Insofar as the Buffalo Bills and the No. 10 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft go, one player that I'm frequently asked about is Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly. One of the most productive linebackers in the history of college football, the junior entrant amassed 532 tackles, 35.5 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks and seven interceptions as a three-year starter.
In the past decade, only six linebackers have been made Top 10 picks: A.J. Hawk, Ernie Sims, Keith Rivers, Jerod Mayo, Aaron Curry and Rolando McClain. Of those players, more have unceremoniously changed teams (Sims and Curry) than made the Pro Bowl or been selected All-Pro (Mayo). There's an old adage, too, that claims that linebackers slide on draft day; that adage exists because the position isn't as valued in an increasingly pass-happy league.
The natural question posed to me, then, is whether or not I think Kuechly is worth a Top 10 pick. Quite frankly, I don't know the answer to that question. But this idea is worth further exploration, which you'll find after the jump.
While linebackers are typically devalued on draft day, there's one type of linebacker that has increased in value as the NFL has transitioned to a pass-happy league: the "three-down linebacker." Linebackers that can stay on the field in passing situations are getting more difficult to find, and when you have one, you have a mighty valuable defender. In Buffalo, Nick Barnett is that player, and his athleticism and instincts make him ideal for that role. I'll listen to arguments all day that tout Barnett as one of the two or three most critical pieces to Buffalo's defensive plans moving forward.
Guys like Kelvin Sheppard - the two-down thumpers that come off the field in passing situations - are necessary and valuable, but they're simply not on the field enough these days to justify high-end investments. Those types of players can be found in the middle portions of each draft class. It's the linebackers with the physical, mental and innate skills to stay on the field as often as possible that are still worthwhile top-level investments.
Barnett (6'2", 228) is the only true linebacker on the Bills' roster capable of stopping the run and covering for three downs. The Bills have taken to using safety Bryan Scott (6'1", 220) in a nickel linebacker role - and have taken that experiment to the point that they now list him as an outside linebacker - but he is not typically on the field in traditional sets, i.e. most run downs. Back to Barnett: yes, he had a very good season in 2011, but he'll also be 31 years old in May and has an injury history. That's why Green Bay cut him, and that's why he only got a three-year deal from Buffalo.
I don't know whether or not Luke Kuechly (6'3", 242) is worth a Top 10 pick, because I've only seen him play once or twice, and didn't see him play at all in his final year at BC. I therefore won't pretend to know more about him than what you can find on the web. What I'll say, however, can best be expressed as follows:
- IF the Bills grade Kuechly very highly, AND
- IF the Bills believe Kuechly is an instant upgrade over Kirk Morrison as a starting linebacker, AND
- IF the Bills consider Kuechly an ideal long-term three-down replacement to Barnett, AND
- IF the Bills don't see similar value in prospect upgrades at other, more pressing need areas...
... then I don't see why it would be unreasonable to consider Kuechly an option for a Top 10 pick. That's particularly true when respected talent evaluators like Greg Cosell call Kuechly "special," and talk him up so frequently and enticingly. But when we get down to brass tacks, Point 3 above is of the utmost importance - so much so that every other answer is trumped if the response to Point 3 is 'no,' because in that scenario, Kuechly's a two-down linebacker, and those can be found easily later on. Kuechly is only "special" to Buffalo if he's on the field a lot.