Over the past four drafts (2001 through 2004), only six linebackers -- Terrell Suggs and Jason Babin both played defensive end in college but converted to linebacker in the NFL -- have been drafted in the first round. Over the past 10 years, 30 linebackers have been selected in Round 1, with seven first-rounders in the 2000 draft setting the high-water mark over that period.
The 2004 crop of linebackers was very fast with the first three selected recording an average time of 4.57 in the 40-yard dash. The 2005 class is equally fast with seven linebackers running under 4.6, and one (Jordan Beck of Cal-Poly SLO) running under 4.5 on grass at his school's Pro Day.
With more teams going to the 3-4 type of defense, we are going to see teams draft players who played defensive line and try to convert them to players who can play down and rush the passer, and also play up and play in space. Last year, Houston moved up in the draft to select Jason Babin of Western Michigan, where he played defensive end, but he was switched to outside linebacker in the Texans' 3-4 defense.
Many colleges are recruiting tight ends and running backs to play linebacker. I think this is the reason we have so much speed at this position in the draft -- top players like Lance Mitchell (Oklahoma), Channing Crowder (Florida), Kevin Burnett (Tennessee) and Michael Boley (Southern Mississippi) were all running backs in high school. It is very important that linebackers are good special-teams players, especially on coverage teams.
1. Derrick Johnson, Texas (6-31/4, 242)
Johnson had a complete workout at the combine and ran his 40s in 4.50 and 4.52. He also had a 371/2-inch vertical jump, 10-foot broad jump, 3.87 short shuttle, 7.20 three-cone drill and 21 strength lifts. He was a two-time all-state player in high school and had 30 tackles and forced four fumbles in one game. He also lettered in basketball and track. Johnson played as a true freshman at Texas and started two games. He started the next three years at weakside linebacker and earned many honors his senior season, including both the Butkus and Nagurski awards and the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Johnson is an outstanding athlete and person. He set an NCAA single-season record for forced fumbles (nine) and makes plays all over the field. He does miss tackles and needs to learn how to take on blockers. Should be a Pro Bowl-type player for many years.
2. Channing Crowder, Florida (6-21/4, 242)
Crowder did not work out at the combine, but did work out at his Pro Day on March 9. He was 242 pounds, down 10 pounds from the combine. He ran his 40s in 4.80 and 4.81. He had a 35-inch vertical jump, a 10-foot broad jump, a 4.29 short shuttle, an 11.25 long shuttle, a 6.57 three-cone drill and 27 strength reps. He played outside linebacker and running back in high school, and when the time came to enroll in school, he picked Florida but delayed enrollment until January 2003 due to knee rehab. He did practice with the team before the 2003 Outback Bowl. He started nine games in 2003, then started seven games in 2004 - he missed two because of injury and one because of suspension. He was first-team All-SEC in 2004. His father, Randy, played in the NFL for six years. Crowder is a tough player who can play middle or outside linebacker. He's also a real leader on the field and does a good job on blitzes and can cover in pass defense. He reminds you of Ray Lewis on the field. His knees are a question mark and he has had off-field troubles, but he's a guy who can become a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
3. Kevin Burnett, Tennessee (6-2 7/8, 230)
Burnett was injured and did not work out at the combine. He worked out at Tennessee's Pro Day and ran his 40s in 4.57 and 4.63. He also had a 36-inch vertical jump, 10-foot-10 broad jump and 21 strength lifts, but did not do any shuttles or the cone drill. He weighed nine pounds less at the Pro Day than at the combine. Burnett played running back and free safety in high school, and scored 16 touchdowns as a senior. He played as a true freshman in 2000 at Tennessee as a safety and a linebacker. He started two games in 2001, was a medical redshirt in 2002 and a starter in 2003 and 2004. Burnett and Michael Munoz were the first juniors since 1943 to serve as team captains. He has good athletic ability and will make big plays, but has only one interception in four years. He will compete and can run, but seems to lack great instincts for position. He's a weakside 'backer who should be a good special-teams player.
4. Darryl Blackstock, Virginia (6-2 5/8, 247)
Blackstock had a complete workout at the combine and ran his 40s in 4.71 and 4.70. He also had a 39-inch vertical jump, a 10-foot-6 broad jump, 4.29 in the short shuttle and 7.05 in the three-cone drill. Blackstock played defensive end and tight end in high school, where he had 51 sacks in his final two years. He also spent one year at Fork Union Military Academy. He started 12 games as a true freshman at Virginia and had 10 sacks (a Virginia record for a freshman). He started 13 games at outside linebacker and had six sacks in 2003. He started every game in 2004 and recorded 11 sacks and 14 tackles for loss. Blackstock should be very good in a 3-4 defense playing as a pass-rush linebacker. He is a very good competitor. He played with a shoulder problem and did not lift at the combine or Pro Day. He needs to add strength and is not real good against the run. He changed from No. 56 to No. 1 for Virginia's bowl game.
5. Odell Thurman, Georgia (6-0 1/8, 233)
Thurman had a complete workout at the combine. He ran two 40s in 4.62 and 4.66. He had a 34-inch vertical jump, a 9-foot-6 broad jump, a 7.46 three-cone drill and 23 reps. On his Pro Day, he ran the short shuttle in 4.15 seconds. In high school, Thurman was a linebacker and fullback. He went to Georgia in 2001 and redshirted. In 2002 he was in a prep school, then came back to Georgia in January 2003. He started 11 games in 2003 but was suspended for the first three games of 2004 for violating team rules. He made the All-SEC first team the past two years. This is a very athletic player who lacks size for the position, but still is very active, tough and super aggressive. Really, his only negatives are his height and weight. Thurman should be a great special-teams player.
6. Barrett Rudd, Nebraska (6-21/2, 241)
Rudd had a complete workout at the combine, where he ran his 40s in 4.75 and 4.75. He also had a 341/2-inch vertical jump and 9-foot-4 broad jump. He also ran a 3.94 short shuttle, 11.77 long shuttle and 7.27 three-cone drill. He added 25 strength lifts. He was a running back and linebacker in high school. His team won the state championship three times and was 48-2 over his four seasons. Rudd played as a true freshman at Nebraska, then started the next three years. Had 143 tackles his senior season (more than any linebacker who worked out at the combine) and also had three interceptions. The question on Rudd is his weight for the outside linebacker position. He has great production, is very instinctive and can cover running backs. He is smart and a good leader but needs to get stronger. He will be a very good special-teams player. It might be hard for him to keep his weight during a 20-game season in the NFL.
7. Jordan Beck, Cal Poly-SLO (6-2 3/8, 233)
Beck had a complete workout at the combine. He ran his 40s in 4.60 and 4.61. He had a 41-inch vertical jump, a 10-foot-6 broad jump, a 4.10 short shuttle, an 11.25 long shuttle, a 7.11 three-cone drill and 25 strength reps. He then ran a 4.4 at the campus workout, but his weight was not recorded then. In high school, Beck was a wide receiver and defensive back. He then went on to Cal Poly-SLO and played as a true freshman, earning All-America honors in Division I-AA in 2001 and has started the past three years. He had four interceptions in 2004 and returned two for touchdowns. Why didn't Beck go to a Division I-A school coming out of high school? I don't know why, but he has turned into a very productive player who changed positions this past season. He wound up having 135 tackles, including 19 tackles for a loss despite lining up five yards past the line of scrimmage. Some people think he can be a safety, others consider him a very good special-teams player.
8. Kirk Morrison, San Diego State (6-1, 236)
Morrison did not work out at the combine due to an illness the previous week. At San Diego State's Pro Day, he ran his 40s in 4.72 and 4.75. He also had a 33-inch vertical jump, a 9-foot-6 broad jump, 4.29 short shuttle, 11.80 long shuttle and 7.05 three-cone. Morrison played running back and linebacker in high school, and was a two-year starter. He also ran track. He redshirted at San Diego State in 2000 and started seven games in 2001. He went on to start every game in 2002 and 2003 and was named the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2003. He was a first-team All-Mountain West Conference selection three times (2002-04). Morrison makes a lot of plays and is an outstanding competitor. He's a good person but also tough with a compact body build. He played very well in the Senior Bowl and is a very good tackler. Morrison lacks the size you want but plays bigger than his height and weight.
9. Matt McCoy, San Diego State (5-113/4, 234)
McCoy was not invited to the combine, but he did have his Pro Day on March 19. He ran two 40s for times of 4.59 twice. He had a 33-inch vertical jump, a 9-foot-7 broad jump, a 4.31 short shuttle, an 11.73 long shuttle, a 7.19 three-cone drill and 19 strength lifts. He plays hard and makes plays all over the field, which was evident in his game against Michigan in September. The only wish scouts have is that he were a little bit taller. He should be a great special-teams player.
10. Alfred Fincher, Connecticut (6-1 3/8, 238)
Fincher worked out at the combine and ran his 40s in 4.68 and 4.71. He also had a 311/2-inch vertical jump, 9-foot-4 broad jump, 4.45 short shuttle, 7.69 three-cone drill and 25 strength lifts. Fincher was a three-year starter at Connecticut. He has great toughness and plays hard every down. He should be a very good special-teams player.
11. Lance Mitchell, Oklahoma (6-2 1/8, 247)
Mitchell worked out at the combine and ran two 40s for 4.85 and 4.91. He had a 331/2-inch vertical jump, a 10-foot broad jump, a 4.38 short shuttle, a 7.49 three-cone drill and 15 strength reps. After getting hurt in the fourth game of 2003, Mitchell started every game in 2004, but never seemed to play as well as he did in 2003.
12. Ryan Claridge, UNLV (6-2, 254)
Claridge did not work out at the combine, choosing instead to work out at his Pro Day at UNLV. He ran his 40s for times of 4.79 and 4.80 outdoors on a fast rubber track, but pulled his hamstring on the second run and did not do jumps or shuttles. He did add 25 strength reps. He was a running back in high school, and had over 1,300 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior. He entered UNLV in January 2000 and played as a true freshman. He started in 2001 at middle linebacker, missed the 2002 season, then returned in 2003 and 2004. He has size for his position, had good production in school and is a very good competitor. He lacks great change-of-direction skills but is a very good worker who gives a good effort and is a good leader.
13. Adam Seward, UNLV (6-21/4, 248)
He had a complete workout at the combine, running two 40s for times of 4.57 and 4.62. He had a 361/2-inch vertical jump, a 10-foot broad jump, a 4.11 short shuttle, an 11.50 long shuttle, a 7.16 three-cone drill and 33 strength reps. Seward is a tough, aggressive player and a three-year starter. He's the all-time leader in tackles for the Mountain West Conference, and that certainly should count for something. He is a middle linebacker type who will get a chance in this league.
14. Michael Boley, Southern Mississippi (6-23/4, 236)
At the combine, Boley had a complete workout. He ran his 40s in 4.56 and 4.62, had a 34-inch vertical jump, a 9-foot-5 broad jump, a 4.12 short shuttle, an 11.51 long shuttle, a 7.08 three-cone drill and 17 strength reps. Boley was a jack-of-all-trades in high school, playing wide receiver, running back and linebacker. He redshirted in 2000 and played mostly special teams in 2001. After that, he started for three years and also garnered Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2004. He is a very good athlete with ability and good quickness. He moves well to the ball but seems to lack read-and-react ability. Not as aggressive as you would like a linebacker to be, but Boley still has the productive numbers you like to see from a good player after starting for three years.
15. Robert McCune, Louisville (6-0, 245)
McCune worked out at the combine and ran his 40s in 4.50 and 4.50. He did not do any jumps or shuttles but did add 34 strength reps. McCune started the past two seasons at Louisville. He is tough as nails and has everything for the position except height. He will be a special-teams standout.
16. Lofa Tatupu, Southern Cal (5-11 7/8, 238)
Tatupu, whose father, Mosi, played 14 years in the NFL, had a complete workout at the combine. He ran two 40s for times of 4.83 and 4.84. He had a 35-inch vertical jump, a 9-foot-6 broad jump, a 4.18 short shuttle, a 12.18 long shuttle and 23 strength reps. He started at Maine as a true freshman in 2001, then transferred to USC in 2002. He was a starter for two years, and he has great instincts for his position.
Here are some linebackers, in alphabetical order, who might surprise some people and should be taken later in the draft.
1. Leroy Hill, Clemson (6-1 1/8, 230)
He worked out at the combine. At Clemson's Pro Day, he ran two 40s in 4.57 and 4.65, and had a 10-foot-3 broad jump.
2. Jared Newberry, Stanford (6-1, 232)
At Stanford's Pro Day, he ran the short shuttle in 4.21 seconds and the three-cone drill in 6.87. He had a 31-inch vertical jump and a 9-foot-1 broad jump.
3. Cornelius Wortham, Alabama (6-2, 232)
At Alabama's Pro Day, he ran his 40s in 4.65 and 4.67.