Pro Football Weekly Draft Prospects LB
On paper, it does not look like a very strong year for linebackers. However, linebacker is one position where you can find some gems late in the draft or even off the street. Players such as Jessie Tuggle, London Fletcher and Sam Mills were not even drafted, while Jessie Armstead, Zach Thomas and Hardy Nickerson were not exactly top picks. On the other hand, most of the really great linebackers such as Junior Seau, Lawrence Taylor, Cornelius Bennett, Dick Butkus and Tommy Nobis were picked at the top of the first round. The one common denominator among all the game’s great linebackers is that, while they come in all shapes and sizes and some run 4.4s in the 40-yard dash and others run 4.8s and 4.9s, they all have great heart, instincts and reaction speed. That is why such high No. 1 picks such as Aundray Bruce and Keith McCants did not pan out. The most important thing a linebacker can have is great anticipation. Some players run a 4.9 but play at 4.5 speed because they are always headed in the right direction, while others run 4.5 but play at 5.0 speed because there is too much hesitation in their game, or they take too many false steps.
When USC feels a linebacker is going to be really special, it generally will give him the No. 55. That was the number top 10 picks Willie McGinest, Junior Seau and Chris Claiborne all wore. Although Markus Steele was a junior-college transfer, he was given No. 55. At times, Steele looks like he can be as special as the others, but at other times, he does not get much done. When he plays inside in many of USC’s schemes, he seems to have trouble seeing the play develop, is slow to react and is not much of a factor. However, when he lines up outside, he often will make the big play and show rare athletic ability. Steele does not shed blocks well, but he can fly to the ball and make the big hit, has the speed to run with anybody and can be an effective speed rusher coming off the edge. His acceleration to the ball is remarkable, and he is a big hitter. He does not always break down well, however, and he will overrun some plays.
Dan Morgan of Miami (Fla.) is a highly productive four-year starter who has great character and work ethic and outstanding speed. He spent most of his career at outside linebacker, but this year he moved into the middle to replace Nate Webster. Morgan is tall, rangy, has very good speed, takes good angles to the ball and makes a lot of tackles, which is why he will be a top pick. However, he has some factors that may limit him a little in the pros. He is not really stout, is a little stiffer and tighter than scouts would like and while he generally looks aware and instinctive, there are some times when he appears to struggle a little. He also is not a run stuffer when he plays in the middle and may be better-suited to play on the weak side. He is a lot like the Falcons’ Keith Brooking.
Florida State’s Tommy Polley has made a remarkable comeback from major knee surgery after last season’s Sugar Bowl but still is not quite back to where he was at the end of last year. A natural weak-side linebacker, the tall and rangy Polley is very fast and has good instincts. He has excellent range, can close on the ball and has pretty good pass-coverage ability. On the downside, he does not take on blocks well and is much better playing against air. If he stays healthy, Polley could be a Darryl Talley-type pro.
Some people feel that Polley’s teammate, Brian Allen, could go as high as Polley in the draft. Allen is fast, aggressive and a great weightroom guy who can bench-press close to 500 pounds. However, he is short and at times seems to have a hard time locating the ball.
Georgia’s Kendrell Bell was a junior-college transfer who did not start until the middle of the 1999 season, but he has done nothing but get better ever since. He can really run, has good size and seems to love to play the game. Bell is an explosive hitter who generally sheds blocks pretty well and is good at blocking kicks and can be a big asset on special teams. However, he does not always play under control, takes poor angles to the ball and will get lost in pass coverage at times if he is in a complex zone scheme. While Bell needs lots of reps, he is a very willing worker and a team leader.
I may be too high on Fresno State’s Orlando Huff, but he was so dominant against Ohio State that I think he can become a really good NFL linebacker. Huff can play over the tight end, runs very well, makes plays and can use his hands and arms to ward off blocks. If he will work his butt off and takes all the reps he needs, I can see him developing into a starting NFL linebacker in time — and a good one at that. However, in the past there were a few questions about his work ethic and willingness to put in the time he needed to fully grasp his assignments.
At 6-5 and 230 pounds with room to grow and sub-4.7 speed in the 40-yard dash, Arkansas’ Quinton Caver could be a first- or second-round pick if he goes to an all-star game and plays well and follows that up with a strong showing at the combine. His height and long arms let him block and disrupt passing lanes, and his speed and range enable him to make plays all over the field. However, Caver plays a little more upright than scouts would like, does not have really quick change of direction and at times seems to struggle when he must turn his hips to run with a running back in coverage.
Oklahoma’s Torrance Marshall is very fast and aggressive and is starting to develop a little feel for the Sooners’ scheme. Marshall looked like he lacked instincts at times last season, but he has improved this year and is a very effective blitzer, which Nebraska found out the hard way.
While Bell, Carver, Marshall and Morgan can play inside, the best pure middle linebacker may be Nebraska’s Carlos Polk. He is a big, physical and aggressive middle linebacker who generally is a very effective running-down type of player who can clog up the middle and get outside to make plays. However, he is not very good in coverage, and because of that, was not much of a factor vs. Oklahoma and its pass-oriented spread offense.
Syracuse OLB Morlon Greenwood is a former high school 215-pound wrestling champion who, after redshirting in ’96, has started every game since. Greenwood is very fast and is generally aggressive. At times he can look very instinctive, but that is not always the case. At about 6-0 and 235 pounds, he does have a hard time taking on and shedding blocks.
Tennessee’s Eric Westmoreland is a lot like Greenwood but has not been as durable. He may be a better pass-cover linebacker, however.
At North Carolina, Brandon Spoon has the toughness and motor scouts look for, but he is not very athletic and is a little tight and stiff. As a result, he can’t break down that well, which really hurts his open-field tackling. While Spoon makes some big hits, he also misses a lot in the open field.
His teammate, Sedrick Hodge, is very, very fast, athletic and a long-jumper on the track team. However, he has missed spring practices to run track and is very raw and inexperienced. Some scouts say he just lacks a feel for the game, but others believe the more he plays the better he will get and that he will become a lot more natural. Don’t be surprised if Hodge is drafted a lot higher than Spoon.
While USC’s Zeke Moreno is not very athletic looking, he may make more plays than Steele and is a savvier, more instinctive player with a great motor and work ethic.
Aaron Glenn’s big little brother, Jason Glenn, had improved every year at Texas A&M and was having an all-star-type senior year before suffering a major knee injury that puts his future in doubt. Glenn is a good leverage player who is tough to knock off his feet and played faster than he was timed this spring (4.77) before he got hurt.