NFL Draft: Breaking Down the Top Outside Linebacker Prospects

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Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders running back Reggie Whatley (25) is tackled by Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Kyle Van Noy (3). Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

 

TIER TWO

3. Kyle Van Noy, BYU: 6-3, 243 (4.71)

Van Noy is one of the best all-around linebackers in this draft class. He can run and chase down ball carriers, rush the passer off the edge, or drop back in coverage and make a play on the ball.

He’s versatile enough to play either inside or outside in a 3-4 defense, but his explosiveness off the edge and ability to get after the quarterback makes him more of an outside linebacker in my eyes.

Having said that, teams will like his ability to play either position. It would give a team like the Packers options if they draft the BYU prospect.

Van Noy is just a great football player with excellent football instincts. He’s an immediate impact player.

I like him for the Packers in one of the early rounds.

(Draft Projection: Rounds 1-2)

 

Auburn Tigers defensive end Dee Ford (30). Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

4. Dee Ford, Auburn: 6-2, 252 (4.59)

Ford is one of the better pass rushers in this draft. He will most likely get drafted in the first round, especially to a 4-3 team looking for a speedy edge rusher.

However, I think Ford is more of a second-round guy. His game is just not complete. He needs to hold up better against the run. He tends to get easily washed out of plays by tight ends or offensive tackles, and he struggles to get to the quarterback if he can’t beat his man with speed or athleticism.

Ford also moves down my list because he would play outside linebacker if drafted by a 3-4 team, like the Packers. And although Ford is athletic, he doesn’t have experience moving in space, and it remains to be seen if he can drop back in coverage as a linebacker.

These are too many “ifs” for a potential first round pick.

(Draft Projection: Rounds 1-2)

 

Louisville Cardinals defensive end Marcus Smith (91). USA Today Sports photograph

5. Marcus Smith, Louisville: 6-3, 251 (4.68)

Smith has prototypical size and athleticism for the 3-4 outside linebacker position. Smith is a former quarterback with experience rushing off the edge as both a linebacker and defensive end.

Smith’s best attribute is getting after the quarterback. He finished second last season in sacks with 14.5, and 18.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles in 2013 also show he can make plays off the edge.

Smith is also solid at backpedaling and holding his own in coverage.

Smith could improve as a run defender, but with a little more time to develop at the position (he’s only been playing defense for three seasons), Smith could develop into one of the better outside linebackers coming out of this draft.

(Draft Projection: Round 2)

 

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu (45). Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

6. Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech: 6-3, 253

Attaochu is an athletic pass rusher who explodes off the line and uses his high motor to make second-chance plays.

Attaochu’s game still needs polish. He’s inconsistent against the run and needs to learn to hold his ground better on the edge.

He also has the athleticism and instincts to play well in coverage, but he still lacks experience in this department.

Attaochu has tremendous upside and would be a great early-round pick for a team looking for a young, ascending pass rusher.

(Draft Projection: Round 2)

 

Boise State Broncos defensive end Demarcus Lawrence (8). Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

7. Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State: 6-3, 251 (4.69)

As a three-year starter at defensive end, Lawrence wracked up 30 sacks and a whopping 61 tackles for loss as the premiere player in Boise State’s defense.

These numbers tell you one thing–Lawrence is explosive off the edge and knows how to make plays.

Lawrence lacks the size to play as a traditional defensive end in the NFL, but his smaller size and athleticism make him a good fit as a 3-4 rush backer.

It may take Lawrence some time to learn to rush from a two-point stance and drop back in coverage, but his intangibles and athletic ability should make this transition a smooth one.

(Draft Projection: Rounds 2-3)

 

Stanford Cardinal linebacker Trent Murphy (93). Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

8. Trent Murphy, Stanford: 6-5, 250 (4.86)

The depth at the position may cause some of the less athletic outside linebackers, like Murphy, to fall down draft boards.

Murphy led the nation in sacks with 15 in 2013 as an outside linebacker in the Cardinals’ 3-4 defense. Murphy was dominant coming off the edge in college, blending power, technique, and a high motor.

Murphy possesses only average speed and athleticism, however, and this may cause him to struggle in space as an outside linebacker in the NFL.

Some wonder if he’ll be better suited as a 4-3 defensive end at the next level.

(Draft Projection: Rounds 2-3)

 

Texas Longhorns defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat (44) rushes the passer against TCU Horned Frogs offensive tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai (74). Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

9. Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas: 6-3, 247 (4.63)

Jeffcoat is a speedy pass rusher who excelled as a DE/LB hybrid on the Longhorns defense. As a team captain in 2013, Jeffcoat recorded 13 sacks, 22 tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles.

Jeffcoat is flying under the radar a bit as a defensive end prospect, but his athleticism and smaller stature may make him a better fit at outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense in the NFL.

Jeffcoat’s injury history should be noted and is one reason he’s not discussed as a top prospect at the position. A sprained ankle in 2010, a ruptured left pectoral muscle in 2011, and a torn right pectoral muscle in 2012 have led to many questions about Jeffcoat’s durability.

If Jeffcoat can stay healhty, he may be a steal at the position.

(Draft Projection: Rounds 2-3)

 

Arizona State Sun Devils linebacker Carl Bradford (52). Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

10. Carl Bradford, Arizona: 6-1, 250 (4.72)

Bradford was the star of Arizona’s defense the past two seasons as a DE/OLB hybrid, recording 20 sacks, 39.5 tackles for loss, and six forced fumbles. Bradford also made plays in coverage, recording two interceptions and eight batted passes.

Bradford is an explosive player off the edge and plays with an excellent motor, which helps him get after the quarterback.

Bradford lacks ideal size and length for the position, which could give him trouble shedding blocks against bigger and longer NFL tackles.

Many teams will overlook Bradford because of his height, but he could be a great find in the third or fourth round for a team looking to add another athletic pass rusher to their roster.

(Draft Projection: Round 3)

 

Arkansas Razorbacks defensive end Chris Smith (42). Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

11. Chris Smith, Arkansas: 6-1, 266 (4.71)

Smith is one of the more underrated pass rushers in this draft class. As an undersized college defensive end, Smith has the speed and athleticism to make the transition to outside linebacker in the NFL.

Smith’s stout frame will work against him come draft day, but he is one of the most explosive players off the line in this class.

He also plays with great pad level and can dip his shoulder to get under the tackle and gain the advantage on the edge.

Smith’s combination of power and a quick first step make him a handful for any tackle assigned to block him.

Smith also holds the edge well against the run. Smith may be a project dropping back in coverage, but he shows enough promise at the position to justify a third-round selection.

(Draft Projection: Round 3)

 

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