Grading the pro potential: Outside LBs

Khalil Mack, who might be the Texans' preference in the first round, and Anthony Barr are the top prospects. Dave-Te' Thomas, the NFL's head scout, goes in depth on those two as well as Ryan Shazier, Jeremiah Attaochu, Carl Bradford, Kyle Van Noy and others.

While there are whispers that Buffalo's Khalil Mack is the real object of affection for Houston, I don't think the Texans will select this highly impressive talent with the first pick. But, if they can entice a team that covets Jadeveon Clowney (Jacksonville), they might still have the opportunity to draft the player at the top of their value board. No matter who takes him, Mack is destined to be a top-five selection.

Mack probably will be joined in the first round by Anthony Barr, as the UCLA product is a player that might impact Oakland's linebacker unit, adding another terror on the edge opposite Lamar Woodley. Minnesota and Dallas are also in the loop as potential landing spots for the Bruins' standout. Ohio State's Ryan Shazier is such a perfect fit for Green Bay opposite Clay Matthews, that not even Cinderella's glass slipper fits so well.

The second round also will see at least three outside linebackers go off the board, led by Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu, versatile Arizona State star Carl Bradford and Brigham Young's elite pass rusher, Kyle Van Noy. Florida State's Telvin Smith might slip into Round 2, if a team can get over the idea that he "lacks sand in his pants" (218 pounds).

Mack will set the tone of the first round and not Clowney. There is no question that Clowney is a better athlete, but Mack is viewed as the most "NFL-ready" player, and who can find too many faults with his overall game? The hybrid rush end/linebacker draws favorable comparisons to Green Bay's Matthews, as both are self-made, hard-working performers, whether it is in the training room, practice field or game gridiron.

Mack commands respect from teammates and opponents alike, and performs like a coach on the field, as he has high intelligence and excellent read-and-react diagnostic skills. He is best when allowed to roam the field, as his high amount of turnovers caused and stops behind the line of scrimmage are proof positive that he is equally comfortable playing off the line and covering receivers in the short area as he is when rushing the passer — whether coming off the edge or bull rushing up the middle from the defensive tackle position.

On the field, the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision modern-day record-holder with 75.0 tackles behind the line of scrimmage also set the school record and finished seventh in Mid-American Conference history with 28.5 sacks. His hard-hitting style of play benefitted the Buffalo offense, as he established another major-college record by causing 16 fumbles, with the Bulls converting seven of those turnovers into touchdown drives.

Mack has cat-like quickness to simply run past the slower offensive tackles at the line of scrimmage. He has the body flexibility and knee bend to keep balance when suddenly having to turn. He is especially effective when redirecting and dipping back under. His long arms and strong hands allow him to free up on twists and games, but is best when making plays on the move rather than taking on one-on-one battles from a stationary position. He has the motor and tools to run the horn to get to the quarterback.

As a pass rusher, he has very good body control and excellent hip snap. Mack is like a defensive back, as he moves very fluidly when going in reverse. He shows very good explosion and anticipation coming off the edge or when shooting the gaps on the blitz. He is physical when "dogging" inside and has more than enough foot speed to flush out and chase down the quarterback from the backside. With his outstanding burst and upfield acceleration, he shows excellent timing and vision to adjust on the move, when he is able to keep blockers off his body.

Usually, when a player is asked to change positions midway through a college career, it does not bode well for his professional aspirations, especially when being moved to the opposite side of the ball. However, in Barr's case, the UCLA linebacker is a consummate team player who performed admirably as a blocking fullback but quickly transformed into one of the most dominant players in the game.

Among the elite trio of defensive players headlining this year's draft, Barr matches up well vs. the rest of the competition. During his two seasons as an outside linebacker, he made 149 tackles, compared to Mack's 194 and Clowney's 94 during that same span. His nine forced fumbles equaled the total that Mack compiled during his last two seasons, while Clowney produced four turnovers.

Barr recorded 40.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, just inching past the 40 stops accrued by Mack and 35 tackles in the backfield by Clowney. Barr also produced 23.5 sacks, with Clowney next with 16 and Mack trailing with 13.5. Barr recorded 102 solo tackles, just shy of Mack's 108 and Clowney's 104. His four fumble recoveries tied Clowney, with Mack checking in with three recoveries.

Barr has fluid lateral range to give chase. He plays on his feet and shows above-average balance on the move. He always gives solid second effort, especially running down plays on the perimeter. He uses his hands well to avoid trash and has the quickness and desire to close on the ball.

The Bruin standout has a very good burst to close and creates havoc in the backfield. He can sink his hips and shows solid second effort to slip off blocks when his initial move fails. He has the pass rush speed and flexibility to turn the corner of the edge almost instantly. Barr blitzes with good desire and takes proper angles in pursuit. You notice on film that he is very active with his hands in attempts to defeat the block.

One of my favorites is the kid out of Ohio State who plays like his hair is on fire. Shazier might not have the patience that future Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks had, but every other aspect of his game matches up to the former Tampa Bay great. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2012, Shazier would lead the team in tackles both seasons. He set the school record and ranks tied for 10th in Big Ten Conference history, as the hard-hitting tackler caused nine fumbles, including four as a junior (all four set up OSU touchdown drives).

With 315 tackles to his credit, including a league-best 22.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage in 2013 (third-best in a season at OSU and sixth in the nation last year), it was his "lights out" performance during the second half of his junior year that thrust Shazier into the draft's elite prospect pool.

Shazier has a compact, solid frame with good upper-body development, broad shoulders (78 5/8-inch wing span), thick chest, good bubble, tapered thighs and thick hamstrings. He shows good straight-line quickness and the arm extension (32 3/8-inches) to shed blocks, and has room on his frame to carry another 10 pounds of bulk with no loss in quickness.

His body is more suited for weak-side linebacker, as he is more likely at maximum growth potential and will not be able to carry the bulk needed to compete on the strong-side vs. the bigger offensive lineman on a steady basis. He is better served making plays on the move than when stationed near the line of scrimmage.

Shazier is a solid wrap-up tackler, showing good mechanics to secure and drag down. He extends his arms properly to stalk and is the type that collides with ball-carriers upon initial contact, showing the strength to shed blocks and stay on the ball. He has that ease of movement getting to the ball when working in space and the leg drive and strength to get the ball carrier on the ground and impede the opponent's forward momentum.

He can deliver a strong thud upon contact and his hits have jarred the ball loose from several ball-carriers. He swings his arms properly to wrap and can strike opponents with good pop on contact. He is simply one of the more athletic tacklers, thanks to above-average strength and outstanding hip snap that allows him to explosively jolt the opponent on impact.

When the 2013 season began, Bradford was regarded as one of those flexible athletes who could perform as a hybrid rush end/outside linebacker. ASU has aptly named that position the "Devilbacker" and, based on his performance the last two years at that position, Bradford has emerged as one of the elite hybrids in the draft class.

The junior is quite effective, whether with his hand down and playing on the line in a 4-3 defensive scheme or standing up and handling underneath areas as a linebacker in the 3-4 alignment. In 27 starting assignments at the position, Bradford collected 142 tackles (103 solos) with 19 sacks, 39.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, six forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, two interceptions and eight pass deflections.

One of the more powerful players in the Arizona State program, Bradford boasts a 545-pound squat and has shown very loose hips and fluid lateral agility, as he clocked and impressive 7.03-second timing in the demanding three-cone drills at the Scouting Combine. The 250-pound defender generates good closing speed, as he was timed at 1.66 seconds in the 10-yard dash at the Combine and 4.72 seconds in the 40-yard dash during the Sun Devils' pro day.

Voted by his Georgia Tech teammates as the player on the roster "most likely to be an NFL star" prior to his senior season, Attaochu more that lived up to the locker room's expectations for him in 2013. A versatile athlete who began his Tech career as a weak-side outside linebacker before shifting to the strong-side as a sophomore, he was again shifted during his final season, taking over demanding weak-side defensive end duties that saw the 242-pound native of Ibadan, Nigeria, yield considerable bulk to the opposing offensive tackles each week.

Throughout his Georgia Tech career, the athlete who tried out for football in high school simply because he got tired of just watching it on television has shown a special knack for wreaking havoc in the backfield, especially during his junior and senior seasons, when he combined to drop the quarterback 22.5 times in 26 contests.

Attaochu's 31.5 sacks are more than former Atlantic Coast Conference standouts Julius Peppers (30.5) and Mario Williams (25.5) had during their distinguished careers. Tech defensive line coach Mike Pelton likens Attaochu to a pair of defensive ends in the NFL. The coach says his versatility makes him a mix of DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora, two players whom Pelton coached while he was an assistant at Troy from 2001 to 2006.

Talent evaluators see in Van Noy a player who is best served making tackles on the move. He lacks the raw strength to take on the bigger offensive linemen trying to bull rush, but shows very good ability to take proper angles in pursuit and has the quick hands needed to slip past blocks rather than try to out-battle the blocker.

Van Noy is also versatile, as he can not only impact the backfield coming off the edge but, as a former prep receiver, he has the loose hips and snap coming out of his breaks to handle even the speedier wideouts in pass coverage. He is also a quick read-and-diagnose type, as you will not see a quarterback fool him with play action or misdirection.

Van Noy finished second in the voting for the CBS Sports National Defensive Player of the Year Award as a senior. The Bednarik Award and Butkus Award semifinalist was in on 70 tackles, third-best on the team in 2013. He placed 21st nationally with a team-high 17.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage (sixth on the BYU season list), adding four sacks, 14 pressures and seven pass deflections.

At first glance of Florida State's Smith, you'd think the linebacker was a defensive back or receiver, and not a "Tazmanian Devil" who plays with a "search and destroy" mission. If you ask Smith what makes him "tick" once he puts on the Seminoles' uniform and he will quickly say two words; "burning desire." It is that burning desire to prove doubters wrong that fueled the senior during his only opportunity to be a full-time starter.

That fire in his belly is what Smith says has him "destined for greatness." Certainly not lacking in confidence or bravado, Smith was able to back up that bold statement with his performance as a first-year starter in 2013. During their title march, the 218-pound middle linebacker led the team in tackles (90) and tied for second with 9.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage.

While his ball-hawking skills, leaping ability and excellence in pass coverage have most teams viewing Smith as a potential strong safety or weak-side outside linebacker candidate, he added to his resume in that category last season. He intercepted three passes, returning two for touchdowns, tying a record that he shares with Florida State legends Deion Sanders (1988), Terrell Buckley (1990 and 1991) and Derrick Brooks (1993).

Changing positions is never easy for a player, but lots of undersized college defensive ends have gone on to great success playing strong-side linebacker in a 3-4 defensive alignment. Arkansas' Chris Smith is one of those candidates to be volunteered for a position change once he reports to an NFL camp after the draft.

Actually, the potential position shift might entice a team to take Smith earlier than a team that has him listed on their draft value board as a rush end. At 266 pounds, the Razorback is blessed with impressive speed, as he was timed at 4.71 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine.

Moving Smith to strong-side 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 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. His balance is evident by the way he keeps going through traffic to close on the ball with urgency.

Montana's Jordan Tripp was a rare four-year starter and an even rarer five-time letterman. The two-time finalist for the coveted Buck Buchanan Award, given annually to the best defensive player in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision ranks, Tripp would close out his stellar career as the school's fourth-leading tackler (335), establishing records with his 10 fumble recoveries. He also ranks ninth in school annals with 29.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Tripp is a classic wrap-up tackler, showing good mechanics to secure and drag down. He extends his arms properly to stalk and is the type that collides with ball-carriers upon initial contact, showing the strength to shed blocks and stay on the ball. He has that ease of movement getting to the ball when working in space and the leg drive and strength to get the ball-carrier on the ground instantly. He delivers a strong thud upon contact and his jarring hits resulted in five forced fumbles.

In a "perfect world," when the Rams make a selection on draft day, Iowa's Christian Kirksey hopes that the team will announce his name, as it has been the St. Louis native's dream to one day play for the team that featured his idol and former high school coach, Super Bowl hero Mike Jones, presently the head coach at Lincoln University.

Much like Jones, Kirksey is a self-made player whose stellar performance on special teams and in practices as a freshman convinced Hawkeyes coaches to insert him into the lineup at strong-side outside linebacker prior to his sophomore campaign. Kirksey would not relinquish the position until he graduated 38 games later. By the time his Iowa career ended, he had recorded 315 tackles, ranking 15th on the school's all-time record list.

One of three defensive players in school history to record three touchdowns (two via interceptions and one on a fumble recovery), Kirksey teamed with middle linebacker James Morris to combine for 715 tackles, the most for any active linebacker tandem in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision ranks in 2013.

It will be interesting to see where Shepherd's Howard Jones ends up playing in the National Football League. Teams are highly interested in this Division II standout pass rusher, but most concede that at 235 pounds, he does not appear to be a defensive end candidate and will have to adjust to playing linebacker in the pro ranks.

With his athleticism, Jones appears a fit for playing the weak-side outside linebacker position, if he proves capable of handling pass coverage assignments. Size issues might prevent him from being a strong-side linebacker, as that position is usually occupied by the tight end and offensive tackle and usually requires that player to have much more bulk than Jones' frame carries.

As a weak-side linebacker, Jones has the speed to handle pass coverage responsibilities, as his 4.60-second 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine was the fifth-best for all down linemen and linebackers (third among linebackers) in attendance. He has proven he has the range (7.16-second three-cone drill was fifth-best in his group at Indianapolis), strength (21 reps at the 225-pound bench press test) that is also usually associated when chasing the play from the backside (led all active Division II players with 69.5 tackles-for-loss during his career and placed in a sixth-place tie on the NCAA all-time record list).

The weak-side linebacker is required to have the ability to maneuver through traffic, and Jones' career total of 65 solo stops behind the line of scrimmage (also made eight assists) led all of the players that competed at the Division II level last season. Jones has the retreat skills and lateral agility to be more effective at weak-side linebacker, as he will usually align off the line of scrimmage at that position, thus preventing him from being engulfed by the much bigger offensive linemen he would have faced as a defensive end.


CREAM OF THE CROP: Khalil Mack (Buffalo)

BEST OF THE REST: Ryan Shazier (Ohio State) and Anthony Barr (UCLA)

MOST UNDERRATED: Carl Bradford (Arizona State)

MOST OVERRATED: Adrian Hubbard (Alabama)

SUPER SLEEPER: Christian Kirksey (Iowa) and Howard Jones (Shepherd)

MACK, Khalil (DE)  6:03251 4.6523 4010'08" 4.187.08 8.41
#SHAZIER, Ryan (IB)   6:01237 4.3825 4210'10" 4.216.91 7.31
BARR, Anthony (DE)  6:05255 4.6615 34 1/209'11" 4.196.82 7.31
#BRADFORD, Carl  (IB) 6:01250 4.7623 37 1/210'02" 4.37.25 6.82
ATTAOCHU, Jeremiah   6:03252 4.5723 37 1/209'03" 4.687.28 6.72
VAN NOY, Kyle   6:03243 4.7121 32 1/209'04" 4.27.22 6.62
SMITH, Telvin   6:03218 4.5216 31 1/209'11" 4.577.04 6.43
SMITH, Chris (IB)   6:01266 4.7128 3710'01" 4.467.37 6.24
TRIPP, Jordan   6:03234 4.6722 37 1/210'00" 3.966.89 6.13
KIRKSEY, Christian   6:02233 4.5816 3610'02" 4.427.11 64
%REILLY, Trevor (DE)   6:05245 4.6626 30 1/209'09" 4.47.18 5.94
JONES, Howard (DE)  6:03235 4.621 40 1/210'04" 4.547.16 5.85
#HUBBARD, Adrian (DE) 6:06257 4.6920 38 1/209'09" 4.587.14 5.65
KENNARD, Devon   6:03249 4.723 3009'05" 4.327.25 5.55
PIERRE-LOUIS, Kevin   6:01232 4.5128 3910'08" 4.026.92 5.46
FIELDS JR., Carlos (IB)  6:01238 4.517 3810'08" 4.227.04 5.46
HITCHENS, Anthony   6:00240 4.7423 31 1/209'08" 4.457.15 5.36
ALLEN, Denicos (SS)  5:10225 4.7426 2908'09" 4.617.46 5.27-FA
SHEMBO, Prince   6:01253 4.7126 38 1/210'02" 4.317.29 5.16
STARR, Tyler (DE)  6:04250 4.9524 3209'08" 4.156.64 57-FA
FLOWERS, Marquis   6:03231 4.5124 37 1/209'08" 4.327.06 57
SMITH, Will 6:02231 4.5917 37 1/209'05" 4.537.04 4.97
#POWELL, Ronald   6:03237 4.6524 35 1/209'06"    4.97
%BRESLIN, Morgan   6:01240 4.626 35 1/209'06"    4.97-FA
WATTS, Brandon   6:02232 4.416 37 1/210'02" 4.216.89 4.87-FA
MILLARD, Johnny (IB) 6:02232 4.5124 3209'05" 4.267.07 4.87-FA
JOHNSON, Derrell   6:01248 4.6123 32 1/209'06" 4.647.27 4.87-FA
EDEBALI, Kasim   6:02253 4.7919 34 1/209'07"  7.2 4.87-FA
GREENE, Kevin (FB) 6:03247 4.421 30 1/209'03" 4.556.94 4.7PFA
%LOKOMBO, Boseko   6:02225 4.6220 3410'02" 4.37.15 4.7PFA
NEWSOME, Jonathan   6:03247 4.7321 3409'09" 4.637.31 4.77-FA
ELLIOTT, Jayrone   6:03255 4.7518 3109'02" 4.47.26 4.6FA
BULLITT, Terrance (SS) 6:03226 4.5314 4010'03" 4.186.75 4.6FA
NELSON, Corey   6:00231 4.623 3309'09" 4.487.37 4.6FA
ASKEW, Nate   6:03241 4.4618 3810'06" 4.47.13 4.5FA
BROWN, Jonathan (IB) 6:00238 5.0316 3109'00" 4.567.77 4.5FA
BOYD, Xavius   6:02236 4.821 3209'11" 4.336.99 4.5FA
ELSWORTH, Kyler   6:01236 4.7529 3410'01" 4.457.24 4.5FA
MERRELL, Jamal   6:04222 4.7417 2809'01" 4.337.45 4.5FA
SCIONEAUX, Alvin (IB) 6:02234 4.6232 39 1/210'01"  7.29 4.5FA
NIXON, Trashaun   6:00233 4.64        4.4CMP
KITCHENS, Darrin   6:02230 4.6        4.4CMP
WHITFIELD, Marcus   6:03236 4.78        4.4CMP
HADLEY, Spencer   6:01228 4.71        4.4CMP
OLSON, Mike   6:03221 4.83        4.4CMP
GRAHAM, Keenan   6:01242 4.79        4.4CMP
COLLINS, J.R.   6:02237 4.81        4.3CMP
LEWIS, Shaun   5:11226 4.92        4.3CMP
JONES, Tahj   6:02208 4.73        4.3CMP
FLEMING, Carl   6:01226 4.76        4.3CMP
SKINNER, Deontae   6:01250 4.82        4.3CMP
BELL, Dorian   5:11228 4.7        4.3CMP
SAPP,Dontavis 6:03237 4.72        4.3CMP
SMITH, Jacques (DE) 6:02261 4.91        4.3CMP

Immediate starter...Should have a major impact to the success of the franchise, barring injury...Possesses superior critical factors...Plays with consistency and without abnormal extra effort...Rare talent.
7.6-8.0Star Quality Eventual starter...Should make a significant contribution in his first year...Possesses above average critical factors...Has the talent and skills to start...Will contribute to upgrading the team...Can play without abnormal effort, but has some inconsistency in his play that will improve with refinement and development...Has no real weakness.
7.0-7.5Impact Player Possesses at least average to above average critical factors in all areas...Will contribute immediately, whether as a starter or a valuable reserve...Will move into the starting lineup with seasoning...Above average player who needs to refine certain areas.
6.5-6.9Eventual Starter Could move into the starting lineup within three years...Has average critical factors in all areas...Needs further development, but has the ability to contribute.
6.0-6.4Potential Starter Could force himself into the starting lineup with improved perform- ances...Will make a team...Has average critical factors in most areas, but at least one with less than average quality that he will have a hard time overcoming...Probable draft choice.
5.5-5.9Roster Player Has the ability to serve as a key reserve and possible future starter... Possesses average critical factors, but more than several areas are less than average...Plays with normal extra effort.
5.0-5.4Project Has the skills to play pro ball with proper tutoring...May make a team based on need...Possesses no real strong critical factors and is probably below average in several areas that the player will have a hard time overcoming...Possible draft choice, but only if that team is caught short on talent available at that position.
4.6-4.9Develop- mental Could make a team with an impressive showing in training camp... Not strong in most critical factors...Deficient in more than one area that he will not be able to overcome...At least average in the factor of competitiveness...May not make a team due to his limitations.
4.1-4.5Camp Player Has redeeming qualities that could allow him to play in the pros with improved performances...Deficient in more than one critical factor... Might make a team, but will always be the player that squad will look to replace.
3.5-4.0Reject Might make a team, but has glaring deficiencies in several critical factors...Below average competitor whose athletic skills will allow him to enter training camp, but has a difficult time in trying to make a team.

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