Impact potential of 3-4 rush linebacker class

The National Football Post breaks down the nation’s top 3-4 rush linebacker prospects for the 2010 NFL Draft.

The Leader

Jerry Hughes, TCU (6-2, 255)

Hughes didn’t get as much attention last season as many other prospects on this list, but he looks like one of the few prospects in the draft capable of making an instant impact off the edge as a rookie. Physically, Hughes is an explosive kid who, despite being only 6-2, shows an ability to consistently play with natural leverage on contact. However, what makes him so tough to block is his balance around the corner and ability to maintain his speed once he drops his shoulder and flattens out along the edge. Plus, he’s one of the more coordinated pass rushers in the draft and has the ability to use his hands and cleanly change directions when working off his initial speed rush. Hughes will likely end up being on all 32 teams’ draft boards as either a 4-3 DE or 3-4 OLB and has a lot of value rushing the passer from either spot.

The Contenders

Brandon Graham, Michigan (6-1, 268)

Graham could very well be the top 3-4 rush guy on a lot of teams’ draft boards, but -- and this no slap at him -- I just like Hughes a little more. Graham gives you a powerful, sudden pass rusher who has the short-area quickness to slip blocks and the natural leverage to fight his way through contact toward the quarterback. He’s a bit undersized, but like a lot of pass rushers, he can use his natural leverage to his advantage around the edge and is one of the more NFL-ready prospects in this year’s draft.

Jason Worilds, Virginia Tech (6-1, 254)

Quick-twitch explosion is the first thing that jumps out to you about Worilds’ overall game. His ability to fire out of his stance and consistently threaten the corner shows up repeatedly on game tape, and when he’s given the opportunely to line up wide and rush the passer, he’s extremely tough to reach off the edge. He also showcased impressive balance and footwork during linebacker drills at the combine and looked natural when asked to stand up and change directions in space. He’s a bit undersized to be considered an every-down 4-3 DE prospect, but the guy plays as fast, if not faster, than as any other pass rusher in the class and looks like a potential impact 3-4 rush guy because of his first step.

Ricky Sapp, Clemson (6-4, 252)

If it wasn’t for Sapp’s history of knee injuries, I could have easily had the guy No. 1 on my list. When I watch him at full strength, he displays the first step, length and lateral quickness to consistently beat blocks on contact and displays impact-caliber pass rush ability. Now, I still think the guy has the ability to start and create pressure of the edge at the next level if he can stay healthy. But I’ve heard from numerous sources that his knee is not where it needs to be, and it could end up holding him back from fully reaching his potential.

Sergio Kindle, Texas (6-3, 250)

As a linear athlete, Kindle might be the best of the bunch. He’s thick, compact and has the explosion to get on top of opposing lineman quickly off the edge. However, when watching him on tape and seeing him at the combine, he just didn’t strike me as a real balanced individual; he has a tendency to get leggy and lose balance when asked to quickly change directions. There’s no denying his physical skill set, and he still can generate a burst off the line. I just think that in order for him to become a big-time 3-4 pass rusher at the next level, he’s going to need to be more than a one-trick pony and develop a counter to his straight-line speed rush.

The off-the-radar guy

Thaddeus Gibson, Ohio State (6-2, 243)

One guy to keep an eye on through the draft season is Ohio State’s Gibson. He’s a surprisingly powerful pass rusher for his size and possesses the lateral quickness to cleanly side-step blocks on his pass rush and accelerate toward the quarterback. He’s still raw and needs time to develop, but he’s got a great overall physical skill set, and if the light ever goes on, he’ll be a tough block off the edge in the NFL.

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