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Recent posts by Matt Feminis
More than ever before in the NFL, deficient athletic ability at the linebacker position is exposed. Teams want linebackers with speed, range and the ability to operate and tackle in space. More specifically, middle linebackers are asked to flip their hips and run the deep middle in cover-2; outside linebackers are asked to heat up the edges while possessing the flexibility to drop into zones. With more offenses opening up the field, stiff-hipped linebackers are targeted and exploited.
While there is still a place for a more old-fashioned type of linebacker, look no further than the draft stock of Florida ILB Brandon Spikes, who was a productive, three-year starter and emotional leader of a Gator defense which ranked amongst the most talented in recent memory. However, his lack of foot speed, flexibility and coverage skills limit his appeal.
Players with less complete skill sets last longer in the draft, but that doesn't mean they don't offer scheme-specific traits, moldable tools or ability to contribute on special teams or sub packages. Potential sleepers in this year's draft class include:
- ILB Jamar Chaney, Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are often overlooked because of their status in the SEC, and after missing the 2008 season with a broken leg, Chaney was not the subject of much publicity nationally. People took notice, however, when he posted the fastest 40-yard dash time amongst linebackers at the Combine (4.58). At a shade under 6-1 and 242 pounds, Chaney is very athletic (39-inch vertical) with fluid movement skills. Additionally, he's battle tested after starting three years for the Bulldogs. However, his instincts do not run parallel with his physical gifts. A see-and-go reactor, Chaney is not overly phsyical and does not always uncoil on contact. His evaluation is reminiscent of Georgia's Dannell Ellerbe, who came out with similar criticism a year ago. While character was a concern with Ellerbe, that is not the case with Chaney, who is praised for his work ethic and passion for the game. Ellerbe became a Raven in the third round and performed well as a rookie. Chaney has ample athletic ability to do the same if he can prove himself more than a workout warrior.
- ILB Phillip Dillard, Nebraska: Injury and time spent in the doghouse delayed Dillard's emergence in Lincoln, but he turned it on as a senior under the Pelini brothers and saw his draft stock rise. An athletic inside 'backer with bulk, Dillard is light on his feet and plays with good body control. He also shows awareness in coverage and is loose-hipped to shadow backs and tight ends. Only a one-year starter, he is short-armed, needs to use his hands better to shed and does not have an abundance of impact plays to his credit, but shows room for improvement and should be able to contribute readily on special teams.
- OLB A.J. Edds, Iowa: Because he manned Norm Parker's "Leo" position for the Hawkeyes, he was not in position to make impact plays very often, but Edds tallied five interceptions as a senior, his third season as a starter. He possesses good size, length and movement skills combined with field awareness, a head for the game and quality character. He is not an elite athlete, does not play with power and needs to get stronger (particularly in his lower body), but he is dependable and assignment-sound, which gives the team that drafts him comfort knowing what they're getting. A solid player with ability to play on passing downs and contribute on special teams, Edds could work his way into a more prominent role down the line.
- OLB Dane Fletcher, Montana State: South Dakota State's Danny Batten, an undersized collegiate defensive end like Fletcher, emerged relatively early in the process as a small-school rusher worth paying attention to. Batten has a chance to be drafted late, but Fletcher might be better. At 6-1 5/8, 249 pounds, Fletcher has sub-4.7 speed with quickness, instincts and a revved up motor. Playing as a "bandit" end, he shows lateral agility, balance and flexibility while ranging to make plays. With a 36-inch vertical and 29 reps of 225 pounds, Fletcher has the requisite physical ability, but will have to prove himself against better competition. He does not hold up at the point of attack, nor does he have experience playing in reverse. He could be tried as a rush linebacker, though he has short arms and might be tried as a weak-side linebacker in a 4-3 while he makes a mark on special teams.