Positional draft analysis: Outside linebacker

The opinions on who is an outside linebacker and who is defensive end creates an interesting dynamic for edge rushers. We break down the top 10 prospects with their strengths, weaknesses, production and projections.

VIKINGS OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS – Anthony Barr, Chad Greenway, Gerald Hodges, Brandon Watts, Josh Kaddu, Brian Peters.

VIKINGS POSITION NEED – The Vikings struck gold last year by taking Barr in the first round of the 2014 draft. Greenway is nearing the end of the line, having been brought back on a one-year deal and the team has high hopes for Hodges elevating his game to the next level. In Mike Zimmer’s defense, linebackers are critical to their success, so if an elite player is on the board when the Vikings pick at No. 11 it wouldn’t be out of the question to see the Vikings go to the well once again at outside linebacker, but it might be a bit of a stretch unless they love a player who remains available.

POSITION OVERVIEW – Much like defensive end, the most difficult part of ranking players at this position is that different teams will have edge rushers viewed at different places. Depending on what scouts and draft analysts you ask, who is an edge-rushing defensive end and who qualifies as an outside linebacker? Some will have Dante Fowler, Shane Ray, Randy Gregory or Bud Dupree as outside linebackers or defensive ends. As a result, since we have all of those players listed as defensive ends given their college experience, this group is a bit depleted, but it’s still quite a strong unit that will have players selected early, as well as throughout the draft until the final picks are made.

Vic Beasley, Clemson, 6-3, 246 – Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 71 tackles, 44½ tackles for a loss, 25 sacks and six passes defensed in that span…Set a school record for sacks with 33…Has the most explosive first step of any edge rusher in the draft…Made a ton of plays behind the line of scrimmage and is extremely disruptive…Uses his hands extremely well to keep blockers from cutting him down…Has excellent closing speed and delivers the big hit…Is a natural pass rusher who struggles against the run…Played defensive end in college, but isn’t viewed as a player with the size to be a full-time defensive end in the pros…Has limited anchor strength to set the edge vs. the run…Ran a 4.53 40 at the Combine with 35 reps of 225 pounds, a 41-inch vertical jump and a 10-10 broad jump.
PROJECTION: Because of assignment limitations, he will likely have to play in a 3-4 system, but he has the athleticism to be a player who would help any defense. He may be the best athlete in the draft. Elite athletes can adapt to any system.

Eli Harold, Virginia, 6-3¼, 247 – Third-year junior…Two-year starter who had 105 tackles, 36½ tackles for a loss, 15½ sacks and one interception in that span…Played both defensive end and linebacker in Virginia’s 3-4 system…Has an excellent first step and a quick acceleration to get around blockers…Has good height and long arms for a rush linebacker… Rushes the passer with excellent leverage…Has multiple pass-rush moves…Doesn’t have ideal muscle mass or bulk to be a defensive end at the pro level…Is not an overly effective run defender because he doesn’t have the mass to consistently hold the edge…Hasn’t had much experience taking backs and tight ends in coverage…Did not lift at the Combine by choice, but ran a 4.60-second 40-yard dash with a 35-inch vertical jump and a 10-3 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A long, rangy edge rusher, he will likely be pigeon-holed into a system that runs a 3-4 as an outside linebacker. In such a system, he could become a star.

Shaq Thompson, Washington, 6-0¼, 228 – Third-year junior…He started 40 of 41 career games, finishing his career with 223 tackles, 12½ tackles for a loss, 3½ sacks, 10 passes defensed and five interceptions…He won the Paul Hornung Trophy in 2014, given to college football’s most versatile player…He also played offense, rushing 61 times for 456 yards in 2014…He scored four defensive touchdowns…Very active and aggressive in his style…Plays with great leverage and balance with elite speed and change-of-direction skills…Uses his hands extremely well and is able to keep blockers away from his body…Is built more like a safety than a linebacker…Is undersized by NFL linebacker standards…When blockers get their hands on him, he is consistently neutralized…Did not lift at the Combine with a right thumb injury, but ran a 4.64 40 with a 33½-inch vertical jump and a 9-7 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A versatile player who projects as a weakside linebacker in a 4-3 system, he has a lot of positive attributes but will struggle against players with size his entire career, which will devalue his stock somewhat.

Paul Dawson, TCU, 6-0¼, 235 – Fourth-year senior who spent one year at Trinity Valley Community College…A two-year starter who had 218 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss, 5½ sacks, eight passes defensed and five interceptions in that span…Excellent agility and balance…Extremely good production on a consistent basis…Has great closing ability and shoots gaps effectively…Is undersized by NFL standards and hasn’t had to rely on bulk or strength to succeed…Has had some off-field issues that will be red flags for some teams…Freelances too much and often leaves cutback lanes open to be exploited…Ran a 4.93 40 with 21 reps of 225 pounds, a 28-inch vertical jump and a 9-1 broad jump.
PROJECTION: He has the skill and production to be an effective pro, but is undersized and will need a lot of refinement to his game to excel at the next level.

Nate Orchard, Utah, 6-3¼, 250 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who had 178 tackles, 38 tackles for a loss, 24 sacks and seven passes defensed in that span…Extremely productive with increases in his numbers each season he played…Has good natural bend as a pass rusher to get around the corner with very good closing speed…Chases down plays to the sideline…Has a thin frame without much more chance to add to muscle or bulk…Is not overly stout vs. the run…Typically gets slowed down on contact and has difficulty shedding blocks…Did not lift at the Combine due to a left shoulder injury but ran a 4.80 40 with a 31½-inch vertical jump and a 9-7 broad jump.
PROJECTION: Has played both OLB and DE, but given his lack of strength vs. the run game it likely takes him out of consideration to be a 4-3 outside linebacker, so it appears his value is at OLB in a 3-4 scheme, which will reduce the number of suitors.

Hau’oli Kikaha, Washington, 6-2½, 253 – Fifth-year senior…Missed all of the 2012 season with a knee injury…Started all 31 games of his college career, recording 157 tackles, 43½ tackles for a loss, 23 sacks and five passes defensed…A smart player who was All-Academic in the Pac 12…Very strong against the run and capable of holding the point of attack without giving up ground…Has very good agility and change-of-direction skills…Hits the hole at full steam and looks to deliver the big hit…Is not blessed with great upper-body strength and is too easily slowed down on contact from blockers…Hasn’t been used a lot in man coverage in the passing game…Big durability concerns because he had ACL surgery in both 2011 and 2012…Did not work out the Combine because he was battling the flu.
PROJECTION: A standup defensive end in college, he translates to an OLB in a 3-4 scheme. However, his limitations and durability concerns will likely drop him deep into the second day of the draft, if not out of it.

Kwon Alexander, LSU, 6-0¾, 227 – Third-year junior…A two-year starter who had 155 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, 1½ sacks and six passes defensed in that span…He tore an ACL as a high school senior and was bypassed by several top schools…Has good musculature with the ability to add additional muscle mass…Has very good speed, especially when he’s closing on the ball…Plays with a mean streak and is always looking for the kill-shot hit…He will freelance too often and take himself out of position, leaving cutback lanes open…Is undersized for NFL linebackers…Is not always sound in his tackling technique and will slide off ball carriers too often…Ran a 4.55 40 at the Combine with 24 reps of 225 pounds, a 36-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A player blessed with good speed who looks to be a natural fit as a weakside linebacker in a 4-3 alignment. Needs to bulk up some because he’s undersized, which all but eliminates him from consideration by a 3-4 team unless they’re willing to be patient and either have him bulk up or be a role player.

Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville, 6-3¾, 259 – Fourth-year senior…A two-year full-time starter who had 85 tackles, 24 tackles for a loss, 16½ sacks and nine passes defensed…Has good lower-body strength and agility to get through traffic consistently to get to the ball…Very good read-and-react skills…A big hitter who was an emotional leader of the Cardinals defense and was always leading the charge…Needs to improve his upper-body strength at the next level…Plays a little too upright, making it easier for blockers to get to him…Has had lingering injury issues throughout his career (shoulder, hamstring)…Ran a 4.85 40 at the Combine with 23 reps, a 32-inch vertical jump and a 9-4 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A player with experience at both defensive end and linebacker, he has the classic ‘tweener knock on him that may have interested teams reduced only to 3-4 teams looking for a strongside linebacker candidate.

Lynden Trail, Norfolk State, 6-6¾, 269 – Fifth-year senior…He started 27 of 35 games, recording 255 tackles, 41 tackles for a loss, 19½ sacks, eight forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries 18 passes defensed and two interceptions…Excellent size and long arms to keep defenders off his body…Highly productive and consistently made tackles…Has a lot of experience dropping in coverage…Was a man among boys playing against lesser competition…Slows down when blockers make contact with him, which either takes him out of plays or slows him enough to make him late to arrive to the ball…Needs to work on his technique…Ran a 4.91 40 at the Combine with 24 reps of 225 pounds, a 32½-inch vertical jump and a 9-9 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A small-school prospect who drew a lot of attention at the Senior Bowl (playing both linebacker and tight end). He’s still very raw and will need time to develop, but he has a lot of the prerequisites to be a solid NFL player.

Max Valles, Virginia, 6-4¾, 251 – Third-year junior who spent one year at Fork Union Military Academy…A one-year full-time starter who had 55 tackles, 12½ tackles for a loss, nine sacks, eight passes defensed and one interception…Has good quick-twitch movements off the snap in gets to his assignment quickly…An athlete who looks the part and has good speed and instincts…Is relentless in chasing down plays to the sideline or the whistle…Played opposite Eli Harold, so he faced very few double teams in his time with the Cavaliers…A raw prospect with limited college experience under his belt…Needs to develop more functional football strength…Did not lift at the Combine with a sprained left A/C joint, but ran a 4.83 40 with a 36½-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A player who may have been better suited coming back for another year, he’s still a very raw prospect with a lot of upside, which should be enough to get him drafted early on Day 3.

Aaron Davis, Colorado State, 5-11¾, 225
Alani Fua, BYU, 6-4¾, 228
Geneo Grissom, Oklahoma, 6-3½, 262
Jordan Hicks, Texas, 6-1½, 236
Zack Hodges, Harvard, 6-2½, 250
Delontrez Mount, Louisville, 6-5, 243
Jake Ryan, Michigan, 6-2½, 240
Martrell Spaight, Arkansas, 6-0, 236
Davis Tull, Tennessee-Chattanooga, 6-3¾, 247
Tony Washington, Oregon, 6-4, 247


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