There’s only a month to go before the 2008 NFL Draft and before Phillips, Hick Flick, The Baker, and I spend 14 consecutive hours watching nothing in particular happen. And I, for one, could not be more excited about it. I’d also like to welcome JB aboard the Rumors and Rants cruise ship. Since there’s five of us now, all the Anchorman pictures and references have been screwed up. So thanks for making this the last time I can use this, rook. I might go Greg Maddux in the locker room shower on you someday soon.
The NBA Draft is for fair-weather draft fans. It’s only two hours and you’ve heard of virtually every player. The NFL draft is for the die-hards, the men. And by “men,” we mean males who probably haven’t seen a female in a while because they’re so interested in two consecutive days of men sitting in a room. Can’t wait. Seriously.
This week’s muse is the linebacker position. We’ve broken it into two sections because the outside and inside linebacker positions are becoming increasingly different, requiring entirely different things from the men who play them. Still, linebackers are the do-everything guys on defense. They must play both the run and the pass and, more than anyone else, be totally aware of what’s happening. Remember, the heart and soul of the Patriots defense is its linebackers. And if the New York Giant’s linebackers weren’t so good at pass coverage, we’d never hear from their defensive line.
Some things are universal, however. Usually, the word “linebacker” brings to mind pictures of Ray Nitschke and those old-school bruisers. Not anymore. Speed is an absolute must, maybe even more than the ubiquitous size requirements. Outside linebackers in the 3-4 must essentially be freaks of nature: huge enough to take on an offensive tackle and fast enough to cover a running back or even a slot receiver. Inside linebackers must be big enough to deal with interior linemen, fullbacks, and running backs all running full speed at them. It’s a vital, brutal position to play.
Without further ado, the best of the 2008 linebacker draft class:
1) Keith Rivers – Southern California
6’2″ 241 lbs, 4.59
He hasn’t actually run a 40-yard dash for scouts yet, but when he does, he’ll probably be plenty fast to be the first linebacker taken this year. Rivers is another one of those physically freakish linebackers that’ll probably be better in the NFL than they even were in college. I swear Phillips didn’t make me write that.
For the record, with all the NFL talent on USC this past season, how did anyone score? Very disappointing. I blame Pete Carroll. Because I can, that’s why.
2) Xavier Adibi - Virginia Tech
6’1″ 232 lbs, 4.69
I don’t know that much about Xavier Adibi because Virginia Tech football is often unwatchable, but I do know he’s the other of the possible first round picks this season. He’s a little undersized for outside linebackers these days, but I’m the first guy to say how ridiculous the obsession with size is. Good football players are good football players.
3) Erin Henderson - Maryland
6’2″ 244 lbs, 4.73
His brother EJ is one of the best linebackers in the league, which is enough of a problem for him. Being the “little brother” is never a good thing. He’s also leaving Maryland a year early, which makes me nervous too because the scouts say his technique isn’t as good as it could be. Maryland keeps churning out these athletic players, though, and Henderson is another one of them.
4) Marcus Howard - Georgia
6’1″ 237 lbs, 4.45
Is the fast-riser at the outside linebacker position. He couldn’t be anything else because he played defensive end for Georgia last season. He’s obviously too small for that in the NFL, so he’s made the switch. All the 3-4 teams are drooling over him because of his speed and athleticism. He’s like a big bear, man, and he’s got these big f**king claws, but he’s just kind of batting the bunny around.
5) Geno Hayes – Florida State
6’0″ 226 lbs, 4.64
I remember the days when I would just assume the player from Florida State is one of the best athletes at whatever position they played. Well, except quarterback. It’s still sort of true, though, just not as often. But now, they’re just the guys who are most likely to have been arrested, and Geno Hayes is definitely one of those. His legal issues have been resolved (and not just by the police who tazed him) and he’s ready for the NFL (a year early). I still have him at number five, so that means he’s GOT to be pretty good, right? Yuck.
6) Bruce Davis – UCLA
6’2″ 252 lbs, 4.78
I can honestly say I have no idea why Scouts Inc says Davis doesn’t have the bulk to play outside linebacker in the NFL. He’s 252 freaking pounds! And he’s not even that slow! The biggest problem with Davis is his transition from defensive end to linebacker. Not that it matters in the 3-4 these days. As long as a guy can rush the passer, teams are willing to let a guy develop everything else.
7) Ali Highsmith – Louisiana State
6’0″ 230 lbs, 4.95
If Marcus Howard is the fast-riser, then Highsmith is the fast-dropper. He ran a terrible 40-yard dash at the Combine. Lots of guys do that, but the problem for Highsmith is that he’s undersized. He’d been so good in college, that most people were surprised he didn’t perform better. He may have been injured, but who knows.
8) Shawn Crable – Michigan
6’4″ 245 lbs, 4.64
I didn’t know where else to put him, so Crable is an OLB prospect this year. He actually had both a D-line and Linebacker shirt at the Combine. He’s big, athletic, and versatile. It’s just that teams don’t know quite where to play him. He’s probably too small to be a defensive end full-time, but as a 3-4 linebacker, he’ll still have to develop a lot of his skills. He’s a project, but a deeper team could definitely take a flier. Personally, I’m wary of him because of all the other issues players from Michigan are having with the draft this year. I just can’t get behind a Michigan player in the draft these days.
1) Dan Connor – Pennsylvania State
6’2″ 231 lbs, 4.67
There are two kinds of linebackers: the kind that blow you away with their skills and athleticism, and the kind, like Dan Connor, that just make plays. He’s not as big or fast as other guys, but he will play with discipline, intelligence, and skill at middle linebacker. By the way, he has some “character issues” off the field. What’s going on at Penn State these days? They’re like a boring Florida State. Some one needs to make it rain in State College, PA. Soon.
2) Curtis Lofton – Oklahoma
6’0″ 246 lbs, 4.78
I love guys that are “pure football players” and Lofton is one of those guys, only he has some real skill. He was Big XII defensive player of the year and had 157 tackles in 14 games…as a junior. Not too freaking bad. I guess he had to leave school because it’s not like he was going to top 2007 during his senior year. Some one is going to get a real steal when they take Lofton late in the first round or in the second round. Probably the Patriots. Bastards.
3) Tavares Gooden – “Tha U”
6’1″ 234 lbs, 4.62
Remember when pretty much the entire 2002 Hurricanes defense ended up in the NFL? Not so much anymore, but they’re still producing some good athletes every year. Gooden is one of them. At Miami’s pro day, he ran in the high 4.4’s in the 40-yard dash, so that 4.62 may have been a little on the slow side compared to his actual speed. Calais Campbell will get more press, but Tavares Gooden is a solid player.
4) Philip Wheeler – Georgia Tech
6’1″ 248 lbs, 4.67
I do love how everyone projects what schemes players will fit best into these days. Wheeler would probably be best as a middle linebacker in a Tampa 2 scheme. So that’s good to know.
It’s crazy, how much stability NFL teams need to have in order to draft and operate properly. They need the same scheme and same coaches year after year after year or the players just get confused when they switch schemes and suddenly have the wrong personnel. And yet so many NFL teams practically go out of their way to be unstable, despite overwhelming evidence that stability is what matters in the NFL. Crazy.
5) Ben Moffitt – South Florida
6’0″ 234 lbs, 4.59
Here at the end of the list, I’m putting two guys that were the absolute heart and soul of their respective defenses in 2007. Ben Moffitt was one of the top reasons USF managed to have a breakout 2007 season. He was everywhere on the field during the season and made so many huge plays for the Bulls last season.
I also hate the “overachiever” term that gets applied to prospects. They guy made a ton of plays all season, so there’s got to be something he does well. I’d also like to point out that Moffitt did very well at the Combine and USF’s pro day, so he wasn’t just an effort player. Besides, I thought the point was that teams wanted guys that made tons and tons of plays and gave their all on the field. Freaking NFL.
6) Jeremy Leman – Illinois
6’1″ 245 lbs, 4.82
My other effort player. Leman was even more the heart and soul of the Illinois defense than Moffitt was for USF. Illinois goes nowhere without Rashard Mendenhall and J Leman in 2007. They definitely would never have been able to get their asses kicked by USC in the Rose Bowl without those guys. Leman’s 40 was a little on the slow side, but he’s another guy that knows exactly what to do on the field. I hate how guys like that get discounted because they don’t have the measurables other guys have. Watch for Leman to show up on special teams for some one and make a huge splash at some point down the road.