Gazing Into Crystal Ball: Outside Linebackers

NFL Draft Report presents its Cream of the Crop, Best of the Rest, Most Overrated and Super Sleeper, and compares them to players in the NFL. Simply, it comes down to production. The best players make plays and the overrated players do not.

Cream of the Crop

Courtney Upshaw, Alabama

Upshaw really found his niche as a strong-side linebacker in 2011, developing into an explosive pass rusher. The defender spent two seasons playing in a support role, but in 2010, he embraced the Crimson Tide's "Jack" position, a hybrid between a strong-side outside linebacker and rush end that was made popular by the Denver Broncos' Von Miller during his college days at Texas A&M. Since taking over those duties as a junior, Upshaw delivered 32.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, 16.5 sacks and 13 quarterback pressures — seven that caused interceptions — during a 26-game span.

Courtney Upshaw
Marvin Gentry/US Presswire
Speed is his best rush move, but Upshaw has great hand placement to slip out and avoid blocks on the move. He comes off the edge with a sudden burst, and when asked to shoot the gaps, blockers are often surprised by his explosion through the holes. The thing you see on film since his junior year is that he combines his quickness with efficient inside-counter moves to pressure the pocket. He has also developed swim and rip moves working inside, but is better at getting to the quarterback when playing off the edge.

While Upshaw does not have a ton of sacks, like Miller produced for Texas A&M, he is effective at generating pressure due to his speed and second gear. He bears down on the pocket and has the acceleration to get to the quarterback, even when he has to take a wide loop. He has the explosive burst to flush the passer out and stays in control when closing (when he takes aim on the QB, he will get there in an instant). You can see his athletic agility when he flexes and bends his knees to get down the line of scrimmage.

Compares to: LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers — As a senior, Upshaw loaded up the car with postseason honors, as the consensus All-American and unanimous All-Southeastern Conference first-team choice led one of the most dominating college defenses in recent memory. He paved the way for the Crimson Tide to lead the nation in rush defense (72.15 ypg), total defense (183.62 ypg) and scoring defense (8.15 ppg).

Upshaw finished third on the team with 52 tackles (37 solos), matching his career-best from the previous season. He again led the Tide in sacks (9.5) and tackles for losses (18), causing five interceptions and producing six third-down stops with his 11 quarterback pressures. He caused two fumbles and had a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown vs. Florida. Those statistics were more than enough to justify the senior winning the Sylvester Croom Commitment to Excellence Award in 2011.

Best of the Rest

Lavonte David, Nebraska

David would close his short major-college career ranking fourth in school annals with 285 total tackles, as his 152 hits during his first year with the program set the Nebraska record and his 133 tackles in 2011 rank fifth on that chart. His 149 solo tackles in two seasons placed fourth on the school career-record list. His 84 solo stops in 2010 rank second and 65 solo hits in 2011 tied for sixth.

Rick Osentoski/US Presswire

While linebackers do tend to pad their stats by pile-jumping, most of David's stops came from initiating contact and attacking the backfield. At Nebraska, he produced 11.5 sacks with 10 quarterback pressures. He made a total of 28 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, causing three fumbles and recovering two of those for turnovers from his weak-side outside linebacker position.

While David can play linebacker in a base defense, much like North Carolina's Zach Brown, his speed, pass coverage ability and frame could see him be a candidate for an NFL job as a safety. He has drawn comparisons to the Carolina Panthers' Thomas Davis (when healthy), as he is a strong, physical athlete with a V-shaped torso, thick chest, broad shoulders, muscular arms, large hands, good bubble, thick thighs and calves

On the football field, the staff will tell you that David will do everything the coaches ask, is a workout warrior and pushes others when they see his work ethic. He has good field smarts and is quick to see and read plays, especially the run, doing a nice job of keeping the action in front of him and is rarely caught out of position.

One potential reason to consider him a safety prospect is his pass coverage skills. He can lay back and play centerfield with good timing to make the play on the ball and elevates well going for the ball at its high point. He shows good arm extension to get to the pigskin and has outstanding range, doing a very good job of covering ground in a hurry.

Compares to: Derrick Brooks, ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneers — More than just having a similar size, both played the game "right." To call David a "tackling machine" would be a drastic understatement. After all, just look at what he accomplished in just two seasons with the Huskers.

Most Overrated

Josh Kaddu, Oregon

Injuries aside, recording only 108 tackles in 40 games is alarming. Injuries are also a concern, as Kaddu is not really a speed merchant and has been hampered by hamstring issues throughout the predraft phase. He is too rigid for pass coverage assignments, as his stiff hips cause him to struggle when changing direction and he lacks the lateral range to make plays down the line. When he overruns the play, he does not have the stop-and-go action to recover.

Kaddu has decent wrap-up technique, but when he fails to bring his arms, he falls off a lot of hits. He is strong enough to push the fullback back into the rush lanes, but immediately will get washed out by the offensive guards due to marginal base power and leg drive. He is quick to locate the ball, but will struggle trying to shed when the offensive linemen latch on. He has good upper-body strength, but lacks the leg drive and strong base needed to stack and control.

Kaddu can get into the rush lanes to attack the fullback, but is susceptible to the cut blocks when working in space. He has just adequate speed to cover backs in the short area and has to learn to use his arms effectively to reroute tight ends at the line of scrimmage. I admit that in 2011, he was more of a disruptive force in the backfield, showing the burst to close and pressure the pocket, but his overpursuit will sometimes take him out of the play before he can seal the deal.

Compares to: Matt McCoy, Seattle Seahawks — Like McCoy, I see a good athlete with minimal production, especially in pass coverage. His hamstring issues have prevented teams from working him out and a linebacker with lingering health issues will see his stock slide. He takes good angles to contain the outside run and is a decent wrap-up tackler, but needs to secure the runner better, as he tends falls off his own hits. He is too stiff in his hips to drop back into the deep zone in pass coverage, but has the straight-line burst to close in a hurry vs. plays in front of him.

Super Sleeper

Terrell Manning, North Carolina State

Terrell Manning
Jason O. Watson/US Presswire
Maybe Manning flew under the radar for too long, but once he made the surprise announcement that he was leaving school a year early to test the NFL waters, talent evaluators scrambled to the film room. What they saw was a fluid open-field tackler that was much stronger than they anticipated.

A physical downhill tackler with natural knee bend and a strong hand punch to jolt blockers, Manning had success walking offensive linemen back into the pocket. The junior had a knack for being around the ball, moving with ease along the line of scrimmage and using his balance and explosive burst to penetrate the backfield regularly, evident by 10 sacks and 25 tackles for losses in his two seasons as a starter.

Fully recovered from a knee injury during his final high school game, Manning hits ball-carriers with a thud and does a nice job of keeping his hands active to dislodge the pigskin from the opposing runner. His eight forced fumbles are tied for third in school history. His keen vision and field alertness saw him recover five of those fumbles, each setting up Wolfpack scoring drives.

Manning is effective staying low in his pads and turning with no wasted motion, demonstrating the second gear to recover when a receiver gets behind him. His 32 1/2-inch vertical leap and timing going up to high point the ball has resulted in the linebacker intercepting five passes and deflecting nine others at NC State.

Recognition finally came Manning's way in 2011, receiving All-American and All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors, despite undergoing knee surgery after the South Alabama clash that would sideline him for two contests. He still recorded a career-high 76 tackles, leading the Wolfpack with 5.5 sacks and 14.5 stops for losses. He caused four fumbles, recovered three others, deflected five passes and intercepted three other throws.

Compares to: James Anderson, Carolina Panthers — Manning shows a sudden burst to fill the rush lanes and takes on blocks well with his hands. He keeps his hands active in attempts to reroute the tight end off the snap. He has the speed to close quickly on the outside run and has the change-of-direction agility to recover when the runner cuts back inside. He is a physical wrap-up tackler who has good pop in him when he brings his arms and has become very disruptive in the chances he gets to blitz off the edge, as he has the speed to turn the corner and run down plays from the back side.

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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