This is a list of who I hope the Buffalo Bills consider. The first thing I look for in a 3-4 ILB is the ability to take on blockers. With three defensive linemen instead of four, there are more blockers to give LBs trouble. It's not that LBs need to be able to consistently beat blockers and make plays, but 3-4 ILBs need to hold their ground and stay on their feet. Length and the ability to stack and shed can be the difference between a good and great player. Speed is nice, but since most of their run defending is done in traffic, instincts and change of direction are more important. Where athleticism is key is in the vastly underrated ability to drop into coverage and defend against the pass. It's becoming a passing league, and LBs need to cover ground, read QBs and close quickly in the open field. Onto the list:
1. Rolando McClain, Alabama - A no-brainer for the top spot. He's huge, he's athletic and he's very productive. He's really the total package in terms of instincts, toughness, strength/power and tackling technique. A very high ceiling and a very high floor make him a Top 10 prospect despite playing a position that isn't typicaly sought after in the first round and despite fitting in a 3-4 better than a 4-3. One thing that hasn't been talked about is that Daniel Jeremiah, the former Browns and Ravens scout, has said that McClain takes the occasional play off and doesn't always hustle when he thinks he's out of the play. Jeremiah specifically mentions this play (McClain is No. 25 and is the huge LB that lines up pre-snap across from the left side of the OL).
2. Brandon Spikes, Florida - Terrible 40 time or not, I'm sticking with Spikes at number two. He's a poor athlete who doesn't get sideline to sideline well and often looks stiff. I think he's a little better dropping into coverage than you'd expect a 255-pound LB who can't break 5.0 in the 40 to be, but he's definitely a two-down player. Despite all that, I think he's a solid second-round prospect because he's got absurd size and length. He's very tough and intense and plays until the whistle. He has good leadership intangibles. Spikes has great instincts and does a fantastic job of working his way through the trash to make tackles between the hashes. Spikes also has a surprisingly good first step, times the snap well and can make an impact as a blitzer.
3. Sean Lee, Penn State - Missed all of 2008 with an ACL tear, and then missed a handful of games this past season. Injuries could drop him out of the second round entirely. At 236 pounds, you'd think he might be better served to play in a 4-3, but I think he's a very tough and powerful player. He's got the frame to add weight and is already better at taking on linemen than most 245-pound players are. Lee does a great job in coverage, takes sound angles and plays the game the way you'd expect a Penn State 'backer to.
4. Micah Johnson, Kentucky - Another player whose 40 time and limited athleticism will keep him off the field for passing situations, but Johnson makes up for that with his ability to play in the phone both. I think Johnson is the best LB in the draft at taking on offensive linemen. He's extremely powerful, and I believe that since he was overrated athletically to begin the draft process, he's actually become underrated in that department. He may have some Kawika Mitchell-esque laughable misses in space, but he can move around some. People have been projecting him to slide into the later rounds, but I think he's more of a 3rd-4th round prospect.
5. Jamar Chaney, Mississippi State - For whatever reason, when players work out very well or are gifted athletically, there is an assumption that they're technically raw. I'm not sure where it comes from, but people see a workout warrior like Chaney and assume that he's lacking in other ways. But that's not always the case. Chaney is a big time leader and a high effort player. He's a powerful tackler and an instinctive player. Chaney's problem is that he still needs to get a little stronger to play in the 3-4, and he doesn't play as fast as he times. The question teams will be asking themselves is whether or not he lacked a burst and top end speed this year because he was still working his way back from a 2008 broken leg. Is he the athlete that he was at the combine? Chaney, who is better suited for the 4-3, is somebody I hope the Bills are looking at in the 4th-5th round range.
6. Josh Hull, Penn State - This one may surprise some people, given that Hull is a bit of an unknown and was listed under 240 pounds in college. But Hull is tough and smart. Just like Lee, Hull is more than worthy of the Penn State linebacker reputation. He's a stiff athlete and is probably limited to two downs, but at 6'3'', he's got the frame to add serious weight. He's quick to diagnose the play in front of him, works through traffic well, is great at disengaging blocks, and is a very solid tackler. Hull's 116 tackles this year is one good reason to take notice of him, but what has me really intrigued is his elite short shuttle time at the combine. He ran a sub-4.1, which was a whole half second faster than many LBs, who happen to be considered better athletes, run at their combine and pro days. Plus, the guy can rock a stache like nobody's business. He's a 5th-6th round prospect if I'm running the Bills' draft room.
7. Donald Butler, Washington - One of the most underrated players in this draft, regardless of position. He's a little low on this list because he didn't keep the 245 pounds that he weighed at the combine. Butler dropped a full 10 pounds for his pro day, and that makes me wonder if his frame is close to maxed out. Can he play and stay at 240? I think Butler has some natural power, can deliver a big hit to the ball carrier and shows a good punch when engaging blockers. The problem is that he's a bit of a one pop player who, once engaged, can get pushed around by blockers. Butler has long arms, but isn't always able to disengage and make the play. I think he can shy away from contact a little, too, as he'd rather run around a block than try to work through it. Still, he's an athletic and heady player who will probably man the middle and start for a 4-3 team in the NFL. I really believe in him as a player, but wouldn't consider him until the 5th-6th rounds.
8. Perry Riley, LSU - Riley is a big, strong, athletic player. He played the WILL spot on LSU's defense, but I think he's a good fit in the 3-4. Riley has good straight-line speed and worked out very well at the combine. On tape, I think he's a bit stiff and might only be a two-down player, but while his athleticism lacks in space and he often struggles to change direction quickly, he's got great straight line speed and is shifty while he works through traffic. Some 4-3 team will probably love him for his versatility and scoop him up fairly early, but if he slides, I think he's an excellent 5th-6th round option.
9. Mike McLaughlin, Boston College - The ongoing theme of taking on blockers, playing in the phone booth and basically, kicking some serious butt in between the tackles continues with McLaughlin. He's terribly unathletic in open space, but moves well through traffic. He's another one with an elite short shuttle time, coming in just behind Hull with a 4.11. There's a lot to like about the BC product, but in addition to being a two-down player, McLaughlin has really short arms, which will limit his ability to shed blocks and make tackles. In the NFL, he'll be the nose tackle version of an ILB. He'll take on blocks, hold his ground and take up space, but he's not an impact playmaker. He'd make for excellent depth as a 6th-7th rounder.
I'd love to make this a Top 10 list, but there's really nobody else who I would grade out as anything other than a solid 7th round to undrafted option. So here's a few names I like for the last round:
Boris Lee, Troy - An excellent leader and surprisingly good getting from sideline to sideline and making plays in coverage, especially for a 245-pounder. Not the best at taking on or shedding blocks, but he's got the size to improve enough to develop into a useful defender.
Phil Dillard, Nebraska - Dillard was a huge part of the Ndamukong Suh-led best defense in the country. Nebraska's D only allowed 10.4 points per game this past year. Dillard has good size and plays with a physical mindset. He's got good straight line speed, but if there's one way to describe him athletically, it's top heavy. He's also got short arms and doesn't change direction well.
Bear Woods, Troy - His passion borders on insanity. In my opinion, he should skip the NFL and head straight into the WWF (is it still called that?). He's very, very good in coverage for somebody his size, and has everything needed to be an elite special teamer. I'd love for Buffalo to grab him in the 7th round, but he's too limited in a number of ways to be taken before the 7th round.
Antonio Coleman, Auburn - He played DE in school, but completely lacks the pass rushing ability to play outside in the NFL. He'd be a good fit as a thumper at ILB. There are probably other college DEs who fit on the inside and might be worth a look in the 7th round or after the draft.
Nathan Triplett, Ryan D'Imperio, Travis Goethel, Joe Pawelek, Sam Maxwell, Lee Campbell and Vincent Rey are among some other names that get mentioned, but I think they're more undrafted types. I wouldn't use a draft pick on any of them.
Intentionally left off the list:
Pat Angerer, Iowa - I like Angerer as much as the next guy, but I don't think he has the length to play inside in this defense. He gets washed out of plays too often and regularly ends up getting pushed downfield by blockers. He's not a good enough athlete to bother protecting in a 3-4 either.
Daryl Sharpton, Miami - Undersized, athletic Tampa 2 type. He's got weight for his height (only 5'11") and is a powerful tackler, but that power doesn't translate to taking on a 300-pound offensive lineman, or even 250-pound FBs. Sharpton might even need to play on the weak side in a 4-3.
Kion Wilson, South Florida - Too light, struggles to stack and shed and isn't instinctive enough to make up for it.