NFL Draft: ACC LB Could Be The Perfect Fit

Bill Huber of PackerReport and Jon Scott of Patriots Insider take a closer look at one NFL Prospect who fits the Patriots system well. Huber caught up with LB Ricky Sapp to ask him about the 3-4 defense and what teams are looking for in a top LB prospect.

If Ricky Sapp can play to his immense potential, he's destined to become a favorite of fans and reporters.

Sapp tore the ACL in his right knee during Clemson's game against Virginia on Nov. 22, 2008. He could have taken a medical redshirt in 2009 but elected to play, despite his knee being only "60 percent" healthy.

So, not surprisingly, Sapp's knee was examined and re-examined, poked and prodded, pulled and tugged, during the Scouting Combine.

Fun, hey, Ricky?

"Hey, that was the best part of the Combine! You know that!" Sapp said after a hearty laugh during an interview with Packer Report last week. "No, it was part of the whole process. I knew it was coming because I had the injury. When the guys came to poking and pulling and trying to kill my knee, I was prepared for it. It wasn't a bad thing."

Considering the trouble the Patriots have had filling the outside linebacker position since the departures of Willie McGinest, Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel, perhaps they should focus on adding someone like Sapp. The Derrick Burgess deal didn't exactly pan out the way New England hoped. Burgess had just 5 sacks last season -- a far cry from the 35 he notched his first three seasons in Oakland (2005-07).

If the Patriots intend to take a former college defensive end and convert him to linebacker, they'll want to avoid workout warriors who look good on the eyeball test (a-hem, Vernon Gholston), but have a hard time adjusting to the demands of a complex defense like New England's. Instead they need to find players, like McGinest, Vrabel or even Tully Banta-Cain -- College defensive linemen who have the size speed and ability to develope into a true 3-4 linebacker.

Ricky Sapp
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
So, why Sapp instead of the numerous other hybrid pass-rushers in this draft? That's easy. Unlike the others, who played defensive end in college and would be moving to outside linebacker, the 6-foot-3, 252-pound Sapp played the position as a senior.

"It's great to have a D coordinator that came in my last year and did a lot of things and got me in a 3-4 scheme and standing up. I look at that as an advantage over a lot of guys," Sapp said.

That defensive coordinator was Kevin Steele, who brought the 3-4 to Clemson last season. Steele learned under Nick Saban at Alabama, and Saban learned from New England's Bill Belichick.

"He did a lot of different things with me," Sapp said of Steele. "I think he really showcased a lot of my talent and really showed a lot of teams what I could do in space and dropping in coverage and stuff like that."

Sapp, who worked out for the Patriots already, has the potential to develop into a top-notch pass rusher because of great first-step quickness but didn't provide elite output at Clemson. As a senior, he posted a career-high five sacks, and he finished with 16 for his career.

"Oh, no. There's nothing better," Sapp said when asked if there's anything better than sacking a quarterback.

While he didn't produce a lot of sacks, Sapp tallied 15 tackles for losses and 17 quarterback hits in 2009 despite being limited by the knee.

"Of course I can rush the passer, but at the same time, I enjoy playing the run and dropping in coverage and just making plays in the backfield," he said. "I think it's a challenge when you see a running back in the backfield and they look at a player like me and think they can outrun me. I just love that competition and challenge. Those are the things that I really enjoy."

Sapp is a tremendous athlete. He ran a 4.70 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine and was a South Carolina regional champion in the 100- and 200-meter dashes. He was a high school All-American who not only excelled on defense but played tight end and wide receiver and returned kicks.

Sapp said his surgically repaired right knee passed the rigorous medical checks at the Combine, and he said teams consider the injury "old news." He could have redshirted last season but wanted to play the season with the rest of Clemson's draft class. He was pleased with the decision, with Clemson playing for the ACC championship.

If Sapp played that well on a knee that was only 60 percent healthy, how will he fare now that he's 100 percent?

Sapp laughed before saying, "Hey, you'll find out next year, baby."

Indeed. New England should hope to be the ones who find out first hand. At this point, of all the top LB prospects, Sapp looks to be the "perfect fit."

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and E-mail him at, or follow Bill on Twitter at . Patriots Insider Jon Scott contributed to this report follow him on Twitter @jscottNFL
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