Here is a list of the top linebackers in the 2008 NFL draft. This list was compiled through a series of conversations with scouts and through game tape evaluations.
1. Dan Connor, Penn State, ILB: Connor is a hard-nosed linebacker with outstanding instincts and awareness. The two-time All America selection is a tackling machine with a strong nose for the ball. Connor, who has also played outside linebacker during his career, displays surprising athleticism and is an effective rusher off the edge. With 14 career sacks and seven career forced turnovers, Connor is an impact player coveted by scouts for his playmaking skills and awareness. After his strong showing at the Senior Bowl, Connor is considered by many to be the top choice at linebacker. Look for the ultra-productive linebacker to come off the board in the top half of the first round.
2. Keith Rivers, Southern Cal, OLB: Rivers is an athletic linebacker with outstanding speed, quickness and movement skills. The Trojans' All-America linebacker displays dazzling athleticism and is the prototypical outside linebacker. While scouts question his lack of impact plays, there is no doubt that Rivers possesses the athleticism to become a big-time playmaker on the next level. With his quickness and movement skills, scouts view Rivers as a "three-down" linebacker capable of being an impact player all over the field. Therefore, expect Rivers to be selected in the top half of the first round due to his athleticism, versatility and untapped potential.
3. Curtis Lofton, Oklahoma, ILB: The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year is a top linebacker prospect with good instincts and awareness. He shows a knack for making game-changing plays (three interceptions and four forced fumbles last season). With 157 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss in '07, Lofton proved himself to be an impact player on the collegiate level. However, scouts still have concerns about his inexperience (only one season as a full-time starter) and overall athleticism. If Lofton can put on an impressive showing at the combine, he may have a chance to vault to the top of the second round.
4. Quentin Groves, Auburn, OLB: The Tigers' career sack leader (26) has all of the tools to be an excellent 3-4 rush end/linebacker. Blessed with an explosive first step and excellent closing quickness, Groves is a dynamic rusher off the edge with the potential to produce game-changing plays. Although injuries slowed his production this season, Groves' athleticism and speed make him a highly coveted prospect. If Groves posts impressive workout numbers and shows that he is recovered from his nagging injuries, he may climb the charts as 3-4 outside linebacker.
5. Xavier Adibi, Virginia Tech, OLB: A very athletic linebacker with outstanding speed, quickness and movement skills. The Hokies' leading tackler has a nose for the ball and excels at using his athleticism to run down ball carriers from behind. Though scouts have voiced concerns about his size, Adibi's explosiveness, athleticism and speed make him an ideal fit for a Tampa 2-type scheme. As a sideline-to-sideline player, Adibi possesses all of the physical tools to be a difference maker as a WILL linebacker. Look for a team to snatch up the athletic playmaker near the top of the second round.
6. Ali Highsmith, LSU, OLB: A three-year starter with good instincts, awareness and speed, the second team All-America paced the Tigers with 101 tackles from his weak side linebacker position. Although he is undersized for the position, Highsmith is viewed as a potential starter in a Tampa-2 defense. Scouts cite his inability to take on blockers and questionable pursuit angles as areas of concern, but many envision Highsmith developing into a Cato June-like playmaker. Look for Highsmith to come off the board in the middle of the second round.
7. Erin Henderson, Maryland, OLB: Henderson is a tough, productive linebacker with excellent instincts and awareness. The All-ACC selection is not an outstanding athlete, but he plays fast due to his ability to quickly key and diagnose. Henderson -- who led the team in '07 with 133 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and four fumble recoveries -- is ideally suited to move inside to MIKE linebacker as a pro. Several scouts feel Henderson possesses all of the intangibles to develop into a top middle linebacker on the next level. Although Henderson likely won't test well at the Combine, look for the Terrapins' stalwart to land near the middle of the second round on draft day.
8. Jerod Mayo, Tennessee, ILB/OLB: The SEC's leading tackler (140) is a versatile player with good speed, quickness and athleticism. While he spent the last portion of the season as the Vols' inside linebacker, Mayo's athleticism and skills make him a nice fit at either outside linebacker spot. Scouts downgraded his ability to work off blocks, but a move back outside would free him to become a "run and chase" player as a pro. Regardless, Mayo's versatility, toughness and instincts make him a likely second-round selection.
9. Bruce Davis, UCLA, OLB: The Bruins' pass-rushing specialist racked up 26.5 career sacks. Davis, a high-motor player with excellent rush skills, displayed the necessary athleticism and movement skills to make a move to outside linebacker during the Senior Bowl. Though scouts' opinions differ on whether Davis is a better fit as a 3-4 rush end/linebacker or 4-3 SAM 'backer, they were encouraged by the improvement that he made throughout the Senior Bowl practices. If Davis can post an impressive workout at the combine, expect a team to snatch the underrated pass rusher at the top of the third round.
10. Philip Wheeler, Georgia Tech, ILB/OLB: Wheeler is an instinctive linebacker with good intangibles and awareness. The versatile Yellow Jacket has nose for the football and has been a productive player throughout his career. Though Wheeler has manned the middle the past two seasons, he has impressive athleticism and experience at all three linebacker spots. While some scouts knock Wheeler for his lack of size, they think highly of his versatility, instincts and overall awareness. Therefore, expect Wheeler to come off the board in the third round.
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