OHARA'S DRAFT PREVIEW: Rating the linebackers

Posted Apr 22, 2014

In the second installment of his draft preview series, Detroitlions.com columnist Mike O'Hara rates the top linebackers available

Khalil Mack’s story about what motivated him early in his college career has become well known in his rise to one of the top spots in the upcoming NFL draft.

He was inspired by a low number that projected him as a football player who realistically should enjoy his four years as a student athlete at Buffalo, then move on and get started on a career after football.

Numbers don’t always add up as expected, or projected, and Mack is about to launch his pro career with another low number that is a sign of how NFL teams think he can step into a defense and make an immediate impact.

Mack, who had a record-setting career at Buffalo, is the top-rated linebacker in the draft and is certain to be taken in the top 10 when the NFL conducts the first round on May 8. Many projections have Mack going in the top 5, depending on which teams with high picks gamble on a quarterback.

Mack’s draft status is a significant upgrade for a player whose only two scholarship offers coming out of high school in Florida were from Liberty and Buffalo, with the Buffalo offer from a coach who changed jobs, from Liberty to Buffalo. (What if the coach had taken a job coaching cricket in Bangalore?)

Before his freshman year at Buffalo, Mack watched an NCAA video that gave him a low 46 rating – with a 37 for speed.

Mack is an intense competitor who wears his emotions on his jersey sleeves. He put the video slight on his back. Mack already had chosen 46 for his jersey, and he kept the number.

“I was only rated a 46 overall, with a 37 rating for speed, and it was a slap in the face, man,” Mack told reporters at the NFL Combine workouts earlier this year. “I knew deep down in my heart that I was better than a 46. And it just so happened, I was already wearing No. 46, and I kept the number.”

Mack said he was rated “80-something” in the video before the 2013 season.

Because Mack played in the Mid-American Conference, some might question his high rating because he didn’t consistently face the tough competition that linebackers who played in the power conference did.

Mack answered that question in Buffalo’s 40-20 loss to Ohio State in the opening game of the 2013 season. He had 9 tackles, 2.5 sacks and returned an interception 45 yards for a TD. After the game, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer was quoted as saying Mack could “play anywhere at any school in America.”

Mack is at the top of a 2013 linebacker class that could make more of an impact in the first round than has usually been the case in recent years. In the last six drafts (2008-13), more than two linebackers have been drafted in the first round only once. That was 2009, when five were first-round picks.

In addition to Mack, C.J. Mosley, a steady, heady middle linebacker from Alabama, pass-rush star Anthony Barr of UCLA, and Ryan Shazier, a dynamic outside linebacker from Ohio State, all have first-round capability.

And there are “tweeners,” who can be classified as defensive ends or outside linebackers, depending on whether they play in a 3-4 or 4-3. Dee Ford of Auburn and DeMarcus Lawrence of Boise State are among those who could play defensive end or outside linebacker, depending on scheme.

O'Hara's Top 12 linebacker prospects
1 OLB Khalil Mack Buffalo 6'3 251 4.65
2 OLB Anthony Barr UCLA 6'5 255 4.66
3 ILB C.J. Mosley Alabama 6'2 234 4.67
4 OLB Ryan Shazier Ohio State 6'1 237 4.38
5 OLB DeMarcus Lawrence Boise State 6'3 251 4.80
6 OLB Jeremiah Attaochu Georgia Tech 6'3 252 4.68
7 ILB Chris Borland Wisconsin 6'0 248 4.83
8 OLB Kyle Van Noy Brigham Young 6'3 243 4.71
9 OLB Trent Murphy Stanford 6'5 250 4.86
10 OLB Adrian Hubbard Alabama 6'6 257 4.69
11 OLB Telvin Smith Florida State 6'3 218 4.52
12 ILB Max Bullough Michigan State 6'4 249 4.78


The Best

OLB Khalil Mack, Buffalo: He has a combination of speed and power, and he used it to dominate for four seasons at Buffalo.

Some of Mack’s agility and movement skills might come from playing basketball in high school. He didn’t play football until his senior year.

Mack set the NCAA record with 16 career forced fumbles and tied the record for career tackles for loss with 75. He also had 28.5 sacks, with a career high of 10.5 in 2013.

He is one of the few legitimate “trade-up” candidates high in the first round.

The rest

ILB C.J. Mosley, Alabama: Like a lot of Alabama players, he leaves Tuscaloosa with numerous awards – two national championships, freshman All-American in 2010, and Butkus (nation’s top linebacker) and SEC Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2013. He can be an every-down middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme or play the weak side in a 3-4. One caution could be the injuries he sustained in college.

Anthony BarrLB Anthony Barr (Photo: AP Images)

OLB Anthony  Barr, UCLA: Barr played running back – sparingly – his first two seasons at UCLA, then switched to defense in 2012. He was a natural outside pass-rusher: 21.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks in 2012, 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in 2013. Some teams see him more as a defensive end than outside linebacker. At either spot, he’ll rush the passer.

OLB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State: He’s a terrific athlete -- 42-inch vertical jump and 4.38 best in the 40. After 13 games and two starts in 2011, he used his speed in 2012 to have a breakout season – 17 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 11 pass breakups and a TD on an interception return. There was more to come in 2013, when he became one of five Buckeyes to lead the team in tackles two straight seasons. Chris Spielman, James Laurinaitis, A.J. Hawk and Pepper Johnson were the others. Good company.

OLB DeMarcus Lawrence, Boise St.: A JC transfer with speed, long arms and big hands, he made an immediate impact as a playmaker at defensive end in 2012 and continued it through 2013 with 20 sacks over two seasons. Boise played him at defensive end, but most scouts see him as a pass-rushing outside linebacker.

OLB Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech.: He was an outside linebacker in a 3-4 his first three years and a defensive end in the 4-3 in 2013. He has the school record for career sacks with 31.5, fifth most in ACC history. He was born in Nigeria and went to high school in Washington, D.C.

ILB Chris Borland, Wisconsin: He overcame injury issues early, undergoing three surgeries for shoulder and labrum injuries, but started 38 of his final 40 games. The two missed games were in 2013 because of an injured hamstring. Borland was All Big Ten his last three seasons. An all-around Ohio high school athlete, he played tennis, basketball and participated in track in addition to football.  He’ll have to overcome lack of size (5-11-4) and short arms (29-2).

OLB Kyle Van Noy, Brigham Young: He committed to BYU in 2009 but had a one-year delayed enrollment because of a DUI, and later had a second alcohol-related incident. There have been no other incidents, and his last three seasons were stellar – 54.5 tackles for loss and 20 sacks at weak-side linebacker. In BYU’s 23-6 win over San Diego State in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl, Van Noy forced a fumble and recovered it for a TD, returned an interception for another TD, blocked a kick and had two sacks. That’s a career for many players.

OLB Trent Murphy, Stanford: Height (a little over 6-5), long arms (almost 34) and gigantic hands (11-1) could make him a defensive end candidate. He had an outstanding 2013 season, leading the nation with 15 sacks, adding 23.5 tackles for loss and 6 pass breakups. He played stand-up OLB in the 3-4 and also played with his hand down in pass-rush situations. He had two tackles for loss and a sack in the Rose Bowl loss to Michigan State.

OLB Adrian Hubbard, Alabama: After a reserve season in 2011, Hubbard started 26 of 27 games at strong-side linebacker in 2012-13 and produced 16.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and 6 pass breakups. Good athleticism and 34-inch arms can help him as a pass-rusher and pass defender, but his production has not matched his skill level.

OLB Telvin Smith, Florida St.: Only one year as a starter, and there are serious questions because he played at 218 pounds. Smith started all 14 games in 2013 for the Seminoles. Among his stats were three interceptions, two of them returned for TDs. Smith might be a part-time, situational player, but he does not lack physical assets.

ILB Max Bullough, Michigan St.: Getting suspended for the Rose Bowl for an as-yet undisclosed violation of rules was not an ideal way to end a superlative career. He started 40 straight games before the suspension and was a two-time captain. His best chance to help a team is with his smart playing inside in a 3-4 scheme. Not everyone has him rated this high.

Lions LB depth chart:

Returning: Starters – Ashlee Palmer, DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch. Backups – Tahir Whitehead, Travis Lewis, Cory Greenwood (injured reserve), Brandon Hepburn (practice squad 2013), Julian Stanford, Jon Morgan (in training camp 2013).

Lions’ LB draft probability: It’s almost certain that GM Martin Mayhew will draft a linebacker at some point, but how high depends on who’s on the board.

Khalil would be a dream pick in the first round, but that will require trading up from No. 10. Barr would provide a pass-rusher, and Mosley could be developed as the eventual replacement for Tulloch.

Levy’s status: DeAndre Levy stands alone in a lot of categories since GM Martin Mayhew’s first draft in 2009.

Mayhew has drafted six linebackers, and at least one in every year except 2010. Levy was the first linebacker drafted by Mayhew – third round, ’09 – the only one drafted in the third round or higher in Mayhew’s tenure and the only one who has been a full-time starter. Two others were fifth-round picks and three were taken in the seventh.

Top 10 history: A linebacker has been drafted in the top 10 in four of the last five years, but only two have panned out. Carolina got Luke Kuechly of Boston College ninth overall in 2012, and the Broncos took Von Miller of Texas A&M second in 2011. Both are impact, Pro Bowl players. Not so for Rolando McClain (eighth by Oakland in 2010) and Aaron Curry (fourth by Seattle in 2009).