While I wanted to wrap up this series, and get on to a final post, that discusses where we will go for the defense, as well as a depth chart without any new additions… I realize that most people want to know how some of these prospective rookies could fill needs that exist. So I am going to deviate from my previous format for this series, and discuss the linebackers, and some potential candidates, in the same post. I will do the same for the defensive linemen, and then wrap up this series, with an adjusted depth chart and my mock draft. For now, I will give you my take on our current LB prospects, some guys I am watching at the combine, and what we could potentially hope to see from this unit, in the coming year.
Linebackers are one of the most pivotal, and versatile components of any defense. Having solid LBs that can cover, and tackle, makes the job easier for the secondary, as well as allowing more pass rush from the line. Here is how I see each of our LBs.
Kelvin Sheppard: Kelvin is likely to be our starting MLB in our 43, and for good reason. He has played pretty consistently, for a rookie who was entering a new scheme. He has the ability to play sideline to sideline, as he did in the 43 in college, as well as in his Senior Bowl performance. He actually ran his 4.7 40-yard dash time, with a pulled hamstring. He MIGHT be able to be an OLB in the future, if say, Barnett leaves, and Chris White could step into MLB role. Regardless: I have NO issues with this kid. I wanted him on the team, thought we might use a second on him; when Williams was still there, it was too hard for them to pass him up, and they trusted the board, and got Sheppard anyway. This is a fundamental reason I still have faith in Buddy Nix.
Nick Barnett: Nick is probably our most versatile, and certainly our most talented veteran LB, hands down. He can cover some and he is capable of bringing pressure. Most importantly, he still has some speed, and can tackle well. He is going to probably move to the LOLB position, and hopefully that won’t be too challenging for him. We are hinging almost as much on him as an OLB, as we did Merriman last year.
Shawn Merriman: Few think Merriman is going to be able to come back and be even near as productive as he used to be. While I still remain hopeful that he can come back and have impact again: I think I am a member of the majority in believing Merriman is done in the NFL. Perhaps most of us will be proven wrong, but I am guessing none of his doubters would be disappointed in him making a comeback. We just don’t see it happening, and have plenty of evidence as to why that is. Even if he comes back, he will probably be asked to be a 43 DE, which is something that he hasn’t done in the league at all.
Robert Eddins: An intriguing prospect last year and he might be even more of a mystery now with the scheme change. He is maybe big for a 43 LB, he is probably small for a 43 DE, but I would not be afraid to put him out there at either, and see what he can do. He showed enough flashes in the preseason that I questioned why we would IR him… and not see if he could be an answer if we still needed one later in the year; we certainly should have at least considered using him later on in the season, when we added him back to the roster, IMO.
Scott McKillop: He might be too big. He might be too slow. He might not make the final roster for the season. If not for his connection to Wannstedt from his college career, I doubt he would be here at all. I think he is likely to take over the “mentoring” role that was occupied by Andra Davis and Reggie Torbor in George Edwards’ defense. This surely mean that he is here for a year or two... I really don't know much about him at all.
Arthur Moats: Is he a 43 LB? Clearly this staff doesn’t think he is a 34 LB. I am curious to see how this season shapes up for him. He has flashed enough ability for ME to put him on the field, but that decision isn’t mine. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him cut this year, and then find success on another roster.
Chris White: White could really be a great depth player, or future starter based on size, and speed, and his “instincts” according to those who have coached him. If he can compete in camp, I expect him to still stick around.
Kirk Morrison: Most fans want Morrison back, it seems. I think he would be a solid OLB backup, or MLB backup, but that his need entirely depends on what kind of talent we can bring in from the draft, or post draft free agency. Reports seem to indicate we still see value in him, and I have no problem with keeping any of our LBs right now, because even with the ones we have... we probably need more.
Reggie Torbor: He is probably gone. As a bigger, slower, injury prone LB… he isn’t really a fit for the 43 anyway.
You might notice that unlike George Edwards… Spencer Johnson and Alex Carrington don’t make my LB list.
Just a few rookie prospects to keep your eye on that AREN’T named Ingram or Upshaw (I know I want to see these guys):
Donta Hightower: Great size at 6’4 260. Some think he is too slow to play on the edge… I want to see his 40 time. If he can’t run… can he bulk up, and play 43 DE? I do know he is a respected team leader, who plays with intensity, and certainly translates as an interior 34 LB… should we look to go to a 34 after the Good ol boys (Buddy, Chan, and the ‘Stache) get tossed.
Luke Kuechly: Might be one of the more pro ready LBs, who plays with instincts, and has the uncanny ability to sniff out plays. Good closing speed, and size (6’3” 240 lbs)… might be better suited as a 34 inside LB as well. Some feel he has the athleticism to match up on TEs, which clearly we need.
Vontaze Burflict: Yet another interior linebacker prospect, who is probably not fast enough to play OLB. At 6’3” 250 though, he might be a 43 DE with some added weight. He excels at stacking and shedding blockers, and plays with instinct and speed (though he ONLY plays with instincts, according to many evaluations).
Ronnell Lewis: Oklahoma used him as a hybrid DE/LB, even at 6’2” 244lbs. I think he is the best 43 LB to make my list, and might be worth being selected in the second round. He is a HARD hitter, and really could be a very strong OLB candidate. Adding him into the mix would be a clear upgrade at the LB position in my opinion. With the number of “pass rushers” that I feel will slide down the board (Upshaw, Ingram, maybe Coples) I wonder if he could be available in the third round, allowing us to take a bigger body like Curry or Perry in the second, and still land him. His biggest knock is inconsistency.
Keenan Robinson: Robinson posted back-to-back seasons with more than 100 tackles, with 113 as a junior and 106 last year as a senior. At 6-foot-3 240-pounds, and a three-year starter this Longhorn will certainly be chosen in this year's draft, though probably not until the later 2nd, or early 3rd. Again, the overabundance of candidates could drive him down further which means that he is going to probably be a value pick, wherever and whenever he is selected.
Emmanuel Acho: Later round pick who is a little smaller, but is quick, has decent instincts, and is another Texas longhorn that will likely be available in the third round, or later. His brother Sam went to the Cardinals last year, in the fourth round, and managed 40 tackles, and 4 forced fumbles as a rookie.
Honorable mentions go to Zack Brown, Nigel Braddam, JK Schaffer (and probably a bunch more guys I should have included, but won't know about until Monday, and wanted to get this done before then... So I have something to add to a follow up.)
Any other guys you are looking forward to watching Monday? (include in comments)