2014 NFL Draft Position Review: 3-4 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.
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This page was last updated April 18, 2014. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Position Review: 3-4 Outside Linebackers

3-4 Outside Linebacker Class
Early-round talent: A+
Mid-round: A
Late-round: B+
Overall grade: A

2014 prospects vs 2013
Jadeveon Clowney > Dion Jordan
Khalil Mack > Jarvis Jones
Anthony Barr > Bjoern Werner
Dee Ford > Tank Carradine
Marcus Smith < Jamie Collins
Demarcus Lawrence > Alex Okafor
Jeremiah Attaochu > Corey Lemonier
Trent Murphy > Brandon Jenkins

This is an awesome class of 3-4 outside linebackers and has more high-end talent than the 2013 group. The 2013 NFL Draft featured three 3-4 outside linebacker candidates who went in the first round and two more who went in the next round. The 2014 NFL Draft should have at least eight 3-4 outside linebackers in the top-64 selections.

If you were to merge the two classes together, Dion Jordan would be the fourth-rated player behind Clowney, Mack and Barr. Jarvis Jones and Werner would go ahead of of Dee Ford. Carradine and Collins would go behind Ford but ahead of Smith. Okafor, Lemonier and Jenkins would all go behind Murphy.

There are a number of good 3-4 outside linebacker candidates who could go in mid-rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft. Options include Arizona State’s Carl Bradford, Arkansas’ Chris Smith, Texas’ Jackson Jeffcoat, UCLA’s Cassius Marsh, Florida’s Ron Powell and USC’s Morgan Breslin.



Safest Pick: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
There is no doubt that Clowney is a once-in-a-generation talent athletically. Everybody is talking about what if he doesn’t max out or work as hard to be the best he can possibly be, however people aren’t keeping in mind that Clowney has a very high floor. Even if he isn’t fully dedicated to offseason training, he should produce 11-14 sacks per season. If Clowney works hard, he could end up rewriting the record books. Clowney is a safe pick to be dangerous pass-rusher in the NFL.

Picking Clowney for this isn’t very bold, so if I were going to go with a different player on this list I would go with Khalil Mack or Anthony Barr. I think both are going to be tough edge defenders.

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 simply run around blockers at the next level. Offenses are going to run at Ford, and he looks like a liability as a run-defender. Plus, Ford has little experience dropping into pass coverage as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

Ford had only 29 tackles in 2013. If you take away his sacks, he had shockingly 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 Ford doesn’t develop a more complete game, he could easily turn into a bust.



3-4 Outside Linebackers Rankings by Attributes


Pass Rush:
NFL prototype: DeMarcus Ware, Broncos
  1. Jadeveon Clowney
  2. Anthony Barr
  3. Khalil Mack
  4. Dee Ford
  5. Trent Murphy
  6. Jeremiah Attaochu
  7. Marcus Smith
  8. Demarcus Lawrence


Recap: The NFL is a passing-driven league, and 3-4 defenses need edge rushers who can consistently get to the quarterback. Rushing the passer is the primary responsibility for a 3-4 outside linebacker. Some college defensive ends can struggle to make the transition to rushing off the edge as they move out wider from offensive tackles. Other players thrive with the change.

There is no doubt in my mind that Clowney is the best pass-rusher in this class. The junior led the nation in sacks in 2013 with 14.5. He had 13.5 sacks to lead the SEC in 2011. Clowney is a dynamic edge rusher who combines rare speed with good hands, natural strength and the potential for devastating pass-rushing moves. He has a nose for the quarterback and showed the ability to beat double-teams. Clowney is a dominant pass-rusher who should end up consistently producing double-digit sack seasons. He could end up being a legend.

Barr had 23 sacks across just two seasons as he wreaked havoc in the Pac-12. Mack recorded his 28.5 sacks over four seasons. Both of them are great edge rushers; I have Barr rated ahead of Mack because of producing a better sack rate, going against far-superior competition and being faster with more quick-twitch athleticism. Mack has more power than Barr, but Barr has more speed and agility.

Murphy was a better pass-rusher than Ford in college, but I think Ford’s speed will convert better to the NFL. Ford is extremely fast off the edge and is a dynamic speed rusher. He got better during college with a double-digit sack season as a senior, but he’ll have to transition to outside linebacker after playing end.

Murphy is an excellent pass-rusher as he led the nation in sacks in 2013. He had 31.5 sacks over the past three seasons and was excellent at getting to the quarterback. I have Murphy lower because he lacks explosion off the snap for the NFL and probably will have to refine his game against faster offensive linemen.

Attaochu had good production in college at 22.5 sacks. He’ll have to learn to rush from outside linebacker after playing a lot of defensive end.

Smith narrowly finished behind Murphy last year as Smith notched 14.5 sacks for Louisville. He used strength and speed to win, but he was a bit of a 1-year wonder. Lawrence had 20 sacks across the past two years, but he ran hot and cold for Boise State. There were times when Lawrence was phenomenal, and other stretches of being quiet against blockers he should have handled.

Run Defense:
NFL prototype: Anthony Spencer, Free Agent
  1. Khalil Mack
  2. Jadeveon Clowney
  3. Trent Murphy
  4. Demarcus Lawrence
  5. Anthony Barr
  6. Jeremiah Attaochu
  7. Marcus Smith
  8. Dee Ford


Recap: Many 3-4 defenses typically don’t require their outside linebackers to be an asset against the run because the schemes rely on their 3-4 defensive ends, nose tackles and inside linebackers to lead the way in run defense. However, the success of the read-option is changing that as the edge linebackers play a critical role in defending against it. Being tough versus the run could become a more important attribute in the seasons to come.

Mack is the best run-defender for the NFL in this class. He had 100 tackles in his final collegiate season, but often did that after shaking blocks and chasing down backs. Mack is strong and tough at the point of attack. His run blocking should be an immediate asset.

The pass rush of Clowney gets the majority of attention, but he is an excellent run defender, too. He can blast into the backfield and rock running backs. Clowney also can chase them down from behind. He would be ranked higher if he hadn’t taken so many run plays off when it didn’t come straight at him.

Murphy was a tough run-defender for Stanford. He set the edge well and held his ground. Murphy had 62 tackles in 2013 with 56 the year before.

Lawrence and Barr are better run-defenders than they are given credit. Both need to add strength to hold up at runs that come downhill at them, but each is excellent in pursuit. Lawrence and Barr have the speed to chase down backs and get to the sideline. Lawrence had 72 tackles last year while Barr had 65 in 2013 and 83 in his first season as an outside linebacker.

Attaochu isn’t a bad run-defender, but he played out of position at defensive end as a senior. Attaochu looked better as a junior at outside linebacker when he had 69 tackles compared to 45 as a senior. Attaochu will be better utilized at linebacker in the NFL.

Smith and Ford both have to improve their run-defense abilities. Smith had 42 tackles in 2013. Ford was a poor run defender as he had only 29 tackles. In the NFL, Ford could easily be a liability in run defense.



Dropping Into Coverage:
NFL prototype: Clay Matthews, Packers
  1. Khalil Mack
  2. Trent Murphy
  3. Anthony Barr
  4. Jadeveon Clowney
  5. Dee Ford
  6. Demarcus Lawrence
  7. Jeremiah Attaochu
  8. Marcus Smith


Recap: The NFL is a passing-driven league, and 3-4 defenses need linebackers who can function in space while dropping into pass coverage. The 3-4 defense is predicated on variety, so it requires linebackers to fall back into pass coverage to avoid predictability.

Mack is phenomenal at dropping into coverage. He is fast in his backpedal and is a fluid athlete moving in space. In the open field, Mack covers a lot of grass. He showed the ability to contribute to defend running backs and tight ends. His excellent pass coverage is a truly rare attribute for a college outside linebacker. In 2013, Mack had decent totals for a defensive back with seven passes broken up and three interceptions.

Even though Murphy was mainly rushing the quarterback, he did well dropping into coverage when asked to do it. Murphy moves pretty well in space and has good instincts. Over the past two seasons, Murphy totaled 10 passes broken up and two interceptions.

Barr flashed in pass coverage. He is a fluid athlete with leaping ability to disrupt passing lanes. Barr had six passes broken up across the past two years. He needs to improve this skill, but he has the athletic ability to do it.

Clowney didn’t drop into pass coverage much, but he looked good doing it at his pro day. Clowney is such an insane athlete that he looks natural with speed and loose hips to play in space. Don’t be surprised if he becomes good at this skill in the NFL.

Ford, Lawrence, Attaochu and Smith all were the best pass-rushers on their respective teams, so they didn’t drop into coverage much. Each is going to need development in pass coverage if drafted into a 3-4.

Speed:
NFL prototype: Aldon Smith, 49ers
  1. Jadeveon Clowney
  2. Dee Ford
  3. Anthony Barr
  4. Khalil Mack
  5. Jeremiah Attaochu
  6. Demarcus Lawrence
  7. Marcus Smith
  8. Trent Murphy


Recap: Speed is necessary to be an effective 3-4 outside linebacker. A quick first-step makes a big difference in applying pressure on the quarterback. The elite 3-4 defensive ends are explosive and extremely fast at flying into the backfield.

Clowney has the speed of a wide receiver, and his explosion coming off the edge is out of this world. He is lightning in his first-step and closes in a heart beat. His explosion is on a par with Aldon Smith or Von Miller, but Clowney is bigger than either of them. Clowney could be the gold standard for fast edge rushers in the NFL.

Ford is very quick coming off the edge. That is his best attribute, and his elite speed is very rare for a linebacker. That is the best thing he has going for him.

Barr is very fast and explosive. He maintains good speed when he redirects and flows to the ball quickly. Barr’s speed is another part of his excellent skill set. Mack is maybe a fraction behind Barr and Ford. He has a great get-off when the ball is snapped.

Coming off the edge, Attaochu is a fast defender. He doesn’t have the initial explosion of the top four, but still has good speed. Lawrence is a fast defender coming off the edge as well.

Smith was one of the fastest defensive ends in the Big East in 2013. He may not be fast enough to beat NFL left tackles on speed alone, but it should provide some mismatches going against right tackles and be part of his skill set overall.

Murphy played faster than one would think, but he doesn’t have real explosion off the snap. A lack of speed is what keeps him out of the first round.



Strength:
NFL prototype: Tamba Hali, Chiefs
  1. Jadeveon Clowney
  2. Trent Murphy
  3. Khalil Mack
  4. Marcus Smith
  5. Jeremiah Attaochu
  6. Anthony Barr
  7. Demarcus Lawrence
  8. Dee Ford


Recap: 3-4 outside linebackers need the strength to fight off offensive linemen, especially when teams slide protections those players’ direction with double-teams. Having the power to shed blocks separates the effectiveness of a lot of 3-4 defenders.

Clowney is the strongest of these prospects by far. He weighs the most and has the power to bench press blockers off of him to drive them backward. Clowney has natural strength that will only get more functional after time in an NFL strength-and-conditioning program. His power will be an asset at the next level.

Murphy showed power to fight off tackles and bull rush them in college. He was down to 250 pounds at the Combine to run faster, but he plays heavier around 260 and is extremely physical. Murphy can bully offensive players and has a mean streak.

Mack has some shock to his hands even though he only weighs 251 pounds. The power of his hands and upper body looks similar to some 270-pound defensive ends. Mack has natural strength that catches many by surprise.

Both Smith and Attaochu have added strength that should help them to shed blocks in the NFL. Barr is up to 255 pounds after playing lighter in college. He needed to add the power, and it will be interesting to see how that augments his game as a pro.

Lawrence added weight and is in the 250s after playing in the 240s. He needs to get stronger. Ford is the lightest at 243 pounds and must gather more functional strength. NFL offensive linemen are going to push Ford around in the downhill-ground game until he gets stronger.

Motor:
NFL prototype: James Harrison, Free Agent
  1. Khalil Mack
  2. Trent Murphy
  3. Anthony Barr
  4. Marcus Smith
  5. Jadeveon Clowney
  6. Jeremiah Attaochu
  7. Dee Ford
  8. Demarcus Lawrence


Recap: The majority of great pass-rushers have motors that don’t quit. Effort can make the difference between an edge rusher having 12 sacks in a season versus eight.

Mack is utterly relentless. Every snap, he’s looking to make a play and always gives good effort. Mack’s non-stop motor can be seen with how many plays he ends up making after being initially blocked. Mack doesn’t quit on plays and keeps fighting. A great motor helps set him apart.

Murphy and Barr definitely have good motors. Murphy fulfills his assignments at a high level and you don’t see him loafing when a play goes away from him. Murphy definitely got some sacks for Stanford via great effort. Barr’s motor is similar, but a notch below. He pursues and chases after downfield ball-carriers.

Clowney isn’t as cut and dry from a motor perspective as most think. In 2012, he took a lot of plays off, and he did that again in the 2013 season opener. After getting ripped hard for that by the media, Clowney really improved his effort and motor in his remaining college games. WalterFootball.com double-checked with scouts on that opinion and they agreed. They liked Clowney’s motor and effort after that game. They also said that Clowney was a young player, only 20 years old, and they think that his effort and motor will continue to improve as he matures.

Attaochu and Smith played with steady motors during college. Neither one was prone to taking plays off.

The effort levels from Ford and Lawrence seemed to vary within games as they geared up more for pass-rushing plays versus obvious plays defending the run. There were times when each disappeared.

Upside:
NFL prototype: Aldon Smith, 49ers
  1. Jadeveon Clowney
  2. Anthony Barr
  3. Khalil Mack
  4. Dee Ford
  5. Demarcus Lawrence
  6. Jeremiah Attaochu
  7. Marcus Smith
  8. Trent Murphy


Recap: This group of edge rushers has a lot of upside. These players have room for improvement as professionals, and none of them are close to being a finished product.

The upside with Clowney seems to be limitless. Once he develops more pass-rushing moves and gets some NFL coaching, he could be one of the most dominant players in the NFL.

Barr has a lot of upside, especially when you consider he has only been playing outside linebacker for two years. Mack has upside to develop in the NFL after getting better year over year in college.

Ford has upside with his blinding speed. If he can get stronger and improve as a run-defender, he could make an impact on the edge. Lawrence and Attaochu have similar potential.

It will be interesting to see if Smith if can continue to make strides like he did at the end of his collegiate career. Murphy doesn’t seem to have as much athletic upside. He lacks speed, although he could make up for it in other ways.

Forced Fumbles:
NFL prototype: DeMarcus Ware, Broncos
  1. Khalil Mack
  2. Jadeveon Clowney
  3. Anthony Barr
  4. Demarcus Lawrence
  5. Marcus Smith
  6. Dee Ford
  7. Jeremiah Attaochu
  8. Trent Murphy


Recap: Defenses and teams thrive off turnovers, so a pass-rusher who has the skills to force fumbles are game-changers. Many players go for strip sacks, but some are more effective than others.

Mack was excellent at slapping the ball out of quarterbacks’ hands while taking them down for sacks. Mack also forced fumbles on ball-carriers. He had 16 forced fumbles over the past four seasons, including five as a senior. Mack has superb instincts to create turnovers.

Clowney recorded nine forced fumbles in college, including five as a freshman. Not only does he go for the strip-sack on quarterbacks, Clowney hits with such force that he forces fumbles in the ground game. Clowney should only get better over time and become one of the top sack-fumble generators in the NFL. Even though Mack is ahead, I think Clowney is pretty much equal considering Mack played against weak competition, while Clowney went against the best college football has to offer.

Barr tied Clowney with nine career forced fumbles, except Barr built that total in two seasons rather than three. Barr has nice instincts to go for the strip while taking down the quarterback. He had three forced fumbles against Nebraska in 2013 to help lead to a comeback win.

Lawrence has shown the ability to force turnovers with seven forced fumbles over the past two years. He could continue to improve on that in the NFL.

Smith was quiet his first couple of seasons in college before a breakout senior year. He had four forced fumbles in 2013 and made some big plays for Louisville. The question is if 2013 was a sign of things to come or a 1-year wonder.

Ford and Attaochu had three forced fumbles each the past two years. Both of them need to develop the ability to execute the sack-fumble.

Murphy had one forced fumble across the past two yeard, which is a surprisingly low total for a player who racked up 25 sacks in that span. It is a bit of a head-scratcher that Murphy didn’t develop strip-sack moves at Stanford.




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