Draft top 5: Outside Linebackers

This year, the draft has a number of players who could be looked at as outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme or defensive ends in a 4-3. For the purpose of this discussion, I will talk about the players who will be primarily outside linebackers once they get to the NFL.

1) Khalil Mack – Buffalo

Going into the 2013 college season, Mack was rated high but not as a potential top five pick. That changed opening weekend when Buffalo played at Ohio State. Though Ohio State won easily, Mack dominated the game, showing both pass rush and cover skills that you don’t usually see in a linebacker.

Mack has great size at 6025 – 251. He ran in the 4.6’s at the combine and then improved to 4.56 at his pro day. Mack can do it all. He is a dominant pass rusher who can come off the edge with speed and a variety of moves. He is also an excellent bull rusher.

Going into the season, there was a question about Mack’s ability to play in coverage. He dispelled that thought with three interceptions this season including two that were returned for touchdowns. He also had seven passes broken up.

When playing against the run, he is instinctive, with the ability to shed quickly and make plays. He had 19 tackles for loss in 2013. Mack is one of the top defensive prospects in this draft and should get drafted in the first half hour.

2) Anthony Barr – UCLA

Barr is the prototypical outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. He has ideal size, play strength, and speed to play the position. He measured 6047 – 251 at the combine and ran a disappointing 4.66. He came back at the UCLA pro day to run a blistering 4.47. Interestingly, Barr has only played the position for two seasons. He was a running back when he first got to UCLA.

Barr is best rushing the passer. In two years on defense, he had 23.5 sacks. He primarily rushes from a two-point stance and shows the ability to bend and get under blockers coming off the edge. He has a very quick first step and can use his hands and feet to put moves together. He shows an outstanding burst coming off blocks to close.

Barr is a very good pursuit player and makes a number of plays coming from the back side. He still needs to improve his run defense on plays to him. Being new at the position, he doesn’t react as quickly as some players and can be fooled by misdirection. He can also be a little slow getting off blocks.

Still, with his athleticism, explosion, and natural pass rush skills, he has great upside and will be drafted early. There are some 4-3 clubs who feel he can play defensive end. While he has the frame and length, he needs to add some bulk and strength to hold up versus the run at that position.

3) Ryan Shazier – Ohio State

Ryan is an underclassman entering the draft early and is coming off a very good season at Ohio State. He finished the 2013 season with 134 total tackles, including 17 tackles for loss. He also added 5.0 sacks.
Shazier was listed as weighing 222 pounds early in the year. That proved to be false as he weighed 235 at the combine. He proceeded to run a sub 4.5 40-yard dash at his pro day. To go along with speed, Shazier has top overall athleticism, change of direction, and flexibility.

As a player, Shazier has to be one of the most instinctive linebackers in the draft. Bill Parcells used to have a saying about instinctive football players. He would say, “the ball finds him”. That describes Shazier to a tee. He can shed at the point or on the move and gets to the play. Once there, he is an excellent tackler.

While not used a lot as a pass rusher, he is very effective and knows how to time blitzes. He is very efficient in pass coverage and has the tools to play both man and zone. I see Shazier’s best fit as a 4-3 Will linebacker, but he can easily play Will in a 3-4 also. Shazier is a certain first round pick.

4) Dee Ford – Auburn

Ford is an interesting guy. He played mostly down this year at Auburn but has played some on his feet. At 6021 – 244 with 4.62 speed, he is not going to play down at the NFL level. He best projects to an outside linebacker in a 3-4. At that position, his pass rushing skills still come into play.

Ford was unable to work out at the combine because of a back issue but tore it up at his pro day with a 35.5 vertical jump, a 10’4” long jump and a 7.05 3 cone. He plays with that kind of athleticism on the field. He has a great first step and often beats blockers out of their stance. This year he had 10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss playing in a rotation. He has the snap and power in his hips to bull rush and uses his hands very well. He is good at using counter moves.

Against the run, because he lacks size, he can get overpowered at the point of attack by big lineman, but that won’t be as much of a worry if he is playing on his feet. He is a very good pursuit player.
In pass coverage he has a good drop and a feel for receivers in zone. His transition to break on the ball is also good. His back injury could be an issue but that will differ from team to team. While he has a chance to go in the first round, I feel that he will be a solid second round pick.

5) DeMarcus Lawrence – Boise State

When you watch tape, Lawrence jumps out. While he plays mostly down, like Ford, he has also played some on his feet. His size, speed and athleticism say he will be a 3-4 outside linebacker. He measured 6027 – 251 at the combine. He did not run well at Indy (4.80) but came back to run a 4.68 at his pro day.
At Boise, Lawrence usually lines up as a five-technique, but has also played some seven-technique. He is a natural pass rusher who can use his hands, knows how to put together counter moves, and can bull rush. Coming off the edge, he shows he can dip his shoulder and get under his opponent.

Despite his lack of ideal size, he plays bigger and stronger than he measures. He has long arms and can play with leverage. He is very instinctive and is consistently around the ball. He had outstanding production in 2013 with 10.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss. In two years as a starter, he has 20 sacks.

At the combine, Lawrence showed he could drop quickly and transition. He also showed consistent hands. Lawrence has been getting a lot of play recently, and I see him as a solid second round pick who will play right away.

Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

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