NFL Draft Preview: Linebackers

Posted Apr 13, 2011

With the possible exception of quarterback, there’s no position on offense or defense where the Rams aren’t in need of help more than middle linebacker.

Considering that many consider the middle linebacker to be the ‘quarterback’ of the defense, that’s a very good thing for the Rams.

Just two seasons into his career, James Laurinaitis has emerged not only as a productive starter in the middle but an emerging star and leader of the Rams defense.

Laurinaitis again led the Rams in tackles in 2010, posting 129 stops with three sacks and an interception.

Along with quarterback Sam Bradford, Laurinaitis seems poised to be one of the cornerstones of the franchise for the better part of the next decade.

Flanking Laurinaitis, though, is a different matter.

The Rams signed veteran Na’il Diggs from Carolina last offseason and plugged him in as the starter on the strong side.

Diggs provided a strong veteran presence, racking up 37 tackles before an injury ended his season four games early.

Diggs’ injury left the Rams searching for a reliable combination at the two outside spots for the remainder of the season, something that never really crystallized.

When all was said and done, the Rams had started four players on the weak side and none established himself as the clear-cut starter.

Included in that group were Larry Grant, David Vobora, Chris Chamberlain and Bryan Kehl. None had much in the way of starting experience before the season and none staked a claim to the job heading into the 2011 season.

Grant started the most games on the weak side with eight, finishing with 23 tackles and a pair of sacks. Chamberlain started six games, including the final four as he got his first starting opportunity and put up 23 tackles also.

The versatile Vobora started one game on the weak side before replacing Diggs on the strong side for the final four games. He had 28 tackles and two sacks.

Kehl started one game on the weak side but played quite a bit in nickel situations on his way to 26 tackles.

In addition to the return of those players, the Rams also expect Josh Hull to return from an ACL injury and compete for the role of backup to Laurinaitis and contribute on special teams.

While those young linebackers showed plenty of promise in 2010 and still have room to improve moving forward, there’s little doubt the Rams would like to find another outside linebacker or two in this offseason.

That starts with this month’s NFL Draft, which features a class of talented outside linebackers but a group that is varied in its skill set.

Because of the plethora of teams that now favor a 3-4 defense, it’s become harder to find true outside linebacker for a 4-3 scheme such as the one the Rams use.

Headlining the linebacker class is Texas A&M’s Von Miller, widely regarded as one of the best players in the draft regardless of position.

Most teams believe Miller can excel in either type of defense because of his athleticism and pass rush skills. He’s expected to go in the top five, perhaps as early as No. 3 to Buffalo.

Aside from Miller, no linebacker – outside or inside - in the draft projects as a surefire first-round draft choice.

North Carolina’s Bruce Carter is, perhaps, the best pure 4-3 outside linebacker in the draft and might have been a first round pick were it not for a serious knee injury that kept him on the sidelines last year.

While the Rams don’t figure to find a fit in terms of value meeting need at outside linebacker in the first round, it’s more likely they could do so in the second or third.

Washington linebacker Mason Foster visited St. Louis on Tuesday and seems like a good fit for a 4-3 defense. Foster made plays all over the field for the Huskies, amassing 163 tackles and 6.5 sacks last season.

Aside from Carter and Foster, UCLA’s Akeem Ayers would also seem to be a scheme fit outside in a 4-3.

Other than that trio, there are plenty of pass rush types that may or may not project into a scheme like the Rams. Players in that group include Nevada’s Dontay Moch, Fresno State’s Chris Carter, Arizona’s Brooks Reed and Oklahoma’s Jeremy Beal.

Inside Linebackers

1. Martez Wilson, Illinois – A big, physical athlete who can also play on the outside but is best suited inside in a 3-4.

2. Greg Jones, Michigan State – Also capable of moving outside but is quick to the ball and instincts. A solid leader, as well.

3. Colin McCarthy, Miami (Fla.) – Very athletic and physical but will need some time to add size. Projects as a possible starter down the road and immediate contributor on special teams.

4. Quan Sturdivant, North Carolina – Another in the long line of talented Tar Heel defenders in this draft. Not as flashy as his Carolina brethren but very productive and steady. 

5. Casey Matthews, Oregon – Has the famous bloodlines and was ultra productive in college despite not having the wow factor athleticism of his cousin Clay.

Sleeper: Mario Harvey, Marshall – Was in the top five in the country in tackles in 2010 and chipped in 8.5 sacks. Undersized at 5’11 but guys with lesser credentials at the same size have been productive at the NFL level.

Outside Linebackers

1. Von Miller, Texas A&M – One of the four or five best players in the draft. Miller is a force as a pass rusher and is strong against the run. Can play in a 3-4 or 4-3 and will likely come off the board in the top five picks.

2. Bruce Carter, North Carolina – Had ACL surgery in December but is a dynamic athlete with the ability to make plays all over the field. A first round talent that could be a steal later in the draft because of the injury.

3. Akeem Ayers, UCLA – Has the size and coverage skills to be a prototype 4-3 outside ‘backer but was disappointing in his combine workouts. Athletic and versatile with great upside.

4. Mason Foster, Washington – A tackling machine who racked up 163 tackles last year for the Huskies. He can run sideline to sideline and showed pass rush pop with 6.5 sacks. Could be a steal in the second or third round.

5. Justin Houston, Georgia – Known for his pass rush skills, he can play outside linebacker in a 3-4 or put his hand down as a 4-3 end.

Sleeper: Jabara Williams, Stephen F. Austin – Didn’t play the best competition but was extremely productive as he won his conference’s Defensive Player of the Year award and hit triple digits in tackles three consecutive seasons. A true weakside ‘backer in a 4-3 defense.