Draft preview series: Top outside linebacker prospects

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    Draft preview series: Top outside linebacker prospects
    April 18, 2009

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    Del.icio.usFacebookDiggRedditNewsvineBuzz up!TwitterHere is a look at the top outside linebacker prospects in this year's NFL draft as compiled by the Press-Gazette's Pete Dougherty. Information was gathered from conversations with scouts and other NFL personnel executives.

    ♦ 1. Brian Orakpo, Texas 6-3, 263 1: Generally considered the top outside pass rusher in this draft and a possible top-10 pick. Had a career total of 22 sacks in 47 career games. An impressive, explosive athlete who should be able to handle the limited coverages of a 3-4 outside linebacker, though he’s an excellent prospect as a 4-3 end also. Tests extremely well – did 31 reps on the 225-pound bench press, had an excellent vertical leap of 39 ½ inches and ran the 40 in 4.70 seconds. Had knee problems so he never attained an off-the-charts season, though he had a big year in ’08 (19 tackles for loss and 11 ½ sacks). Had a sprained right knee that cost him four games in ’07 and sprained left knee that sidelined him one game last year. “Out of the outside-rush class (he’s) the best pass rusher,” said a scout for a 3-4 team. “The kind of guy that can take over a game. His big thing is he’s been nicked, every time he gets rolling he gets hurt.” There’s an OK chance he’ll be available when the Packers select at No. 9 overall. “I think he’ll make it to nine,” said another scout for a 3-4 team. “And if was going to take (an outside linebacker), I’d take him. He’s more explosive than (Penn State’s Aaron) Maybin and (Florida State’s Everette) Brown, he’s got more upside as a rusher, he’s physically bigger, has more power. Out of this group of guys he’s got the best chance to be a dominant pass rusher. Being almost 265 pounds he’s in that body style of (San Diego’s Shawne) Merriman, a guy that can rush with speed, he can turn his speed into power.” Is a little stiff in the hips, which could hurt his rush ability at the next level, and not all scouts consider him a top prospect despite his unquestioned talent. “He’s a dog. I know so,” another scout said. “(Texas players) don’t play hard, don’t give a (crap). It’s a disgrace. It’s Texas, you know how they are. Orakpo has Robert Mathis-like explosion and quickness at (263 pounds) but he’s a (wuss), he doesn’t give a (crap). He might do good, but can you say Vernon Gholston?’’

    ♦ 2. Aaron Maybin, Penn State 6-3 ¾, 249 1: Entering the draft after his redshirt sophomore season, was a part-time player in 2007 and a full timer last year. Played defensive end last season at less than 230 pounds but is around 250 now and has the agility to play outside linebacker in the 3-4, though he also could bulk up some more and play as a 4-3 end. Has extremely long arms (35 ¼ inches) and performed much better at his campus Pro Day than at the scouting combine after adjusting to his added weight – 4.71 and 4.64 seconds in the 40 on FieldTurf, an excellent 40-inch vertical jump, and an outstanding 10-foot-10 broad jump. Did 22 reps on the bench press. Turned 21 earlier this month, so he’s young and might have big upside. “Kind of hot and cold on him,” said a scout with a 3-4 team. “He has some get-off ablity and straight-line rush ability off the edge. He ran a lot better at his Pro Day than he did at the combine. I didn’t see a lot of long speed out of him, a lot of burst, but in a short area just as a pass rusher he’s got pretty good rush ability. Some of these guys are kind of elevated on all these teams going to the 3-4. He’ll be a first-round guy, but he’s got a little bit of a ceiling to him with his size, and it’s a red flag that he’s a one-year wonder.” Is a potential pick for the Packers at No. 9 overall, and figures to be a top-20 pick at worst. “Maybe has the best take off, first three steps, I’ve seen since (Jevon) Kearse came out,” said a scout who rated Maybin the best rusher in the class. “Maybin can do things you can’t coach, and you coach the things he can’t do. Tough as (crap), 20 years old, can run, competes.”

    ♦ 3. Larry English, Northern Illinois 6-2 1/8, 255 1/2: Intriguing, hard-nosed player who was the most-valuable player in the Mid-American Conference the last two seasons. A four-year starter with a medical history. Was a medical redshirt his freshman year because of an ankle injury, tore the ACL in his right knee at the end of the ’06 season but played in all 12 games the next year, tore a pectoral muscle that forced him to miss spring football last year, and played in every game in ’08 despite sustaining a broken hand in the opener. For his career had 57 tackles for a loss and 31 ½ sacks, including a school-record 12 sacks as a sophomore. Playing last season with the broken hand he had 16 tackles for a loss and eight sacks. Not as fast as most good outside pass rushers – he ran the 40 in in only 4.88 seconds at the scouting combine – but he had a 36-inch vertical jump and did 24 reps on the bench press. Improved his 40 time to 4.74 and 4.79 seconds on his Pro Day workout, though that came on AstroTurf, which is faster than FieldTurf. Scored an impressive 34 on the Wonderlic intelligence test. One scout raved that he plays with a special-forces mentality. “He’ll hunt ball carriers down, he’s as tough as they come,” the scout said. “He probably plays faster than he is, I’d take him (in the last third of the first round). He’s my type of guy.” English played defensive end in college, but a scout for a 3-4 team considered him the second-best outside linebacker prospect in the draft, behind only Orakpo. “He’s produced every year, and it doesn’t matter who they go against,” the scout said. “They went against Big Ten people or whoever and he’s around the quarterback.”

    ♦ 4. Everette Brown, Florida State 6-1 ½, 256 1/2: Junior entry who erupted last year for 21 ½ tackles for a loss and 13 ½ sacks in 13 games last season. An explosive rusher who ran the 40 in 4.73 seconds at the combine, did 26 bench press reps but had a vertical jump of only 31 ½ inches. Failed to improve his vertical at his campus workout. Played defensive end at Florida State but probably projects best to outside linebacker in a 3-4. Despite his production and quick-twitch abilities, there are a couple red flags. First, there’s the bust factor with defensive ends at Florida State, which allows its outside linemen to go after the quarterback on every snap rather than honor the run. When they have to honor the run in the NFL, they aren’t nearly as good rushing the passer. Additionally, he was listed at 6-4 at Florida State, and scouts were hugely disappointed when he measured in at only 6-1 ½. Seems to rate as a top-15 pick on many internet sites devoted to the draft, but none of the scouts contacted here considered him that good a prospect. “Pretty good pass-rush ability,” one scout said. “I don’t see him as one of these elite players, more of a second-round guy than a first-round guy, maybe late in the first based off production. But I didn’t see a lot of upside to him.” Seemed to get sacks in bunches, which concerned a couple scouts that he was just taking advantage of match ups he won’t get in the NFL. “He has some long arms, sort of a prototypical outside rusher,” another scout said. “I could see him getting sacks in the NFL. He could be OK, maybe, I don’t know. Just not for me. He was listed at 6-4, 250, and he’s 6-1 ½, how do you screw that up that much? C’mon, please, that’s a long way from 6-4. You better be a werewolf (at that size), and he isn’t, he’s mild and meek. A guy with some (physical) juice though.”

    ♦ 5. Clint Sintim, Virginia 6-2 ¾, 256 1/2: . Four-year starter at outside linebacker in Virginia’s 3-4 after redshirting his first season, had 27 sacks in 49 games, including 20 sacks the last two years. Also forced five fumbles in his career. Ready-made for the 3-4 after playing in it at Virginia for former New York Jets coach Al Groh. Shows good pass-rush moves and agility. Doesn’t have big-time speed – he ran the 40 in 4.82 seconds at the combine, which is on the slow end for a 3-4 outside linebacker. But he has some explosive strength (34 ½ inch vertical, 9-10 broad jump). “He’s probably a notch below English, in that class of Maybin and (Everette) Brown, not as good a rusher so he’d stack below those guys, probably a late second-round guy,” one scout said. “He can play multiple spots, both outside spots in a 3-4. he looks like he could play inside but he never has. I’d hate to project him inside. Not a great space player but he continues to have production.” Has a strong commitment to football, though one scout had a concern. “Physically very gifted,” he said. “But this year Duke beat the (crap) out of them and I thought he quit, that’s not very good. When you get beat by Duke 31-7 and pack it in in the second half, not good. He is talented, but he shut it down in the second half.”

    ♦ 6. Clay Matthews, USC 6-3 1/8, 240 1/2: Son of former NFL linebacker Clay Matthews, and nephew of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews. A late bloomer who showed up at USC as a skinny walk-on safety but added strength and weight, excelled on special teams, and gradually played on more on defense until becoming a starting outside linebacker in the 3-4 after three games. Finished the season with nine tackles for a loss and 4 ½ sacks, then shot up draft boards this offseason because of his workouts. At the scouting combine he put up impressive numbers – he ran the 40 in 4.67 seconds, had a 35 ½ inch vertical jump, a 10-1 broad jump and did 23 bench-press reps. “He’s an effort player,” one scout said, “makes a lot of second-effort plays, plays with good energy, good emotion, pretty good speed. More of a straight-line rusher, adequate in space, not a real power player but a good, solid player. I don’t think he’s a great player, just a good solid player. You might not hear Pro Bowl and all that stuff, but potentially he could be a good starter in the league.” Scouts are mixed on who’s the best linebacker out of USC this year – Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga also are first-round prospects – but some scouts wonder if Matthews is a better tester than player and are concerned he’s another Bobby Carpenter, who went to Dallas at No. 18 overall in 2006 but has started only one game in three seasons. “If it was me, no, but it sure does sound like (Matthews will go in the first round),” another scout said. “It sounds like he’s passing up the other guy (i.e., Cushing). Kind of reminds me of the way Bobby Carpenter was, kind of got hot, went in the first round, but I’d be awfully careful.”

    ♦ 7. Cody Brown, UConn 6-2 1/8, 244 2: Starter for 2 ½ years who led the Big East Conference in sacks last season with 11. Played in only six games as a sophomore before sustaining a season-ending broken arm, but in the 32 games he played his last three seasons he had 40 ½ tackles for a loss and 23 sacks. Strong, explosive player who’s on the light side (244 pounds) for a 3-4 outside linebacker. Also could play linebacker in a 4-3. Ran poorly at the combine (4.84 seconds in the 40) but otherwise showed explosive athleticism (36 ½-inch vertical, 9-7 broad jump, 26 reps on the bench press). Reportedly improved his 40 time (to the 4.6-second range) and vertical jump (to 10-4) at his campus workout. Biggest concern is consistency of effort. “He’s a better athlete (than Sintim),” one scout said, “he flashes better, is a better pure pass rusher, has looser hips and more wiggle on the edge. But he plays in spurts, his energy and effort, you don’t see it all the time. He’ll flash and you’ll say, ‘This guy’s got great ability,’ and then he’ll disappear for stretches of the game and you’ll wonder what happened to him. But I think somebody will take a chance because physically he’s got good ability. He could be a break-your-heart guy, always a potential guy.” Said another scout: “Where you’d probably have to take him, we’d steer clear. There are too many questions as far as his effort.”

    ♦ 8. Robert Ayers, Tennessee 6-3 1/8, 272 1: Didn’t become a full-time player until last season but is an unusually versatile athlete who in different systems could play defensive end, defensive tackle or outside linebacker. Projects best as a defensive end for a 4-3 scheme and probably will go in the top 15 for that kind of role, but is included on this list because he’s also a prospect for the 3-4 as an outside linebacker and maybe even defensive end if he bulked up. Has shot up draft boards this offseason because of his play all week at the Senior Bowl even though his college production was mediocre. Last season, his only year as a starter, had 15 ½ tackles for a loss, three sacks and one interception as a defensive end. “At the Pro Day they did the drills and drops and stuff (for outside linebacker),” once scout said. “He’d probably have to drop a few pounds to do it, but I think he could do it, I really think he could do it. He’s a guy that could play multiple positions. I hear some people saying (first round), but I just don’t see it, I just don’t see enough in his body of work unless you’re going to reach on the guy.” Said another scout: “There’s some serious buzz around him. He had three sacks this year, (four) last year, one the year before. Then all of a sudden he does good at the Senior Bowl and he’s a No. 1 pick. I’d take him third round. He’s tough, good football player, understands it. Part-time bad ***, he plays hard sometimes, sometimes he doesn’t. Strong and tough. He just doesn’t have the juice to turn the corner outside. Probably be a good 3-4 defensive end. He’s a good football player, but how in the world is he in 12 games getting three sacks? All I know is if you want to predict the future you can look at the past.” Another scout said he played well against two left tackles who will get drafted in the first round, Alabama’s Andre Smith and Mississippi’s Michael Oher. “Not easy to handle when he goes against big bodies,” the scout said, “does a good job of leveraging people, and the big offensive tackles don’t seem to bother him.”

    ♦ 9. Connor Barwin, Cincinnati 6-3 5/8, 256 2: Caught 59 passes as a tight end his first three seasons and also played in 41 games for Cincinnati’s basketball team his first two years. Moved to defensive end last season, put up good numbers and then moved farther up draft boards with outstanding offseason work. Finished last season with 16 tackles for a loss, 11 sacks and an amazing eight passes batted down. Then made a huge impression at the combine by running the 40 in 4.66 seconds, vertical jumping 40 ½ inches, broad jumping 10-foot-8 and running the three-cone drill in 6.87 seconds, all of which were tops among defensive linemen at the combine. Also did 21 reps on the bench press. Very raw, but his production last year plus his outstanding testing probably will land him in the second round. But some scouts worry he could be a workout wonder similar to Mike Mamula, who was drafted No. 7 overall by Philadelphia in 1995 after testing off the charts and then had only 31 ½ sacks in five NFL seasons. “This guy’s a wild card of the whole thing,” one scout said. “His numbers and athletic ability, he’s tested so well you’ve got to take him early, he’ll probably go in the second round now just based off the way he’s tested. But you watch him and he’s really raw, still has to develop rush moves, playing with power, playing with strength at the point of attack, sustaining a high level of play through four quarters of the game. To some people he could be a tight end, his best position could be as an H-back, but I think people are falling in love with him as a linebacker.” Said another scout: “Athletically the guy is really good. But I think he’s a better athlete than he is a football player right now. Will the two ever match up? I’d say no, but I could be wrong.”

    ♦ 10. Paul Kruger, Utah 6-4 1/8, 263 2/3: An early entry after redshirting his first year, then serving a two-year Mormon mission before returning to start at defensive end the past two seasons. Nearly was killed in January 2008 when he and some friends got into a fight with 15 to 20 gang members while walking to the Sundance Film Festival. Kruger was stabbed once in the ribs and once in the abdomen, sustained a punctured lung and nicked artery, and had to undergo four hours of surgery. Now has 50 stitches in the middle of his stomach and over his ribs. Recovered last season to finish with 16 ½ tackles for a loss and 7 ½ sacks. Far from a top athlete – he ran the 40 in 5.0 seconds, had a 32 ½-inch vertical jump and did 24 reps on the bench press – but a good football player with some short-area burst and outstanding drive to succeed. His 10-yard split of 1.60 seconds was sixth-best among defensive ends at the combine. “The thing that keeps him from the first-second round range is if he had more dominant rush ability,” a scout said. “He’s a pretty good rusher, (but) a lot of his production comes off secondary rushes when the quarterback might move and he has to react after his initial rush move. But he plays hard, pretty physical guy, not a nasty, tough point-of-attack guy, but he’s solid, and a good depth player. He can play both outside linebacker spots, probably give you some production as a nickel rusher at end, and could be a good (special) teams player too.” Another scout loved Kruger’s desire and mind-set, and considered him a second-rounder. “Tough as (crap),” the scout said.

    — Pete Dougherty, pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com

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