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NFL Draft Preview: Top 10 linebackers

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The 2011 class of linebackers is rich with seniors and a significant number of three-down defenders who possess a complete game. It is unlikely any superstars emerge from this group, yet it's a solid class that should produce close to a dozen starters on the NFL level.

1. Bruce Carter/OLB/North Carolina: A productive three-year starter for the Tar Heels, Carter is the most complete linebacker available next April. He's a three-down defender and a natural fit on the weak side for a conventional defense. Carter is a terrific athlete and displays great skill in pass coverage, making plays sideline-to-sideline. Projected grade: Round 1

2. Von Miller/OLB/Texas A&M: Miller started the season slowly with an ankle injury but was playing as good as any linebacker as the season ended. He spent much of his A&M career tormenting opposing quarterbacks out of a three-point stance and moves toward the draft as the top 3-4 outside linebacker. Grade: Round 1

3. Akeem Ayers*/OLB/UCLA: Ayers possesses as much ability as any of the top-rated linebackers but is coming off an up-and-down junior campaign. Ayers flashes dominance and forces the action when he's on his game. Grade: Round 1

4. Kelvin Sheppard/ILB/LSU: Sheppard rates as the top inside linebacker for next April's draft. He's a tough run stuffer who has enough athleticism to cover running backs or tight ends that cross the middle on passing plays. Grade: Round 2

5. Jeremy Beal/OLB/Oklahoma: Beal is another Big 12 defensive end that projects to outside linebacker at the next level. He's been an explosive pass rusher at Oklahoma and displays terrific speed off the edge. Beal must now display the ability to make plays moving in reverse rather than just up the field. Grade: Round 2

6. Dontay Moch/OLB/Nevada: Moch is a renowned athlete who amazed scouts when he timed 4.25-seconds in the 40 last spring during junior timing day. Moch lines up in a three-point stance on the college leve,l but projects to outside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment at the next level. He's tough to stop up the field but like must show skill playing in space. Grade: Round 3

7. Greg Jones/ILB/Michigan State: Jones has been a tackling machine for the Spartans and is a tough linebacker who plays a smart brand of football. He lacks classic size for the middle linebacker position, yet his instincts will be a major asset in any system. Grade: Round 3

8. Mark Herzlich/OLB/Boston College: Herzlich's courageous return to the football field after battling cancer has been well documented. Prior to his illness, Herzlich was a dominant defender that projected as a top-10 pick. He did well this season, displaying many of his old skills. The opinions of medical staffs around the league will ultimately dictate where Herzlich is selected in the draft. Grade: Round 3

9. K.J. Wright/OLB/Mississippi State: Wright offers some of the best size/speed numbers of any top linebacker and is also a solid football player. He displays a nose for the ball in run defense, pursuing the action in every direction of the field while also shutting down opponents in coverage. Wright comes with a great amount of upside and has the potential to start at a number of outside linebacker spots. Grade: Round 3

10. Mason Foster/OLB/Washington: Foster is coming off a career campaign, leading the Huskies with 151 tackles -- almost twice the number he registered as a junior. His mark of 11 tackles for loss is also noteworthy. Foster is aggressive against the run and sacrifices his body to stop opposing ball handlers. His skills defending the pass are also NFL caliber. Grade: Round 3/4