It’s a position at which questions must be answered before this year’s draft class can even be graded or ranked: 4-3 or 3-4? Defensive end or outside linebacker?
“There are close to a dozen college defensive ends that are going to be drafted as 3-4 outside linebackers,” si.com draft analyst Tony Pauline said, referring to players such as Melvin Ingram, Nick Perry, Whitney Mercilus and Andrew Branch, all of whom were college defensive ends and who were mentioned in the draft preview series installment on defensive linemen.
Boise State’s Shea McClellin is another such college defensive end and seems to translate to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive scheme, which is the Packers’ base defense. McClellin made a seamless transition to outside linebacker at the Senior Bowl, turned in an eye-popping combine workout in which he ran in the 4.6s, and now finds himself as one of the fast-rising players in this draft class.
“McClellin is one of the most versatile and complete guys. He’s not as good a rusher or playmaker as Melvin Ingram, but he’s a very good linebacker. He plays hard; he just doesn’t have a lot of experience at a traditional linebacker spot,” Pauline said.
“He’s moving up boards. He won’t be there for the Packers. You saw how well he did at the Senior Bowl. He interviews well; he’s a smart guy.”
Just as McClellin is an end that projects to linebacker, Alabama’s Dont'a Hightower is an inside linebacker that, in a 3-4, might project to the outside. Hightower was a straight-line run-stuffer in college, but he ran and worked out well enough at the combine to cause 3-4 teams to believe he can cover in a short-area drop zone; he certainly has the power, speed and aggressiveness to be a pass rusher, though he wasn’t featured in that role at Alabama.
Grading and ranking the linebackers is a purely personal thing. It’s all in what a team envisions as what would be a prospect’s role. The Packers, of course, are looking for an outside pass-rush complement to Clay Matthews.
“It’s a great year for 3-4 outside linebackers; it’s a very average year for 4-3 outside linebackers. Zach Brown would be the best 4-3 outside linebacker, hands down. Lot of upside. Just has to put the pedal to the metal,” Pauline said.
Brown, of North Carolina, is viewed as a 4-3 weak-side linebacker, but his speed, a scintillating 4.45 40, might be viewed by a 3-4 defensive coordinator as something he wants to feature on the inside. Pauline doesn’t think Brown is tall enough to play on the outside in a 3-4.
“His pass-rush skills are very average. He doesn’t have the height to be an outside guy. It depends on the system,” Pauline said.
West Virginia’s Bruce Irvin lit up the combine with his speed. He’s a college defensive end whose lack of size will require him to play linebacker, probably as a rush-backer in a 3-4.
“He’s got the athleticism. He’s got to learn to be a good football player. He’s got the size/speed numbers. He’s got a tremendous amount of upside. He’s got to polish his game,” Pauline said.
Pauline also thinks Florida State’s Nigel Bradham and Arkansas State’s Demario Davis offer the speed and body types to play in a 3-4, but they are mostly viewed as 4-3 weak-side candidates. Davis ran 4.49 at the combine.
Boston College’s Luke Kuechly is considered by most to be the most polished of the traditional 4-3 middle linebackers.
Down the line guys? Pauline likes TCU’s Tank Carder and Utah State’s Bobby Wagner.
Carder is solidly built and ran 4.6 at the combine. “He needs some polish. I have him as a fifth-round pick,” said Pauline, who believes Carder could become a “steal.”
Wagner is a traditional 4-3 outside linebacker that can play run and pass.
Oklahoma’s Ronnell Lewis is another potential tweener prospect for a team such as the Packers. Lewis ran 4.65 at the combine on a 6-2, 250 frame. Pauline says that if Lewis’ football-playing ability catches up to his athletic skill, he could become an impact player.