Over the past week I have been providing my early player rankings for each position in the 2014 NFL Draft. This is a brief look at my top five players at each position at this point in the draft evaluation process.
With the NFL Scouting Combine only a week away, the draft landscape could change rather rapidly depending on how well these players do in drills and workouts, but for now, this should at least give you an idea of who some of the top players are at each position.
1. Anthony Barr, UCLA
2. Khalil Mack, Buffalo
3. Kyle Van Noy, BYU
4. Dee Ford, Auburn
5. Marcus Smith, Louisville
This year’s draft class is full of 3-4 outside linebacker prospects, specifically in the second to fourth round range. Many of these players are college defensive ends who are either too small to play the position in the NFL or have the athletic ability to play upright in the two-point stance as a linebacker.
At the top of the class are Barr and Mack. They both have the potential to be top-ten picks come draft day, and they’re both dynamic pass rushers that could wreak havoc as 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL.
As a former running back, Barr has elite athleticism and speed for the position. Some project him to run a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine, which is faster than many defensive backs and practically unheard of for the position.
Barr has also only been playing defense for a few years, so his ceiling as a pass rusher is huge. He’ll intrigue plenty of teams in the first round looking for a difference maker on defense.
Mack is the most polished 3-4 edge rusher going into the draft. He has experience at both defensive end in a 4-3 and linebacker in a 3-4. He’s a guy that didn’t get the recognition he deserved in college because he played at Buffalo but is now a hot prospect during the draft evaluation process.
Mack is relentless on the field. He combines a high motor with excellent athletic ability and strength. “He’s a complete defender” to quote draft expert Tony Pauline, and is a guy that never takes a play off.
Beyond the top two guys the water gets a little murky at outside linebacker.
Van Noy is a versatile linebacker that can play either outside or inside linebacker and has a good mix of pass rush ability and athleticism in space to be effective in pass coverage, but he’s not elite at any one thing.
Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier is a potential first round pick at outside linebacker and has a quick first step as a pass rusher, but his smaller size (6-2, 230) makes him a tough sell on the edge in a 3-4 defense so I left him off the list. He seems better suited as a 4-3 linebacker.
Ford could break into the first round conversation with good numbers at the Combine. He’s definitely one of the better pass rushers in this draft, and his dominant performance at the Senior Bowl demonstrated this.
However, Ford doesn’t have the size (6-2, 243) to play end in the NFL and will have to make his mark as a 3-4 outside linebacker. The problem with this is no one has any idea if he can do the other things at the position, like dropping back in coverage or holding the edge against the run.
Marcus Smith is my sleeper pick at the position. Despite playing defensive end in Louisville’s system, Smith rushed upright in a two-point stance nearly half the time last season and is a speedy edge rusher that can also drop back in coverage.
Other players that could break into the top five in the coming months are Arknsas’ Chris Smith, who’s a tough, gritty pass rusher with a tremendous motor, Georgia Tech’s Jeremiah Attaochu, who is an athletic pass rusher that could be excellent with more development, and Stanford’s Trent Murphy, who’s a relentless pass rusher but may be limited to playing end because he lacks the athleticism to move well in space.
Like Murphy, there are plenty of other college defensive ends that could make the move to outside linebacker in the NFL, but they need to prove at the Combine they have the athleticism to excel upright in space.
Oregon State’s Scott Crichton, Boise State’s Demarcus Lawerence, and Missouri’s Kony Ealy could all be early round picks and factor in the picture at outside linebacker with good numbers at the Combine.
The potential 3-4 outside linebacker crop this year is so deep that we can’t even discuss all of them in one sitting. Texas’ Jackson Jeffcoat, Missouri’s Michael Sam, and Arizona State’s Carl Bradford are a few more names to keep an eye on and could be found in the third or fourth round.
There will be plenty of outside linebacker prospects for the Packers to pick from come draft time, and after the Combine next week, it will become clearer which players out of this group will be fit to play the position and which ones will be limited to defensive end at the next level.
Check back here at Lombardiave.com for the next position’s top five draft prospects. Also, look for a more in-depth position-by-position breakdown later in the spring as we get closer to the NFL Draft in May.
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