Rush linebackers headline modest crop of OLB talent

Posted April 26, 2012 @ 7 a.m.
Posted By Nolan Nawrocki

This is the 10th 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.

This year’s OLB class could feature as many as three first-rounders, and all of them are distinguished by their ability to rush the passer. There is not a DeMarcus Ware or Von Miller among the group. Though he has yet to put it all together, Clemson’s Andre Branch best embodies the prototype, with the bend, athletic ability and burst of an elite rusher. Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw and Oklahoma DE Ronnell Lewis could be best-suited for power leverage roles in more aggressive, simple 3-4 fronts, though Upshaw wins more with power and Lewis with strength and speed. Nebraska’s Lavonte David and North Carolina’s Zach Brown are ideally suited for the weak side in even fronts and have starter potential. The strong side is short on talent, with Oregon’s Josh Kaddu standing atop a weak crop that may not command interest until after the top three rounds.

1. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama
Ht: 6-1 5⁄8, Wt: 272, Sp: 4.79, Arm: 32, Hand: 9

Notes: As a true freshman in 2008, recorded 22 tackles (team-high 18 on special teams), three tackles for loss and zero sacks with two pass breakups in 13 games. Played in all 14 contests (one start) and tallied 15-1-1 with a 45-yard fumble-return TD against Kentucky. Started 12-of-13 games at the “Jack” linebacker in ’10, producing 52-141⁄2-7 with two pass breakups and four forced fumbles. Led the team in tackles for loss and sacks in ’11 with 52-17-81⁄2 with a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown (Florida game) and two forced fumbles in 13 games (12 starts at “Jack” linebacker).

Bottom line: A very thickly built, high-intensity, power leverage rusher best with his hand in the ground moving forward. Is not as athletic as LaMarr Woodley but could best fit a similar type of role as an intimidating 3-4 rush linebacker and warrant consideration as a base, left defensive end in a 4-3 front. Has drawn comparisons from NFL evaluators to Philadelphia Eagles 2010 first-rounder Brandon Graham but is more portly and not as sleek or quick off the ball.

NFL projection: First-round pick.

2. Andre Branch, Clemson
Ht: 6-4 1⁄4, Wt: 259, Sp: 4.69, Arm: 34, Hand: 9

Notes: Redshirted in 2007. Appeared in seven games in ’08 and recorded 11 tackles, one for loss and zero sacks with a pass batted down. Sustained a concussion during ’09 fall camp. A backup in the fall, tallied 46-8-2 with two batted passes in 14 games. Started all 13 games at the “bandit” end opposite Tampa Bay Buccaneers ’11 second-rounder Da’Quan Bowers, posting 49-51⁄2-4 with seven batted passes. Logged 85-17-101⁄2 with one batted pass and one forced fumble in 14 starts at the “bandit” end in ’11. Played with a hamstring injury the last month of the season. Team captain.

Bottom line: Long-armed, talented, unpolished, ascending talent with intriguing disruptive ability and closing burst, though he does not possess elite speed, elasticity or instincts and could be overdrafted given the demand for pass rushers. Projects best as a stand-up, 3-4 right outside linebacker.

NFL projection: First-round pick.

3. Lavonte David, Nebraska
Ht: 6-1 5⁄8, Wt: 233, Sp: 4.59, Arm: 31 3⁄4, Hand: 8 3⁄4

Notes: Failed to qualify academically and spent two years at Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College — totaled 93-12-4 with one interception and six forced fumbles in 2008 (10 games) and 123-241⁄2-4 with two forced fumbles in ’09 (12 games). Entered the program weighing 210 pounds, but injuries thrust him into the Huskers’ lineup sooner than expected in ’10, when he piled up 152-15-6 with 10 pass breakups in 14 starts at “Mike” linebacker to set a single-season school record for tackles, pace the Big 12 and earn distinction as the team’s defensive MVP. Had a spectacular season in ’11, leading the Huskers in almost every defensive category while logging 133-13-51⁄2 with two pass breakups, two interceptions and three forced fumbles in 13 starts at the “Will” linebacker. Team captain.

Bottom line: An inside college linebacker who projects best to the weak side in the pros, David possesses outstanding instincts, urgency and competitiveness to factor immediately in the NFL. Will live in the football facility and outwork the pack. Compares favorably to Cardinals 2010 second-round pick Daryl Washington.

NFL projection: Top-50 pick.

4. Shea McClellin, Boise State

Ht: 6-3 38, Wt: 260, Sp: 4.66, Arm: 32 34, Hand: 10 18

Notes: Grayshirted in 2007. Appeared in 10 games in ’08, registering 14 tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack with three forced fumbles, and missed the final three games because of a knee injury. Saw action in 13 games, starting the final 11 contests at defensive end, and posted 36-6-3 with two passes batted down and one interception in ’09. Missed the season opener against Oregon (hamstring). Was an All-Conference performer and named the team’s Defensive Lineman of the Year in ’10 after totaling 30-131⁄2-91⁄2 with one interception (36-yard touchdown return vs. Toledo) and one forced fumble in 13 starts. Recovered a fumble for a touchdown against Wyoming, becoming the first Bronco to score on an interception return and a fumble return in the same season since 1999. Was the team leader in tackles for loss and sacks in ’11, logging 50-121⁄2-7 with two interceptions, one forced fumble and a blocked kick in 13 starts at the DE spot. Added 12 pounds between Senior Bowl and Combine.

Bottom line: Lean, smooth-muscled, active, instinctive college defensive end with a relentless temperament. Functional, character football player who plays better than he tests and could warrant consideration as a stand-up, upfield 3-4 rush ’backer. Versatility and dependability increase comfort level and could drive up his draft status.

NFL projection: Second- to third-round pick.

5. Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma (Jr.)
Ht: 6-1 3⁄4, Wt: 253, Sp: 4.67, Arm: 32 1⁄2, Hand: 9 1⁄4

Notes: Enrolled at Oklahoma in January 2009 and played in all 13 games as a true freshman, producing 22 tackles, 2 1⁄2 tackles for loss and one sack with one pass broken up and two forced fumbles. Made his first career start in the Sun Bowl vs. Stanford. Was shifted to the DE-LB hybrid position before the start of the ’10 season and responded with 37-5-3 1⁄2 with three pass breakups and a 12-yard interception return for a touchdown vs. Baylor in 11 games (four starts). Recorded 59-13-5 1⁄2 with five passes broken up, one interception and one forced fumble in 10 games (nine starts at defensive end) in ’11. Did not start against Texas. Missed the final two games of the regular season because of a sprained MCL in his left knee and was ruled academically ineligible for the Insight Bowl.

Bottom line: Has very intriguing quickness, burst and edge-setting strength to excel as a leverage rusher for an aggressive odd front used by a team like the Packers, Steelers or Ravens where he can be allowed to pin his ears back and attack upfield. Could have diminished value for even fronts as a situational pass rusher. Minimally will make an impact as a hammer in special-teams coverage. Will be best with simplified assignments, and character concerns invite some risk.

NFL projection: Top-50 pick.


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