Ranking the NFL Draft's starting linebacker prospects

As the 2009 NFL Draft approaches, we here at Buffalo Rumblings will continue interviewing bloggers and consulting outside sources in putting together detailed scouting reports on some of the Draft's most noteworthy prospects - concentrating, of course, on prospects that could pique the interest of the Buffalo Bills.  This is the start of a new series in which I'll rank prospects at each position; ultimately, this project will roll itself into the "Buffalo Rumblings Big Board", which is exactly what it sounds like - the same type of big board NFL teams keep handy on draft day.

To date, most Bills fans have spent most of their energy in draft talks discussing offensive linemen, a certain Oklahoma State tight end, and the various speed rushing defensive ends available.  However, the Bills have an open spot at strong-side linebacker that remains unaddressed.  With that in mind, there are nine linebackers that grade out (by my book) as starting material as rookies.  Those nine names, in order of preference and grouped by round grade, are below.

Round One Grades
1.  Aaron Curry, Wake Forest:
Solid all-around linebacker with fantastic athleticism and leadership abilities.  Isn't quite the game-breaker that many are making him out to be; he's also certainly not worthy of being the top overall pick.  Most definitely a Top 10 pick, however.  Mocking the Draft Scouting Report

2.  Clay Matthews, USC: To say this guy's stock has skyrocketed is an understatement.  Outside of Curry, might be the best athlete at the linebacker position.  Supremely talented blitzer.  Versatility and work ethic are major selling points at the moment.  His coverage skills are lacking, but in Buffalo, he'd either come off the field on passing downs or move down and rush from the DE position.  Exactly the type of player that NFL coaches love to coach.  Mocking the Draft Scouting Report

3.  Brian Cushing, USC: Perhaps the best pure tackler of the three USC prospects.  Unfortunately, he's also the biggest question mark.  Durability is a huge concern.  His coverage skills are severely underdeveloped, and he's not exactly the game-breaking type.  He's a solid fit as a SAM, but his utility is limited to that spot.  Does have a considerable amount of upside.  Mocking the Draft Scouting Report

4.  Rey Maualuga, USC: Easily the most NFL-ready linebacker this year.  The type of player that you plug into the lineup and let him go from Day One.  Like his two USC teammates, he's got experience in a zone-based scheme.  Two things are working against him in terms of Buffalo, however - less than stellar straight-line speed and, far more importantly, the fact that the team seems content keeping Paul Posluszny inside.  Mocking the Draft Scouting Report

Five more names for you after the jump.

Second Round Grades
5.  Gerald McRath, Southern Mississippi: A quick, fast, nimble athlete, though he doesn't play as fast as his workout numbers might indicate.  Played middle linebacker in college - and therefore knows how to compete in the box - but is probably a more natural fit outside in a 4-3 alignment.  Size (224 pounds) is a concern, but has the frame to get bigger.  Instincts are great; polished in coverage.  Has the potential to be dominant in a Tampa 2 scheme.  Mocking the Draft Scouting Report

6.  James Laurinaitis, Ohio State: Like Maualuga, he's got Posluszny's entrenchment on the inside working against him.  He's not a game-changer, and he's more limited athletically than some of his peers he's competing at the top with.  Still, the kid has through-the-roof intangibles and a nose for the ball.  He's a very solid run defender.  He'll be more highly valued by other teams, as he should be.  Mocking the Draft Scouting Report

7.  Marcus Freeman, Ohio State: Is sliding back up draft boards after solid performances at both the Scouting Combine and his Pro Day.  An underrated athlete, but doesn't play as big as his 240-pound frame would indicate.  Not a physical tackler.  Might not hold up well against the run at the NFL level, but has good potential.  Polished in coverage, though he lacks good ball skills.  Short by NFL standards.  Draft Countdown Scouting Report

Third Round Grades
8.  Tyrone McKenzie, South Florida:
Good athlete.  Quick with sideline-to-sideline range.  He's a very smart player, which helps him overcome stiff hips in coverage routinely.  By no means is he polished in this department, however.  Like Freeman, he's not physical and isn't necessarily a top-notch run defender.  Unlike Freeman, he's got ideal size (6'2", 243).  Solid upside, but a risky bet as a rookie starter.  Draft Countdown Scouting Report

9.  Clint Sintim, Virginia: If the Bills ran a 3-4, Sintim would grade out as a first-round prospect.  He's a very solid and potentially underrated rush linebacker in that particular scheme.  He's not, however, a good fit for the Bills schematically.  A bit limited athletically, and not as explosive as the other top 3-4 rush linebacker, Matthews.  Terrible in coverage.  He'd be a situational player only in a Bills uniform.  Mocking the Draft Scouting Report

***

This is just my opinion, folks.  These are the nine rookie linebackers I think the Bills could get away with plugging into the starting lineup next season.  If you think I've made a grievous error in these rankings, let me know.  If you think I've got some sort of hidden agenda, I'd love to hear about it.  If you're itching to re-shuffle my rankings, let it rip.  Consider this an open forum on 2009 NFL Draft linebacking prospects.  Go.

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