Much like with the outside linebackers, this is not one of the better drafts for inside guys either. Frankly, 2012 just isn’t a great year for linebackers. Unlike with the OLB’s though, there is a clear-cut alpha linebacker sitting at the top of this class in Luke Kuechly.
Once again, I only gave out two first round grades in this group, the other goes to Alabama MLB Dont’a Hightower, beyond that the pickings are slim. In fact, of this class of players, maybe three or four total will be picked in the first two days (rounds 1-3).
The Bucs find themselves in a strange position with this draft too because they do need linebackers, but they pick too early in the first and second rounds to justify grabbing most of these players, and by the third round all the better prospects may already be gone. If Tampa does decide to go with a linebacker early on they need to decide what to do with Mason Foster, who could be fine in the middle or may be better suited to move back outside.
Either way, it’s likely the Bucs take a linebacker during the draft, it’s just not a certainty it will be somebody who can come in and contribute early.
1.) Luke Kuechly, Boston College, Jr.
I’ve said it for the entire off-season, Luke Kuechly is my favorite player in the draft. I went up to Boston to cover the Eagles game against FSU this year and I’ll be honest, I was looking for reasons not to like the talented junior. His tackle numbers had to be inflated, I said to myself, no way one kid at BC makes this many tackles. He’s lead the NCAA in tackles pretty much his whole career, that’s funny business from BC I thought. Those numbers are not inflated. Luke Kuechly is THAT good. Within a single quarter he’d made a believer out of me. Talk about an instinctive, blue collar linebacker with a high football IQ, Kuechly may be the most well-equipped prospect mentally to come out in years. He’s not an elite athlete, but he plays smart and gets every last ounce out of the ability he does have. Just pop in the tape of Kuechly and you see a smart defender that maintains his own responsibilities before covering for his teammates. It’s not uncommon to see Kuechly force a run play outside covering his own gap and then make the tackle on the sideline in pursuit. That may not sound like much, but you don’t see any of the other guys on this list make those plays. He’s all over the field, he knows every guy’s assignment, he plays like he was in the other team’s huddle and off the field he is as hard a worker, and as high character a person as you can find. I’ll be honest, if Tampa reached for Kuechly at five I wouldn’t bat an eyelash. I think he’s that good.
2.) Dont’a Hightower, Alabama, Jr.
The other of the middle linebackers to receive a first round grade, I may be higher on Hightower than a lot of scouts but I love his college pedigree and the fact he’s won two national titles in three years at Bama. I don’t like Nick Saban, I think he’s a phony because he talks about integrity and his values but doesn’t act like he’s ever even heard of those concepts once a job opportunity is presented him (just ask the folks in Miami and Baton Rouge). But the man can coach, especially defenses. Hightower was like the quarterback of that Alabama defense the past season when they were tops in the country and won another championship. That counts for something too because defense in the SEC is the closest thing to NFL defense you can get without turning pro. One thing you know you’re getting when you draft a guy like Hightower out of Alabama is a well-polished player who knows what kind of effort and practice habits it takes to be successful. Hightower is no different, a big, physical specimen, Hightower has a good grasp on technique but lacks some of the high-end athleticism to be in the top half of the first round. Essentially with Hightower he plays at a high level and is probably as NFL-ready as anyone, but his ceiling might not be as high as some other guys. He may develop less. I still think he turns into a solid starting MLB in the NFL though.
3.) Mychal Kendricks, California, Sr.
Mychal Kendricks is another guy who gets the most out of what he’s got, but his ceiling may never be that high, and he’s no where close to as NFL-capable as Kuechly or Hightower are right now. Kendricks is likely to come off the board in late round two or more likely in round three. He’s a very strong, capable run-stopper who has worked as an inside and outside linebacker in a 3-4 set at Cal. The problem is he’s about 5-11, and he can be swallowed up a lot of the time by bigger blockers. That doesn’t project well for the NFL where most of the guys on the field are going to be taller, faster and stronger. That being said, Kendricks could surprise some teams. He’s very instinctual and plays the game with great intelligence. He’s best-suited to come in and help stop the run as his pass-rushing repertoire needs to improve quite a bit, but he’s got the motor and the work ethic to improve enough to the point where he may be able to start at some point in the NFL. I like Kendricks, but the fact he’s in the top five for his position speaks volumes about the depth at linebacker in this draft.
4.) Keenan Robinson, Texas, Sr.
Robinson is a total project at this point, he has all the tools to one day be successful as a 4-3 middle linebacker but he’s got a lot of things to work on before he gets to that point. We’ll start with the knocks, first and foremost he needs to improve his tackling. That’s not a good thing to say about a linebacker but it is something that can be corrected. Once Robinson improves there, and with regard to his technique rushing the passer, the only other concern is his average instincts. It’s tough to be a good MLB without having good football instincts. That all aside though, Robinson does have the size, athleticism and work ethic to succeed in the NFL. He’s very bright and if he catches the right coaching could likely develop into a quality NFL linebacker. He’s also well above-average in pass defense, something that will make him more attractive for sure. But make no mistake about it, he’s not ready for much more than special teams and reserve duty at this stage. I think Robinson probably goes in round three, maybe early round four.
5.) Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State, Jr.
Vontaze Burfict, of all the guys on this list, is probably the toughest to peg. He could have been a first-round pick if he’d had a good junior season, in fact coming into last season several scouting services had him rated as the top inside linebacker in the country. Unfortuantely, Burfict has had a tough time the past 10 months and it’s going to hurt his draft stock this weekend. Last year at Arizona State Burfict was out of control, regularly playing out of position and getting flagged on a regular basis for extra-curricular stuff. The knock on him is that he’s wild and highly emotional, too immature to control himself. After running a pedestrian 40 at the combine and having some terrible interviews, some teams might not even consider drafting him. Trust me, that’s a mistake. Burfict may be the most athletic guy in this group, even with his bad Combine performance, and he has produced at a high level in college, even if it wasn’t last season. Truth be told, Burfict can be as good as he wants to be. He has immense talent, good instincts and certainly plenty of motivation (especially after taking a beating during the draft cycle). What redeems Burfict for me is that off the field, he’s never been in trouble in his life. He’s reportedly very shy and reserved, he just needs to learn to control the monster he becomes on the field. If he’s around at the start of day three (round four), which he likely will be, he could be a colossal steal for the Bucs.
Best of the Rest
6.) Tank Carder, Texas Christian, Sr.
Carder is low on the list because he hasn’t been playing football all that long, but he’s got pretty solid potential and might develop into a good player down the road with some coaching. Carder was his high school’s kicking specialist until his junior year because a car accident suffered as a child precluded him from contact for most of his life. Contrast never making contact as a football player until his junior year in high school with winning the Rose Bowl MVP in 2011 as a junior at TCU and you can tell this guy has work ethic and potential, now he just needs time to refine it.
7.) James-Michael Johnson, Nevada, Sr.
Johnson is a good example of a player that I just don’t ever see starting in the NFL. He struggles in pass coverage and has never really been asked to blitz, which means he’s a run stopper with questionable instincts and poor ability to change direction. I do think Johnson could be a very good special teams player and reserve, but I don’t think he’s ever going to be elite at the next level.
8.) Audie Cole, North Carolina State, Sr.
Cole is a big, blue-collar linebacker out of NC State. He would be higher on this list but I have some serious concerns about his tackling and that’s about as big an indictment on a middle linebacker as you can find. Cole could surprise people though, he could develop into a quality player down the line, but he’s not there yet.
9.) Najee Goode, West Virginia, Sr.
Goode is a high-effort guy, but the lack of elite athleticism is going to make it harder to get by on just effort at the next level. Goode is a bit undersized and has a tendency to get lost on some plays, doesn’t break through blocks well and offers little to no pressure in the pass rush. He will make a team on special teams, but has work to do if he want to see PT on defense.
10.) Jerry Franklin, Arkansas, Sr.
Franklin is likely a seventh round pick, he was solid at Arkansas but isn’t an elite athlete and will struggle to make the transition the NFL. Franklin has decent instincts, but has a tendency to get washed out on a lot of plays or to over-pursue on others. Needs to refine technique and find the perfect fit if he wants to play much.