2015 NFL draft: LB off-field, injury concerns

A couple middle linebackers have legal troubles to be investigated while others will get some serious medical examinations by NFL personnel.

MIDDLE LINEBACKERS
PLAYER SCHOOLCL HTWT 40-YDPRO RND
#BROWN, Kelby Duke rSr 06:02.0230 4.824.5 FA
#DAWSON, Lamar (WB) Southern California Sr06:01.6 2334.68 5.06-7
#FELY, Jake San Diego State Sr05:10.0 2204.73 4.7FA
#GRACE, Jarrett Notre Dame rJr06:02.1 2534.86 5.26
#HALE, Jacoby UtahSr 05:11.0220 4.684.6 FA
#HAMLIN, Ronnie (OB) E. Washington Sr06:02.3 2234.76 4.87-FA
#LYNCH, Darryl “D.J.” Bowling Green Sr06:00.1 2494.71 4.5FA
#MORGAN, Desmond Michigan Sr06:01.0 2324.76 5.36
#ORAKPO, Michael (OB) Texas State Sr06:00.5 2324.76 4.87-FA
#TAYLOR, Michael FloridaSr 05:11.4235 4.755.0 6-7
%HUNT-DAYS, Jabari (SB) Georgia Tech rJr06:01.6 2474.76 2.0NG
%JOHNSON, Alexander Tennessee (A.J.) Sr06:02.0 2444.79 6.13
%MOORE, Kendall Notre Dame Sr06:01.0 2514.65 2.0NG
%SHANNON, Frank (WB) OklahomarJr 06:01.1238 4.692.0 NG


OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS
PLAYER SCHOOLCL HTWT 40-YDPRO RND
#BALL, Neiron FloridaSr 06:02.2230 4.654.7 PFA
#DEVALL, Denzel AlabamaJr 06:01.6250 4.742.5 4-5
#FACKRELL, Kyler Utah State rJr06:04.2 2454.74 2.53
#FUA, Alani Brigham Young Sr06:04.6 2184.74 4.6FA
%FIELDS, Devonte (RE) Texas Christian rSo06:03.6 2404.63 2.52
%POWELL, Marke Winston-Salem Sr06:03.1 2334.77 4.5FA

MIDDLE LINEBACKERS
The court system, rather than the football field, is where the future lie for two of the top-rated middle linebackers from our preseason power poll. Oklahoma’s Frank Shannon has been barred from the team since 2014 spring camp after it was revealed that he was accused of sexually assaulting a female student at his off-campus apartment on Jan. 20, 2014, according to a Title IX sexual misconduct allegation report obtained by The Oklahoman.

Shortly after spring drills, Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn said that his office declined to charge Shannon. The district attorney explained the woman said she did not want Shannon prosecuted, and that it was unclear from the accounts of both the woman and the player "what had actually taken place."

Shannon’s future at the University of Oklahoma, however, remained very much in limbo while an independent OU investigation ran its course, a legal requirement under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. During 2014 August camp, the school announced that it had suspended the linebacker for one year after the board found him guilty of violating Oklahoma's sexual misconduct policy, but Shannon had the right to appeal the ruling to a district court.

While his suspension mandated from the university continues, it’s expected to end in May, 2015, according to Sooners head coach Bob Stoops. Nothing is definite, but with his draft stock plummeting, returning to Oklahoma on the field next fall might be the red-shirt junior’s best course. He had led the team with 92 tackles in 2013, earning All-Big Twelve Conference honorable mention.

Returning to school next season is not an option for Tennessee’s Anthony “A.J.” Johnson, as two incidents in 2014 placed “red flags” next to his name on most team draft boards. He was first arrested in early February, along with Vols defensive tackle Danny O’Brien, as the pair was charged with purchasing alcohol for a person underage and resisting arrest. O'Brien was also charged with criminal impersonation, resisting arrest and underage consumption of alcohol, per the report provided by the Associated Press.

Johnson was the Southeastern Conference’s leading returning tackler with 324 career stops entering the 2014 schedule and had strongly considered making an early jump to the NFL instead of returning to school for his senior season. At the time of the arrest, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones stated.

Somehow, Johnson was not suspended, starting the first 10 games for the Vols before he was suspended for the final two regular season games on the 2014 schedule, along with being forced to sit out the Taxslayer Bowl encounter vs. Iowa. The Knoxville Police Department reported on Nov. 18 that Johnson and defensive back Michael Williams were named as suspects in a forcible rape case. The police said the incident happened at the Woodlands Apartment complex on Cherokee Woods Way.

One of the 19-year-old women listed in the incident report accused Johnson and Williams of forcible rape. Officers said the victim is a University of Tennessee student. A second 19-year-old woman, also listed in the incident report, claimed Williams sexually assaulted her. Knoxville police said the second victim was from Florida and was in Knoxville visiting a friend. Police told WBIR 10News that the victim from Florida decided not to press any charges and had since returned home.

Vols' coach Butch Jones said he was aware of an incident involving his players, after both women were taken to the University of Tennessee Medical Center, where they were interviewed. Investigators conducted a search warrant on the Woodlands apartment and turned evidence over to the district attorney general's office.

The next day, the UT Athletic Department announced that Johnson and Williams were suspended from all team-related activities.

The case involves charges of both sexual assault and rape. WBIR 10News caught up with a defense attorney who explained the difference between the two and why the investigation and court process could take longer than normal. "Aggravated rape is a class A felony as defined by Tennessee law. It contains some very harsh, mandatory penitentiary time," said James A. H. Bell, attorney at law.

Bell said there must be evidence of unlawful sexual penetration for a suspect to be charged with rape. Without proving that, the person can be charged with sexual battery. Both are felonies and can involve a lengthy court process.

While he awaits the outcome from the police investigation, Johnson, once regarded as no worse than a third-round draft selection, is stuck in limbo, as he is not expected to be invited to play in any all-star games. He is expected to be scrutinized and drilled by teams over his two incidents at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine.

Despite missing the final three games, Johnson still led the team with 101 tackles (58 solos), adding two sacks among nine stops-for-loss, along with posting five quarterback pressures, an interception and a blocked kick for the 2014 campaign.

On the injury front, the biggest loss for any team this season actually happened in 2013, when Notre Dame’s Jarrett Grace suffered a traumatic right leg fracture that has changed the course of the middle linebacker’s career, thanks to several rehabilitation setbacks. The red-shirt freshman had taken over “Mike” duties after Manti Te’o went to the NFL, but at first his transition into the starting lineup was bumpier than most expected.

Grace got into the rhythm after giving up three touchdowns vs. the running game during his first three 2013 appearances, starting the next three straight games and leading the Irish in tackles. In the seventh week, his season came to a halt in Texas after suffering multiple fractures in his fibula vs. Arizona State. At the time of the injury, he was pacing the Irish with 40 tackles.

At his best, Grace is the prototype middle linebacker that defenses are built around. But even with an additional surgery during 2014 spring camp to help his bone recover, all of that was up in the air as the 2014 schedule began. Eventually, hope turned to despair, then, to resignation – Grace would not suit up for Notre Dame and spent the campaign observing from the sidelines.

Grace had to undergo further surgery to insert a rod to into his right leg that was broken in four places. Irish head coach Brian Kelly said that the linebacker needed the procedure to try to stabilize the leg and help the healing process. Kelly says the doctor said if the leg had continued to heal as it has been he is optimistic Grace would be ready this fall, but that was not to be.

The severity of the injury and subsequent surgeries and procedures to help speed up the healing process kept Grace off the field all year and that would usually dampen a player’s attitude — usually. Yet Grace has worked hard all year, even if not always on the field. He is always one of the first at practice and last to leave, and he said he tries to bring a positive atmosphere wherever he goes as he focuses on helping the growth of the young Irish linebacker corps.

While it might have been a setback for this season, Grace said prior to the Irish heading to Nashville to play Louisiana State in the Music City Bowl, that his leg is on the road to a full recovery.

With one more year of eligibility remaining after sitting out his freshman year, Grace said he will be playing football again in the future.

Some other notable injuries that will impact the draft status for several middle linebackers:

After missing playing time with a calf injury in 2012, followed by a late October knee injury in practice during the 2013 schedule, Lamar Dawson was looking forward to an injury-free 2014 season. He struggled throughout rehabilitation and it was not until mid-December 2014 that the Trojan returned to the field, participating in 7-on-7 drills, an important step in his comeback from knee surgery. His left knee injury from October 2013 would force him to elect to redshirt this season.

With “Mike” inside linebacker Hayes Pullard headed to the NFL, Dawson is a natural candidate to slide into that spot in 2015 – assuming his body and mind are right.

San Diego State’s Jake Fely did not return to the gridiron in 2014 after undergoing off-season neck surgery. He had missed most of the 2013 schedule when he suffered a right foot fracture vs. New Mexico State that had required surgery to have pins inserted.

All is not well with the early 2014 season knee injury suffered by Bowling Green’s D.J. Lynch, who missed three games before returning to action. He struggled with the speed game, ending up with 39 tackles in 10 contests. Last season, Lynch led the Falcons with 85 tackles, adding eight stops behind the line of scrimmage.

Michigan’s Desmond Morgan sat out the remainder of the 2014 season with a hand injury and will be redshirted. The middle linebacker made six tackles in Michigan's season-opening win over Appalachian State, but had not played since. Former head coach Brady Hoke said Morgan had a "hand problem" and the linebacker was seen wearing a sling on the sideline at Michigan home games earlier in the season.

Hoke said the decision to redshirt Morgan was partially because his hand was taking a long time to heal, and partially to preserve a year of eligibility. Morgan, a senior, is expected to return for a fifth year in 2015. He started 30 games and made 223 tackles during his first three seasons at Michigan. He finished third on the team with 79 stops last season.

Utah was without the services of Jacoby Hale after the linebacker suffered a knee injury during an Aug. 26 scrimmage…Fellow Ute linebacker Jason Whittingham suffered a broken bone in his wrist in practice on September 14th and sat out the rest of the season. He is eligible to return to the team in 2015 and will likely do so, but this is the second time he’s been sidelined as a Ute, suffering a hand injury that cost him two games in 2013…
Purdue’s Sean Robinson missed the second half of the 2014 season after he suffered a right knee anterior cruciate ligament tear in early October vs. Illinois. He tried to play through the injury, but the staff finally had him undergo surgery on Oct. 28.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS
Like most of his former Tide teammates, Alabama’s Denzel Devall had intentions for making 2014 his final college season before venturing to the NFL. One of the school’s prized recruits, he injured his left knee during a field goal drill during Alabama's first BCS National Championship practice in Tuscaloosa before the 2013 clash.

A gifted chef who often cooks for his teammates, Devall was limited to eight games in 2014, as he was one of three starters to miss action after being injured in the Tide’s 23-17 Oct. 4 loss to Ole Miss. The linebacker had been filling in for Trey DePriest (suspension), but suffered a high ankle sprain that would require surgery and force him to sit out the next month. In eight contests (Tide played in 14 games), he recorded 11 tackles. The previous season, he had collected 30 hits with three sacks.

Utah State had entered the 2014 season boasting one of the most aggressive starting line-backer units in college football, led by Kyler Fackrell and the Vigil brothers – Zach and Nick. Fackrell was the unquestioned leader of a rapidly improved Aggies team, coming off a 2013 campaign that saw him record 82 tackles with five sacks and 13.0 stops-for-loss. His 99-yard interception return for a touchdown vs. Hawaii is the third-longest pass theft runback in school history.

Many scouts spent the 2014 offseason doing homework on the Aggie who is often compared to Minnesota’s Chad Greenway. Utah State had won the 2013 Mountain West Conference title behind a strong defense that rose to the occasion after losing quarterback Chuckie Keeton, its best player, during the season to a torn ACL. The Aggies had to try to repeat as MWC champs this season without their best defensive player.

Fackrell, whose size, athleticism and pass-rush skills make him a definite NFL prospect, was lost for the balance of the 2014 schedule after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during second quarter action vs. Tennessee in the season opener. He briefly left the game, but returned after one series before staying in the locker room at halftime.

Fackrell had indicated before the Tennessee game that the 2014 season would be his last at USU, but with the long rehabilitation process in full swing, he is expected to return to school in 2015 to prove to teams that his knee is fully recovered.

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