NFL draft series: Linebackers
12:02 AM CDT on Friday, April 17, 2009
By RICK GOSSELIN / The Dallas Morning News
Aaron Curry is rated as the top player on several NFL draft boards. But the board thins out dramatically. This decade, an average of 32 linebackers have been drafted each April. I haven't found 32 I like enough to draft in 2009.
THE TOP 15
Player School Ht. Wt. Noteworthy
1. o-Aaron Curry Wake Forest 6-1 ½ 254 2008 Butkus Award
2. o-Brian Cushing So Cal 6-2 ½ 243 Converted DE
3. o-Clay Matthews So Cal 6-3 240 Former walk-on
4. i-Rey Maualuga So Cal 6-1 ½ 249 3-time All-Pac 10
5. i-James Laurinaitis Ohio St 6-1 ½ 244 2007 Butkus Award
6. o-Clint Sintim Virginia 6-2 ½ 256 11 sacks in 2008
7. o-Marcus Freeman Ohio St 6-0 ½ 239 268 career tackles
8. o-Jason Williams W Ill 6-1 238 4.49 in the 40
9. i-Scott McKillop Pitt 6-0 ½ 244 2007 NCAA tackle leader
10. o-Tyrone McKenzie S Fla 6-1 ½ 243 116 tackles in 2008
11. i-Jason Phillips TCU 6-0 ½ 239 4-year starter
12. o-Gerald McRath So Miss 6-1 ½ 231 4.49 speed in the 40
13. o-Kaluka Maiava So Cal 5-11 ½ 229 Special teams ace
14. o-Zack Follett Cal 6-1 ½ 236 51 career tackles for loss
15. i-Darry Beckwith LSU 6-0 242 3-year starter
Potential first-round picks in bold
o-outside LB; i-inside/middle LB
Spotlight on: James Laurinaitis, Ohio State
James Laurinaitis won the Nagurski Award in 2006 and the Butkus Award in 2007. He considered leaving early to turn pro in 2008 but decided to return to Ohio State for one last run at a national title.
"When you lose two national championship games, being a competitor, when you're that close you say, 'Let's go out and try to do it again,' " Laurinaitis said. "Not only that, I think I owed it to Ohio State. They gave me a chance.
"I was recruited by only two schools out of high school, Minnesota and Ohio State. When a team gives you a scholarship and the chance to go to school, get an education and play football for a place like Ohio State, I felt I owed them that fourth year.
"I told Coach [Jim] Tressel I was going to come here for four or five years whether I red-shirted or not. I was going to stick to my commitment. When I told him I was coming back, I said, 'I told you I was going to be here for at least four years.' Too many guys take that free scholarship for granted."
Laurinaitis didn't win a national title, and his draft stock may have slid some in the last year.
"I have no regrets coming back," he said. "I knew there'd be more competition for the guys who stayed. But I've never been one to shy away from competition. It never bothered me. Things happen for a reason. If you look back and ask 'What if?' you'll kill yourself over some of these things. I'm more of a what-am-I-doing-today guy."
The best: Aaron Curry, Wake Forest
Curry is the universal linebacker in this draft. He can play at any of the linebacker spots in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. He has the speed (4.52) to play the outside in a 3-4 and the bulk (254 pounds) to play in the middle of a 4-3. He started 49 career games at Wake Forest and set a school record with 278 yards in interception returns. He intercepted six passes and returned three for touchdowns: against Army (84 yards), North Carolina (84 yards) and North Carolina State (57).
Sleeper: Jovan Belcher, Maine
If the draft were based on productivity, Belcher would go high. He was a two-year football captain in high school and a three-time All-America wrestler. He was a four-year starter at Maine, Colonial Athletic Association defensive player of the year and runner-up for Buchanan Award (best defender in FCS, formerly Div. I-AA).
Best of Texas: Jason Phillips, TCU
The Waller product started 50 career games and is the only player in Mountain West history to earn first- or second-team all-conference acclaim all four seasons. He was a first-team pick in 2006 and '08 and a second-teamer in 2005 and '07. Led TCU in tackles in three of his four seasons.
Draft projection: Middle rounds
All in the family: Clay Matthews is the son of former Cleveland Browns LB Clay Matthews and the nephew of Hall of Fame blocker Bruce Matthews. Fellow Trojan Kaluka Maiava is the nephew of former wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Cal OLB Worrell Williams is the younger brother of former first-round pick D.J. Williams of the Denver Broncos, and Southern Cal's Kevin Ellison is the younger brother of Buffalo Bills LB Keith Ellison.
Speed to burn: Two outside linebackers on this board, Nebraska's Cody Glenn and TCU's Stephen Hodge, rushed for 2,000 yards in a high school season. Glenn did it as a running back and Hodge as an option quarterback. MLB Robert Francois of Boston College was a state of Massachusetts 100-meter dash champion in high school.
300 Club: Tyrone McKenzie is one of the top tacklers on this draft board with 368. He did it the hard way – at three different schools. McKenzie began his career at Michigan State (3 tackles), transferred to Iowa State for one year (129) and then played his final two seasons at South Florida (236). He led Iowa State in tackles in 2006 and South Florida in both 2007-08. Listed above are linebackers in this draft with 300 tackles:
Player, school Tackles
Michael Tauiliili, Duke 434
Gerald McRath, So Miss 386
James Laurinaitis, Ohio St. 375
Tyrone McKenzie, So Fla 368
Frantz Joseph, Fla Atl 346
Scott McKillop, Pitt 344
Aaron Curry, Wake 332
Jason Phillips, TCU 315
Mike Rivera, Kansas 300
Legend: Frantz Joseph, a Boston College transfer, leaves Florida Atlantic as the school's all-time leading tackler. He led the NCAA with 154 tackles last season, hitting double figures in 12 of his 13 games.
Staying put: Of the 53 underclassmen who applied for early admission to the 2009 draft, only one was a linebacker – Gerald McRath of Southern Miss. He was a three-year starter, a two-time All-Conference USA selection and the league's defensive player of the year in 2007. He's also the fastest linebacker in this draft with a 4.49 40.
Leadership skills: James Laurinaitis, Josh Mauga (Nevada) and Mike Rivera (Kansas) were rare two-year captains at their schools. Wisconsin OLB DeAndre Levy was an even more rare three-year captain in high school. Jason Phillips (TCU) was a two-year captain in high school and Laurinaitis a prep captain of both his football and hockey teams in Minnesota