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2014 NFL Draft Position Review: Outside Linebackers


Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2014 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2014 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
Send Charlie an e-mail here: draftcampbell@gmail.com
Follow Charlie on Twitter @draftcampbell for updates.

This page was last updated March 20, 2014. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Position Review: Outside Linebackers

Outside Linebacker Class
Early-round talent: A+
Mid-round: A
Late-round: B
Overall grade: A

2014 prospects vs 2013
Khalil Mack > Jarvis Jones
Anthony Barr > Alec Ogletree
Ryan Shazier > Jamie Collins
Dee Ford > Arthur Brown
Demarcus Lawrence > Sio Moore
Kyle Van Noy > Zaviar Gooden
Jeremiah Attaochu > Jelani Jenkins
Marcus Smith < Khaseem Greene

This year's class of outside linebackers is a lot more talented than the 2013 class. Five outside linebackers went in the first two rounds in the 2013 NFL Draft, but four could easily go in the first round this year.

If you were to merge the two classes together, Mack and Barr would be the top-two prospects. Jones would go ahead of Shazier. Ogletree and Shazier are basically equal. Collins and Brown would go behind Ford but ahead of Lawrence. Moore, Gooden, Jenkins and Greene would all go behind Smith. That group of four from last year were third- and fourth-round picks, while the eight prospects from 2014 could easily go in the first two rounds.



Safest Pick: Khalil Mack, Buffalo
Mack is the easy pick as the safest selection. He has a rare combination of speed, strength and explosion. Mack is an excellent edge rusher who lives in the backfield. He has the ability to be a double-digit sacker and also is a tough defender against the run. Mack has the athletic ability to develop the skills to drop into pass coverage. WalterFootball.com also spoke with former teammates of Mack, and they say that he is a tireless worker that wants to be great. Mack could develop into an impact player quickly in the NFL.

Biggest Bust Potential: Dee Ford, Auburn
Ford is a one-trick pony who is just a pure speed rusher off the edge. He is weak in run support and will have to move to outside linebacker from defensive end, because he's very undersized. Ford (6-2, 243) needs more strength to shed blocks in the NFL and won't be able to just run around blockers at the next level. Offenses are going to run at Ford and he looks like a liability as a run-defender.

Last season, Ford had only 29 tackles. If you take away his sacks, he had shocking low total of 18.5 tackles all season. That is scary.

Sources have told WalterFootball.com they gave Ford a late second-round grade but expect some team to reach for him in Round 1. He could be a good situational pass-rusher early in his NFL career, but if he doesn't develop a more complete game, he could easily turn into a bust.



Outside Linebacker Rankings by Attributes


Pass Coverage:
NFL prototype: Lance Briggs, Bears
  1. Ryan Shazier
  2. Kyle Van Noy
  3. Khalil Mack
  4. Anthony Barr
  5. Jeremiah Attaochu
  6. Marcus Smith
  7. Dee Ford
  8. Demarcus Lawrence


Recap: The NFL is all about the passing offense, so linebackers must be be an asset at defending the aerial attack. Defensive coordinators want linebackers who function well in space and cover a lot of ground. Defenders have to have good instincts and anticipate the routes that are coming their direction.

Linebackers also need to function well in zone and have the ability to quickly get deep in their drops. Those who can play man coverage on running backs and tight ends are in serious demand, too.

Shazier looks the most natural in pass coverage of the 2014 linebackers. He is very good in zone coverage and picks up receivers well. Shazier has some man-coverage ability as well on tight ends and running backs. His prowess in pass coverage should help place him in the top-32 picks.

Van Noy is strong in pass coverage and isn't far below Shazier. Still, Van Noy just isn't as athletic to match up in man against tight ends and running backs as Shazier is. BYU used Van Noy as a pass-rusher more often in 2012, so he had less reps in coverage. However, the senior often dropped into pass coverage during 2013. Over the past two seasons, Van Noy totaled four interceptions, including some pick-six action each year. His pass-coverage tools are a nice asset.

Khalil Mack demonstrated good potential to drop into coverage at Buffalo, but rarely did it because he is such a force as a pass-rusher. Ditto for Barr at UCLA.

Attaochu, Smith, Ford and Lawrence all need to develop the ability to drop into pass coverage. Attaochu did more dropping than the others, but all were ends in college. They'll need time to learn and get this craft down.

Pass Rush:
NFL prototype: Von Miller, Broncos
  1. Khalil Mack
  2. Anthony Barr
  3. Dee Ford
  4. Marcus Smith
  5. Jeremiah Attaochu
  6. Kyle Van Noy
  7. Demarcus Lawrence
  8. Ryan Shazier


Recap: All eight of these linebackers are good blitzers off the edge. The only one who didn't typically rush off the edge in passing situations was Shazier.

I have Mack first, but he and Barr are basically tied. Mack is a relentless pass-rusher. He is an utter force coming off the edge with the ability to beat double-teams. Mack is fast, fights off blocks and has a non-stop motor. He totaled 28.5 sacks in college with 10.5 as a senior. Mack could be a pass-rusher in the mold of Von Miller and maybe the example of the prototype in the years to come.

Barr was one of the best pass-rushers in college football over the past two seasons. He had 13 sacks as a junior and 10 sacks as a senior. Barr is explosive off the edge with fantastic closing speed. He also is a physical player who dishes out some punishing hits on the quarterback. Barr should develop into a double-digit sack artist in the NFL.

Ford is another dangerous edge rusher. He had 10.5 sacks last season, but he isn't as strong as Mack and Barr. The latter two do a better job of fighting of blocks, while Ford is reliant on speed only. Ford is explosive off the snap and is a speed threat who must be accounted for.

Smith (6-3, 252) will be an asset as a pass-rusher in the NFL. He was second in the nation in 2013 with 14.5 sacks. Smith's level of offensive tackle wasn't that great, but he is fast and has a nice set of moves.

Attaochu (6-3, 252) had 12.5 sacks in 2013 with 10 the year before. He is very fast off the edge and has developed more strength. Attaochu is a sleeper who could end up being a steal.

Lawrence played defensive end for Boise State, but he is a streaky pass-rusher. Lawrence goes quiet for stretches. He had 10.5 sacks in 2013 with 9.5 the season previous. Lawrence needs to develop more strength to fight free of blocks in the NFL.

Even though Shazier didn't rush as much as the players above him, he is no slouch as a blitzer. Shazier had six sacks in 2013 with five during 2012. In the NFL, he should be a secret weapon as a blitzer.



Run Defense:
NFL prototype: Lavonte David, Buccaneers
  1. Khalil Mack
  2. Ryan Shazier
  3. Kyle Van Noy
  4. Anthony Barr
  5. Demarcus Lawrence
  6. Jeremiah Attaochu
  7. Marcus Smith
  8. Dee Ford


Recap: Mack is a superb run-defender. He is downhill play-maker who lives behind the line of scrimmage. Mack had 65 tackles for a loss in his collegiate career. He is also tough at the point of attack and gets in on tackles in the box. Mack recorded 100 stops as a senior.

Shazier could easily be ranked first for this attribute. The reason why I went with Mack is because he has more size and is better at defending runs coming straight at him. That could be an issue for Shazier in the NFL, however, he's added 10 pounds to get into the mid-230s after playing in the 220s for Ohio State. Shazier is a tackling machine in the mold of Lavonte David. Shazier had 143 tackles in 2013 and 115 the year before.

Van Noy is a tough run-defender. He makes a lot of plays in pursuit and is quick to read his keys. Van Noy just needs to get better at holding up against runs that come straight at him. He amassed had almost 40 tackles for a loss over the past two seasons. Van Noy could play inside or outside linebacker in the NFL.

The same criticism Van Noy gets is leveled on Barr's run defense, but he had 65 tackles in 2013 and 83 the season before. Barr does have to improve, but he chases down a lot of ball-carriers and is active in run defense. I think that critique has been some pre-draft nitpicking of an high-level prospect.

Attaochu was a weak run-defender in 2012, but he showed a lot of improvement as a senior. Smith could stand to get better, but he did show progress in college.

As stated above, Ford is a poor run-defender. He is going to need a lot of work at that in the NFL. Teams had success running at Ford in college, and that will continue in the pros until he can drastically improve his game.

Read and React:
NFL prototype: Sean Weatherspoon, Falcons
  1. Khalil Mack
  2. Ryan Shazier
  3. Kyle Van Noy
  4. Anthony Barr
  5. Jeremiah Attaochu
  6. Marcus Smith
  7. Dee Ford
  8. Demarcus Lawrence


Recap: Mack, Shazier and Van Noy are all excellent read-and-react linebackers. The three of them of them have good awareness and anticipate what the offense is trying to do. Mack and Shazier are exceptional.

Barr was a fullback early in his career before Jim Mora Jr. and his staff moved him to outside linebacker. Barr's a natural edge rusher who took perfectly to his new position. That being said, he could stand to get faster at reading his keys, but that isn't surprising considering he changed positions mid-way through college.

Attaochu, Smith, Ford and Lawrence need to work on their read-and-reaction skills. All of them were college defensive ends who need to improve on their ability to read plays as they move to linebacker.



Tackling:
NFL prototype: NaVarro Bowman, 49ers
  1. Khalil Mack
  2. Ryan Shazier
  3. Anthony Barr
  4. Kyle Van Noy
  5. Jeremiah Attaochu
  6. Marcus Smith
  7. Demarcus Lawrence
  8. Dee Ford


Recap: Mack is the best tackler in the class, but Shazier is a close second. Both are extremely reliable in taking ball-carriers to the ground when they get a hold of them. Mack has good strength and technique to wrap up. It has been a very seldom sight for Shazier to miss a tackle.

Barr is the similar. He was very reliable for UCLA. Van Noy's tackling looked better as a junior, but he also had more opportunities as teams sent plays away from him as a senior. In 2012, Van Noy had Ziggy Ansah on the other side to provide some balance to the Cougars' defense.

Attaochu and Smith were solid tacklers in college. They'll both need to work on tackling running backs in space as outside linebackers for the NFL after playing defensive end.

Both Lawrence and Ford could stand to improve their tackling. They also could use more strength for the power backs who will be coming their way.

Shedding Blocks:
NFL prototype: Chad Greenway, Vikings
  1. Khalil Mack
  2. Anthony Barr
  3. Marcus Smith
  4. Jeremiah Attaochu
  5. Ryan Shazier
  6. Kyle Van Noy
  7. Dee Ford
  8. Demarcus Lawrence


Recap: Mack is excellent at shedding blocks. Even though offensive linemen have a lot more size in the NFL, Mack's strength and hand usage are tremendous. He knocks their hands off of him and uses his speed to run by them. Mack also has shown the ability to fight double-teams.

Barr is skilled at getting free of blockers in the tackle box when he is in pursuit. Barr doesn't shy away from taking on contact and has the ability to disengage, but he needs refinement and should get better when blockers come at him downhill. Ditto for Smith and Attaochu.

Shazier was solid at shedding blocks in college, but will need to continue to work on this in the NFL. He has added a lot of weight since the end of the season, which should help him.

Van Noy, Ford, and Lawrence have all developed the ability to use their hands. All three are better at fighting off blockers in pass protection over the ground game. They all will need to work on beating blocks to defend the run in the NFL.



Splash Plays:
NFL prototype: Von Miller, Broncos
  1. Khalil Mack
  2. Kyle Van Noy
  3. Anthony Barr
  4. Ryan Shazier
  5. Demarcus Lawrence
  6. Marcus Smith
  7. Dee Ford
  8. Jeremiah Attaochu


Recap: NFL coaches love players who can take the ball away. Turnovers are a great equalizer against high-powered offenses and directly lead to victories.

There is no doubt about this one. Mack was a splash-play machine the past three seasons; not just in the form of sacks - he was consistently producing turnovers. In that span, Mack totaled 14 forced fumbles and three interceptions. He regularly makes game-changing plays.

Van Noy is very instinctive about creating turnovers. He had 10 forced fumbles and four interceptions the past two seasons, plus forced some other turnovers for teammates who didn't show up on the stat sheet. Barr has developed the art of the strip-sack as well. He had nine forced fumbles across the past two seasons.

Shazier was skilled at taking the ball away as well. He had seven forced fumbles and interception over the past two years. Lawrence matched those numbers with Boise State.

Smith broke out in 2013 with four forced fumbles. Ford had three forced fumbles across the past two seasons. He could get better at slapping the ball out while hitting the quarterback. Attaochu brings up the rear as he had only one forced fumble the past two seasons.

Intangibles:
NFL prototype: Sean Weatherspoon, Falcons
  1. Khalil Mack
  2. Anthony Barr
  3. Ryan Shazier
  4. Kyle Van Noy
  5. Marcus Smith
  6. Jeremiah Attaochu
  7. Demarcus Lawrence
  8. Dee Ford


Recap: Mack is known as a hard worker. He is considered a good locker-room presence and a high-character individual. Barr, Shazier and Van Noy were the leaders of their defenses. Each was a tone-setter who is known to love football with the drive to be great. All four should develop into leadership positions.

None of Smith, Attaochu, Lawrence or Ford has a reputation as a bad guy. They all seem like they'll bring a positive presence to a NFL locker room.




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