FanPost

NFL Draft - Comprehensive Linebacker Analysis

**Disclaimer:  I started this "diary" a few weeks ago with the idea of writing a detailed analysis of the top four to five linebackers in the upcoming NFL Draft.  However, day after day, I added more player and more analysis until it morphed into this final project:  A comprehensive 14 page (as a word document at least) analysis of all the linebacker projected to go in the first 4 rounds of the NFL Draft.  I apologize for the length, but if you're able to wade through it I think you will find it pretty informative!

The 2007 NFL Draft is just over a week away and Bills fans everywhere are anxiously awaiting to see who the newest members of the Buffalo Bills will be.  The Bills are a young team on the rise, but to stay competitive need to fill many holes on draft day.  Perhaps no hole is larger then at linebacker.  With the loss of London Fletcher-Baker to free agency and the trade of Takeo Spikes to Philadelphia, Buffalo will probably be looking to add at least two linebackers to their roster during the NFL Draft (most likely in the first 4 rounds).  What follows below is a comprehensive analysis all of the linebackers graded in the first 4 rounds in the upcoming draft.

Note:  Group 1 consists of potential first round linebackers while Group 2 contains linebackers projected to go between rounds 2 and 4.

Group 1 (Potential Round 1 Linebackers):

Patrick Willis (Mississippi) - MLB (OLB)
Paul Posluszny (Penn State) - OLB (MLB)
Lawrence Timmons (Florida State) - OLB
Jon Beason (Miami) - OLB (MLB)

Group 2:  (Later Round Linebackers):

Brandon Siler (Florida) - MLB (OLB) -(projected:  2)
David Harris (Michigan) - MLB - (projected:  2-3)
Stewart Bradley (Nebraska) - OLB - (projected: 2-3)
Justin Durant (Hampton) - MLB (OLB) -(projected:  2-3)
Tim Shaw (Penn State) - OLB - (projected:  3)
Buster Davis (Florida State) - MLB - (projected:  3)
Quincy Black (New Mexico) - OLB - (projected:  3)
Stephen Nicholas (South Florida) - OLB - (projected:  3-4)
Rufus Alexander (Oklahoma) - OLB - (projected:  3-4)
Michael Okwo (Stanford) - OLB - (projected:  3-4)
Zak DeOssie (Brown) - MLB - (projected:  4)
Earl Everett (Florida) - OLB (ILB) - (projected:  4)

Let's start by looking at the player's strengths and weaknesses:

Group 1:

Patrick Willis - Mississippi - MLB (OLB) (6'1 ", 242) - ESPN Grade:  95

Strengths:
Aggressiveness
Speed (sideline-to-sideline pursuit linebacker)
Tackling technique
Very instinctive

Areas of Improvement:
Lateral movement
Pass coverage skills
May need to add some weight
Plays too high at times
Durability - Lots of lingering injuries

Intangibles:
Leadership
Intensity
High character
Versatile - can play more than one position
Best suited for MLB in the cover-2
Gets a deep drop in zone and displays above average range

Paul Posluszny:  Penn State - OLB (MLB) - (6'1 ", 238) - ESPN Grade:  92

Strengths:
Aggressiveness
Discipline
Very Instinctive (good angles)

Areas of Improvement:
Pass coverage skills
Durability (Knee)
Could add weight to his frame

Intangibles:
Intensity
Smart
Leadership
High character
Versatile - can play more than one position
Best suited for WLB in cover-2 (size is adequate, but not elite for SLB)
Great range in zone coverage

Lawrence Timmons:  Florida State - OLB - (6'0 ", 234) - EPSN Grade:  93

Strengths:
Aggressiveness
Athleticism (sideline-to-sideline verses run)
Change of direction (fluid hips)
Good in coverage

Areas of Improvements:
Discipline
Instincts - does not diagnose plays quick enough/lack ideal awareness in coverage
Raw - one year of starting experience

Intangibles:
Quick and Explosive
Good pass rusher
Best suited for WLB in cover-2
Very good range in coverage when he diagnoses the play quickly enough

Jon Beason: Miami - OLB - (6'0 ", 237) - ESPN Grade:  89

Strengths:
Athleticism
Foot Quickness
Change of Direction   
Instinctive and aggressive
Good open field tackler

Areas of Improvement:
Shedding ability
Lacks elite height
Lacks elite range in coverage
Durability (shoulder and knee injuries)
Stiffness in hips

Intangibles:
Great special-teamer
Leadership
High motor
Versatile - has played all three positions in college, but because of size probable suited for WLB in cover-2 defense
He displays adequate awareness and range in zone coverage

Group 2:  

Brandon Siler: Florida - ILB - (6'1 ", 241) - ESPN Grade:  77 - Projected:  2 Rd.

Strengths:
Aggressiveness
Change of Direction
Strength

Areas of Improvement:
Pass coverage skills
Instincts - poor angles

Intangibles:
Intensity
High motor
Plays with mean streak
Versatile - can fit in a number of defensive system
Lacks ideal range in zone coverage

David Harris: Michigan - ILB - (6'2 ", 243) - ESPN Grade:  82 - Projected: 2/3 Rd.

Strengths:
Aggressiveness
Athleticism
Instincts
Good run defender

Areas for Improvement:
Pass Coverage Skills
Shedding Ability
Durability

Intangibles:
High motor
Best suited for ILB in 3-4 defense
Best suited for MLB in cover-2
Struggles in man coverage, but better in zone

Steward Bradley:  Nebraska - OLB - (6'3 ", 254) -ESPN Grade:  83 - projected:  2/3

Strengths:
Size
Strength
Toughness
Instincts (good angles/always in position)

Areas of Improvement:
Speed (lacks sideline-to-sideline range)
Lateral movements
Pass Coverage Skills
Inefficient:  over pursues
Durability (knee)

Intangibles:
High-motor
Best suited For ILB in 3-4 Defense
Best suited for SLB in the cover-2
Gets good depth and reads the quarterback's eyes when asked to drop into zone coverage

Justin Durant:  Hampton - OLB - (6'0 ", 230) - ESPN Grade: 79 - Projected: 2/3 Rd.

Strengths:
Discipline
Instincts
Lateral movements
Speed

Areas: of Improvement:
Shedding ability
Plays too high
Size
Intensity
Developmental - may not be a first year starter

Intangibles:
Special team potential
High motor
Leadership
Versatile

Tim Shaw: Penn State - OLB - (6'1 ", 236) - ESPN Grade:  75 - projected - 3 Rd.

Strengths:
Aggressiveness
Athleticism
Instincts - reads and reacts well and good angles

Areas of Improvement:
Pass coverage ability
Shedding ability
Size
A bit Stiff in hips

Intangibles:
Versatile - has played OLB, ILB, and DE
Good motor
Smart
Leadership
High character
He reads quarterbacks' eyes well in zone coverage and gets good depth in his drop

Buster Davis: Florida State - ILB - (5'9 ", 239) - ESPN Grade:  72 - Projected: 3 Rd.

Strengths:
Aggressiveness
Foot Quickness

Areas for Improvement:
Size
Strength
Playmaking ability in coverage

Intangibles:
Could be good special teamer
Intensity
Quicker then fast
Best suited for MLB in cover-2
Compared to London Fletcher-Baker A LOT

Quincy Black:  New Mexico - OLB - (6'1 ", 240) - ESPN Grade:  72 - Projected: 3

Strengths:
Athleticism
Change of Direction
Speed
Good Instincts (reads keys/rarely out of position)
Great Coverage skills

Areas of Improvement:
Shedding ability
Size - problems anchoring against run
Instincts

Intangibles:
Physically gifted
High motor
Versatile - Will probable be best suited for WLB, maybe even SS
Developmental player
Best suited for WLB in cover-2
Adequate depth and shows good range when dropping into zone coverage

Stephen Nicholas: South Florida - OLB - (6'1 ", 232) - ESPN Grade: 76 - Project: 3/4

Strengths:
Change of Direction
Instincts
Lateral Movements

Areas for Improvement:
Shedding Ability
Speed
Size

Intangibles:
Three year starter
High motor
Best suited for WLB in cover-2 (but lacks idea speed so potential is capped)
Shows adequate range when asked to drop in zone coverage
Plays with mean streak

Rufus Alexander: Oklahoma - OLB - (6'0 ", 228) - ESPN Grade:  66 - Projected: 3/4

Strengths:
Agility
Athleticism
Change of Direction
Instincts - Ball hawk
Good tackler

Areas for Improvement:
Size
Strength
Speed
Takes plays off sometimes

Intangibles:
Best suited for WLB in cover-2
Played at high level at big school, but lacks ideal size, speed, and strength for NFL
At his best in space
Sideline to sideline run defender

Michael Okwo: Stanford - OLB - (5'11 ", 232) - ESPN Grade - 67 - Projected -3/4

Strengths:
Change of Direction
Lateral Movement
Speed
Instincts - good angles

Areas of Improvement:
Shedding Ability
Size
Run support
Durability

Intangibles:
Football intelligence
Developmental player
Best suited for WLB in cover 2
High motor
Plays with mean streak
Good special teamer
Gets adequate depth when asked to drop into zone coverage

Zak DeOssie: Brown - OLB/MLB - (6'4 ", 250) - ESPN Grade - 63 - Projected:  4

Strengths:
Good Size
Good speed for size
Excellent in Coverage

Areas for improvement:
Durability (Knee, shoulder)
Shedding blocks
Awareness and Instincts
Plays too high

Intangibles:
High motor
Plays with mean streak
Stand out special teamer
Versatile - can play both inside and outside
Workout warrior
Best suited for ILB in cover 2
Gets good depth and can cover a lot of ground when asked to drop into zone coverage

Earl Everett:  Florida - OLB - (6'2 ", 238) - ESPN Grade:  58 - Projected: 4

Strengths:
Athleticism   
Change of direction
Size

Areas of Improvement:
Aggressiveness
Toughness
Intensity
Instincts

Intangibles:
Great size and speed
Best suited for WLB in cover-2
Leadership

Now lets look at combine times:

40 Yard Dash:
The 40 yard dash is a test of speed and explosion. The player starts from a three-point stance and runs 40 yards as fast as possible. The player is timed in 10, 20 and 40 yard increments, to gauge the player's explosion of the line and time to top speed.

Note:  All times are from the NFL combine.  Since all players ran on the same turf in the same conditions, its the fairest and most neutral way to rank them (times in parentheses are pro-day times)

Group 1:
Patrick Willis: 5.51 (4.37)
Lawrence Timmons: 4.66 (4.63)
Paul Posluszny: 4.70 (4.58)
Jon Beason:   4.72 (4.62)

Group 2:
Quincy Black: 4.42
Tim Shaw: 4.51 (4.46)
Justin Durant: 4.51 (none)
Zak DeOssie:  4.58 (none)
David Harris: 4.59 (none)
Brandon Siler: 4.62 (none)
Buster Davis:   4.64 (4.74)
Stephen Nicholas"  4.64 * pro day number, did not run at combine
Michael Okwo:  4.70
Stewart Bradley:  4.72
Rufus Alexander:  4.79
Earl Everett: 4.88 (*pulled hamstring on 1st run)

In my opinion these numbers do not tell you much.  Linebackers rarely have to run 40-yards in a straight line to make a tackle.  So what would be a better indication of linebacker speed?  How about 10-yard and 20-yard times?  Since the first 10 or 20 yards are what a linebacker is going to traditionally need to cover, these times might be a better indication `explosiveness' and `attacking' ability.  First we'll look at 20 yard times and then the 10 yard times:

20 Yards:

Group 1:
Patrick Willis: 2.62 (2.52)
Jon Beason:   2.64 (none)
Lawrence Timmons: 2.68 (2.69)
Paul Posluszny: 2.73 (2.61)

Group 2:
Quincy Black:  2.48 (none)
David Harris: 2.59 (none)
Justin Durant: 2.60 (none)
Tim Shaw: 2.62 (2.54)
Brandon Siler: 2.66 (none)
Zak DeOssie:  2.66 (none)
Stephen Nicholas: 2.68* pro day numbers, did not run at combine
Stewart Bradley:  2.71 (none)
Michael Okwo:  2.71 (none)
Buster Davis:   2.74 (2.72)
Rufus Alexander: 2.75 (none)
Earl Everett:  2.81 (*Pulled hamstring on 1st run - ran in mid 4.7's at pro day not at 100%)

10 Yards:

Group 1:
Lawrence Timmons: 1.50 (1.56)
Patrick Willis: 1.53 (1.52)
Paul Posluszny: 1.56 (1.53)
Jon Beason:   1.60 (none)

Group 2:
Quincy Black: 1.53 (none)
David Harris: 1.53 (none)
Justin Durant: 1.55 (none)
Brandon Siler: 1.56 (none)
Zak DeOssie:  1.56 (none)
Stewart Bradley:  1.56 (none)
Michael Okwo:  1.58 (none)
Stephen Nicholas:  1.58 *pro day number, did not run at combine
Tim Shaw: 1.59 (1.49)
Earl Everett:  1.62 (*pulled hamstring on first run)
Rufus Alexander:  1.64 (none)
Buster Davis:   1.65 (1.62)

A couple of things stick out to me here:  
1.  Willis is consistently fast.  He doesn't tail off like most of the other guys do and carries a good frame for how fast he is.
2.  Poz, Timmons, and Beason were all much more comparable to Willis in the first 20 yards then in the final 40 time.  This tells me that all their playing speeds are relatively similar and good instincts may be the separating factor.
3.  Buster Davis seems to be the only player who doesn't improve much when looking at his 10-yard and 20-yard times.  His 4.64 in his combine 40 was not bad, but then he ran a 4.74 at his pro-day and has the slowest 10-yard and 20 yard times.  His small frame also scares me off as a cover-2 middle linebacker.  He reminds me of London Fletcher, he may be a great Middle linebacker but is not suited for the cover-2 defense.
4.  Davis, Alexander, and Everett seem slow no matter which time you look at.

20-yard shuttle: (maybe the most important drill for linebackers)
The 20 yard shuttle test lateral speed and coordination. The player starts in a three point stance, straddling a yard line facing the sideline. When the whistle blows, the player runs 5 yards to one side, touching the yard line. He then sprints 10 yards in the other direction and again touches the yard line, at which point he sprints back to the yard line he started from.

Group 1:  
Paul Posluszny: 4.20
Lawrence Timmons: 4.32 (4.34)
Jon Beason:   4.33* - taken from personal day (4/5) - did not run at combine or pro day due to a strain pectoral muscle suffered at combine
Patrick Willis: 4.46 (4.37)

Group 2:
Justin Durant: 4.09
Tim Shaw: 4.12 (4.28)
Stewart Bradley:  4.17
Zak DeOssie:  4.22
David Harris: 4.29
Rufus Alexander:  4.30
Quincy Black:  4.34
Brandon Siler: 4.39* pro day time - did not run at combine
Buster Davis:   4.37
Michael Okwo: 4.43
Stephen Nicholas:  4.45
Earl Everett:  None

What stands out here:

VERY impressive times from Justin Durant, Tim Shaw and Paul Posluszny, also surprisingly on the slower side for Willis.  Good times also for DeOssie, and Harris.  Perhaps most impressive however is Bradley though.  At nearly 6-4, 250 pounds being able to get the 3rd best time among Linebackers is pretty amazing.  He seems like a great athlete, I don't think he would be the best fit the cover-2, however (see his areas for improvement above).

I was going to mention Shaw and Durant in the 40-yard section, but I figured I would hold off and see how they compared in the rest of the categories, so far, pretty impressive.  Since this drill tests lateral speed and coordination, two very important traits for a successful NFL linebacker to have, it may be the most important drill at the Combine for linebackers.  So for guys like Poz, Durant, Shaw and Harris, good times could mean big things for them come draft day.

Side note on Beason:  Since he ran on his personal day at his former high school weighing 8 pounds lighter than his ideal weight, his numbers are hard analyze.  Not having the added weight may have allowed him to move quicker and record better times.  That said, his times are still impressive though.

*Also it's important to note that Black had the best 60 yard shuttle time (11.23).  Other notables:  Poz had the third best time amongst linebackers (11.42), Durant fourth (11.44), Deossie fifth (11.50), Harris sixth (11.67), and Timmons ninth (11.78).

3 Cone Drill
Tests speed, agility and cutting ability. Three cones are set up in a triangle or L shape, with each cone 5 yards apart. The player starts in a 3-point stance at the first cone. The whistle blows and the player sprints 5 yards ahead to the first cone, reaches down and touches a white line and then sprints back to the starting cone. At the starting cone, he reaches down and touches a white line, then heads back to the second cone. This time, he runs around the outside of the second cone, and cuts right to the third cone. He runs a circle around the third cone from the inside to the outside, then runs around the second cone before returning to the first cone.

Group 1:  
Jon Beason:   6.89** taken from personal day (4/5) - did not run at combine or pro day due to a strain pectoral muscle suffered at combine
Lawrence Timmons: 6.92
Paul Posluszny: 6.94
Patrick Willis: 7.23 (7.1)

Group 2:
Justin Durant: 6.77
Quincy Black:  6.86
Zak DeOssie:  6.89
Tim Shaw: 7.01 (6.9)
Rufus Alexander:  7.06
Michael Okwo:  7.12
David Harris: 7.25
Buster Davis:   7.28
Stewart Bradley:  7.29
Stephen Nicholas:  7.29
Brandon Siler: 7.34 (7.7)
Earl Everett:  7.39 * Pro day after pulling hamstring at combine, still not 100%

What sticks out here:
* Durant AGAIN with an impressive and fast 6.77 for a linebacker, I'm starting to see a trend here (highest among all linebackers, actually).
* Timmons and Poz were nearly identical also putting up good numbers (5 and 6 among linebackers overall)
*Here we find Willis in the middle of the pack, again somewhat surprising for his athleticism.

Lets end with two other drills that may not be as important for linebackers as some of the others:  The broad and vertical jumps:

Broad Jump
The broad jump is also done from a standing position, but this drill measures how far a player can jump. This drill is most important to positions that use lower body strength to gain an advantage (i.e. offensive and defensive linemen and running backs). The length of the jump is measured from the starting point to the back of the heel closest to the starting point upon landing.

Group 1:  
Lawrence Timmons: 10'3"
Patrick Willis: 9'11"
Paul Posluszny: 9'8''
Jon Beason:   9'3'' (10')

Group 2:
Quincy Black 10'4'"
Zak DeOssie:  10'2"
Justin Durant: 10'1"
Michael Okwo:  10'1"
Rufus Alexander: 9'9"
Tim Shaw: 9'8'' (10'6")
Earl Everett: 9'55"
Stewart Bradley:  9'4"
Stephen Nicholas:  9'2"
Brandon Siler: 9'1" (9'8")
David Harris: 8'11" (9'2")
Buster Davis:   8'8''

Vertical Jump
Most important to wide receivers and defensive backs. To measure vertical jump, a player stands flat-footed in front of pole with a multitude of plastic flags sticking out. The bottom of the pole is adjusted to the height of the player's fingertips when raised straight above his head. The player then jumps from a standing position, and tries to swat as many of the plastic flags as he can. The flags, staged every half inch on the pole, rotate and give the event judge a reading of the height the player jumped.

Group 1:  
Patrick Willis: 39
Paul Posluszny: 37
Lawrence Timmons: 35
Jon Beason:   32.5

Group 2:
Quincy Black 41.5
Tim Shaw: 36.5
Justin Durant: 36
Stewart Bradley:  35.5
Michael Okwo:  35.5
Rufus Alexander:  35
Zak DeOssie:  34.5
Stephen Nicholas:  33.5
David Harris: 33
Earl Everett:  32
Buster Davis:   31
Brandon Siler: 30.5

FINAL ANALYSIS:

When you combine scouting reports with NFL Combine stats many trends are noticeable:

1.  This draft seems to significantly favor OLBs to MLBs.  According to ESPN rankings there are only 4 MLBs with overall grades over 70, as opposed to 8 OLBs over the grade of 70 (This could indicate that Buffalo might want to grab their MLB early (Willis) and choose from one of the many similarly rated OLBs later).  
2.  Among all Linebackers, but more specifically OLBs, size seems to be a concern for almost everyone.  Only a few OLBs possess elite size and many of the negatives are a direct result from this.
3.  In direct correlation to the size concerns, most OLBs project better on the weak side where speed is more important then the strong side where size is preferred.  As a result SLB is very poorly represented in this draft.  Some players who possess good versatility (Poz, Shaw, Black) may be able to play on the strong side effectively in the NFL.  
4.  Among the four players in Group 1, I don't think the Bills can go wrong with any of them.  I think Willis is clearly the best bet but both Poz and Beason would fit well in our defense as well.  Out of the four, Timmons concerns me the most because he is raw and lacks ideal speed and coverage ability.  He is also the only one of the four to not possess good "instincts," a trait which is important for "attacking" linebackers in the cover-2.
5.  Beason really impresses me, but not with the 12th pick.  Prior to a few weeks ago he was projected to go high in the second round.  Now he's projected as a mid-late 1st rounder.  If he does slip into the beginning of the second round, it may be wise for Buffalo to try to make a move to get him, regardless of what they do with the 12th pick. If Buffalo were really lucky he would still be available with the 43rd pick.
6.  Among the 4 MLBs, aside from Willis who is by far-and-away the best of the group, both Harris and DeOssie impress me the most.  Harris would be a good pick up in round 2 and a GREAT pick up in round 3 if he lasts that far.  DeOssie would have good value in round 4.  He has great size (nearly 6-5, 250 pounds) and is considered "excellent" in coverage.  He would be a great fit if the Bills decided to go with one of the OLBs (Poz/Beason) earlier in the draft.
Among the rest of the OLBs Durant, Shaw, and Black impress me the most (in that order).  They all possess good speed and would be great pick ups in the third round.  None of the three would have to start right away as they could provide depth/competition on the weak side.
Those who I don't think would be good fits in the cover-2 are Bradley, Davis and Siler.  Davis is an undersized middle linebacker (alla Fletcher), while Bradley, although possessing good size, may be too big to be an effective outside backer in the cover-2.  Siler is one of the top rated middle linebackers in the draft and is projected to go in round 2, but his two negatives scare me off (pass coverage ability and instincts) because they are two very important traits for a cover-2 MLB to possess.  

Prediction:

1. Regardless of if the Bills add a MLB (Willis) or an OLB (Poz/Beason) in round 1, I look for them to address OLB with one of the next three picks.  Good possibilities would be; Beason (if he somehow fell to the second), Durant, Shaw, or Black.  If they went OLB in round one then Harris and DeOssie are also good possibilities.

2.  If the Bills decide to skip on LB in round 1 (Which I think is unlikely) I think the best option would be to take a guy like Harris in round two and either Durant, Shaw, or Black with one of the third rounders.

3. In the end, I definitely see Buffalo grabbing two linebackers in the first 4 rounds.  Grabbing a guy that can play either MLB or SLB to supplement Crowell is priority one and then adding another guy to back-up/compete with Ellison on the weak side as priority two (among linebackers).

Just another great fan opinion shared on the pages of BuffaloRumblings.com.

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