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Top 5 inside linebacker prospects
Nick Saban should be well-equipped at linebacker in 2013
Originally Published: May 16, 2013
By Mel Kiper Jr. | ESPN Insider
AP Photo/Chris O'Meara
C.J. Mosley would have been the first inside linebacker off the board in the 2013 draft.
When we scrutinized the 2013 NFL draft class of inside linebackers, speed was a big discussion. The debate about it became a big deal because, historically, a very good linebacker who lacks speed is the type to end up on the inside. Shed blocks, plug holes, occasionally hit the A-gap with a blitz and make tackles. That's the old paradigm.
Now, there's a greater emphasis on how well inside linebackers can cover -- not just in the seams, but also to the edges -- what kind of length they have to tighten windows, and whether they have the athleticism to move around and help defensive coordinators provide more exotic looks. The scrutiny over Manti Te'o's 40 time wasn't a big deal because of the surrounding storylines, it was a real number that teams legitimately associate with what he's able to do on a football field. Yes, the film comes first, but it speaks to the demands on the position. You have to be able to do a lot of things.
Here's a first look at prospects I consider the best right now for the 2014 draft.
1. C.J. Mosley, Senior, Alabama
It says a lot about Mosley that he played in all 13 games for Bama as a true freshman, finished the year third on the team in tackles and did that when he'd turned 18 only about a month before fall camp started. Given his auspicious start, it's almost surprising that Nick Saban will have him back for another year. Had he been in the 2013 NFL draft, Mosley had a chance to be the first inside linebacker off the board. Now, at 6-foot-2, 232 pounds he'll play on the edge plenty, but I project him as a player who will play inside in a 3-4, or likely as a weakside LB in a 4-3 at the next level.
Mosley does most things well, but where he's particularly sound is in coverage. He reads the eyes of the quarterback even as he moves, and his ability to both attack the line of scrimmage and make plays, as well as drop and cover (and pick off passes if you test him), means you never have to take him off the field. He could get stronger so he's better equipped to shed blocks, but he'll be an immediate NFL starter after another year of seasoning, and as you can see, he'll have help.
2. Trey DePriest, Junior, Alabama
While Mosley is the rangy playmaker who can really cover, DePriest is the bigger, more physically imposing linebacker who could also project to the edge because he's not without skills as a pass-rusher. At 6-2, 245 pounds, he definitely carries NFL size for the position, and he's capable of both fending off blocks and closing on running backs down the line.
If you want something surprising about DePriest, it's that Ohio State, with a pretty good history at the position, allowed him to get out of the state. He was maybe the best high school linebacker in the country, and played about 45 minutes west of Columbus.
3. Yawin Smallwood, Junior, Connecticut
The Huskies had four players drafted off the 2012 defense, and right now I could see three of them starting NFL games pretty early on in 2013. The guy who might be the best of them is still in college.
Smallwood redshirted as a freshman, and was physically prepared to help, starting all 12 games in his first year and every game in 2012, when he led the team with 120 tackles. Smallwood has great instincts, and at times looks like he's reading the game about a half-second faster than everyone else.
4. A.J. Johnson, Junior, Tennessee
The junior from Gainesville … Georgia, came to campus ready to play. As a true freshman, he really jumped to prominence when he piled up nearly 40 tackles during a three-week stretch when the Vols played LSU, Bama and South Carolina. Last season, Johnson showed off sound technique and consistently quick reactions in flowing to the ball quickly and taking on and getting off blocks. He piled up 138 tackles, which led the SEC.
Again, this was from a true sophomore. The presence of a clogger like 370-pound Daniel McCullers up front should help Johnson, who will be under pressure to keep the Vols in games during a season when the offense could take a step back.
5. Max Bullough, Senior, Michigan St.
When you watch Bullough, the first thing that stands out is his ability to take on and shed blockers, including guards who have him lined up. He's going to be an effective player against the run because of that skill. He doesn't have great speed to the edges, but anticipates well and doesn't lose his vision in traffic. At 6-3, he has some length to provide cover in the seams, but he can improve in turning his hips to run with tight ends.
Going into 2013, he'll have started 27 consecutive games. While not a track star, he's the definition of what you need from an inside linebacker.
Andrew Jackson, Senior, Western Kentucky
At 6-1, 265, he's built like a young Levon Kirkland, and simply attacks the running game, where he finishes his tackles with authority.
Eric Kendricks, Junior, UCLA
On the smaller side for the inside at just about 230 pounds, Kendricks flies to the ball, evidenced by a Pac-12 leading 93 solo stops last season.
A.J. Tarpley, Junior, Stanford
One of those players who kept making plays even when you're looking at his teammates, Tarpley could have a breakout season in 2013.
Chris Borland, Senior, Wisconsin
An experienced linebacker, Borland enters 2013 with 309 career tackles, a very good career for most.
Shayne Skov, Senior, Stanford Disciplined, he's a patient player who doesn't get himself out of position and overrun plays.