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Friday, July 1, 2011

Taking an early look at the 2012 Draft Class: Linebackers

Two beach vacations to Destin, Florida and Galveston, Texas, as well as a 2011 Mavericks NBA Finals championship have passed for me this summer since the 2011 NFL Draft occurred last April. As is the case with most associated with the NFL Draft in some capacity, May and June serve as hiatus for the weary. Albeit the best scouts never stop evaluating year round, last season in fact was my first year truly on the job. I enjoyed talking and working with football enthusiasts from across the U.S. and even Europe, made many contacts, and hope to continue learning from those who have much more experience than I do.

Over the past month however, work presented itself to me, as I was hired as Head Central scout by Eric Galko who operates and manages Optimum Scouting. Optimum Scouting provides 3rd party scouting work for professional teams and agents, as well as players looking for self evaluation. My short lived trip down to San Antonio, Texas for the "Texas vs. the Nation" game (which was ended after 2 days due to my being very sick), provided much needed notoriety for The3-4. It was at this time I had the opportunity to get to know Bill Carroll, who works with Consensus Draft Services and runs his own NFL Draft prospect radio show. He along with Eric Galko, began contacting me on my notes and evaluations from the practices I attended. From there on, I stayed in contact with the two, appearing frequently on Bill's show and now working with Eric.

So without further adieu, I'm going to briefly talk about some linebacker prospects I had the chance to look at this summer; given these are not simply the top linebackers, just guys that I have taken a good hard look at.

Tank Carder, Senior, OLB, TCU, 6'2 237 lbs
Turning in one of the most spectacular games during the 2011 BCS bowl series (6 tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, and 1 sack), Carder provided the game sealing swat at the line of scrimmage to keep Wisconsin from converting a 2 point conversion and allow the Horned Frogs to win the prestigious Rose Bowl.

As a prospect, Carder plays with an enormous amount of intensity and really flies to the football. Although he is a fluid and explosive athlete, Carder chooses to avoid or run underneath blocks. This often results in bad run fits, open running lanes, and big plays for the opposing offense. He needs to play with more gap integrity and attack blocks head on.

Tank has great range, able to gain depth on hook-to-curl zones with ease and run sideline to sideline for tackles. His instincts and quick twitch athleticism are excellent, and his best attribute could very well be his pass rush ability. Tank explodes through sacks with great hitting power, has good change of direction skills, acceleration, and a great first step to avoid blockers.

The biggest area of correction could come with improved footwork, as Carder hops far too often immediately following the snap. An easy switch to making a simple read step based on the immediate read could alleviate late play recognitions. Hopping gets Carder off balance and out of position, leaving his gap responsibility open as a running lane. A slight concern is Tank's pad level in pass drops, however  that is not as big a worry.

All in all, Carder could see himself in the top tier of the 2012 draft class, and looks to follow Texas native Von Miller as the next great linebacker to enter the NFL Draft.

Dont'a Hightower, Junior, ILB, Alabama, 6'4 255 lbs
A not so distant 3 years ago, Dont'a Hightower burst onto the national scene with a dominant freshman season that seemed to precursor a historic playing career at Alabama. Hightower started all but 2 of Alabama's 14 games, playing in all of them, and totaled 64 tackles, 26 of which were solo. Bama's following season which resulted in a BCS victory over Texas for the national championship was a different story for Hightower, who tore his ACL after making just 4 starts.

Bringing us to last season, in which Hightower slowly but surely evidenced signs of a complete recovery from injury. Much the opposite of Tank Carder, Hightower showed a willingness to attack oncoming blockers downhill; he did a solid job of punching the blocker, locking his arms out, and shedding to make a tackle. The strength of Hightower can be seen by how he gets a good jolt on lineman with heavy hands. Very active along the front seven, Hightower makes a number of calls, adjustments, and audibles at the line of scrimmage, and generally is very active in pre snap movement.

Reminiscent of last years' athletic Martez Wilson, Hightower also has shown effectiveness lining up with his hand in the dirt. An explosive pass rusher with good burst off the line, Dont'a has the size and strength to transition to a 3-4 OLB position if an NFL team wanted to go that direction. That being said, Hightower is most dynamic as a player blitzing from the inside linebacker position.

Dont'a Hightower's motor runs "hot and cold", taking off snaps or giving up on plays altogether. Lateral movement and agility is in question, as he is slow coming out of transitions. Similar to Carder above, Hightower also struggles with false steps and misreads. Dont'a needs to be more consistent in scraping down the line of scrimmage with his shoulders squared, and while scraping, Hightower tends to give up ground, struggling in pursuit as whole.

Overall, Hightower is incredibly gifted with a lot of experience for a junior. I expect another strong season and anticipate his declaring for the 2012 draft, withstanding a terrible or injury plagued season.

Nigel Bradham, Senior, OLB, 6'2 240 lbs
Regarded as the best pure athlete in his recruiting class, Nigel Bradham came to FSU with high expectations. To no surprise, Bradham has been very productive and, to some extent, dominant his 3 year playing time; already tallying more than 90 tackles in 2 seasons, both of which were his previous 2.

Bradham possesses highlight reel playmaking ability, tremendous hitting power, and explosive athleticism. Has great size, build, weight, and strength to play and be dominant even at the NFL level.

The most impressive part of Bradham's skillset is his ability to keep a nice low center of gravity in pass drops, transitioning well for his size, and close quickly on receivers in his zone area; he also does a good job of dislodging the football and breaking passes.

Unfortunately, there were much more constructive criticisms than compliments in my evaluation. Bradham leaves his feet early on a majority of tackle opportunities. Not only that, but Nigel simply seems to struggle in space at times, lacking fluiditiy as an athlete and even lacking top end speed. He doesn't take proper angles in pursuit, and has no understanding on how to properly attack an oncoming blocker with his hands. Worst of all, Bradham lacks great instincts and play recognition, 2 of the most important traits as a linebacker wanting to extend his playing days to the NFL level.

As a whole, inconsistency is what hurts Bradham the most. I love his size, strength, explosion, and high caliber athleticism, but instincts and recognition need vast improvement. At this point I see him as a late 3rd to 4th round player, however with a strong season and what I expect will be monstrous pre draft workout numbers, Bradham could easily climb up into the top 100 prospects in the 2012 draft class.

Travis Lewis, Senior, OLB, Oklahoma, 6'2 230 lbs
Career tackles leader currently active in the Big 12, Travis Lewis has been the pinnacle of production for the Oklahoma Sooners with over 100 tackles in each of his 3 seasons, totaling over 360 career tackles, and including a 144 tackle freshman season. Lewis was a surprise non-draft declare this past spring in what seemed to be a down year for linebackers, and now is an early candidate for being a 1st round draftee in 2012.

Lewis is an instinctive player with a knack for finding the football. A chase tackler who doesnt miss many tackles, Lewis navigates well through traffic and trash; a very good pursuer of the football. Travis Lewis shows the ability to break down in space and make difficult open field/ alley tackles and is an ideal will linebacker in a 4-3 scheme.

Trusts his instincts and feel to a fault; needs to more consistently read his keys (tackle, guard, or center through to the tailback) in order to diagnose play more quickly. Plays with his eyes in the backfield far too often, and as a result struggles on play-action, draws, and misdirection. Another issue that will arise, is Lewis' tendency to leave his feet to make tackles; he attempts way too many arm tackles causing a lack of solid hitting power and pop.

Very similar to Tank Carder in taking too many false steps- hopping too much. Very inconsistent and poor at making run fits and taking on blocks. Struggles to stack and shed blocks; will be overpowered at point of attack when it comes to offensive linemen.

I personally do not see a 1st round linebacker in Lewis, however I still feel he will be one of the more consistent players coming out of this draft class. Lower ceiling, lower floor, safer pick by way of production and consistency.

Manti Te'o, Junior, ILB, Notre Dame, 6'2 255 lbs
Speaking of highly touted recruits, Manti Te'o is widely considered the most regarded most decorated incoming recruit in Notre Dame history. 2008 high school athlete of the year award recipient by Sporting News, and defensive player of the year as voted by USA Today, Te'o has loads of talent and ability. As an Irishman, Te'o has racked up close to 200 tackles in just 2 seasons. Finished in the top 20 in the FBS for tackles per game (10.23), total tackles (133), and assisted tackles (67).

In evaluating Te'o as a pro prospect, I found him to be sound with his footwork, excellent in his run fits, and brutally powerful as a hitter. Te'o digs through trash well, shows good play recognition, and just has a nose for the football. He gives a tremendous amount of effort, and isn't afraid to give up his body in order to take out a lead blocker. Manti takes good angles to the ball carrier, and wraps up very well.

What Te'o must work on, is his pass coverage drops and getting his eyes to incoming receivers to his zone. As a zone coverage defender, he tries to read the QB's eyes too often leaving him out of position.

All around excellent linebacker that can outrun blockers, fill running lanes, and make plays; Te'o is strong at the point of attack, an explosive tackler, and instinctual player. One of the consensus "top guns" so to speak on this linebacking corps; Te'o looks to improve on his already gaudy production and solidify his argument as a first round worthy draft pick.

Lavonte David, Senior, OLB, 6'1 220 lbs
My last and final linebacker to discuss, Lavonte David is my personal favorite from this class. David, exploded onto the scene last season with a Nebraska single season tackle record of 152 tackles; this coming on the heels of his transfer from JUCO powerhouse Fort Scott Community College. Despite being considered undersized and not recruited heavily because of it, David made himself known as one of the best tackling linebackers in the nation in 2010.

David has the best pursuit and flow instincts of any linebacker I have seen from the 2012 draft eligible players. Lavonte is a very aggressive player who works hard to wrap up; looks the part of a strong safety but has the mentality of a linebacker. Constantly around the football, David displays high play recognition and is a tackle machine.

His elite lateral agility, incredible stop and go ability, as well as his closing speed to the ball carrier, are some of the things that I believe truly set Lavonte David apart from the rest of the class. David's recovery speed is exceptional, and he sees and fills holes faster than running backs; again, evidencing his superb instincts and strong feel for the game. He hardly ever misses a tackle, wraps up tight, and has much more hitting explosiveness than one would imagine. Maintains good pad leverage, perfect tackling form, and high run gap integrity. Fundamentally sound player with his feet, light and reacting quickly to what he sees. David outruns blockers to the edge on sweep or stretch plays and does very solid job of breaking down on the football. Avoids blocks by either sidestepping, or dipping and ripping through. Lavonte also provides a pass rush threat to complement his skill set; most effective as a middle stunt blitzer, utilizing his rare closing speed and acceleration to disrupt the passing pocket.

The biggest knock on David will be his safety-like stature and build, however in a quarterback driven NFL, teams have begun to place increased emphasis on nickel and pass defense packages. Lavonte David provides flexibility as a linebacker because he can play as an OLB in 4-3, and kick inside to MLB in nickel downs in order to keep a box defender who can defend both run and pass equally.

I will continue writing for The3-4 this season and look forward to more viewer responses

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