Scouting the Draft: Outside Linebackers

An incredible amount of talent awaits in first three rounds for the Packers, who have long-term needs — especially at the elephant position. The NFL's head scout examines the top 17 players in Part 1 of our outside linebacker preview.

In Part 13 of our Green Bay Packers draft preview, we examine the first three rounds of outside linebackers.

PACKERS AREA OF NEED (1 TO 10)

Six: It’s not an immediate need but Julius Peppers isn’t getting any younger and Nick Perry and Mike Neal are entering their final seasons under contract. At this time next year, there’s a chance none of those three will be with the team. General manager Ted Thompson, who is always thinking ahead, no doubt will tap into a deep class to add some new blood to the group.

IT’S WORTH NOTING

Not only will Peppers, Perry and Neal be free agents, but they play the “elephant” position — the defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid. So if the Packers are going to bolster their outside linebacker group in general, chances are it will be one of the versatile big guys.

Fortunately for the Packers, they should be able to find a quality player in the first few rounds. There is talent at the top of the draft — there should be at least six first-round picks — and filtering all the way through the later rounds. Most of the time, there’s some projection involved because the candidates to play standup 3-4 outside linebackers usually played as hand-on-the-ground defensive ends in college.

“There are more 4-3 defenses and 3-3-5 defenses with the emergence of the spread offense in college football so there’s more projection for the 32 teams, which I think is about 14 (that use the 3-4 defense) in the NFL right now,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “So, there’s more guess work on our part, but you just look for certain size, certain athleticism and you try to make really a guesstimation of whether they can transform to what you’re going to need: the ability to play the point, be able to rush the passer and then maybe just have the athleticism to be able to drop into coverage, which he may or may not have done to that point.”

The good news is those 240-, 250- or 260-pound edge defenders seem to grow on trees, so an impact player can be found beyond the first round.

“A lot of times it opens it up for you because there are a lot of undersized defensive ends in college who can stand up and play outside linebacker in the 3-4. So it’s exciting to me,” said new Bears general manager Ryan Pace, who will be trying to find the right pieces as Chicago moves to a 3-4. “I’ve been in both systems in New Orleans. We’ve been 4-3 and 3-4. So, I think it opens up more players because there are undersized ends who can play that standup position and rush the quarterback from a two-point stance.”

THOMPSON’S SUCCESS RATE

Thompson has many more misses than hits, but Clay Matthews’ superior play makes it easy to overlook that fact.

ROUND 1

Dante Fowler, Florida (6-3, 261; 4.60): Fowler turned in a big junior campaign with 60 tackles, 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for losses. In the three games after announcing he would turn pro, he tallied four sacks and five tackles for losses. His size might make him the first edge rusher off the board.

“The way I look at the 3-4 outside linebacker in order, No. 1, you have to be a great pass-rusher or have the ability to develop into one,” NFL network analyst Mike Mayock said. “No. 2, you've got to set the physical edge, and No. 3, you've got to be able to drop in coverage, and that's the least important of the three. I think Dante Fowler is the guy that checks off all three of those boxes.”

As the team’s “buck” linebacker, Fowler was not asked to drop back into pass coverage often, but when he did in 2014, only three of the 24 passes targeted into his area (12.5%) were caught, good for just 7 yards. That performance helped convince teams that, like Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs, Fowler could make the seamless transition from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 alignment.

“Fowler is a quality edge rusher that some teams are looking at as a potential strong-side linebacker in a 3-4 system, as he appears to have the range and foot speed to play there,” reads a portion of his official NFL scouting report, provided to Packer Report by head scout Dave-Te’ Thomas. “Use him as a rush end and he will get a good piece of the quarterback, but unless he makes marked strength improvement (19 reps at 225 pounds in the bench press), he runs the risk of getting absorbed and stood up by bigger blockers when working in a phone booth.”

Shane Ray, Missouri (6-3, 245; 4.68): Ray produced a monster year while replacing Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. As a redshirt junior, Ray was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year while earning consensus first-team All-America status after leading the SEC in sacks and tackles for losses. His 14.5 sacks set a school record and ranked third nationally. His 22.5 TFLs also ranked third nationally.

“I think Shane Ray has got the best first step I've seen,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said.

Proof of his ability to handle bigger blockers can be found in his “hidden” statistics. This year, he has been directly involved in 49 running plays, holding that group of ball carriers to minus 48 yards and just one first down, as he stopped them for losses sixteen times and took down ten other rushers for no gain while delivering seven third-down hits and three more on fourth-down snaps.

“Ray has just average size to play on the front wall, but with his outstanding closing burst and good suddenness closing on the ball, he is an ideal fit as a strong-side outside linebacker (in a 3-4), but his raw strength will see him have success in one-on-one battles with offensive tackles and tight ends as a rush end (in a 4-3).”

Vic Beasley, Clemson (6-3, 246; 4.53): Beasley compiled a long string of honors from his senior season: One of three finalists for the Bednarik Award, one of four finalists for the Lombardi Award, one of six finalists for the Hendricks Award, one of nine semifinalists for the Lott Impact Trophy and a string of first- and second-team All-America awards. Of his 37 tackles, 21.5 were for losses and 12 were sacks. He ranks first in school history in sacks (33), fourth in tackles for losses (52.5) and tied for seventh in caused fumbles (seven). You want strong? How about a Combine co-leading 35 reps on the 225-pound bench press.

“He's got an ability, a natural quickness and innate ability to rush the quarterback,” Mayock said. “However, he's got to show more consistent power especially against the run game. So there are scenarios where he could fall late first round for sure.”

That run-game consistency is evident in the math: 21.5 tackles in the backfield, 16.5 tackles past the line of scrimmage.

“It’s going to be ‘boom or bust’ for Beasley in the NFL, all depending on the scheme and position he is asked to play. As a linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, Beasley’s ability to pressure the pocket as a senior would play out much better than taking on blockers at the line of scrimmage. Clemson’s coaches reduced his playing time late in the season, often replacing him in short-yardage situations. Moving him to a standup position is his best option to avoid the ‘bust’ tag.”

Alvin Dupree, Kentucky (6-4, 269; 4.56): Dupree was first-team all-SEC and earned some All-America recognition. He led all SEC defensive linemen with 74 tackles. He paced the Wildcats with 12.5 tackles for loss, including 7.5 quarterback sacks, ranking among the SEC leaders in both categories. He tallied 23.5 sacks for his career. As was the case with Fowler, his size is an asset. Teams running a 3-4 recognize that with a 1.60-second 10-yard burst and 4.56-second 40-yard dash that Dupree has the quickness to drop back to the second level and handle strong-side outside linebacker chores in a 3-4 alignment.

“Dupree has good quickness, enough to possibly play outside linebacker in a 3-4 base defense. It is his all-out hustle that makes him look mush faster in his backside pursuit. He has good agility and balance on the move and adequate change-of-direction agility, but shows some hip stiffness when having to move suddenly. He accelerates into the backfield with good urgency and has the strength to jolt a blocker much bigger than him.”

Randy Gregory, Nebraska (6-5, 235; 4.64): Gregory arrived in Lincoln in 2013 to near-instant stardom. In 13 games (10 starts), the juco transfer tallied 66 tackles, including a Big Ten-high 10.5 sacks and 19 tackles for losses. As a junior in 2014, he played in 11 games (10 starts) and registered 54 tackles, with seven sacks and 10 for losses. Despite missing two games and large parts of two others with injuries, he was named a third-team All-American and first-team all-Big Ten.

“Those teams that might consider him to be a better option as a linebacker in a 3-4 base defense can see that he has the straight-line speed and hands to compete for the ball and cover on assignments in front of him, but he claimed hamstring issues for not running certain agility tests at the NFL Scouting Combine and during Nebraska’s pro day that weigh heavy in evaluating a player’s lateral mobility and range (shuttle and three-cone drills).”

His weight, as much as the failed drug test at the Combine, is the reason why he’s not going to go nearly as early as anticipated by analysts two months ago. If he were to fall to No. 30, it’s hard to believe the Packers would take him, considering he’s so much lighter than their preference for the position.

“I think Randy Gregory is totally intriguing,” Mayock said. “I'm not sure if he's Jason Taylor on the plus side or is he going to be the kid Miami took a couple years ago at No. 3 on the negative side, Dion Jordan.”

Owamagbe Odighizuwa, UCLA (6-4, 267; 4.62): Odighizuwa as second-team all-Pac-12 after a career-high 61 tackles, a team-high 11.5 TFLs and six sacks. It was a big bounce-back season after missing all of 2013 with a pair of hip injuries that required surgery. Making that production more impressive is that he had just 11 tackles, including only one TFL, in his first four games. Odighizuwa, who projects to the “elephant” position, was born in Ohio but spent five years in Nigeria.

“Odighizuwa possesses good size, strength and the athleticism to be an intriguing prospect who is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential, evident by what he did the second half of the 2014 schedule. His agility and straight-line speed might be enough to convince scouts that his future position could be as a “Sam” outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme. Regardless of his pro position, teams will have to judge how likely it is that he's fully recovered from two hip surgeries. Those that remember UCLA’s Datone Jones undergoing the same procedure and the end of Bo Jackson’s career might want further medical evaluation before they exercise a draft pick and hand him his first NFL paycheck.”

Preston Smith, Mississippi State (6-5, 271; 4.74): The all-SEC first-team choice led the squad in tackles for losses (15), sacks (nine) and quarterback hurries (15) as a senior. He added two interceptions, forced two fumbles and ranked second in the SEC and eighth nationally in blocked kicks with two. Before last year’s defensive changes, Smith probably wouldn’t be on Green Bay’s radar. But he’s big enough to rush from inside on third-and-long and athletic enough to play at outside linebacker in the base defense.

“Smith has good initial quickness to challenge the offensive tackle in passing situations, as he’s very capable of forcing the pass blocker wide, which then opens a lane for his spin back inside. Among his better traits is his explosive initial pop, due to his upper-body strength and long arms (34-inch length). When he keeps his pads down and hits with force on the rise, he can knock back the run blocker and make the tackle in the hole. He’s also a very good leaper who blocked a pair of kicks and picked off two passes at its high point last season.”

Danielle Hunter, LSU (6-5, 252; 4.57): Hunter left LSU following a junior season of just 1.5 sacks but a team-high 13 tackles for losses. His 63 tackles ranked third on the team. With long arms (34 1/4 inches) and big guns, he goes by the name of “Tarzan.”

Mayock is among the many scouts who thought he should have stayed in school. “I can certainly see the upside, but I think now he's kind of underpowered. I think he gets pushed around in the rush game. He's so raw, he doesn't know what he's doing yet.” Thomas noted the NFL’s draft advisory committee gave Hunter a second-round grade.

“Hunter is the first to admit that he is still learning and feeling out his position, as he has lined up as a down lineman, rush end and strong-side linebacker, but shows natural instincts and good awareness to be much more productive playing strong-side linebacker in a 3-4 defense. He is quick to locate the ball and makes good adjustments on the run. He still needs to make more big plays from the backside, but he has to be more explosive knifing through gaps to become an efficient blitzer.”


CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL SCOUTING REPORTS on about 25 3-4 outside linebacker prospects from the NFL’s head scout, Dave-Te’ Thomas.


ROUNDS 2-3

Nate Orchard, Utah (6-3, 250; 4.80): Orchard was an All-American and won the Ted Hendricks Award, which goes to the nation’s best defensive end. After just 6.5 sacks and 17 tackles for losses in his first three seasons, Orchard had 18.5 sacks and 21 TFLs as a senior. He added three forced fumbles as the Pac-12’s offensive linemen voted him the conference’s best defensive lineman.

Said Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, a former NFL general manager: “Orchard has very good body control and excellent hip snap. The think I like is the way he can squeeze through the tiniest of creases to get into the backfield.”

While he had just 2.5 TFLs vs. the run, he did finish the season with 84 tackles. He forced eight fumbles for his career.

“Orchard might be the most explosive pass rusher that Utah has developed in ages. He has that sudden burst of quickness heading up field and combines active hand usage with hip flip, pop and rip moves in his attempt to bend the corner. He might give up bulk, but with his upper-body strength, he’s had good success in pressing the inside shoulder of an offensive tackle.”

Eli Harold, Virginia (6-3, 247; 4.60): Even with a year of eligibility remaining, Harold finished 11th in school history with 17.5 sacks and 10th with 36.5 tackles for losses. In 2014, he was sixth in the ACC with seven sacks and third with 14.5 TFLs to earn all-conference second-team honors.

“As a potential outside linebacker, he shows explosive, raw upside as a speed edge rusher and could also be a very good candidate as a 3-4 strong-side pass rusher. His frame capacity lacks the capacity to add at another 20 pounds of bulk needed to play on the line, but as a ‘backer, he can dominate in his backside pursuit due to his determination and quickness coming off the edge.”

Za’Darius Smith, Kentucky (6-5, 274; 4.83): If the Packers are looking for an “elephant” type in the third round, he’d be a good fit. As a senior, Smith started all 12 games and tallied 4.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for losses among his 61 tackles. The junior-college transfer contributed six sacks and 6.5 TFLs in 2013. While older brother Bo Meeks played eight games for the Broncos in 1993, basketball was Smith’s sport — until he figured out he wasn’t tall enough. He never played football until his senior year of high school.

“Even though Smith has established himself as a pass rusher, he also displays the ability to be a productive run defender. He has a strong initial burst off the ball and for a taller player he demonstrates the ability to play with good pad level. He uses his hands and reach to maintain separation and reacts to blocks well by getting his hands on the blocker and squeezing down. As a pass rusher, he can be disruptive as he can get up field with a good initial burst and is violent with his hands, using his reach well.”

Trey Flowers, Arkansas (6-2, 266; 4.93): Flowers, a three-year starter, finished third on the team with 68 tackles, including team-leading figures of six sacks and 15.5 TFLs to earn second-team all-SEC honors for the second consecutive year. He was nominated for the Senior CLASS Award. He’s long (34 1/4-inch arms) and strong (28 reps).

“Flowers may lack the ideal height and bulk teams look for in a defensive end, but if possibly moved to linebacker in a 3-4 alignment, he has the physical hands and stout frame to split double teams. He demonstrates very good lower-body flexibility. He is able to redirect with no wasted motion and demonstrates proper knee bend and balance to be effective as a bull rusher.”

Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville (6-4, 259; 4.85): Mauldin moved from 4-3 defensive end as a junior to 3-4 outside linebacker as a senior. He responded with 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for losses among his 51 tackles. He’s excelled in run force, holding opponents to minus-8 yards on 38 running plays directed at him. With both parents in jail, he was passed around like a hot potato to 16 foster homes. Football would be his salvation, a passion sparked by one of his many foster mothers.

When he arrived at the Scouting Combine 10 pounds over his playing weight, eyebrows were raised. When he was timed at an adequate 4.85 seconds in the 40-yard dash, scouts started to wonder if he might be best suited in the long run to play with his hand on the ground.

“Mauldin reminds scouts of Shaun Phillips during his prime days with the Chargers, as he has skills and balance as an edge rusher. He is slippery moving past lethargic offensive tackles playing off the perimeter,” reads his scouting report.

Davis Tull, Tennessee-Chattanooga (6-2, 246; 4.57): Tull is the Southern Conference’s three-time Defensive Player of the Year and a three-time FCS All-American. His 37 sacks rank first in conference history and fourth in FCS history. Among active FCS players, Tull ranked first in sacks and tackles for losses (60) and second in forced fumbles (10). As a senior, he registered 10 sacks and 18.5 TFLs while drawing six holding penalties. Not bad for a guy who didn’t receive a single scholarship offer and almost quit during his freshman training camp. He’s dominated the offseason with a 4.57 at pro day and a 42.5-inch vertical at the Combine. Tull sat out the East-West all-star game due to a torn labrum, and he underwent surgery following pro day. At 6-foot-2 3/8 and with 31 1/4-inch arms, he could be destined to 4-3 outside linebacker and possibly 3-4 inside linebacker.

“Tull lacks the height scouts look for in a defensive end, but his quickness and lateral range makes him a nice fit for the strong-side linebacker position. He has a good flow to the ball and is alert to blocking schemes, doing a nice job of avoiding offensive linemen to make plays in the backfield. He shows quickness coming off the snap and flexibility, balance and body control as he smoothly runs the field.”

Mario Edwards, Florida State (6-3, 279; 4.84): Edwards probably doesn’t fit at any position in a 3-4. He was listed at 294 by Florida State but 279 at the Combine and 272 at FSU’s pro day. He’d either have to head to the buffet to play end or drop a bit more weight and line up at the “elephant” in a 3-4. Edwards, the top-ranked prep player in the nation, was the playmaker of the Seminoles’ defense with his three sacks and team-leading 11 tackles for losses among his 44 tackles as a true junior to earn all-ACC first-team honors. His father, Mario, is a former NFL cornerback.

“When I first saw him, I thought he was a 300-pound three-technique (defensive tackle),” Mayock told the Philadelphia Daily News. “Now, he’s a 272-pound edge rusher. There’s lot of intriguing conversations going on in league circles about him right now. The prevailing thought is that he has excellent physical traits. He’s got quickness and twitch. But he also has size and length where you could kick him inside and create mismatches in your sub-packages. On the one hand, that’s the upside. And I think he’s going to go in the second round. But I didn’t see that on tape. I saw a guy that flashed and was a good player, but wasn’t consistent. But if you like him, you’re going to think he’s a second-round guy based on everything I just said. The big concern, though, is once you pay him with second-round money, do you get the 272-pound guy with an edge? Or does he become the 300-pound three-technique because he’s fat and happy?’”

Hau’Oli Kikaha, Washington (6-2, 253; 4.93): Kikaha had a monster senior season with a nation’s-best 19 sacks and a second-ranked 25 tackles for losses. He had at least one sack in 13 of 14 games and became just the fifth consensus All-American in program history. On 47 running plays directed at him, he held those runners to minus-26 yards. He holds the school record with 36 career sacks. He missed most of 2011 and all of 2012 with knee injuries.

“Moving Kikaha to linebacker would be a natural, thanks to his change-of-direction agility. He plays with a relentless motor and constantly is in the backfield to apply pressure or run down plays from behind the line. He is very effective when needed to bend down the line and shows no hesitation when laying out to make plays on the move. He has good chase speed to get downfield and deliver impact hits from the backside.”

Anthony Chickillo, Miami (6-3, 267; 4.79): Chickillo started 47 of his 50 games at Miami and was a consistent presence with a four-year total of 170 tackles, 15.5 sacks and 25 tackles for losses. After playing at about 280 pounds as a five-technique end at Miami, he shed about 15 pounds and dominated blockers throughout the week-long practices and in the East-West Shrine Game.

“The slimmed-down 267-pound version emerged with Hall of Famer Mike Singletary running the East team at the Shrine practices. While he is still not an elite athlete, he did not struggle to quickly change directions at the East-West practices like he did at a heavier weight for Miami. However, he showed that he is an instinctive player a relentless motor, demonstrating good snap anticipation and a surprisingly quick first step off the snap playing in the 265-pound range.”

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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