Ohio State LB Marcus Freeman
The Falcons have several needs they will be looking to fill the weekend of April 25th and 26th, so here’s a look at the top outside linebacker prospects available round-by-round and who Atlanta could be looking to bring in with their different selections.
We’ve all talked ad nauseum about the lack of outside linebacker prospects available at the end of the first round. Most want USC’s Brian Cushing to fall to the Falcons at number 24, but more and more it appears he will be gone well before they make their pick.
Clay Matthews took a back seat to both Cushing and MLB Rey Maualuga, but he was the most productive Trojans linebacker as a senior in 2008. Originally he was a walk-on that ended up being a starter for one of the most talented teams in the country. It’s not a stretch to say he’s got some of the best bloodlines possible – his uncle Bruce is a Hall-of-Famer and his father Clay was a perennial Pro Bowler – but he’s not in the same realm as either as a football player.
What Matthews brings to the table are smarts and a non-stop motor. Where he struggles is in coverage and while he’s adequate against the run, he doesn’t shed as well as you’d like to see.
After Matthews, there really isn’t another linebacker prospect worthy of a first round draft selection that will be available, although I have no doubt there will be a couple of teams tempted to reach for a player like Virginia’s Clint Sintim very late in the first.
Sintim, Ohio State LB Marcus Freeman and Connecticut LB Cody Brown are all outside linebackers that teams will look long and hard at during the second round.
Sintim is an outstanding pass-rusher and he’s very physical at the point of attack, but he’s never played in reverse and while he’s showed surprising flexibility and fluidity in coverage he will still be a liability early in his NFL career.
Because Freeman was overshadowed by his teammate, James Laurinitas, he didn’t get as much recognition as he deserves. However, he was a very productive player for the Buckeyes. The biggest issue Freeman has to overcome is the injury bug, but if he can stay healthy he could be a solid player at the next level.
Brown can really get after the quarterback notching 18.5 sacks over the past two years, but he played with his hand on the ground, so it will be interesting to see where teams value him at. He could be a good stand-up pass-rusher in a 3-4, but he may struggle some in a traditional linebacker role.
USC’s Kaluka Maiava is a player that is very intriguing. He’s great in space, but because of his size (5-11, 229) he’s a bit undersized to play linebacker in the NFL. He’s got good instincts though and he’s smart.
I’ve liked Tyrone McKenzie from South Florida for a while and he’s been steadily climbing up draft boards since the Senior Bowl. McKenzie is a great tackler and he sheds really well. He isn’t great in coverage, but he’s quick enough to make up for mistakes.
Nic Harris from Oklahoma is probably going to be selected in the third round, but I just don’t see a team reaching for him that early because the value just isn’t there. The safety to linebacker switch rarely works out well. However, Harris is a rare athlete. He’s fast and he hits like a ton of bricks. He could be a solid SAM at the next level, but he will take a year or two to learn the position.
Wisconsin LB Jonathan Casillas has got outstanding top-end speed, but there are worries he won’t hold up at the next level because he isn’t very big (6-1, 231). He also tore his meniscus and hasn’t been able to run for scouts yet. At the very least, Casillas could be a spot starter or a nickel linebacker and a devastating special teams player.
Cal LB Zach Follett is a player that is a bit of a 'tweener because he isn’t really fluid and he’s a sure tackler, but he would struggle inside so he’ll need to move outside in the NFL. He’s got great instincts and he wraps up really well. He’s also a leader and would be a solid pickup in the fifth round.
He’s a one-trick pony or at least so we all thought, but Oregon State’s Victor Butler looked great during Senior Bowl week. He’s an outstanding pass-rusher, totaling 12 sacks as a senior in 2008. Where he has improved and shown himself to be much better than originally believe is in coverage where he re-routes receivers well and breaks on the ball with impressive explosiveness.
One of the two above linebackers could fall to this selection, but two other linebackers to keep an eye on are Maryland’s Moise Fokou and West Virginia’s Mortty Ivy.
Both are good athletes, but Fokou is probably the better prospect because of his speed. Ivy would be better suited inside, but he’s not very strong in his upper body so he doesn’t shed well.
Jason Williams from Western Illinois is intriguing as a late-round prospect. He runs well and he’s a player who teams have been eyeing and bringing in for workouts. If he can latch on with a team as a special teams player, with his 4.42 speed and impressive size (6-2, 245) Williams is a player who could be a late-round steal down the road.