Tough As Nails III

The NFL Draft Report's David Te' Thomas continues his "Tough As Nails" series with a look at his favorite linebackers.

MIDDLE LINEBACKER

Quan Sturdivant University of North Carolina Tar Heels #52 6:01.7-232

The Tar Heels hopes for capturing the national championship was sidetracked by an NCAA investigation that saw a slew of UNC defenders either be dismissed or suspended from the program. Sturdivant was spared a suspension after his July, 2010 bust for marijuana possession, but he was lost for the month of October by a hamstring pull. What makes him so inviting to a NFL team searching for linebacker depth is that the senior has starting experience in the middle and weak-side positions, along with the raw power and quick feet to play on the strong side.

Bearing a striking resemblance to the late Steve McNair, Sturdivant has an athletic, compact physique with a thick upper body, muscular arms, good bubble, thick thighs and calves. He possesses very good lower body strength which allows him to anchor firmly vs. double teams. He displays fluid hip snap with minimal body fat and room to carry at least another ten pounds of bulk without the added weight impacting his overall quickness.

In 2009, Sturdivant became the first Tar Heels linebacker to earn first-team All-ACC honors since 1997. He again led the team with 79 tackles (48 solos), starting the first six games at middle linebacker before shifting to the weak-side for the final seven contests. UNC led the league and ranked sixth nationally, allowing only 269.62 yards per game, as the defender posted twelve stops behind the line of scrimmage and returned a fumble recovery 49 yards for a touchdown.

Even though he appeared in just eight games as a senior, Sturdivant provided quality performances for that decimated defensive unit, finishing third on the team with 61 tackles. He led the Tar Heels in tackles as both a sophomore and junior, finishing his career with 300 tackles (186 solos) that included seven sacks and 27.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage.

Sturdivant also proved to be an alert field general, recovering three fumbles, including one that he returned 49 yards for a touchdown vs. Georgia Southern in 2009. He also picked off four passes, racing 32 yards for a score vs. Notre Dame, setting up another touchdown drive with a 57-yard return with a pass theft vs. Rutgers in 2008.

The linebacker closed out his career by starting 38-of-45 games, posting 300 tackles (186 solos) with seven sacks for minus 25 yards, 27.5 stops for losses of 82 yards and 7 quarterback pressures. He had 2 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries, returning 2 for 58 yards, including a 49-yard touchdown. He also deflected 9 passes and intercepted 4 others for 90 yards in returns, including a score.

Compares To … James Laurinaitis, St. Louis … Sturdivant and Laurinaitis rely on their field vision, intelligence and quickness to gain advantage on the blocker in order to compensate for a lack of ideal size. The Tar Heels linebacker is a classic knee bender who plays in good football position, as he always seems to be on his feet working through trash. He a smart playmaker who reacts decisively and can step up, stay square and take on/shed the bigger blockers with good force. He has that quick reactionary ability to fill holes and make plays in-line and even at his size, blockers struggle in attempts to contain him at the point of attack.

Based on his versatility, it is evident that Sturdivant is a quick learner who did a flawless job when asked to execute what the coaches wanted on the field. He is more of a flow-to-the ball type of tackler, but can also step up and punish, despite a lack of ideal size, making up for it with his desire and good playing strength. He has good quickness and acceleration to the ball and that speed lets him race past the slower blockers to make plays in the backfield. He reads and reacts quickly to plays in front of him and also shows immediate reaction when operating in pass coverage.

Sturdivant has a good feel for taking proper angles to the ball, utilizing his above average straight-line speed. He has the burst to run around blocks and excels at using his speed to get an outside edge on the offensive lineman. He has the lateral agility needed to work his way through trash, showing fluid lateral moves. He shows a good feel for zone coverage, getting proper depth in his pass drops and reacting quickly to plays in front of him. Sturdivant might not have the bulk to take on the bigger blockers, but he is very effective when asked to face up or take angles to make the tackle. He has improved his short area power base in order to do a better job of gaining leverage when taking on the bigger blockers.

Sturdivant looks fluid in his hips when coming out of his backpedal, as he has the feet to redirect and break on the ball. When moving in space, he presents problems for blockers trying to sustain, but he really likes to make a bulk of his plays between the tackles. He shows very good hand usage to shed and disengage blocks and avoid trash getting through traffic.

Teams Showing the Most Interest … Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Denver and Philadelphia … The Bucs seem like a perfect fit for Sturdivant in the second round. Tampa Bay ranked 28th vs. the run last year and the Tar Heel could either slide into the weak-side position or take over the middle if Barrett Ruud leaves. The team might also shift Ruud to an outside slot to take advantage of his pass rushing skills. Only Carolina (20) and Denver (26) gave up more rushing touchdowns in 2010 than Jacksonville's 19. There's a gaping hole at middle linebacker for the Jags, after they recently let Kirk Morrison leave. Once Denver takes care of defensive line issues, they need to find a better solution to Wesley Woodyard (37 tackles in 2010) to line up next to D.J. Williams at the two inside linebacker spots. Stewart Bradley missed the 2009 season with knee issues and was banged up again in 2009. Since Jeremiah Trotter was let go (the first time), Philadelphia has lacked any consistency from their middle linebackers. Enter Quan Sturdivant?

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

Brian Rolle The Ohio State University Buckeyes #36 5:09.5-227

With NFL teams becoming more and more enamored by "measurables," drafting a player under 5:10 might be okay at wide receiver or kicking specialist, but one look around the league and you are not going to find too many linebackers measuring in at 5:09.5. But, if you measured Rolle's heart, desire and fire, he'd stand seven-feet tall.

For a team utilizing a 3-4 scheme or Cover-2 defense, Rolle might be a fit, especially if that team has a defensive end-sized strong-side linebacker. Some team could look at his speed and pass coverage skills, and decide that Rolle might be a better fit at middle linebacker or as a strong safety.

A standout special teams performer during his first two seasons as a Buckeye, Rolle made Ohio State fans quickly forget All-American James Laurinaitis with his stellar performance as the team's middle linebacker since taking over that position as a junior. Since moving into the starting lineup, he registered 171 of his 210 career tackles and registered 18.5 of his 21.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage while still serving as the leader of the special team coverage units.

Despite standing just a shade under 5-10, this Sam Mills (ex-Carolina Panthers)/London Fletcher (Washington) clone has seen his unit lead the Big Ten Conference in total defense, ranking fifth nationally in 2009 (262.31 ypg) and fourth in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision ranks in 2010 (262.23 ypg).

Ohio State also led the league in rushing defense during his senior year (96.69 ypg; third nationally) after placing third in the conference in 2009 (90.77 ypg; seventh in the NCAA). The Buckeyes also paced the Big Ten in scoring defense (14.31 ppg) during his final campaign after allowing just 12.54 points per game in 2009 (both yearly averages ranked fifth in the nation).

As a senior, Rolle was recognized as an All-American honorable mention and an All-Big Ten Conference first-team pick. Named team captain, he led the squad with 75 tackles (35 solos) that included 2.5 sacks, placing second on the unit with 11.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, good for ninth in the league.

In 51 games at Ohio State, Rolle started 25 times. He produced 210 tackles (35 solos), 3.5 sacks for minus 26 yards, 21.5 stops for losses of 75 yards and three QB pressures. He caused a fumble and recovered two others, including one in the end zone for a touch-down. He also deflected five passes and gained 76 yards on four interception returns.

Compares To … Lofa Tatupu, Seattle … If they could measure heart, desire and determination, Rolle would stand tall among the linebackers in this year's draft, but when actually measured, his height and size will become an issue on draft day. He is an athlete that plays bigger than his size, as he has a great combination of speed, quickness and strength. He is a well-proportioned athlete with above average sideline-to-sideline agility and range. His quickness and instincts are his best assets.

While undersized, he plays big. Rolle shows a nose for the ball and attacks the offense with good determination. He is a solid run defender who despite a lack of size, plays strong with good hand usage. But, he is even more effective when avoiding and slipping blocks to make the plays. Slower offensive linemen seldom get a good shot at him, but when they do, he will get washed out of the play because of his safety-like frame. However, you will not see him blocked for long, as he is quick to redirect and is the type that will play until the whistle.

Rolle plays with a low pad level and generates the speed and strength to gain leverage on blockers and the ball. He is a fast, athletic mover who is able to sift through traffic, showing good range in pursuit and an explosive burst to close. He is an effective blitzer who takes proper angles to apply pressure. He has good pass coverage skills, dropping back smoothly and quickly.

Rolle has quick feet and flexible hips to break coming out of his backpedal and plays either the man or zone coverage with equal effectiveness. He sticks tight to the tight ends and backs, using his hands effectively to jam and reroute. He eyes the receivers through their routes and shows good discipline, as he is not the type that will bite on fakes or play action.

The Buckeye has natural hands for the interception and utilizes his good leaping ability to time his jumps to get to the ball at its high point. He catches with hands extended from the frame and keeps his head on a swivel, quickly reacting to the thrown ball. He is also a secure tackler who strikes, faces up, snaps his hips and wraps securely to drive the ball carrier back.

If left at middle linebacker, size will always be an issue, but his ability to face up or slip blocks makes me feel that he can be effective in a cover two system. Big things come in small packages. Just ask ex Dallas Cowboys standouts Dexter Coakley and Dat Nguyen or former Carolina Panther great, Sam Mills. He will probably not be drafted where his grade indicates, but in a few years, someone will have unearthed a talent, whether at linebacker, safety or on special teams.

Teams Showing the Most Interest … Tampa Bay, Houston, San Diego and Atlanta … There might not be a better place for a Cover-2 linebacker than in Tampa Bay, where Derrick Brooks turned in what is expected to be a Hall of Fame career. The Bucs have a gaping hole at left outside linebacker, where Dekoda Watson managed only 30 tackles in 15 games last year. Rolle could also battle Corey Lynch for a spot in the secondary. Houston is looking more for a big pass rushing linebacker in the Von Miller mold, but innovative defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has had success in Dallas with their smaller line-backers in the past. San Diego has Shaun Phillips and Larry English on the outside, but strong safety Steve Gregory and left inside linebacker Stephen Cooper are easily replaced in San Diego. The Falcons have to develop a playmaker behind aging Mike Peterson and Rolle's physical style would be a nice compliment next to Sean Weatherspoon and Curtis Lofton in the Atlanta linebacker unit.

Lawrence Wilson University of Connecticut Huskies #8 6:00.6-225

Wilson is taller than Rolle, but at 225, he is a bit "light in the pants." However, he is constantly on the move, thanks to excellent speed, footwork, balance and lateral agility. His coaches cite his work ethic and the thing that impresses you when watching him on film is the way Wilson attacks blocks, strings out running plays and can rush the passer.

A model of consistency, Wilson started all but one of the 52 games that he appeared in for the Huskies. Three times during his Connecticut career, he produced 100-plus tackle seasons. His 449 tackles rank second in school history, fourth in Big East Conference annals and placed fourth among the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision's active performers. His 35.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage tied for sixth on the school's career-record chart.

Regarded as a ball-hawking defender, Wilson also developed into quite an effective play-maker. Five of his six forced fumbles were recovered by the Huskies, four leading to scoring drives. He also recovered six fumbles and showed very good pass defense skills, along with a nose for the end zone, returning three of his five interceptions for touch-downs.

As a junior, Wilson earned All-Big East Conference first-team honors. He led the league and tied for tenth in the nation with a career-high 140 tackles (80 solos), placing second on the team with five sacks and eleven stops behind the line of scrimmage. His 140 hits rank sixth on the school season-record chart.

Wilson's senior season saw him repeat as an All-Big East Conference first-team choice. He again led the conference with a team-best 123 tackles (71 solos), setting the school career-record by returning his third interception for a touchdown. He tied for third on the squad with ten stops for loss, 3.5 of them resulting in sacks while taking over middle line-backer chores due to injuries suffered by Greg Lloyd.

Among the NCAA's active players at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, Wilson ranks fourth in total tackles (449), second in solo hits (246) and 11th in average tackles per game (8.63). He also ranked 15th with 32 solo tackles (35.5 total) behind the line of scrimmage.

His 449 tackles rank second in school history, topped by John Dorsey (495; 1980-83), as that total placed fourth on the Big East Conference all-time record chart behind Dan Morgan of Miami (532; 1997-2000), Stephen Boyd of Boston College (509; 1991-94) and Grant Wiley of West Virginia (477; 2000-03), becoming the eighth conference player to reach the 400-tackle level.

Compares To … DERRICK BROOKS-ex Tampa Bay…Sure, most cat-quick smaller linebackers are somehow compared to Brooks, but Wilson has a lot of the same style as the perennial All Pro – speed, field smarts, incredible balance and excellence playing in space. He might not be a great pass rusher, but with his speed and change of direction skills, few weak-side linebackers can cover ground as well as Wilson. He might have to work on adding more bulk to play at the next level, but he does a fine job of keeping plays in front of him.

Wilson is a well-prepared athlete who can handle whatever the offenses throw at him. He has very good read-and-diagnose ability, knowing his teammates' assignments well enough to keep everyone in position on the field. He stays focused, is rarely rattled and usually carries out all assignments. He knows how to use his strength to compensate for a lack of ideal size. He plays with good leverage while taking on blocks and can hit and shed with authority. He uses his hands effectively to free himself working off the edge and has the pass coverage skills and fluid hip motion to drop back quickly in pass coverage.

Against the run, his size issue sometimes causes him to struggle working in-line. However, he knows how to use his quickness to slip past and avoid blocks in order to get to the ball and clog the inside rush lanes. He is best in pursuit, showing urgency, balance and body control with excellent change of direction agility to run clean and take proper angles to the ball when working in space. He is a solid wrap-up tackler with enough power to drag ball carriers down.

He has the hand strength to get a decent push off the ball. He works hard to tie up blockers long enough to free other defenders to get to the quarterback. When working off the edge, he is a functional blitzer who has the speed to close. Against the pass, he is very effective at adjusting to the blockers' moves, using his hands to fend off low blocks and fit through the tight spots to fill the lanes.

He is explosive breaking out of his backpedal, keeping his feet under him to turn and mirror receivers in their routes. He has more than enough quickness to cover tight ends underneath, shadowing his man to prevent the reception. He is a very solid tackler working up field. He is quick to locate and track down the ball in flight. His lateral agility allows him to close quickly and he takes good angles to close the cushion immediately when beaten.

Wilson has experience and knowledge to play any of the linebacker positions, but his quickness and field vision might be better suited for the weak-side. He might not be the biggest linebacker you will find, but he compensates well with instincts, strength, quickness and intelligence.

Teams Showing the Most Interest … Arizona, Green Bay, New England and Buffalo … The Cards are going to revamp their linebacker unit, with aging Clark Haggins and Joey Porter being led to the unemployment line. Bringing in a speedy backer to apply constant pressure on the backfield is a must, as those are areas that Wilson is strongest in. Green Bay has an outstanding pass rusher in Clay Matthews, but Wilson would give the Packers one of the quickest set of playmakers at this position in the NFL. New England is well aware of Wilson's field exploits. They have slowly rebuilt their linebacker unit, but need that speedy player to be a nuisance along the line of scrimmage. Buffalo mysteriously resigned Shawne Merriman, but they need to cover their bases when that former San Diego All-Pro ends up on IR or continues his career downslide in 2011.


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