When you talk about the positions the Buccaneers have the most need at, you typically start with the secondary but linebacker comes up quickly. Aside from Mason Foster, who seems to have a bright future ahead of him, there’s not a whole lot of playmaking ability in that group of linebackers.
The Bucs just gave money to Quincy Black, so it’s likely he starts beside Foster this year, but the team still needs to find at least one potential starter in this draft or risk going into the season with some serious questions at the position. Unless the plan is to move Foster back outside and draft a new middle linebacker (which would mean another year of growing pains at MLB), odds are the Bucs will look outside for their guy.
Unfortunately this is not a great draft for linebackers. There is no Von Miller in this one, nobody just blows you away with their athleticism and ability. There are guys with great potential but they’ll require some time to develop and there are some guys who are fairly polished but they may not develop a whole lot more. Without a true alpha in the pack, some team will likely reach early for an outside ‘backer.
Just hope it isn’t the Bucs at five.
1.) Melvin Ingram, South Carolina, Sr.
Ingram played down on the line in college a lot of the time, the move to linebacker is still somewhat new to him. I like what Ingram brings to the table from a pass-rushing standpoint. He’s probably a better fit in a 3-4 than in a 4-3 but could work in either. The former Gamecock has the speed and quickness to rush the edge successfully and he’s also got a good stutter move where he fakes outside and cuts underneath. He is relentless and gets plenty of second-effort sacks, but lacks a lot of explosion off the line. Hopefully, standing as a linebacker will help alleviate some of that, but against better offensive linemen in college he was sometimes completely beat right off the snap because of his lack of explosion. In run support Ingram is solid, he penetrates well and has a good eye for the ball carrier. Solid tackler who isn’t going to get bowled over often, has exceptional upper body strength but could improve his lower body strength to help him better anchor in run support. Aside from a fight his freshman year there are no character concerns with Ingram, but the change of position is definitely something teams need to consider. He’s a first rounder, likely top 15, but if he goes top 10 that’s a reach.
2.) Whitney Mercilus, Illinois, Jr.
Mercilus is the only other outside ‘backer to receive a first round grade in this class. But, when it’s all said and done I think he’ll end up being the best of the bunch. Mercilus is 80 percent potential, 20 percent reality at this point. The son of two Haitian immigrants, Mercilus was a soccer player for most of his life before starting football later in high school. He went to Illinois as a defensive end and after two unspectacular seasons erupted for 13.5 sacks his junior season, earning him the distinction as the best defensive end in college. Now let’s parse all that, at 6-4, 260 with eye-popping athleticism Mercilus is the quintessential Combine king. It’s hard not to love him when you pop in his last college season, watch him work out in shorts and then talk to him and learn what a gregarious personality he has. I don’t think the hype is unwarranted in this case though. Mercilus is already the best pass-rusher in this class. He’s got elite quickness and burst off the line, he can get the edge, he can cut back inside and he will get more in-tune with the quarterback’s tendencies as the game moves along. He does all of this without any consideration for technique or fundamentals. It’s going to take time in the NFL to teach Mercilus to do it all the correct way, but man when he learns the sky is the limit.
3.) Zach Brown, North Carolina, Sr.
Zach Brown is a guy who boasts fantastic athleticism but isn’t necessarily the same guy on the field as he appears to be during workouts. At 6-1, 240 I’m not going to call him prototypical, but he has decent size to play in either scheme and the athleticism to be good there. The problems are his instincts and intensity on game days. The intensity really just comes down to the mean streak, that can be overrated quite frankly. A lot of people think because a guy isn’t screaming and frothing from the mouth he lacks intensity, a lot of what I saw was less internal and more of a climate issue at UNC. As we’ve discussed with Quinton Coples and last year with Robert Quinn and Marvin Austin, things got out of hand in Chapel Hill. Ultimately the guy who recruited them was canned unceremoniously and portions of the team were thrown under the bus by administration for having contact with agents. That in turn lead the entire program into tumult. A lot of times you could see a game get tough and the whole UNC team just lost interest. It’s tough to then pin that on one player. It’s a concern, but not of the variety it’s made out to be. My concern is the lack of instinct, which is something that usually comes naturally and can be tough to develop. He can be a fantastic linebacker, but if he doesn’t have a nose for the ball and a knack for the play, he’s not going to be starting.
4.) Lavonte David, Nebraska, Sr.
Depending on how the first round goes, Lavonte David might be a good option for the Bucs on day two. He may be a reach for Tampa in round two, but he would be an outright steal in the third. The knock on David is his size, at just 6-foot a lot of NFL scouts have questioned whether he wouldn’t be better off as a safety. He wouldn’t be. Unlike Brown, David is extremely instinctual and more often than not can be found with his helmet on the ball. He is undersized, no doubt about it, but with a good defensive line in front of him to keep the blockers off, he would be an instant upgrade at the Will linebacker position. He also has the athleticism and cover skills to stay on the field in nickel sets. If he were just a couple inches taller you’d likely see Lavonte David crawl up into the back half of the first round, unfortunately he’s not. But what Lavonte David is though, is a blue-collar guy with a very high work ethic that hails from a good program and played major college football at a high level over the past few years. Trust me, if the Buccaneers draft Lavonte David you will not be dissapointed. And of all these guys, he smacks of a Schiano-type the most.
5.) Shea McClellin, Boise State, Sr.
All you need to know about McClellin is he modeled himself off Mike Vrabel, that right there tells me as much or more than any combine answer he gave. Vrabel was a very intelligent, very instinctual linebacker that got every last ounce out of his physical ability and displayed the ultimate team-first attitude. To his credit, McClellin does a damn good impersonation. A big (6-3, 260) linebacker, McClellin was a jack of all trades in college lining up all over the defensive line, at linebacker and occasionally even in nickel packages. He brings the size and athleticism to be a good NFL starting linebacker down the road, even if I have some questions with regard to his technique at times. Aside from needing a little coaching here and there, I like McClellin quite a bit. He hails from a good program that won a lot of football games during his college career, he played at a high level in college on a consistent basis and he brings the right kind of character and mentality to the locker-room. I’m beginning to suspect McClellin will end up with New England in the back half of the first round, but I think that might be a bit of a reach, I have him as the fifth best guy in the class.
Best of the Rest
6.) Bruce Irvin, West Virginia, Sr.
Another potential sleeper that would be a great pick for Tampa in round three but maybe not with their second pick, Irvin is a big, athletic player with plenty of potential and plenty left to learn. Having never been eligible to play in high school and having served a stint in a juvenile detention center, there are some questions about Irvin, but when you see him play it’s another story. Amongst the strongest pass-rushers in the draft, Irvin is only going to get better as he improves his technique.
7.) Sean Spence, Miami (FL), Sr.
I love Sean Spence, but he’s undersized and didn’t work out well at the Combine or his Pro Day. That knocks him down a little bit, but not out. For starters, even when the whole program is down the Hurricanes still produce linebackers as good as any school in the country, and Spence was their most recent alpha linebacker. He plays bigger than his frame, is very physical and is one of the best athletes in this class once the pads go on. I just don’t know how the size element factors into his NFL future. If he’s there on day three though I think he’ll be a steal.
8.) Bobby Wagner, Utah State, Sr.
A lot of people have Wagner a bit higher, and I admit he looks good on tape AND in shorts, but I don’t trust the level of competition he faced year in and year out at Utah State. Easily the best team the Aggies played all year was an 8-5 Auburn team in the season opener. You have the kind of year Wagner did in the Big 10, fine. You do it in the WAC and there are some questions.
9.) Nigel Bradham, Florida State, Sr.
There might not be a better all-around physical specimen in this group than Bradhman. At FSU, Bradham was a story of unrealized potential until the last half of his senior season. He was always solid for the ‘Noles, but never stood out at FSU like many thought he would when recruited. He has an NFL skill set and could likely start in the NFL down the road, but he will take time to learn the pro game and develop.
10.) Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma, Jr.
Why did Ronnell Lewis enter the draft? I got to see Lewis in person when Oklahoma came to Tallahassee last season, there were questions about whether he would be healthy enough to play headed in, but he was solid all night. I think right now as it stands Lewis has one of the higher ceilings in this draft, even if he’s more of a tweener to me than a true outside linebacker. But if he’d just gone back to Norman another year he’d like be the top-rated OLB in the next class. Not just a day two guy.