Analysis of the 2012 Outside Linebackers

NFL Draft Report's Dave-Te' Thomas examines the players who project best to outside linebackers in a 4-3 scheme. Alabama's Courtney Upshaw is an explosive playmaker and tops Thomas' rankings, but one of the other elite prospects would be a great fit for Green Bay.

Most of the players that will shift to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive alignment were discussed and evaluated in the Rush End Analysis. This segment deals strictly with pure outside linebacker, more likely to compete in a 4-3 scheme. Even though the featured player, Courtney Upshaw of Alabama, could see some action as a rush end, his performance as a strong-side linebacker for the Crimson Tide last season could see this LaMarr Woodley clone play in a variety of roles for his future team.

Even though he recorded just 52 tackles last season, 18 of Upshaw's stops came behind the line of scrimmage, the seventh-best season total in school history. On 43 running plays directed at him, those ball-carriers collected minus-31 yards. He has a shorter-than-ideal frame to play on the line, but shows good upper-body thickness, wide hips, good bubble, muscular arms and good straight-line speed. He is an aggressive and physical edge rusher who constantly beats the blocker with his initial quickness.

With Upshaw, you get a product that has the initial step off the line and times his jumps well shooting the inside gaps. He does a good job of making adjustments on the move and has the lateral range to get to the perimeter and force the outside running game back inside. He seems to play more on instincts than ball recognition (needs to settle down at one position), but shows ease of movement flowing to the ball and a sudden burst to fill the rush lanes.

When he stays low in his pads, Upshaw is capable of driving through blocks and demonstrates functional ability to anchor at the point of attack. Moving back from the line in 2011, he showed improvement in using his hands to stack and control and was more effective in his attempts to shed. The reason I feel he will have success as a strong-side linebacker is that he pursues the play with vigor and has fluid lateral agility when chasing, but he is best when given a free lane to close in and flush the quarterback out of the pocket, leading the Tide with 9.5 sacks while posting 11 pressures in 2011.

Upshaw has the explosiveness to apply constant pressure coming off the snap and has the change-of-direction skills to pursue from the backside. He shows good urgency closing on the ball in the short area and has the valid foot speed to make plays outside the box. He generates good pop on contact and hits low, with good violence. There is no need to be concerned about his pass coverage skills, as opposing quarterback completed just 23.08 percent of their passes targeted into his area in 2011.

While undersized, Lavonte David of Nebraska is a tackling machine. He might be the most technically sound defensive player in this draft, but will end up getting the Rodney Dangerfield treatment (can't get any respect) from general managers in the first round. Hopefully Ted Thompson and the Packers are wise and strike gold by taking a chance on this Husker late in the draft's first day. With 481 tackles, including 63.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, 18.5 sacks, 11 forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries, to say that he is a playmaker would be an understatement.

Even though he is not the biggest linebacker on this planet, David has a well-built, angular frame, with good chest thickness, broad shoulders, tight waist and hips, thick thighs and calves. He has room for additional upper-body growth and should max out at 240 pounds. He has excellent explosiveness coming off the snap and shows fluid change of direction agility that is evident in his above-average range.

David makes things happen on the field thanks to his range and arm-tackling ability. He knows how to shorten the field by taking proper angles and has the lateral agility to flow to the ball. He stays square and does a good job of wrapping and securing. He plays at a good pad level, and while he is developing needed strength, he is an explosive hitter with the pop to drop running backs. He brings his arms properly to fit and secure.

When David is active with his hands, he has the moves to slip and avoid blockers to get through trash. When he uses his hands effectively, David is capable of filling the gaps. The thing I like about him is, even when the bigger blockers attack him, he works hard to get back into the play. He is best utilizing his change of direction and speed on the corners, where he can get to the ball-carrier and cut off the play.

The Husker runs through traffic well and has the stop-and-go action to recover when he over-pursues. His speed lets him cut off runners with his backside pursuit and is good at maintaining leverage and keeping containment vs. the outside run. He shows great agility and balance in that area, as he stays on his feet, clears trash and gets to the ball thanks to his quickness and speed.

One of the finest all-around athletes in the draft, North Carolina's Zach Brown, made lots of tackles last season (105) from the strong-side linebacker position, but seems to lack the sudden recognition skills. He is just not on par with others when it comes to reading the quarterback and reacting to the ball in flight, negating his above- average leaping ability to get up and deflect passes. A move back to the weak-side at the pro level is expected.

Brown has the hand usage to sift through traffic and has the acceleration needed to get to the edge and contain the outside run. He generates good power behind his hits, showing the body control to break down, wrap up and hammer the ball-carriers with authority. He shows good speed dropping back in pass coverage, as he is capable of covering tight ends and slot receivers in the short area and also gets enough depth in his pass drops to stay tight on the receivers going deep.

Against the run, Brown is best when allowed to flow to the ball, as he can run, slide and move in space. He is fast and athletic in his lateral movements, getting through trash to run the field and move down the line in pursuit. He might not always take proper angles in pass coverage, but he has the hip flexibility and body control to react immediately to plays in front of him. He is an explosive hitter with good flexibility to counter blocks and close on plays in the backfield (13.5 tackles for losses in 2011), but is better when playing off the line than in backside pursuit.

Sean Spence of Miami reminds me a bit of Jonathan Vilma (Saints) – short and squat like a middle linebacker, yet is good at attacking the backfield more so when looping around the offensive tackle than when shooting the gaps. He has the same type of muscular build with good arm definition, big bubble and athletic agility as the New Orleans middle man.

Spence is active with his hands, doing a good job of properly placing them in attempts to disengage. He has good agility working through trash and uses his hands effectively to protect himself from low blocks. He is effective at anticipating the tight end's route progression and has a good feel for the switch-off, picking up the receiver quickly when working in the zone.

More quick than fast, Spence compensates for a lack of blazing speed by taking good angles to close in outside run pursuit. He is a physical wrap-up tackler when working in close quarters and has developed enough of a burst off the edge to disrupt the pocket. He might only have one pass theft and nine break-ups during his career, but he uses his hands effectively to reroute the tight ends off the line of scrimmage and has some short area speed to mirror the receiver underneath.

Teams seem to like Josh Kaddu of Oregon as a second-day pick, but I'm just not sold on the guy. In 40 games, including 28 starts, he has only 108 tackles to show for that effort. He's been basically shut down since the East-West Game, dealing with hamstring issues, but for a strong-side linebacker, I would expect more hitting ability and impact plays from the guy.

To me, I see a guy more interested in getting into the backfield than a player with a more complete game. He lacks ideal foot speed to cover receivers outside the short area and might be better suited for middle linebacker due to his straight-line speed and ability to make plays in front of him, as he will lose relationship with the opponent when having to cover much ground. Even with 9.5 stops for losses last year, he is best when protected by his defensive tackles, as he is not stout vs. the inside run And gets engulfed too often by offensive linemen.

In the trenches, he struggles to stack and shed when working inside the box. When the offensive linemen get into Kaddu's body, the battle is quickly over (poor hand usage to disengage). He lacks natural hands for the interception (those opportunities resulted in his only two pass deflections in 2011, as he dropped one and let the other absorb into his body).

A few mid-round types to keep an eye on are Nigel Bradham of Florida State, DeMario Davis of Arkansas State, Kyle Wilber of Wake Forest (who also has experience as a rush end) and junior Terrell Manning of North Carolina State. Alex Hoffman-Ellis of Washington State is another prospect with great speed who could convert inside in a 3-4 defensive alignment.

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.

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