Only three linebackers were selected in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft, but the 2009 linebacker class is poised to become much more fruitful. Mike Lombardi, Andrew Brandt and Wes Bunting of the National Football Post break down the top 10 linebacker prospects.
1. MLB Brandon Spikes, Florida THE BUZZ: He's the kind of athlete you can build an entire defense around. Spikes is a long-limbed, rangy athlete who does an excellent job at quickly reading and reacting to plays. He finds the ball instantly, takes good angles and reads gap assignments well. He displays excellent closing speed and power in pursuit of the ball while making a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage. He not only has sideline-to-sideline range but also has the power to take on blocks. He is fluid and flexible in his hips and does a nice job getting a deep drop into zone coverage. He covers a lot of ground in coverage and displays the range needed to stay with tight ends down the seam. At times he gets caught watching the ball and will get cut off by blockers at the second level. Spikes isn't as instinctive making his way through traffic and needs to do a better job protecting his legs. He plays with a lot of emotion and has a great motor. His passion really seems to rub off on his teammates.
2. MLB Rey Maualuga, USC THE BUZZ: He shows excellent burst and pop at the point of attack, and he tackles with a vengeance. He's an instinctive middle linebacker with a good head on his shoulders. He makes all the play calls at the line of scrimmage and looks natural in coverage. He jumps underneath routes well but allows too many receptions in front of him. He's content to just wrap up or deliver the big hit instead of breaking on the pass. He protects his legs well when moving through traffic and never takes a false step at the line of scrimmage. Maualuga reads and diagnoses plays quickly and has the ability to shed blocks and get to the ball. He is always around the ball and has the athleticism to run sideline to sideline.
3. OLB Aaron Curry, Wake Forest THE BUZZ: Curry is a thickly built linebacker with a solid frame. He's an extremely fluid athlete with an explosive first step and excellent closing speed. He has the ability to run sideline to sideline and packs a punch on contact. He's natural dropping into coverage and displays a smooth backpedal and transition. He lacks awareness in moving traffic, and he needs to do a better job keeping his head on a swivel and finding blockers. At times, he will take a false step at the line of scrimmage and run himself out of plays. Curry is a powerful, explosive linebacker, but he needs to continue to improve his instincts.
4. MLB James Laurinaitis, Ohio State THE BUZZ: He's an instinctive linebacker who diagnoses plays quickly. Laurinaitis displays a fluid hip turn and loses little in his transition. He gets a deep drop into zone coverage and can close in an instant. He's an aggressive tackler who has good technique, but at times he will overrun plays and take bad angles toward the ball. Laurinaitis is comfortable in man-to-man coverage and has good anticipation skills. He does a good job at the line of scrimmage shifting through the traffic in front of him. He uses his hands well to his protect his legs and keep blockers from cutting him. He has shown a willingness to take on the lead blocker but struggles to shed the block quickly. Overall, he is a great combination of athleticism and instincts in the middle.
5. OLB Mark Herzlich, Boston College THE BUZZ: He is a muscular outside 'backer who displays better fluidity and flexibility then his body type would indicate. Herzlich is physical and loves to play with his hands. He does a nice job getting a good bump on tight ends at the line of scrimmage. He redirects well in space and shows the body control to stay with his assignment in man coverage. He lacks great range and straight-line speed to the outside. He doesn't have a great first step in space and isn't a real stop-and-go athlete. Herzlich may be best-suited to play outside in the 3-4 because of his power, quickness and pass-rush ability. He's an excellent blitzer off the edge. He's a tough, blue-collar player. He's always flowing toward the ball and has a real passion for the game.
6. OLB Clint Sintim, Virginia THE BUZZ: He's a big, physical outside 'backer/defensive end hybrid who is a perfect fit for a 3-4 scheme. Sintim is physical off the edge and showcases natural pass-rush ability. He possesses a good burst out of his stance and can really get off the ball. He has the lateral mobility to make linemen miss on the outside and showcases a powerful outside slap to keep tackles off of his body. He's a physical tackler who does a good job wrapping up and making plays behind the line of scrimmage. He lacks fluidity in space and struggles changing direction on his backpedal. Like most 3-4 outside 'backers, Sintim is at his best attacking downhill.
7. OLB Brian Cushing, USC THE BUZZ: Cushing possesses an ideal build to play outside linebacker; he has a thick lower body and muscular upper half, with long arms. A knee injury caused him to miss most of the 2007 season. Cushing is an aggressive linebacker who loves to attack the line of scrimmage. He plays with good power and technique and does a good job fighting through blocks. He has a consistent motor and has a great first step. He has the ability to rush the passer as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme and does a nice job fighting off blocks. Cushing lacks a lateral burst and struggles making offensive linemen whiff; he is more of a straight-line athlete. He does have exceptional closing speed and a nose for the ball. He could be looked at as a strongside 'backer or weakside end in the 4-3 or an outside 'backer in the 3-4, and he should be successful in any role.
8. OLB Sean Weatherspoon, Missouri THE BUZZ: A short, compact weakside linebacker prospect who has good athleticism, Weatherspoon is an instinctive player who reads and reacts quickly to plays. He does an excellent job shooting gaps inside and making plays behind the line of scrimmage. He is a technically sound tackler who takes good angles to the ball and wraps up well on contact. He is explosive, can run sideline to sideline and gets to the ball in a hurry. He can be overwhelmed at the point of attack by offensive linemen and struggles shedding blocks. He gets washed out too easily on plays run right at him and lacks the pop at the point of attack to stuff the fullback in the hole. He does a nice job getting a deep drop into zone coverage and has the range and straight-line speed to get his hands on a lot of balls. Weatherspoon closes well on the ball in the air and demonstrates the awareness to turn and break up the pass. He is an ideal 4-3 weakside linebacker with great athleticism and speed. He would be a nice fit for any "Cover 2" team.
9. OLB Rico McCoy, Tennessee THE BUZZ: McCoy is undersized and has a slight frame, but he moves well and plays bigger than his frame would indicate. He is natural in his drop and has an excellent first step. He has good instincts at the line of scrimmage and does a nice job reading and reacting. McCoy plays with good leverage and tackles with near-perfect technique. He has a great motor and isn't afraid to take on lead blockers. He has great straight-line speed and athleticism, with the range to run sideline to sideline. He has the body control to stop on a dime and shoot a gap inside, but he lacks girth and power and can be washed out of plays at the line of scrimmage. He also struggles dealing with bigger offensive linemen at the point of attack, but he uses his hands well to slip blocks. He's natural in man coverage and can stay with tight ends and backs out of the backfield. He is best-suited for a "Cover 2" scheme where he can play in space.
10. OLB Marcus Freeman, Ohio State THE BUZZ: He has good lower-body thickness and girth in his base. Freeman is a smart, instinctive player who does a nice job quickly reading and reacting. He does an excellent job finding the football and rarely takes a false step, and he always seems to be flowing toward the play. He is always shooting the right gaps and filling the right lanes. He's a sure tackler who breaks well down in space and takes proper angles to the ball. He's a natural athlete with good range and burst out of his stance, and he consistently makes plays all over the field. He does a great job sniffing out running plays and has the athleticism to cover man-to-man. There aren't many negatives on this guy, and he looks like one of the safest picks at linebacker in the 2009 class.
Nationalfootballpost.com is a new football insider Web site featuring Andrew Brandt, the vice president of the Green Bay Packers for the past nine years, and Michael Lombardi, who has worked in NFL front offices for 22 years, including nine years with Cleveland and eight with Oakland.