NFL Draft Rankings 2014: Outside Linebackers

So for anyone who read my rankings for defensive ends, I went on a bit of a rant about how defensive ends are being paid more than linebackers and that strikes me as ridiculous. I will admit that a decent amount of that comes from my personal love of the linebacker position, so prepare yourself for me to obsess a little bit over some of the top linebackers available in this draft. Specifically Khalil Mack. You have been warned. In any case, I did a bit of research on the subject of outside versus inside linebackers, because I was curious. Over the last ten years, an outside linebacker has been selected before an inside linebacker 6 times. The average draft position of outside linebackers is 12.1, whereas inside linebackers are back at 19.0. In fairness, there was a massive outlier in 2011 where an inside linebacker was not taken until the 3rd round. Taking that outlier out, the result is 13.7. Not nearly as drastic, but still different. And this is not factoring in any player who was drafted as a defensive end and moved to linebacker or vice versa, this is purely their listed position when they were drafted.

Here is the question I would like to pose: Why is it that outside linebackers are valued over inside linebackers? Inside linebackers are normally the ones leading the league in tackles, they are usually the quarterback of the defense, so why is it that outside linebackers are valued over inside linebackers? Given that this is an average over ten years I am willing to discount the notion that for the last ten years the outside linebackers have simply been better than the inside linebackers. So with saying that, I now propose an answer: Outside linebackers are the most athletic players on the defense. Sure, cornerbacks have to shadow the freakishly large and fast wide receivers, but think about this. An outside linebacker, one who is capable of playing on every down, needs to be able to rush the passer, pursue the running back, and drop back into coverage depending on the scheme. Simply put, they must have everything. Speed to get to the running back and pass tackles, strength to power through blocks, and agility to react in a fraction of a second when the quarterback throws the ball. The best outside linebackers in the league have to be insanely athletic or they will not be able to do everything required by their position. And not to get ahead of myself, but I think there is someone in this draft who embodies these traits.
Anyway, that’s enough ranting about linebackers for one week. Check back next week for the inside linebackers rant. Expect lots of references to Luke Kuechly. Couple of reminders before we start:

How it works-

I will start each of these posts by examining which teams need the players in question. By in large this is only going to be teams that are in need of a new starting player, not necessarily a backup.

For each player I will provide analysis, statistics from the 2013-2014 season, and a general idea of where I believe they will be taken in the draft.

Things to keep in mind-

The rankings that I post here are based on my observations of the player’s statistics, game tape, and any rumors that leak out to the general public. I make no claims to have insider knowledge into the draft process or any teams overall plan this is merely my own ranking system if I were evaluating these player for any given NFL team.

As with any ranking system, it is all relative. Scouting reports by professionals can differ greatly for the same individual for the same game. So my rankings by no means the definitive order.

I love football. I love the NFL, and college football, and I love sharing what I love with other people. And that is the ultimate point in creating these rankings: To share what I know about the players who will be a part of my favorite football event of the year, namely the draft. Whether you love the draft process as I do, just want to know a little bit more about some of the top college players outside of those at Wisconsin, or are simply interested in who your favorite team could be looking at in May, I want these rankings to be informative.

Now let’s get to it.

Teams looking to take an Outside Linebacker in 2014:

Indianapolis Colts: I will admit that when Dwight Freeney left Indianapolis I thought that the Colts linebacker corps was pretty much screwed. All they had was Robert Mathis, and aging linebacker who had been a tandem with Freeney, and at the beginning of their careers, Mathis was consistently outshined by Freeney. I did not have high expectations. 19.5 sacks later, I can easily say that I was wrong. Very wrong. That being said, Mathis is still 33, and the man opposite him, Erik Walden, has never quite lived up to his billing. And while Jerrell Freeman had a great season, Kelvin Sheppard did not. Whether an outside or inside linebacker, the Colts could use one. I will also admit here that I am concerned for Andrew Luck’s future. Peyton Manning won one ring in Indianapolis because the talent around him was lacking. And if Andrew Luck consistently gets the Colts to the playoffs, they could easily miss out on the top talent every draft and ultimately the result is the same. Hopefully it’s not because Andrew Luck’s a great guy, I just needed to voice that concern.
Houston Texans: Staying in the AFC South, right now the best linebackers Houston has are Brian Cushing and Whitney Mercilus. Cushing has played in 10 games in the past two seasons and is coming off major knee surgery for the second year in a row. Mercilus is a decent pass rusher, but he seems limited to that capacity. Up next is Brooks Reed who is 27 and has a total of 128 tackles and 11.5 sacks in 4 years. Mercilus has 13.0 sacks in 2 seasons, for reference. After that the linebacker corps is players with minimal game time experience or statistics. When you have a player as good as J.J. Watt, it is almost imperative to put pieces around him so that the load is off his shoulders. Going with Clowney first overall is not a bad choice, but I would make a case for a certain outside linebacker as a better fit. But we will get to that. One way or another, the Texans need to revamp the position, if not in the first round then on the second day it almost becomes a necessity.
 
Philadelphia Eagles: I am listing the Eagles here on outside linebackers because I do not delude myself that they need new inside linebackers. DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks were a formidable tandem last year, and based on their struggles against the pass last year, I doubt the Eagles will take an outside linebacker if a cornerback or safety they like are still on the board. Nevertheless, neither Trent Cole or Connor Barwin were particularly productive on defense last year, although Cole did lead the pair in sacks. Still, Cole is 31 and Barwin has only had one season with more than 5.0 sacks. So while perhaps the need is not as pressing for the Eagles as it is for some other teams, there is room for improvement. When I did a mock draft with the rest of my co-hosts, C.J. Mosely ended up falling to Philly, and I think that if that happened it would be tough to pass on him.
 
New Orleans Saints: As with the Eagles, this is not the most crucial need for the Saints as other positions, but I think it’s still up there. David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton did well enough at middle linebacker, but Junior Galette is working by himself at the outside linebacker spot. Right now Victor Butler is listed as the starter opposite from Galette, and in 6 seasons as a pro, Butler has yet to record his 100th tackle. So I have my doubts about his overall ability. As I said, Junior Galette is doing a great job on his own, but finding a complementary piece on the opposite side would certainly open things up for Galette and their defensive end Cameron Jordan.
 
Buffalo Bills:  The Bills would rejoice if Khalil Mack fell to them. Not only did he go to college in Buffalo, he would fill a huge need. Kiko Alonso was a beast a year ago, and I was a big fan of his coming out of Oregon. Stealing Brandon Spikes from the rival Patriots was a big upgrade as well, but the last spot, Keith Rivers, leaves something to be desired. Rivers has exceeded 45 total tackles twice in his career, and has never had more than one sack in a season. So while Alonso and Spikes are a great one two punch, throwing Khalil Mack into the mix would give Buffalo arguably the best corps of starting linebackers in the NFL. Throw in the fact that Brandon Spikes would be the oldest of them at 26, and that is down right terrifying for the rest of the AFC East. I am not totally sold on E.J. Manuel, and based on rumors coming out of Buffalo, neither are they. And while their defense is formidable as it stands, throwing in one more talented outside linebacker makes for a solid defense that a mediocre quarterback can ride to success. Everyone focuses on the quarterbacks and the offenses, but there are two ways to win football games.
 
Atlanta Falcons: Ok, the Falcons could have something good with the linebackers they currently have. Right now their starters are Joplo Bartu, Paul Worrilow, and Sean Weatherspoon. Bartu and Worrilow are both just 23, and they played pretty well last year, but the pass rush is sorely lacking in Atlanta, and with Weatherspoon injured and Bartu and Worrilow still somewhat unproven, there’s a lot up in the air with Atlanta. The Falcons did go out into free agency and added Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai to their defensive line, but I do not believe that either of them will provide a marked improvement in the pass rushing department, regardless of how much they are paid. There are a number of positions that the Falcons need to address in May, but if they feel confident about players like Anthony Barr or Khalil Mack, then I think they should pull the trigger on an outside linebacker.
Outside Linebackers:
#1. Khalil Mack, Buffalo
Height: 6’3, Weight: 251 lbs.
2013 Stats: 100 Tackles, 19.0 TFL, 10.5 Sacks
NFL Combine: 4.65 40-yard Dash, 128.0 Inch Broad Jump
I only listed Mack’s tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks, but that does him a disservice. He also had 3 Interceptions, 7 pass deflections, and 5 forced fumbles. Aaron Donald may have been the most disruptive defensive lineman, but I would make a case for Mack being the most disruptive linebacker in college football last year. You can say all you want about lesser competition and whatnot playing in the MAC, and I will address that later on, but the bottom line is that NFL players produced, period, wherever they went to college. A lot of quarterbacks in the NFL came from no-name colleges or other lesser known programs, so there is no reason to think that Mack is somehow worse than other players just because he was in a lower conference. The fact is that he was only recruited by Buffalo and Liberty out of high school. When something like that happens, it is not the player’s fault for facing lesser schools. No matter how you slice it, Mack produced big numbers at Buffalo and was one of the most disruptive players in college football last season.
Going to the Combine, Mack was a top performer in the 40 yard dash, vertical and broad jump, and 20 yard shuttle drills. Overall, he showcased excellent footwork and athleticism, precisely what everyone had seen on his tape. Getting the measurables that match up with the tape is always a good sign, especially when the tape is as good as it is for Mack. And just throwing this fact in there, on his pro day Mack ran even faster, unofficially clocked in the 4.55 range, quite close to one Jadeveon Clowney. Supposedly one NFL scout clocked Mack at 4.45 at his pro day, which is absolutely insane if true, but of course, that is unofficial. The point I am trying to make is that Mack runs fast. And watching his 40-yard at the Combine it did not look like he was straining or struggling to reach that top speed.
Alright, time to talk about the film. Here is where I address the lesser competition bit even more vehemently. Watch the tape of Buffalo versus Ohio State. Mack dominated wherever he lined up on defense, which was everywhere. He had his hand on the ground as a straight pass rusher, he backed up and worked from a standard 4-3 OLB position, he worked both sides of the field, and he was successful at whatever he did. Against one of the top programs, with little help around him, Mack was almost singlehandedly responsible for disrupting Ohio States game plan. As the game goes on, OSU runs away from Mack. Earlier on Mack was beating offensive tackles and guards like it was nothing using both size and strength, and showed an ability to make tackles even while he was blocked. And I have yet to mention pass coverage. Also impressive. He sticks to his man well, never takes his eyes off the quarterback, but still moves well covering tight ends and running backs. He even had a pick six during the game, keeping pace with the fleet-footed Braxton Miller to score a touchdown. I could go on and on, just about the OSU game. The point is that all the traits I mentioned in my opening rant, agility, strength, speed, athleticism: Mack has it all. He is hands down the best linebacker in this draft class.
Look if I were the Texans I would draft Khalil Mack in a heart beat and sleep soundly that night. Clowney might be one of the most physically gifted defensive prospects in years, but Mack has the physical attributes and the intangibles that Clowney does not. Determination, strong work ethic, and a chip on his shoulder to get the job done. You cannot afford to miss in the first round, least of all with the first overall pick, and Mack just has less red flags than Clowney. I do not know that Houston will see things the same as me, but regardless, they need to give Mack some serious consideration. Bottom line, there is no way that Mack falls past Buffalo at #9, and I think there’s a good chance he goes before that.
Final Decision: Top 10 Pick
#2. Anthony Barr, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)
Height: 6’5, Weight: 255 lbs.
2013 Stats: 66 Tackles, 20.0 TFL, 10.0 Sacks
NFL Combine: 4.66 40-yard Dash, 6.82 3-Cone Drill
Alright, fun fact time. Last year, Anthony Barr had 21.5 TFL and 13.5 Sacks, along with 83 total tackles. Now here’s the fun part. Last year was his first year playing outside linebacker. Before he had been a running back, and upon Head Coach Jim Mora’s urging, Barr exploded as a defensive player. Think about that for a second. His first season as a defensive player, and he leads the team in sacks and TFL and finishes the season as a first team All Pac-12 Player. That’s downright insane. So while Barr’s numbers dropped slightly this year, he received added attention from other teams and still put up great numbers, still led the team in sacks and TFL. He also led the league with 6 force fumbles. On stats alone, what Barr has been able to accomplish on little training has been truly impressive.
At the Combine, Barr finished just outside the top performers in a lot of categories, although he only had 15 reps on the bench, which is slightly concerning. He also looked a little stiff during his on-field drills, especially on the change of direction plays. But at the end of the day he still flashed good speed and explosiveness, and that’s probably the most important things to take away from the workout.
First impressions in the tape is that I can see why he only did the bench press 15 times. He lacks strength in the tape, getting overpowered by offensive linemen when he gets into one on one matchups, which is an issue, but one that can be fixed at the next level. His speed and first step explosiveness are where he really makes his claim to fame, he was able to blow past the left tackle of Oregon, stripping the ball right out of Marcus Mariota’s hands before he even knew what was happening. The other concerning thing is the lack of consistency. Like the play against Mariota, when Barr’s motor is running, he is a phenomenal talent, when not, he is almost a non-factor. Again against Oregon, the play was going on right next to him, but he did not work up the effort to get after the ball.
On tape I see a few red flags with Barr, things that are not apparent from his statistics. I think he is still a great player and has a chance to become something special at the next level if he really is able to keep up the ridiculously fast pace he has learned the position at. Teams are going to take a look at what he can be, and what he can be is an exceptional pass rusher in the NFL. I do not believe he is there just yet, but given some time and the right situation, it is a very realistic ceiling. There is absolutely no way I would draft him ahead of Mack, but that is my opinion. I have seen plenty of different landing spots for Barr, but I would say that some team in the first 15 picks is going to look at what he has already accomplished in so short a time frame and fall in love with the possibilities.
Final Decision: Top 15 Pick
#3. Ryan Shazier, Ohio State University (OSU)
Height: 6’1, Weight: 237 lbs.
2013 Stats: 144 Tackles, 23.5 TFL, 7.0 Sacks
NFL Combine: 42.0 Vertical Jump, 130.0 Broad Jump
From a statistical standpoint, Shazier’s coverage numbers were more impressive a year ago, when he totaled 12 pass deflections and an interception, whereas this year he had only 4 deflections. But the rest of his numbers improved, he added 31 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2 sacks and 1 additional forced fumble. Based on the numbers, Shazier would be best suited to play outside linebacker, whether it is in a 3-4 or a 4-3 is less important, but from a physical standpoint, he would not be able to shift to defensive end, unlike Mack and Barr. Of course I am inclined to believe that Mack and Barr are both better suited as OLBs, but if the team that drafts them wants them to be DEs then so be it. In any case, Shazier’s high number of tackles speak to great pursuit skills, and therefore perhaps the best fit being a 4-3 OLB, but either scheme could work, given his sack totals as well. From a numbers standpoint, Shazier is versatile and would be a good fit in just about any scheme.
At the Combine, Shazier did not run the 40 yard dash, but the drills he participated in were impressive. He was a top performer in the vertical and broad jumps, and the 3-cone Drill. During his on field drills and the 3-Cone Drill Shazier as fluid in his movements, most likely contributing to his impressive score, but the bottom line is that he moved well, which is always a plus but even more so for a linebacker, which will need to track the ball across the field.
Watching Shazier’s tape, it is fairly apparent that his best attribute is his ability to follow and pursue the ball. He does a good job of attacking the gaps the ball carrier is going to be using, and he is a sure tackler, even when he does not get the best angle, Shazier is still able to make the shoestring tackles or wrap up the legs. In pass coverage, Shazier does a good job maintaining his zones, I did not see him in man to man coverage much, but he is a capable defender in zone schemes. With his pursuit skills working as a QB spy could be a solid choice for him, especially given the tendency for quarterbacks to run in today’s NFL. What did concern me was that he would be easily shut down if he ran into an offensive lineman or if the lineman got to the second level. Since Shazier does not have the size to match up physically, he will have to learn some techniques that will enable him to get around the heavier blocks.
Bottom line for Shazier is that he is a solid linebacker. He is not going to wow anyone with ridiculous speed, but he gets the job done well, knows his assignments, and as I have harped on throughout this entire evaluation, he is a ball hawk. Whatever team drafts him is going to have a good player, and one that will probably be able to step in and play right away. He may not have the same ceiling as Barr or Mack, but part of me is almost convinced that his floor is higher. Time will tell, but sometimes it is better to take the player that unassumingly gets the job done as opposed to the infrequent flash in the pan. Shazier is probably looking at a mid to late round selection, depending on what teams are looking for.
Final Decision: Late 1st Round
#4. Dee Ford, Auburn
Height: 6’2, Weight: 252 lbs
2013 Stats: 29 Tackles, 14.5 TFL, 10.5 Sacks
NFL Combine: Did not work out
This is going to be a difficult assessment. Mostly because during the entirety of the regular season, Ford worked as a defensive end for Auburn. But since the offseason started he has been working on losing weight and switching over to outside linebacker, which is why he is listed here. Ford’s physical stature was always in question for a defensive end, so I think the switch is a good choice. In any case, as a defensive end, Ford produced a decent amount of sacks and TFLs. His tackles are much lower than any of the other outside linebackers, but again, he is switching positions so it is not a big deal. As it stands though, based on his numbers Ford looks most like a situational pass rusher.
There is nothing to say about Ford at the Combine, since all he did was weigh in and show his weight loss in anticipation of a switch. However, at his pro day, Ford had slimmed down even more, but was able to run a 4.54 unofficial 40 time and benched 225 pounds 29 times, flashing a good combination of speed and power. Ford has been making great progress in his transition so far, and his pro day numbers back up that progress.
Watching the tape, just like Barr, speed is the name of the game for Dee Ford. Especially on the plays where he is standing on the edge, speed is the best attribute of Ford’s and it looks to be getting better at the Senior Bowl and with his weight loss. He is able to beat tackles to the outside with his quick first step, and he has good finesse to work around the lineman if he does get stuff. The power looked to be a little lacking, but as I said, speed is the best part of his pass rushing traits. After watching him on tape I am convinced that he can be an effective pass rushing OLB.
The positional change limits Ford to being an OLB in a 3-4 defense, I have not seen him drop back in coverage often and I think that would prevent him from becoming a 4-3 linebacker, but at the end of the day, pass rushers are valued by pretty much any team. We will have to see if he ends up as a situational pass rusher or if he is able to become a 3 down linebacker. He has showcased a willingness to work and adaptability to change, so anything is possible for him, but at the end of the day Ford is going to be drafted to be a pass rusher, most likely in the second round.
Final Decision: 2nd Round
#5. Kyle Van Noy, Brigham Young University (BYU)
Height: 6’3, Weight: 243 lbs.
2013 Stats: 67 Tackles, 17.0 TFL, 4.0 Sacks
NFL Combine: 4.71 40-yard Dash, 21 Reps Bench Press
Coming into this season, Van Noy was a highly touted prospect, right up next to Anthony Barr. The difference is that where Barr repeated his impressive season, Van Noy did not. After totaling 13.0 sacks and 6 forced fumbles, Van Noy registered just 4.0 sacks and 0 forced fumbles. On the plus side he repeated the 2 INTs and 7 pass deflections, but his pass rushing numbers took a major tumble, which is the reason most people are not talking about Van Noy being more of a Day 2 prospect, not a first round talent as was expected a year ago.
At the Combine, Van Noy seemed a little sluggish starting the 40 yard dash, and he also looked a little sloppy when he was doing the 3-cone Drill. One other concerning element was that he appeared hesitant on some of the pass coverage drills, enhancing the perception that he is better suited to a pass rushing role rather than as a three down linebacker. However, one nice factor was that Van Noy worked well side to side and in straight shots. The biggest issue really came from watching the commands in pass coverage, which is an issue many draft pundits have highlighted.
The concerns about pass coverage are validated in watching his tape. Van Noy appears tentative, as if he is not sure what he is supposed to be doing, which is an issue. He can also run a little hot and cold, some times he is maximizing his effort, other times not so much. As far as I can tell it seems to be contingent on what he is doing. When he is pass rushing, he is confident and goes after the ball, he can make the explosive play and blow up the pocket of the running play before it has a chance to begin. But then in coverage, as I said, he just looks lost. That is something that will need to change if he wants to succeed at the next level. The base of it seems to be that Van Noy is a pass rusher in the NFL, and right now, not much else. He also struggles against the stronger offensive lineman.
Based on his limitations, most likely Van Noy is going to be drafted in the 2nd Round to be the same type of player as Dee Ford. Situational pass rusher, not capable of shouldering the NFL right away, but being useful in certain packages and hopefully being able to mature into a more complete player. 3-4 defensive scheme would probably be the best fit if a team wants Van Npy to contribute sooner rather than later, and as it stands I am not convinced that he will ever be good enough in coverage to fit a 4-3 scheme. Van Noy is a project player, one that flashed great ability a year ago, but he regressed badly this past year and teams will have to factor that into their evaluations of him.
Final Decision: 2nd Round
That does it for outside linebackers, next week I’ll evaluate inside linebackers and Wisconsin’s own Chris Borland.