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Rookie Report - Linebackers

  1. OLB Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs (Texas), 1.15
    Overview: Johnson may be a better athlete than any linebacker to enter the draft since LaVar Arrington. He has great size (6'3", 240), elite speed (ran a 4.5 40), and a knack for making big plays (had NCAA-record 9 forced fumbles in 2004). Johnson was named 1st team All-Big 12 the past 3 years, and also received the Nagurski Award (best defender) and Butkus Award (best linebacker) for his amazing senior season. He's a great all around linebacker who wraps up well when tackling, has great timing and closing speed when blitzing, and can also drop and stick with RBs and WRs in coverage. He slipped in the draft due to some concerns about his ability to shed blocks, and his tendency to freelance a bit too frequently. Johnson's upside is practically unlimited and he could play either OLB spot in a 4-3, but he'd be a better fit on the weakside where he would be less likely to get caught up in traffic and could take full advantage of his speed. If he plays on the strongside, he'll be able to cover any of the quicker tight ends in the league, but he'll need to get stronger to anchor against the run. In the right system, Johnson could become one of best fantasy linebackers in the game and could wind up in the same class as guys like Takeo Spikes and Derrick Brooks.
    Fantasy Outlook: Johnson was once considered almost a lock to be a top-5 pick in the draft, but he slid when coaches began questioning his toughness and willingness to take on blockers. Hard to argue with his production and playmaking though, and he should be a great addition to a defense that may be ready to turn the corner this year. The Chiefs linebacker positions are unsettled at the moment, but Johnson is too good to be kept on the bench. We expect him to eventually take over the starting WLB spot, but he may be used at SLB early on in his career to take advantage of his cover skills.


  2. ILB Odell Thurman, Cincinnati Bengals (Georgia), 2.16
    Overview: Odell Thurman was a second round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals and brings with him a reputation as a hard-hitting aggressive player with some character issues. He was a two-year starter for the Georgia Bulldogs and came out after his junior season. He was 1st-team All-SEC both his sophomore and junior seasons despite missing the first three games last year for violating team rules. He's very quick for a LB, as well as fast, and has excellent athleticism. He excels at rushing the passer and has the lower body strength that makes him effective in taking on blocks and shedding them. He's a sideline to sideline terror for ball carriers and he takes good angles on plays. Although some think he's a bit undersized, there have been comparisons to Ray Lewis. He's a read, run and attack kind of linebacker who explodes on contact. He's a natural wrap-up tackler with good instincts and mechanics. There is room for improvement in his coverage skills, especially in zone coverage.
    Fantasy Outlook: Thurman enters camp as the backup to Landon Johnson in the middle. Johnson shined last year as a rookie and has excellent speed. He's a smart player with obviously more experience and knowledge of the Bengals defensive schemes, but he's also recovering from offseason arthroscopic shoulder surgery. Thurman's character concerns are lessened because of the fact that he'll be playing under Marvin Lewis, and we believe he is simply too talented for the Bengals to let sit on the bench. Even if Lewis decides to start Johnson, it's reasonable to think that he finds a place for Thurman somewhere. The only sure thing at LB right now is Brian Simmons on the weakside.


  3. ILB Barrett Ruud, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Nebraska), 2.04
    Overview: Ruud is a smart, intense linebacker who was super productive and had no trouble adjusting to four different defensive coordinators during his time at Nebraska. His father was a 1st round pick of the Bills in 1975, so he certainly has NFL bloodlines. Was a 3-year starter in college, where he set a school record for tackles as a junior and led the conference in tackles as a senior. Has great instincts and has been described as a coach on the field. He's the type of player that will give full effort on every play, and never stops working until the whistle. He is a solid wrap up tackler, but not necessarily a bit hitter and some scouts have questioned whether he can handle the physical nature of the MLB spot. He uses his hands well to disengage from blockers, and has good enough speed (4.75 40) and athletic ability to drop in coverage on most RBs and TEs. Ruud is slightly undersized to be the prototypical MLB, but he makes up for that with all of his intangibles. He is a safe player and is versatile enough to play at any LB position in the pros.
    Fantasy Outlook: Ruud fills a need for the Bucs as their linebacking group is getting up in age. He's expected to be the eventual replacement for Shelton Quarles at MLB, who recently took a pay cut to stay with the team. Quarles has spent his entire career with the Bucs, but he's missed 6 games over the past 2 years and at 34 years old, he may not have much more than a year or two left. Ruud is a perfect fit for Monte Kiffin's defense that focuses heavily on speed and requires a MLB who is comfortable dropping into coverage. While he waits for his opportunity to man the middle, Ruud will compete for playing time on the strongside with Ryan Nece.


  4. ILB Channing Crowder, Miami Dolphins (Florida), 3.06
    Overview: Crowder was rated by many scouts to be the most talented inside linebacker in this draft class. He has ideal size (6'2", 252), speed (4.7 40), and strength for a middle linebacker and is capable of dominating games when he plays. His father was an NFL defensive lineman so he has the pedigree, and he was named 1st-team All SEC in 2004 despite missing several games to injury. He is a very intense and physical player on the field who has a tendency to talk trash to other players, but has the game to back it up. Crowder does a good job shedding blockers to make plays, has great range to cut off running plays to the outside, and can also contribute as a blitzer. Crowder could very easily become the best linebacker out of this draft class at some point, but he fell in the draft due to concerns about his durability and character. He's had major injuries to both knees, including 3 different ACL surgeries on his right knee since high school, which could wind up shortening his career. He's also been arrested several times while in college, which has raised questions about his maturity level considering he left school after just his sophomore season. The talent is certainly there for him to become an impact player as a pro, but there is also plenty of risk that he won't get a chance to show it.
    Fantasy Outlook: The Dolphins have done a good job of getting younger at the linebacker position over the past couple years. Junior Seau is probably entering his last season as a pro, and Zach Thomas will turn 32 years old in September. Crowder is versatile enough to play any LB position, but will likely start out by competing with newly signed Donnie Spragan for playing time on the strong side. He is a possible candidate to replace Seau at WLB next year, and may also be the heir apparent to Thomas as well. If he stays healthy and out of trouble, the Dolphins will have a hard time keeping him off the field.


  5. OLB Shawne Merriman, San Diego Chargers (Maryland), 1.12
    Overview: Merriman is projected to play as an edge rush linebacker with the Chargers, but he can play at DE as well. He's a very intense, very explosive player who hits about as hard as they come. He loves to be turned loose (almost to a fault as he tends to freelance too much) and make plays in the open field where he can take advantage of his great range and speed. Merriman plays with a notorious mean streak and is very relentless until the whistle is blown. He's got a great first step and anticipates the snap effectively, although he sometimes will take himself out of the play as a result. Is a wonderful athlete who was also a high school basketball star, averaging 16 rebounds a game. There is room for improvement in his coverage skills, and he'll need to work on that as he adjusts to his new position.
    Fantasy Outlook: The Chargers have a big need for pass rushing help, as they were third worst in the NFL in sacks in 2004, and Merriman should fit in very nicely in that regard. The curious situation right now is that Merriman might hold out because he's worried about getting injured prior to signing a contract. However this works out though, holding out for Merriman is not the same as when Philip Rivers held out in 2004, as LBs (especially pass rushing ones) do not have the same kinds of learning responsibility that a QB does. It is possible that Merriman might not start at the beginning of the season, but he'll see plenty of time, especially on passing downs. There also remains the possibility of Merriman seeing time on the field as a DE. Anyway you look at it, Merriman is an exciting player on the field and should obtain solid tackle and sack numbers as a rookie.


  6. Lofa Tatupu, Seattle Seahawks (USC), 2.13
    Overview: It was fashionable in the wake of the recent draft for pundits to criticize the Tatupu pick as a multi-round reach. Yet clearly the Seahawks saw something in the former point-man for the USC two-time National Champion defense that others didn't. They gave up two fourth rounders to move up nine spots just past the middle of round two. What was it the Seattle personnel gurus saw, and why did so many other scouting departments overlook him? To answer the latter question, look no further than his measurables. In this respect he is a lot like Dolphins MLB Zach Thomas, who is a failure as a physical specimen and workout warrior but a spectacular success as a football player. The Seahawks appreciated his productivity (led the Trojans in tackles his last two seasons), but also liked his background as a former star prep QB which gives him an advantage in terms of his understanding of offenses and ability to diagnose plays. DT Shaun Cody noted that he was calling out all of Oklahoma's plays before the snap in the Orange Bowl blowout (he led the team in tackles with 12).
    Fantasy Outlook: From the high price paid by the front office and coaching staff, Tatupu is expected to be given every opportunity to win the starting job in camp (he was already running with the first team defense in mini-camp). If so, he has the hidden and inner qualities to be a star at the next level, if not the obvious external traits of more heralded LBs Derrick Johnson, Barrett Ruud, and Odell Thurman. It is hard to overstate how much of an equalizer those inner qualities can be. In the end, possession or lack of these hidden qualities could play the biggest role and be the largest determinant in how this class ultimately shakes out.


  7. David Pollack, Cincinnati Bengals (Georgia), 1.17
    Overview: Started 4 games at defensive tackle as a true freshman before moving to defensive end as a sophomore. During his sophomore season, he led the SEC in tackles for loss and QB pressures and finished with 14 sacks, earning 1st team All-America honors and SEC defensive player of the year. He bulked up to 280 pounds as a junior and wasn't quite as effective (7.5 sacks) due to constant double teaming, but still earned the Ted Hendricks award as the nation's best defensive end. He returned to form as a senior with a 12.5 sack season and repeated as 1st team All-American and SEC defensive player of the year, while also winning the Lombardi Award as the nation's best lineman and the Bednarik Award as the nation's best defensive player. Few players enter the league as highly decorated as Pollack, but he fell a bit on draft day because of concerns about what his natural position would be. He has short arms and was considered by some to be too small (6'2", 265") to be an everydown DE. As a 4-year starter, Pollack is fundamentally sound, strong against the run, and is relentless in pursuit. While he doesn't have explosive speed around the edge, he is an extremely hard worker with a great motor who will always get the most out of his abilities.
    Fantasy Outlook: The Bengals focused heavily on defense in this year's draft, adding Pollack in the 1st and Thurman in the 2nd. Their plan is to convert him to an outside linebacker, where he should compete with Landon Johnson for the starting SLB job. Pollack was dropped on the depth chart after a lengthy holdout and will need some time to adjust to playing in space, but should be able to contribute as a pass rusher early on. Justin Smith has been moved over to the LDE spot this year, which could allow the Bengals to overload one side of the line with their best two pass rushers and create some favorable matchups for both.


  8. Lance Mitchell, Arizona Cardinals (Oklahoma), 5.05
    Overview: He is a former RB who ran for over 3000 yards and 36 TDs as a senior in high school. Mitchell originally signed with Florida but was forced to attend junior college due to academic reasons and wound up leading the City College of San Francisco to a 24-0 record over two seasons. After transferring to Oklahoma, Mitchell became one of the better linebacker prospects in the country when he led the Sooners in tackles (124) tackles for a loss (19), and forced fumbles (4), while also contributing 3 sacks. Unfortunately, he suffered a torn ACL in the third game of the 2003 season. He started every game at MLB in 2004 and was named 1st team All-Big 12, but he wasn't nearly as dominant as he had been before and his draft stock dropped considerably. Mitchell possesses natural LB instincts and has ideal size (6'2", 247lbs) to play MLB in the pros. He is a tough player who does an excellent job of shedding blockers, and shows above average skills in coverage which suggests he could become an everydown LB in the pros.
    Fantasy Outlook: Mitchell will be two years removed from his knee injury this year and may get a chance to compete for a starting job early on. If he can regain the burst and speed he showed in 2002, he could wind up as one of the best values in the draft. Gerald Hayes was expected to start the season on the inside but a training camp injury put those plans on hold for 8 weeks. While that initially looked like a great opportunity for Mitchell to take over, the Cardinals wanted a MLB with more experience and decided to move James Darling back inside for the time being. Mitchell will have to earn his playing time, but could be a special player once he gets a chance.


  9. Kevin Burnett, Dallas Cowboys (Tennessee), 2.10
    Overview: Burnett came to Tennessee as a safety but was converted to linebacker midway through his freshman year. Just as he was beginning to emerge as one of their best defenders, he suffered a torn ACL in the 2002 season opener. Returned in 2003 as the team captain and started 25 of 26 games over his last two seasons, earning 1st team All-SEC honors as a senior. Burnett has the size (6'2", 240lbs) to play any LB position in the pros, along with the range and athletic ability to make plays all over the field. Some scouts have reported that he lacks great instincts and recognition skills, but as a former safety, he should be able to contribute in nickel packages.
    Fantasy Outlook: Seems ideally suited to play on the weakside of the formation where he can operate in space and take full advantage of his speed. He began camp as the backup to Al Singleton at the ROLB position, but should emerge as the starter there once he gets some experience and gains the trust of the coaching staff. He should also get some playing time early on as part of the team's nickel package.


  10. ILB Kirk Morrison, Oakland Raiders (San Diego St), 3.14
    Overview: 4-year starter who earned 1st team All-Mountain West honors three times. Was hugely productive MLB in college who recorded 327 tackles over his last three years and was twice named conference defensive player of the year. Morrison is a physical tackler who does a good job of reading and reacting to the play, but he is inconsistent at shedding blockers and doesn't add much as a pass rusher. While he has the range to make plays from sideline to sideline, he struggles in man coverage and may not be more than a 2-down linebacker in the pros. Hard worker who puts in extra time studying film and demonstrated leadership ability by calling all the defensive plays in college. Grew up a Raiders fan in the Oakland area and really helped his draft stock with a strong performance in the Senior Bowl while he was being coached by Norv Turner and the Raiders staff.
    Fantasy Outlook: It remains somewhat unclear if the Raiders will continue to use the 3-4 as their base defense after they struggled with it last year. When they do use a 3-4 front, however, Morrison should be in the mix for the starting ILB spot opposite Danny Clark. Halfway through the preseason, the only person ahead of him on the depth chart was career backup Tim Johnson.


Others

  • OLB Dan Cody, Baltimore Ravens (Oklahoma), 2.21 - Explosive pass rusher will be moved from DE to OLB, but suffered season ending injury in minicamp


  • ILB Robert McCune, Washington Redskins (Louisville), 5.18 - Could compete for playing time at MLB


  • OLB Matt McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles (San Diego St), 2.31 - Playmaking WLB whose stock rose quickly leading up to draft day


  • OLB Darryl Blackstock, Arizona Cardinals (Virginia), 3.31 - Pass rush specialist


  • ILB Alfred Fincher, New Orleans Saints (Connecticut), 3.18 - Overachiever could be a nice sleeper for the Saints


  • ILB Leroy Hill, Seattle Seahawks (Clemson), 3.34 - Quick linebacker who can pressure opposing QBs


  • ILB James Grigsby, Kansas City Chiefs (Illinois St), 5.02 - Short but strong backup MLB


  • ILB Adam Seward, Carolina Panthers (UNLV), 5.13 - MLB who is great run defender


  • ILB Rian Wallace, Pittsburgh Steelers (Temple), 5.30 - Steelers will move him inside to backup Farrior and Foote


  • OLB Ryan Claridge, New England Patriots (UNLV), 5.34 - Versatile player who will likely contribute on special teams


  • OLB Jordan Beck, Atlanta Falcons (Cal Poly), 3.26 - Smart player and great athlete, but needs time to develop


  • OLB Michael Boley, Atlanta Falcons (Southern Miss), 5.24 - Good athlete, but lacks natural LB instincts


  • OLB Cornelius Wortham, Seattle Seahawks (Alabama), 7.21 - Solid backup who struggles in coverage


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