Gazing Into Crystal Ball: Inside Linebackers

NFL Draft Report's Dave-Te' Thomas provides the Cream of the Crop, Best of the Rest, Most Overrated and Underrated, and Super Sleeper among the inside linebackers. Luke Kuechly and Dont'a Hightower are the headliners, and the "Sleeper" took a pre-draft visit in Green Bay.

Cream of the Crop

Luke Kuechly, Boston College

Luke Kuechly
Evan Habeeb/US Presswire
Kuechly, who started 37 of his 38 career games, saw his NCAA active-record string of 33 consecutive contests with at least 10 tackles snapped in the 2011 season finale vs. Miami, but in just three years as a collegian, his name is etched in major college, Atlantic Coast Conference and school record books. Many of the records that he established as a sophomore were shattered by his junior campaign performance.

Kuechly's average of 14.0 tackles per game for his career and 15.92 tackles per game as a junior are NCAA records. He is one of just eight players to average at least 14.0 tackles per game in a season, and the only athlete to accomplish that twice in a career (14.08 tpg in 2010). He is one of only four college players since the NCAA began compiling defensive records in 2000 to record more than 500 tackles in a career, as his 532 hits rank second in Football Bowl Subdivision annals. He is one of just three players to average at least seven solo tackles per game, as his 7.9 solo stops place second in FBS history. His 299 solo tackles are sixth-best in college annals.

Kuechly is the only ACC player to lead the league in tackles three times in a career, posting 158 hits as a freshman, followed by a then-ACC record 183 stops in 2010 before breaking his own mark with 191 tackles as a junior. Only four other players since the ACC started in 1953 have led the conference in tackles more than once.

Kuechly's 532 tackles rank second in NCAA major-college history (since records were kept in 2000), and he is just one of two Eagles to amass 500 tackles in a career. His 191 stops in 2011 and 183 hits in 2010 hold the top two spots on BC's record list, while his 158 tackles as a freshman rank sixth. He is the only player in NCAA annals to have two of his season tackle totals rank on the top-10 list (both 2010 and 2011). His 110 solo stops as a sophomore tied Leroy Hill of Clemson (2005) for tenth on the major college's annual record chart. With 102 solo stops in 2011, he is the only player in FBS history to lead the nation in solo tackles twice in a career.

Compares to: Zach Thomas, ex-Miami — I love smaller, smarter and cat-quick middle linebackers and Kuechly is one of those once-in-a-blue-moon types. There is no better zone coverage defender in the linebacker class than the former Boston College star. His ball-awareness skills lets Kuechly locate the ball quickly. He does a good job of picking up and switching off on receivers, keeping the play in front of him. He has an explosive break on the ball and keeps his hands properly extended to wrap and secure. He is so instinctive, you will rarely, if ever, see him frozen by the tight ends. His understanding of zone concepts and great ability to anticipate the ball in flight allows him to stay on the field for every down. He has that good burst of speed, along with great field vision to anticipate throws and it is rare to see him get locked on the quarterback, as he works more to maintain relationship with the receivers and challenge them for the ball in flight.

Best of the Rest

Dont'a Hightower, Alabama

Playing for one of the finest coaches in the history of the college game, Nick Saban has been Hightower's biggest fan over the years, remembering the long, grueling hours his young charge recorded in 2009 after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery. What impressed the coach most was the linebacker's refusal to let the injury get him down, as Don't'a (pronounced Don-tay) served as a "coach on the sidelines" after a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee cut short his sophomore season after four games.

It has been the mutual respect between the coach and player that has played a major role to the Tide's success, as Hightower was the unquestioned leader in the locker room and on the playing field. No matter what task Saban asked from his defender, Hightower would perform that role, no questions asked. Professional scouts respect a player who performs with a team-first work ethic. They also covet players who can perform in a variety of roles, which Hightower did frequently.

A finalist for the Chuck Bednarik, Butkus and Lombardi Awards, Hightower was a consensus All-American and unanimous all-SEC first-team selection. Starting 13 games, he earned eight Player of the Week honors, as he paced the Tide with a career-high 85 tackles (40 solos), finishing third on the squad with four sacks and second with 11 stops for losses. He also recorded eight pressures with a forced fumble, a trio of pass break-ups, an interception and a blocked kick.

Compares to: Rolando McClain, Oakland — Like his former teammate, Hightower has above-average speed and awareness to run with the receiver over the middle and in the flat. He shows a natural ability to turn and mirror working in the deep zone. He has the agility to make plays on the ball, as his soft hands allow him to pluck and snatch away from the body's framework.

Most Overrated

Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State

Matt Kartozian/US Presswire

Maybe he's no longer overrated, but anyone that watched his implosion during the season and at the Combine had to be checking their shoes before realizing the "stink" in the room came from the Sun Devil.

Burfict can be an explosive open-field tackler, as he has the the thick, wide body teams look for in a strong-side inside linebacker. He is physical and aggressive fending off blockers to get to the ball-carrier when on the move, and while he lacks the timed speed or suddenness to get a quick drop trying to cover receivers in the intermediate areas, he has the agility and field vision to sniff out pass plays in front of him when in zone coverage, doing a nice job of using his hands to dislodge the ball from his opponents.

However, he has been prone to immature behavior that has cost his team penalties at critical stages of games throughout his career. He's not as instinctive as his reputation might lead you to believe, has a soft build and hasn't shown any real improvement since first stepping onto the ASU campus.

Burfict had a disappointing season after being pegged as the preseason Defensive Player of the Year in some publications. What is his state of mind after sitting out the final 24 minutes of the regular-season finale vs. California after he picked up two personal foul penalties? Coaches had talked in spring about a more-focused, more-mature Burfict. That obviously didn't really come to pass.

Compares to: Odell Thurman, ex-Cincinnati — Remember that Bengals' "bad boy" who had the honor of being suspended for two full seasons for his antics before flaming out? Burfict has been given more chances than a church raffle and still takes the Charlie Brown "why is everybody always picking on me" attitude. Grow up kid, or get on the unemployment line.

Most Underrated

Bobby Wagner, Utah State

The linebacker's power base makes it difficult for lead blockers to widen the rush lanes when he enters the gaps. Even with his power, he utilizes his strong, quick hands for cross-over moves when slipping past slower offensive lineman to impact the backfield and pressure the pocket. He is alert to blocking schemes and is quick to break down in apace and close in an instant when given a free lane to the quarterback.

Throughout his career, Wagner has been known for his durability, as he's never missed even one play because of an injury. That is why it was a bit ironic that this emerging talent, coming off a sensational 2011 campaign and then putting the cherry on the sundae with an outstanding performance throughout the week-long practices prior to the Senior Bowl, would be forced to the Scouting Combine because of pneumonia.

Still, scouts and league executives can look at Wagner's body of work and impressive game films as his resume shows a player who has recorded 446 tackles, tying Travis Lewis of Oklahoma for the fourth-highest total of stops among Football Bowl Subdivision active players. That figure also set the school and Western Athletic Conference records.

Wagner had a pre-draft visit with the Packers.

Compares to: James Farrior, ex-Pittsburgh — Wagner is ideally suited to play in a 3-4 scheme and he has excelled at whatever task the coaches ask from him — weak-side outside linebacker as a freshman, inside in a 3-4 scheme as a sophomore, strong-side outside as a junior and back inside on the weak-side in 2011. Despite all those changes, he totaled 446 tackles, 29.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage and four interceptions.

Super Sleeper

James-Michael Johnson, Nevada

James-Michael Johnson
Douglas C. Pizac/US Presswire
Like Wagner, Johnson has played several positions at linebacker for the Wolf Pack and could start quickly, whether in the middle or at weak-side outside linebacker. Having earned his 43rd consecutive start, tops among active Wolf Pack players, he captured the attention of professional scouts, as versatility is crucial for any draft hopeful, along with impressive production on the field.

"James-Michael was a play-maker on the defensive side of the ball this year and we counted on him as a leader, both on and off the field," stated Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault prior to his team captain's final collegiate campaign.

Johnson started 50-of-54 games; 23 at strong-side linebacker and 27 in the middle, as he ranks sixth in school history with 299 tackles (170 solos). His 39.5 tackles for losses placed him fifth on the Pack's career-record chart, as that total also ranks 12th in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision ranks among active players. He came up with 8.5 sacks and 34 quarterback pressures. His seven forced fumbles rank third in school annals and tied him for seven on the Western Athletic Conference career-record chart.

While the offense failed to jell, Johnson kept his young defensive teammates in check, ranking second on the team with a career-high 101 tackles (55 solos) in 2011. He led the Pack with 18 quarterback pressures, as he caused a pair of fumbles and recovered another. He also posted eight tackles while performing on the Pack's kickoff and punt coverage units. 31 of his stops came on third-down plays, adding three more on fourth-down snaps.

Compares to: Michael Boley, N.Y. Giants — Boley's success in the NFL is to know everyone's assignments, as he might be in the middle one game, at weak-side the next and then over to the strong-side. Johnson has the same instincts and temperament, so bouncing from position to position will not affect his learning curve.

Johnson has greatly improved his wrap-up tackling technique since learning to keep his hands inside his frame. He won't explode behind his hits, but when he keeps his pad level down, he is effective at driving into and pushing back the ball-carrier by consistently attacking the opposing runner's legs to impede their forward progress.

He is a better tackler on the move, as he knows how to avoid the bigger blockers than when making plays at the point of attack. He has good body control in space, showing the ability to break down and hit with functional pop. During the 2011 season, he was used more often in run containment, but he does have slippery moves to shoot the gaps and disrupt the pocket (see 2011 San Jose State, Boise State, UNLV and New Mexico State games), as he demonstrated solid square-up ability, showing good form taking on blockers in-line and in space.

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.

Packer Report Top Stories