Editor's note: This is Part 11 of our 14-part position-by-position breakdown heading to the April 25-26 NFL Draft. We continue with the inside linebackers. The prospects are listed in order based on analysis by Scout.com draft expert Chris Steuber and Packer Report, with the comments that follow them based on the beliefs of league experts and insiders.
The Packers' perspective:
This is perhaps the Packers' best position on defense, assuming Nick Barnett recovers from a torn ACL that limited him to only nine games.
With Barnett and A.J. Hawk returning as starters, Desmond Bishop and Brandon Chillar bringing depth and versatility, and Danny Lansanah waiting in the wings, the Packers are set for the two inside positions.
There's no doubt, however, that Barnett and, especially, Hawk need to play better than they did last season and make more impact plays. In six seasons, Barnett has forced two fumbles. In three seasons, Hawk has forced two fumbles. Bishop forced three fumbles last season despite starting just one game.
Cream of the crop:
— Aaron Curry, Wake Forest: Curry is generally considered the top defensive player in the draft. Ideal combination of height (6-2), weight (254) and speed (4.56 was fastest at the Combine). Big-play machine whether in the backfield (16 tackles for loss in 2008) or dropping into coverage (four interceptions in 2007, including three for touchdowns). Skilled enough to play every linebacker position in a 3-4 or 4-3, but scouts say he'd be best as the strong-side inside linebacker if drafted by a 3-4 team.
— Rey Maualuga, USC: The 6-foot-2, 249-pound Maualuga personifies an inside linebacker. A big hitter who goes through blockers rather than runs around them. Compared to Ray Lewis by Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome. Could play middle linebacker in a 4-3 but is a perfect fit as a strong-side inside linebacker in a 3-4. Consistent three-year starter with eight sacks and 18 tackles for loss in that span. About the only knock on him is he probably isn't athletic enough to stay on the field on passing downs.
— Brian Cushing, USC: Like Curry, you can stick Cushing anywhere in any scheme, though in a 3-4, he's probably best at either of the inside spots. Cushing (6-3, 243) ran a 4.74 40 at the Combine. Some durability concerns after missing time as a freshman and junior and twice needing offseason surgery. Three-year starter had 10.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last season.
— James Laurinaitis, Ohio State: After winning the Nagurski Award as college football's top defender in 2006 and the Butkus Award as the top linebacker in 2007, Laurinaitis sort of dropped off the radar last season. Maybe he was just taken for granted. Still extremely productive and a third-time All-American with 130 tackles, seven tackles for loss, four sacks and two interceptions. Even though he's 6-2, 244, there are concerns about whether he can hold up in a 3-4 without two defensive tackles keeping his jersey clean. His 4.88 40 didn't help, either. Reminds at least one scout of Chris Spielman.
Just a notch below:
— Scott McKillop, Pittsburgh: McKillop (6-1, 244) is the kind of player every coach loves. Plays well beyond the sum of his parts with a gung-ho attitude. The Big East defensive player of the year tallied 288 tackles, 27.5 tackles for losses and seven sacks during the last two seasons. Not especially strong or quick (4.80 40), but it's hard to argue with the production.
Others to remember:
— Zack Follett, California: A big-time playmaker as a three-year starter. A bit undersized at 6-2, 236 but decent speed (4.75) and explosive with 37-inch vertical leap. He replaced Desmond Bishop in Cal's lineup, and he's a lot like Bishop in that he can play inside and outside. Great attitude and loves to play football and hit people. Forced a whopping 13 fumbles in his career. Led Pac-10 and finished third nationally with 23 tackles for loss; finished fourth in conference with 10.5 sacks. Needs to rein himself in a bit.
— Jason Phillips, TCU: Phillips (6-1, 239) not only was a four-year starter but a four-time all-Mountain West selection. He's tough enough to fight through blocks but has the lateral quickness to dodge the traffic to make the play. Not a big hitter but he's a sure tackler. Ran his 40 in 4.69, so he's got the ability to make plays far outside the hashes.
— Jasper Brinkley, South Carolina: Brinkley (6-2, 252) missed most of 2007 with a torn right ACL. Due in part to that injury, he played at about 270 pounds last season but was second-team all-SEC. The slimmer Brinkley ran his 40 in 4.72 seconds. Had five sacks in 2006 and 2.5 in 2008.
— Nick Reed, Oregon: Reed (6-1, 245) played defensive end for the Ducks but is too small for that position and not athletic enough to play outside linebacker. But he's a football player — he led the Pac-10 with 13 sacks — and he has the smarts and drive to find a niche. Was not invited to the Combine.
— Antonio Appleby, Virginia: Appleby (6-2, 260) is a big, physical run stopper. Never was a big contributor at Virginia, even while playing with Clint Sintim and Jake Long, but can be a solid performer if surrounded by some talent. Not quick enough to be a factor on outside runs or passes.
— Mortty Ivy, West Virginia: His 2006 season was ruined by a torn ACL but he had two productive seasons as an outside linebacker, with 18 tackles for loss and four interceptions. Ivy (6-1, 248) had a horrible 40 time of 4.99 seconds, which will send him to the inside.
— Josh Mauga, Nevada: Mauga (6-1, 243) was a productive player when healthy, but a MCL injury sidelined him for a few games in 2007 and a torn pectoral took the starch out of him last season. Has a nose for the football and can avoid the trash but not a physical run-stuffer by any stretch. Didn't test at the Combine but ran a couple sub-4.65 40s at his pro day before undergoing surgery on a bulging disc that will sideline him until at least June.
— Brit Miller, Illinois: Miller (6-0, 243) was the nation's third-leading tackler last season, including 16 tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and three passes broken up against Wisconsin. Finished season with six sacks, three forced fumbles and eight passes defensed. Not invited to Combine but ran 4.62 40 at pro day.
— Worrell Williams, California: Williams (5-11, 240) was a three-year starter who hasn't played up to his athletic ability or genes (his brother is Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams). All-Pac-10 just once — an honorable mention last year. Better as a junior with 8.5 tackles or loss and three forced fumbles. Strong enough to fight through blocks and agile enough to play coverage but doesn't have a nose for the ball. Ran a 4.90 40 at Combine.
— Daniel Holtzclaw, Eastern Michigan: The four-year starter (6-1, 246) was a tackling machine. His 107 tackles as a senior were the fewest of his career. Patterned his game after Ray Lewis because of Lewis' passion.
Chris Steuber's sleeper:
— Frantz Joseph, Florida Atlantic: Joseph (6-1, 242) is a physical tackling machine, piling up 346 stops in his three seasons after transferring from Boston College. Finished second in nation in 2008 with 154 tackles. Not athletic enough to be a three-down player. Wasn't invited to the Combine.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook.