Eric Stoner


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Linebacker Tiers

Monday, February 11, 2013

Much attention has been paid to the depth and athleticism of the defensive line class. However, the non-pass rushing linebacker group is one of the deepest crops in years. It features good variety – plugging inside linebackers, run-and-chase outside linebackers, versatile types that can play on the line of scrimmage and run with tight ends in coverage.

Tier One

Arthur Brown, Kansas State – Plug and play at Middle Linebacker or Weakside Linebacker in a 4-3 defense. Also projects to the weak inside spot in a 3-4. Excellent stack-and-shed, recognition, strength, form tackling, closing speed, and change-of-direction ability.

Tier Two

Khaseem Greene, Rutgers – Former safety who has developed and progressed into an excellent run-and-hit weakside linebacker. Covers backs with ease and fluidly drops into zone coverage. Hits pack a punch. Great at reading and diagnosing to get clean run-throughs and beating blockers to the spot.

DeVonte Holloman, South Carolina – Big, rangy outside linebacker (who has also played a lot of safety in his career) that can play up on the line as a strongside linebacker in a 4-3 or 3-4 or as a weakside linebacker in a 4-3. Outstanding coverage and ball skills. Covers a lot of ground quickly. Not much of a pass rusher, but works well against inline tight ends. Technically sound at block deconstruction and never lets hands into his chest. Flew under the radar on a defense with many more high profile defenders, but was a major glue guy for South Carolina.

Michael Mauti, Penn State – Suffered a third major knee injury that will likely drop his stock. Excellent key-and-diagnose 4-3 weakside linebacker who could also play the middle linebacker spot (or weak inside spot in a 3-4). Fluid hips, re-directs effortlessly to pick up running backs in coverage. Rarely fooled, excellent at reading his keys. Might not check out medically at the combine.

Kevin Minter, LSU – Well-rounded middle linebacker who projects to that spot in a 4-3 or strong inside linebacker in a 3-4. Excellent working in a phone booth from tackle-to-tackle and has some closing speed to chase to the sideline. At his best moving forward.  Can turn his hips to drop deep in zone, but doesn’t break down and change direction in space well. Protected with a lot of Robber coverage at LSU, where he could read the quarterback’s eyes and break downhill on the ball .Good about not letting blockers into his chest, but his punch lacks pop and he can struggle disengaging, but overall he works his way through traffic very well.

Tier Three

Alec Ogletree, Georgia – The most impressive physical specimen of the linebackers in this class. A 6’2, 240 pound former safety that has true sideline-to-sideline range, the ability to run with tight ends down the seam, and the hips to change direction quickly and break on the ball in zone coverage. Does not use his hands – gets blocked and stays blocked when he can’t beat linemen to the spot. New to the position and somewhat slow making his reads and flowing. Still plays like a safety, will need to be eased into a sub-package coverage role early while he continues to develop as a linebacker. Played as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 in college, but his best fit is as a weakside linebacker in a 4-3, where he can be protected by a 3-tech and have the ball spilled to him in space. His true value (theoretically) will come down the line, when he’ll allow some defense to match 'joker' tight ends and detached running back/slot combos without having to sub in an extra defensive back.

Sio Moore, Connecticut – Undersized, speedy linebacker who plays both the strong and weak spots and has a knack for taking the quarterback down. Has aggressive, quick hands and keeps his chest clean, holds his ground, and disengages against inline tight ends when lined up on the line of scrimmage. Apexes with slot receivers often and is comfortable playing in space. Lines up with his hand in the dirt on occasion, but he’s more of a blitzer than a true edge rusher, where he can time his rush up and get a free run on the quarterback. He is capable of winning on the edge with a speed rush and dipping around the corner, but he is just as prone as getting completely engulfed by a lineman or washed out by a running back. When playing off the line of scrimmage, he reads his keys well and beats blockers to the spot. His flexibility and leverage allow him to scrape underneath blocks easily in pursuit. At his most comfortable moving forward, but there is untapped potential as a coverage player.

Manti Te’o, Notre Dame – Excellent key-and-diagnose middle linebacker whose game has improved every year. Above average size/speed combination and is athletic enough to play all three downs, and has shown he can make plays in coverage, although he’s at his best moving forward. Tends to race into the backfield out of control and lunge at runners.

Zaviar Gooden, Missouri – Plays both strong and weakside linebacker for Missouri, but projects to a 4-3 weakside linebacker who will primarily come in for sub packages and pass situations. Former safety with elite straightline speed and closing burst. Doesn’t have the most fluid hips, but gets deep in zones quickly and clicks-and-closes on the ball in a flash. Tackles well in space, making an effort to wrap up. Will attack blockers aggressively when he gets a clear picture, but can be hesitant filling and doesn’t explode through clear windows – can get caught false-stepping.

Tier Four

Kiko Alonso, Oregon – Athletic specimen with great closing burst, change-of-direction, and overall hip flexibility. Used extensively as an inside blitzer, knows how to get skinny through creases. Played as an inside linebacker in a 3-4, but (similar to Ogletree) projects best as a 4-3 weakside linebacker, where he can get clear run-throughs or have the ball spilled to him in space. Generally beats blockers to the spot, but block deconstruction and hand use could improve. Gets tunnel vision into the backfield. Can get caught false-stepping and takes bad pursuit angles to the ball.

Nico Johnson, Alabama – A sledgehammer in the middle whose playing time this year got taken away by talented underclassmen. Two-down linebacker for Alabama who excels against the run. Stuffs lead blockers in the hole, rarely loses ground, and doesn’t let blockers into his chest. Takes good angles to the ball, doesn’t overrun plays, and trusts his eyes. Upright, heavy-legged player who struggles to turn his hips and move backwards. Plays at one speed and lacks a closing burst to the sideline, but his good pursuit angles generally keep him from getting out-flanked.  

Kevin Reddick, North Carolina – Middle linebacker for North Carolina who projects to a strong inside linebacker in a 3-4, similar to Brandon Spikes. Good at working his way through traffic inside. Excellent at diagnosing plays, understands angles and how to get to the ball. Able to cover tight ends and crossers in short zones, but struggles in space overall. Used more as a blitzer and edge rusher in his senior season (similar to Spikes at Florida), but is at his best playing the run between the tackles.

Tier Five

Sean Porter, Texas A&M – High cut linebacker with short arms. Slippery blitzer who started his career as a 3-4 outside linebacker before moving to the 4-3 weakside spot, where he projects best to the NFL. Improved greatly in zone coverage and in matching up with tight ends and backs. Lacks strength overall and his punch lacks pop and needs to get stronger, but has the athleticism to develop into a starting NFL linebacker.

Keith Pough, Howard – Athletic, rangy small-school linebacker with long arms. Primarily plays on the line of scrimmage as a weakside linebacker. Struggles to disengage at the point of attack, and most of his plays and tackles come from chasing down the ball from the backside. Has NFL movement skills, a good closing burst, and potential as a coverage linebacker. Probably fits best as a true weakside linebacker off the line of scrimmage. Not a sound or physical tackler and has a tendency to lunge and drag down. Should contribute on special teams while developing.

Gerald Hodges, Penn State – Mostly plays out in space as an apexed linebacker, almost like a nickelback. Doesn’t have the quickest feet, but has fluid hips and changes direction smoothly. Disciplined in zone coverage and doesn’t chase. Doesn’t use his hands well and struggles disengaging.

Non-pass rushing linebackers have a sexiness factor located somewhere between safeties and guards when it comes to the NFL Draft. The good news is that teams are always looking for young legs to develop at linebacker, and this is a solid, deep group that could have early contributors being selected well into the third day of the draft.

Eric Stoner writes and cuts NFL Draft prospect videos for He is a former high school football coach and works as a legal assistant by day. He can be found on Twitter at @ECStoner.
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