It seemed like a decade ago middle linebacker was a term that referred to the “Mike” linebacker in a 4-3. Now though, with the re-proliferation of the 3-4, it refers as much to inside backers as it does the traditional 4-3 middle. The Bucs still play mostly a 4-3 style of defense derived from the original Tampa-2.
In recent years Barrett Ruud has come under increased scrutiny in the middle of the Bucs’ defense. His contract status is currently uncertain and the draft will probably serve as a clear indication as to where the Bucs stand in regard to Ruud’s status with the team. This isn’t a particularly deep year for the inside linebackers, but the Bucs could use that to their advantage, signing Ruud to a one or two year extension while bringing along a 2-3rd round ‘backer in the meantime. There are no first round prospects and I doubt the Bucs take a middle-backer early, but I do think by the 4th round they’ll have selected one.
Here are the top Inside Linebackers in the 2011 Draft:
1.) Martez Wilson, Illinois - Wilson is a very athletic linebacker, at times in college that allowed him to skate by though. His measurables are amazing, 6’4-250 with a 4.42-40. He’s more than capable of playing the pass and is adequate against the run. A very good tackler due to his length and speed, he’s going to need to add bulk and strength at the NFL level to stack up to blocks better and corral some of the bigger ball-carriers in the league. Has all the tools but needs to develop more in many phases of his game before he reaches his potential. Lacks great instincts and isn’t the most well-prepared player, only began watching film in earnest before the 2010 season. Had a “wake-up” moment after being stabbed coming to the aid of a teammate outside a bar in 2008, recommitted to football and academics afterwards.
2.) Colin McCarthy, Miami (FL) - Colin McCarthy is a very instinctual, high-motor player at middle linebacker. Definitely more adept at stopping the run than covering the pass, he is relentless at the point of attack and manages to fight off most blocks with quickness and deceptive strength. Not amongst the most athletically gifted of the linebackers in the 2011 class, McCarthy more than makes up for it with passion and tenacity. One of the best tacklers in the draft, is aggressive and wraps up well, almost seems to relish the contact. Also capable of delivering the big hit from time to time. Can contribute immediately on special teams and will develop into a good linebacker. Does have a history with injuries though some of that can be attributed to bad luck (car accident, slipping on wet turf, etc…). McCarthy would actually be a pretty good fit for Tampa if he could improve his coverage skills.
3.) Quan Sturdivant, UNC - Sturdivant is a good mixture of athleticism and intelligence. A decorated high school quarterback, Sturdivant graduated early to enroll at UNC in the spring and begin his transition to linebacker under the auspices of the Tar Heel coaching staff. Work ethic is not a question with Sturdivant. Can be too aggressive at times and has a tendency to over-run plays, still manages to post prolific tackle numbers though. Above average against the run but needs to develop better upper body strength for the NFL. Very effective in pass coverage, athletic enough to cover most tight ends and has very high understanding of passing game due to his time as a quarterback. Was arrested in July 2010 for marijuana possession.
4.) Greg Jones, Michigan St. - If Jones were a couple inches taller he’d potentially be a first rounder. Jones is a very smart, instinctual player who is high-character and high-effort. Voted a captain by his teammates, he was also the team’s defensive MVP and unquestioned leader, whether it was on the practice field, film study or the weight-room. Jones is a highly effective run-stopper and has the athleticism to cover tight ends and backs in the passing game. Does struggle sometime with larger players, also tends to be over-aggressive and can take himself out of plays. Is an effective blitzer, anticipates snap-count and explodes through the gap. Never missed a game in four years.
5.) Kelvin Sheppard, LSU - Sheppard is a very talented cover linebacker and will probably be able to find work in some team’s nickel package or possibly even on the outside in a 4-3, but he’s probably not going to be an NFL starter. Excels against the pass, capable of covering almost any back or tight end but will occasionally get caught flat-footed, looking into the backfield. Has good speed off the edge and is a very reliable tackler, but he lacks the strength to take on linemen in the middle and will need to add upper-body strength at the NFL level. Will be able to contribute immediately on special teams.
Best of the Rest:
6.) Nate Irving, NC State - First team All-ACC in 2010 and a semifinalist for the Butkus award. Had 20.5 tackles for loss his senior year and 39.5 for his career. Not flashy, but has a definite knack for making the play.
7.) Casey Matthews, Oregon - Matthews comes from great bloodlines and posted good stats in college but comes from a system that had him blitzing the majority of the time. He’s a player that’s good at everything but not great at anything, has work ethic to be successful though.
8.) Josh Bynes, Auburn - Bynes is a thumper, and has great quickness in close proximity, but a good part of his collegiate success stemmed from being behind a great line. Could be successful in the right setting in the NFL.
9.) Jeremy Beal, Oklahoma - Beal is a hustler, the type of guy whose going to make sure he does everything as well as he can. Lacks great athleticism but uses great technique and effort to overcome that.
10.) Mike Mohamed, Cal - Plays lighter than you’d like out of an NFL linebacker. Very smart, durable and athletic, but plays too high at times and has been called “a big safety.”