from the board to the field with no problems. He uses his strength effectively to plug holes and hold ground at the line of scrimmage. Even when he plays high, he is quick to get off blocks.
Robinson willingly plugs holes and has the short-area speed, body control and change-of-direction agility to make reach tackles or force the runner inside. His speed to the edge lets him force the action. While he has good short-area speed, he does not have the sudden burst or long speed to run with the receiver throughout the route though. He has good mirror and shade ability in the short area, and good hip swivel coming out of his backpedal, but can not stay with his man in the deep area.
Acho shows decent instincts and awareness. He reacts quickly once he sees the scheme and play develop and shows a nose for the football. He gets into position after the snap and has the range to make plays down the line.
Acho is quick to react and chase the ball. He has enough lateral movement to flow to the ball down the line, as his timed speed is evident by his excellent range, showing the ability to run sideline to sideline. He always gives good effort and plays with a high motor. When he uses his arms and hands to stave off blockers trying get into chest, he can get through trash while reading the scheme. When he fails to bring his hands or short arms, he will get walled off.
Perhaps no player has seen his draft stock plummet in a matter of year like that of Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict, who not only suffered through a penalty-filled season, but tried to throw his coaches under the bus, blaming them for his consistently poor performances throughout the 2011 season. Given just the slightest benefit of the doubt, he headed to the Scouting Combine and not only imploded during team interviews, but managed to perform the worst of any linebacker in nearly all the agility tests conducted in Indianapolis.
Sometimes I wonder if Bart Simpson is hidden inside this kid. He has seen the coaching staff turn the other cheek several times due to his on-field transgressions, but there have been times where punishment was the staff's only recourse – a benching. He has better weight room strength than what he shows on the field, as there is some wasted motion in his play.
Burfict obviously does not take to hard coaching, and when he is pushed a bit by the staff, he seems to regress and come up with a slew of foolish penalties. Pac-10 Conference officials should look into a group discount for Tommy John surgery, for after all the flags they threw on this athlete the last two years, their elbows might need to be repaired.
Burfict has functional strength, but is not a strong shed player. He does not bring his strength into the picture when trying to play off inside blocks, as linemen can use their size and hands to lock him out. However, he gets good body position when taking on the ball-carrier and flashes enough ability to adjust in space.
He seems to be a better tackler on the edge than when working inside, where there are bigger blockers that he has to deal with. He has functional strength for tackling, but is best when he makes plays in front of him, as he shows better explosion to strike and wrap. Rarely does he miss a tackle when he takes a good angle to the ball.
Others that could hear their names called on the draft's third day are Okahoma's Travis Lewis, who also is being evaluated as an outside linebacker, small-college sensation Shawn Loiseau, TCU's Tank Carder, North Carolina State's Audie Cole, West Virginia's Najee Goode and possibly Arkansas' Jerry Franklin.
Dave-Te Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft.