Underclassmen LB's still have way to go

As we’ve seen in recent years, you can never have too many talented linebacker prospects in an NFL draft given all the intricacies of the position in both the 3-4 and 4-3 scheme. Today, the National Football Post takes a look at some of the nation’s top underclassmen linebacker prospects and breaks down the kind of players we’re likely to see in the 2011 season.

Don’ta Hightower, Alabama (6-4, 258)

Possesses a thick, compact frame and looks like an ideal fit as a middle linebacker in either a 34 or 43 front at the next level. Showcases impressive body control and physicality when asked to line up over the tight end on the strong side and does a nice job consistently disrupting the timing off the snap. However, what really jumps out at me is Hightower’s ability to quickly redirect and maintain balance when asked to play in man-coverage and stay with tight ends down the field. He has the ability to quickly get good depth in his drop, and although he isn’t the most explosive or fluid of athletes, his power and balance make it tough for tight ends to generate separation from him once he gets his hands on them.

Missed most of the 2009 season with a torn ACL, so it will be interesting to see where he stands physically and athletically at the start of the 2010 season. Did a much better job during the Alabama spring game using his hands to keep himself clean from blocks and has the type of power to stonewall lead blocks in the hole. However, he doesn’t exhibit the type of stack-and-shed ability to consistently make plays on the football once he frees himself at the point. Doesn’t have a great first step or overall range when asked to run sideline to sideline and will struggle to break down at times in space. Showcases some natural pass rush ability off the edge, as he does a nice job dropping his pad level and accelerating through contact.

Overall, I’m looking forward to watching him next season as he steps into the middle linebacker role on the Alabama defense. I think he has the makings to mature into a potential starter inside at the next level, but I’m nowhere near ready to call him a big-time, blue-chip prospect at this stage, like most.

Travis Lewis, Oklahoma (6-2, 232)
Lewis is a bit undersized but possesses good overall muscle tone in his lower half and generates a good pop when asked to break down and tackle. Is a very fluid athlete in space with the ability to cleanly redirect in and out of his breaks and looks natural flipping his hips and turning to run down the field. Exhibits impressive straight-line speed/range in all areas of his game with the body control to break down and consistently make plays in pursuit.

Reads and reacts quickly to the football and does a good job quickly diagnosing his run/pass keys. Exhibits impressive instincts vs. the run, and has that sixth sense to sniff out lanes and shoot gaps inside when asked to attack downhill and find the football. Also looks comfortable reading the quarterback in the pass game and consistently gets good jumps on the football.

Although he lacks ideal size/girth and will struggle when linemen get out to the second level and reach his frame, he has the body control to keep himself clean in traffic and make his way in pursuit. Lacks the power to consistently stack and shed in a phone booth and can be washed out/sealed from runs inside vs. bigger blockers. But is a surprisingly impressive tackler in tight quarters who showcases good snap from the hips and wraps up well on contact. Looks like a 4-3 weak-side guy at the next level, but is an impressive sideline-to-sideline athlete who can tackle in space and make plays vs. the pass. Should be able to step in and start at the next level pretty much from day one and will be a guy who can play at a high level on all three downs.

Others worth noting:

Chris Galippo, USC (6-2, 250)
A thick, physical linebacker with a strong lower half and a surprisingly impressive feel in coverage. Is still developing as a key and diagnose guy inside, but it looks like it’s only a matter of time/experience before he’s ready to become one of the nation’s top middle linebacker prospects.

Martez Wilson, Illinois (6-4, 250)
He’s a prospect we’ve been waiting to see have that breakout year since he set foot on the Illinois campus in 2007. However, after solid 2008 season, Wilson was forced to miss all of 2009 with a neck injury. Nevertheless, at 6-4 and 250 pounds, it’s tough to find a physical specimen who possesses the kind of straight-line speed and range that Wilson displays in pursuit. It will be interesting to see where he is physically and mentally next season, but the skill set is there for him to become one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten in 2010.

Akeem Ayers, UCLA (6-4, 254)
Another gifted size/speed athlete who’s at his best when asked to attack upfield and play behind the line of scrimmage. Possesses good power on contact with the suddenness and burst to slip blocks and quickly close on the football. Has the potential to project as a strong-side backer in the 4-3 at the next level, but in my opinion, he has even more upside as a 3-4 rush guy if given the opportunity to get after the passer.

Adrian Robinson Jr., Temple (6-2, 245)
Plays as an undersized defensive end in Temple’s 4-3 scheme and led the MAC with 13 sacks last season. However, because of his size, he looks like an ideal fit as a 3-4-rush linebacker at the next level. He possesses a good first step off the edge, works hard in pursuit and has a knack for reaching the quarterback.

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