As deep as the defensive line group is, the linebacker class is the opposite. There is very little to be excited about when it comes to linebackers this year. There are no Ray Lewis-type inside players, and on the outside, the best player may wind up at safety before his career is over.
But there's something that makes the shallow list of linebackers interesting. The group of teams that desperately need a linebacker is short, but not short enough to satisfy everyone. From what I have been able to gather in my discussions, no more than 10 linebackers will get their name called on the first day. The first round should be the home for one inside backer and one outside backer. A team like the Eagles could grab a third backer late in the first round, but that's not likely.
There is a consensus top outside linebacker and a top inside linebacker in this draft, and they have both stayed on top since the college season ended. Boss Bailey, brother of Redskins cornerback Champ Bailey, has been the top OLB prospect since January. The top insider, E.J. Henderson, has defended the top inside spot for the same period of time.
Bailey has rare athletic ability and could go as high as the top 10. Teams drafting lower than No. 15 who hope Bailey will drop to them need to come up with another plan. St. Louis at No. 12 or the Jets at No. 13 are the likely landing spots for this year's No. 1 linebacker. Teams like Cleveland at No. 21, Green Bay at No. 29 and Philadelphia at No. 30 are probably too far away to get a shot at Bailey, and all three need him. He has the athletic ability of a Derrick Brooks and can stay on the field in all situations (which makes him very valuable).
If teams pass on him, the dropoff to the No. 2 OLB is significant in the minds of a few college scouts and coaches I spoke with this past week. As one personnel director described Bailey to me, he said, "He may become a Steve Atwater as a safety, but faster, or Derrick Brooks as a linebacker, but bigger. The closer we get to the draft, the more teams will realize they have one of the draft gems in Bailey."
I had dinner with Henderson this past summer, and as we spoke, he reminded me of Marvin Jones. He had a quiet confidence about himself, and as one of his Maryland teammates said, Henderson has a knack for finding the ball. I don't know how he does it. He will be a starter in this league in 2003.
The Packers, Patriots, Seahawks, Saints and Rams are spending extra time making sure they know everything they can about Henderson. In fact, with two first-round selections and the fact that they just signed TE Ernie Conwell, the Saints lead me to believe that they are the most probable new home for the Maryland middle linebacker.
Only two teams will be happy as we reach the middle of the first round, and there is a chance another linebacker could go late in the first round. Look for Terry Pierce (Kansas State) or possibly Nick Barnett (Oregon State) to be under consideration. They are grading out as second-round picks, but a reach wouldn't surprise me considering the lack of depth at the linebacker position.
The late second and third rounds appear to be where a run on linebackers could take place. Fast rising Pisa Tinoisamoa (Hawaii) has impressed pro coaches as a weakside backer. Gerald Hayes (Pittsburgh) has been a 100-plus tackling machine his whole career, as has Clifton Smith (Syracuse).
Smith played with a torn chest muscle this season and is just coming into full health. The teams that like Smith went back to his healthy seasons to see why he started for all four years. Victor Hobson (Michigan) had a good week at the Senior Bowl and Bradie James (LSU) has been moving up the draft boards in the past few weeks.
Finally, the linebacker position is changing in the NFL. Traditional true middle linebackers just don't play enough anymore to justify top-round grades.
Outside backers have to be more like strong safeties with all the empty backfield formations being formed. Offenses know how to isolate a running back like Marshall Faulk on a backer, and he better be athletic enough to cover him. As I look at this class of linebackers, I realize why the Kansas City Chiefs went out and signed Shawn Barber to a big contract.
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Some key points to keep in mind as we watch the draft unfold:
- Cleveland lost all three starters this off season, will they find a way to move up for Boss Bailey?
- Are the Jets one spot too short to draft Bailey as the Rams have pick No. 12?
- Are there any quality linebackers big enough and athletic enough to line up over the tight end in this class?
- Now that the Bucs have built a defense around the middle linebacker dropping to the deep middle of the field in pass situations, how many of these players can actually do it for teams drafting inside linebackers?