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Strong ILB crop offers versatility

Top five prospects by position

Thin safety class features more size than usual

Posted April 26, 2012 @ 3:57 p.m.

Youth additions make DT crop the draft's strength

Posted April 25, 2012 @ 11:59 a.m.

Enigmatic pass rushers brim with upside, questions

Posted April 25, 2012 @ 10:04 a.m.

Interior blockers could surprisingly dot first round

Posted April 24, 2012 @ 3:23 p.m.

Young, raw OT crop will pull premium

Posted April 24, 2012 @ 11:59 a.m.

Marginal TE crop lacks star power, overall depth

Posted April 24, 2012 @ 9:24 a.m.

Deep RB crop has bell cows, playmaking talent

Posted April 23, 2012 @ 12:40 p.m.

About the Author

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Posted April 25, 2012 @ 2:50 p.m. ET
By Nolan Nawrocki

This is the ninth of a 12-part series that offers up scouting reports on PFW’s top five-ranked players at their respective positions in the 2012 NFL draft. Full scouting reports and the latest buzz on nearly 500 draft prospects, including results from roughly 200 pro days, can be found in PFW’s Draft Database.

The traditional middle linebacker position does not carry as much value as it once did, as NFL defenses have been forced to use more nickel and dime packages to counter the increased aerial assaults of NFL passing attacks, placing more of a premium on linebackers who can run and cover and never have to leave the field on third downs. This year’s draft features three unique talents who offer intriguing versatility. Boston College’s Luke Kuechly will appeal most to 4-3 fronts, with his ability to play any of the three positions, and he possesses superb instincts. Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower and Cal’s Mychal Kendricks possess more explosive body power and have experience leveraging the edge, where they might carry even more value as full-time players in the pros. The group includes a number of prospects with the makeup to become special-teams kamikazes, such as Adrien Cole and Shawn Loiseau, and could have more prospects drafted than usual.

1. Luke Kuechly, Boston College (Jr.)
Ht: 6-3 1⁄4, Wt: 242, Sp: 4.61, Arm: 31, Hand: 9 3⁄4

Notes: Recorded 158 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and one sack with four pass breakups and an interception as a true freshman in 2009. Saw action in all 13 games, making 12 starts — the first three games at middle linebacker and the final nine contests at weak-side linebacker. Led the nation in tackles in ’10, posting 183-101⁄2-11⁄2 with three pass breakups, three interceptions and a forced fumble in 13 starts at MLB. Had a highly decorated junior season in ’11, winning the Butkus Award, the Bronko Nagurski Award and the Lombardi Award. Led the nation in tackles after amassing 191-12-0 with three pass breakups and three interceptions in 12 starts. Returned an interception 45 yards for a score against Miami. ACC’s all-time leading tackler (532) in only three years. Team captain.

Bottom line: One of the safest picks in the draft, Kuechly is capable of playing any LB position and will anchor a defense for the next 12 years and become a perennial Pro Bowler. Compares very favorably to Vikings 2006 18th overall pick Chad Greenway, but lack of arm length should keep him inside in a finesse “40” front in the pros. A can’t-miss selection who will challenge the NFL’s all-time tackle records.

NFL projection: First-round pick.

2. Dont’a Hightower, Alabama (Jr.)
Ht: 6-2 1⁄4, Wt: 265, Sp: 4.64, Arm: 32 5⁄8, Hand: 9 3⁄4

Notes: Given name is Qualin. Was one of two true freshman starters for the Tide in 2008, playing in all 14 contests with 12 starts at the “Will” spot. Recorded 64 tackles, 21⁄2 tackles for loss and zero sacks with one forced fumble. In ’09, he started the first four games at “Will” linebacker before suffering a torn ACL in his left knee against Arkansas and taking a medical redshirt. Also saw time at the “Jack” position in passing situations and posted 16-4-1 with one pass breakup for the season. Returned to the starting lineup in ’10 and produced 69-31⁄2-0 with three pass breakups while starting all 13 games — started the first four games at the “Mike” linebacker before switching back to his original “Will.” Was the leader of Alabama’s No. 1 defense in ’11, registering career highs with 85-11-4 and three pass breakups, one interception, one forced fumble and one blocked kick in 13 games at the “Mike” LB spot. The two-time team captain has already graduated.

Bottom line: A big-bodied, physical run stuffer with deceptive movement skill and edge-setting strength to play outside, Hightower took time to recover from the ACL injury he suffered two years ago and has shown a tendency to play too cautiously since returning. Is regarded as a two-down 3-4 “Mike” linebacker by some NFL teams but might fit best outside in an odd front given his physicality to control the line of scrimmage and stack the corner. His ability to kick outside on third downs enhances his value. Is scheme-diverse and versatile and has Pro Bowl potential when healthy. .

NFL projection: First-round pick.

3. Mychal Kendricks, California
Ht: 5-11 1⁄8, Wt: 239, Sp: 4.46, Arm: 31 5⁄8, Hand: 9 3⁄8

Notes: Appeared in all 13 games in 2008, recording 15 tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack with a blocked kick. Saw action in all 13 contests in ’09 — making three starts at inside linebacker and five at outside ’backer — and collected 72-6-1 with three pass breakups, a 68-yard interception return for a touchdown and one forced fumble. Put off surgery to repair torn labrum in left shoulder until after the season and sat out ’10 spring practice. In the fall, started all 13 games at an OLB spot and posted 66-15-81⁄2 with one interception. Named the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year in ’11 after piling up 107-141⁄2-3 with two pass breakups and two interceptions in 13 games (11 starts).

Bottom line: A fast, physical, powerful, high-motor stalwart, Kendricks smells blood in the water, hits with thump and has a desirable makeup. Is a scheme-versatile, seek-and-destroy ’backer who stands out on tape and could make an impact readily. May warrant interest as a stand-up rush linebacker for a team using an aggressive, slanting odd front, such as the Steelers, Texans or Packers.

NFL projection: Top-50 pick.

4. James-Michael Johnson, Nevada
Ht: 6-1 1⁄8, Wt: 241, Sp: 4.66, Arm: 32 7⁄8, Hand: 9 3⁄8

Notes: Redshirted in 2007. Playing strong-side linebacker in ’08, started 10-of-13 games and recorded 48 tackles, 121⁄2 for loss and 11⁄2 sacks with one pass breakup, one interception and a forced fumble. Started all 13 games on the strong side in ’09, posting 58-111⁄2-2 with five pass breakups and one interception. Was team’s leading tackler in ’10 when he started all 14 games at middle linebacker and produced 88-8-21⁄2 with two pass breakups and three forced fumbles. Totaled 100-51⁄2-11⁄2 with three pass breakups, one interception and one forced fumble in 13 starts at MLB during the ’11 season. Two-time  captain.

Bottom line: Athletic, productive, experienced, versatile 4-3 linebacker with interchangeability and possible starter potential. Heart-and-soul type who should contribute readily on special teams and has the makeup desired in a locker room.

NFL projection: Third- to fourth-round pick.

5. Bobby Wagner, Utah State
Ht: 6-0 1⁄4, Wt: 241, Sp: 4.80e, Arm: 32 1⁄2, Hand: 9 7⁄8

Notes: Played 11 games as a true freshman in 2008, starting the final nine outside, and recorded 51 tackles, two for loss and zero sacks with two pass breakups. Started all 24 games the next two seasons and was the WAC’s leading tackler — totaled 115-8-0 with three pass breakups, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in ’09 from the middle and 133-8-1⁄2 with four pass breakups in ’10 from the outside. Started all 13 games in ’11 and recorded 147-111⁄2-4 with two interceptions. Team captain. 

Bottom line: Yoked-up, long-armed, productive four-year starter who lacks great instincts for the middle and ideal speed for the outside. Stood out at the Senior Bowl, but lost some momentum after  not attending the Combine because of “pneumonia” and postponing his pro day workout til the end of March. Has the effort production and versatility to develop into a fine pro. 

NFL projection: Third- to fourth-round pick.


Click here to see scouting reports on intriguing developmental LB prospects.

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