As is true with most positions in the NFL these days, linebackers must do more than ever before, or suffer the consequences of plummeting draft stock and situational usage. Bigger 'backers who might have stayed inside to stop the run and done little else in the old days are now tasked to hit the edge and rush the quarterback, while a new wave of players in the 220-240-pound range are excelling in the middle without the prerequisite ability to drop the hammer against a big back at the line. Now, linebackers truly worthy of the name have to grasp multiple concepts -- everything from side-to-side tackling to slot coverage.
This year's group of linebackers is as talented and versatile as any in recent years, and it's a list of specialists. If your team is in need of a sack artist, or an interior defender or a prototypical weak-side force, those players are all here. And they're all doing things that Dick Butkus never dreamed of.
1. Khalil Mack, Buffalo: While most players at smaller schools are subject to questions about strength of competition, Mack seems to have eluded those questions, and for good reason -- no matter the opponent, he simply explodes off the tape with a compelling mixture of pure athleticism and closing speed. He seems to perfectly fit the NFL prototype of the hybrid player who can move from strong-side linebacker to rush end (think Von Miller), and there's little doubt that the 6-foot-3, 251-pound Mack will be selected among the first few picks in the 2014 draft. The 2013 MAC Defensive Player of the Year had an amazing season, with 100 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 19 tackles for loss, five forced fumbles and three interceptions (for two touchdowns). He's the do-it-all linebacker in this class, and his performances against Ohio State and Baylor eliminated any doubts about how Mack would fare against bigger programs.
"I don't want to limit myself to just playing one specific thing," he said at the scouting combine. "I feel like that's the biggest thing for me. When I work out with the defensive ends, I work out with the linebackers, I also go over and workout with the DBs -- just to stay fresh. I work hard, and I want to stay loose and don't want to put a limit on myself."
Nor should he.
Draft projection: Top 10
2. Anthony Barr, UCLA: Of the "endbackers" (edge-rushing linebackers) in this class, Barr shows the most on tape, convincing you he'll transition to that same role in the NFL. The former running back has played his current position for two years (amassing 23.5 sacks), and he's raw from a technique perspective as a result, but few players bring more athletic potential. At 6-5 and 255 pounds, Barr has the speed and balance to bend the edge on the blitz, the agility to drop into coverage and the strength to occasionally just rag-doll a blocker. The team that takes him and builds on these attributes could be rewarded with a special player for a long time to come.
"Difficult at first," he said of the transition from offense to defense. "I think moving backward and going back in coverage, was something that was new to me. But now I feel comfortable with that. Just sort of getting used to the position. It’s still sort of new to me in a sense. It’s exciting. If I continue to work, the sky’s the limit."
Draft projection: Top 15
3. Ryan Shazier, Ohio State: Shazier may be the best linebacker in this class who actually plays at linebacker depth most of the time (further illustrating the blurring of lines when it comes to this position), and that's where his value is most evident. Like Luke Kuechly, Lavonte David and Bobby Wagner, Shazier shows the potential to be a full-field athletic linebacker who can hit the hole in the run game, cover short and intermediate routes and chase opponents from sideline to sideline. The more traditional linebacker has dropped in overall value in the last few seasons, but there is a growing awareness in the NFL that the lighter, faster versions of such players can define a defense.
Draft projection: Round 1
4. C.J. Mosley, Alabama: While Mosley can play multiple positions, he projects best as an inside linebacker at the next level. That doesn't mean that he's limited, though -- he's a 360-degree player who excelled in tackling, range plays and coverage for one of the nation's best and most complex defenses. Mosley leads with his instincts, and he's a very aware player. Even at a position where players are prone to pick up stats, his numbers have been impressive in their consistency -- 107 tackles in 2012, and 108 in '13. There are injury concerns, as there have been with an increasing number of Alabama prospects, but Mosley looks to have everything it takes to be a plug-and-play starter for a good, long time.
Draft projection: Round 1
5. Kyle Van Noy, BYU: Speaking of versatility, Van Noy is another do-it-all guy capable of rushing the passer, tackling well and showing real athleticism in coverage. He's got the size (6-3, 243) to be a pure edge rusher, and though he tends to overshoot his targets at times, that ability shows up on tape. He'll be best-suited for an NFL defense that lets him roam free, avoid too many blockers and make plays in atypical ways. There were thoughts that he should have left school after his 13-sack season in 2012, but he came back, citing "unfinished business." That his sack total dropped to four in 2013 doesn't seem to concern him.
“I feel like I’ve done a lot of things that people around me haven’t done," Van Noy said at the combine. "I scored five career touchdowns playing defense, so I feel like I’m an offensive player on defense. I want to get the ball in the offense’s hands, but also have the aggression to play linebacker. I feel like every time you get a sack, you try to get the ball out. Quarterbacks, some can’t see you from the backside or some are looking downfield when you’re coming from the front side. I feel like getting the ball is key. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting the ball.”
Van Noy doesn't really stand out in any one particular area, but he does a lot very well.
Draft projection: Round 1-Round 2
6. Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech: If draft positioning was based on pure potential, Attaochu would be a certain first-round prospect. The native of Nigeria flashes great athleticism and aggression on tape, but there are times when his relative lack of experience really shows up -- he bites on playfakes and misdirections, he's not always positionally aware and his speed can be used against him. He also needs to develop an array of moves and techniques as a pass rusher -- he tends to wrestle when he should be looking to get free. Still, there's more than enough to like about him as a developmental prospect with All-Pro potential. The ACC's leader in sacks since 2005 with 32, Attaochu could be a monster in a defense that allows him to use different gaps and line stunts as he gets the finer points together.
Draft projection: Round 2-Round 3
7. Telvin Smith, Florida State: Smith tends to lose power battles and bounce off guys he's trying to tackle at times -- that's one of the problems with weighing just 218 pounds at 6-3 -- but he's a far better pure hitter than you would expect for his size, and his raw field speed is breathtaking. Few linebacker prospects over the last few seasons bring it with Smith's velocity, and his 2013 numbers (90 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and three interceptions returned for 147 yards and two touchdowns) speak to his versatility. Smith's NFL team will have to be creative in his positioning, and it's possible that the quest to put too much weight on his frame could make him less special, but this is for sure -- there aren't many football players at any level more fun to watch.
Draft projection: Round 2-Round 3
8. Trevor Reilly, Utah: The Utes have sent five front seven defenders to the NFL since 2009, and Reilly is one of the most interesting. He's entering the draft at age 26 after serving two years on a Mormon mission, and he's married with two daughters.
"I worked out with a guy who was three years removed from high school," Reilly said at the combine when asked about the age difference between himself and younger players in the draft. "I'm going to go to my 10-year reunion in a year and a half. But I keep myself young. I don't think I look 26. I had a beard; I had to shave it to look a little bit younger. Honestly, that's the biggest thing. Being a captain [at Utah], I had to relate to guys on the team going forward. That's going to have to be the same thing in the NFL."
Reilly certainly didn't play like an old man in 2013, amassing 100 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his game is his field speed -- from a stationary position on either side of the line or in space, Reilly covers a lot of ground in a hurry. And at 6-5 and 245 pounds, he can certainly wreck a play when he gets there.
Draft projection: 3rd-4th round.
9. Carl Bradford, Arizona State: Bradford was all over the place for the Devils -- he was recruited as a fullback prospect and eventually became a key cog in the team's defense after a time as a reserve linebacker. He doesn't really fit the suit as an outside linebacker at 6-1 and 250, but he made more than his share of plays. Bradford is faster than one might expect, and he's learned the fine points of technique -- he uses his hands well and is always looking to disrupt. Though he was used on the edge a lot, Bradford might be a better fit as a pure inside thumper in the NFL (especially in a 3-4 base defense), with the occasional splash play elsewhere. In his last two seasons, Bradford totaled 39.5 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles.
Draft projection: Round 3-Round 4
10. Chris Borland, Wisconsin: A decade ago, middle linebackers could get away with size and speed concerns if their instincts and awareness served as compensatory factors. And when Borland makes an NFL team -- which he certainly will -- we'll see if that's still true. He's an interesting case, because he just doesn't move very well on the field. He's slow to the play, not out of a lack of trying, but sheer physical limitations. But he understands angles and leverage, and he has an innate sense of where the play is going. Could he be the next Lofa Tatupu or Zach Thomas? Borland is an outlier in a league of bigger/stronger/faster, but it's hard to bet against him when you watch enough tape. Draft projection: Round 4-Round 5