One of the weakest positions in this year’s draft class is linebacker, where there may be only a couple of players deserving of a first-round selection. With so few players highly rated, teams in need of a linebacker are going to have to have to do their homework and find sleepers in the late rounds that can contribute to an NFL defense. Here’s a look at a potential sleepers at the linebacker position:
Jelani Jenkins, Florida – Jenkins made a mistake by coming out a year early after an injury plagued 2012 season, which will make him a third day pick. However, Jenkins has the talent and potential to be a much higher pick, as he was one of the top high school players in the country a few years ago and then a three-year starter at an SEC powerhouse. Jenkins has the speed to play in the NFL, and once he proves he can stay healthy and starts to add some strength, there’s no telling how good he can be.
Cam Lawrence, Mississippi State – Lawrence was a tackling machine the past two seasons at Mississippi State, with 123 in 2011 and 120 in 2012. He needs to add a little weight so he doesn’t get pushed around at the next level, but he has great instincts, good intelligence, and a real nose for the ball, which should help him make up for some of his physical shortcomings. It won’t be surprising to see him stick around in the league for quite a few years.
Travis Long, Washington State – When Washington State switched to a 3-4 defense, Long moved from defensive end to outside linebacker, which appears to be the position that fits him best. Long had a steep increase in production this past season with 9.5 sacks. He doesn’t have great speed, but he works well in space and should become a useful pass rusher in a 3-4 scheme.
Alonzo Highsmith, Arkansas – After transferring from junior college, Highsmith immediately became one of the best players on the Arkansas defense in 2011. He was off to a good start in 2012 before suffering a season-ending injury, which took him off the NFL radar for the most part. Highsmith’s father played seven years in the NFL, and if there’s a team out there that’s willing to give him a chance, he’ll have a chance to replicate the career his father had.
A.J. Klein, Iowa State – Klein is the definition of a sleeper. He’s not a big or physically imposing linebacker, but he’s a tackling machine, piling up 117 for Iowa State last year. He’s a bit undersized at 6’1’’, but he started to draw some attention at the combine and has the kind of speed at linebacker that enables him to play from sideline to sideline, which should make him an intriguing prospect heading into the draft.
Nico Johnson, Alabama – Johnson’s stock isn’t all that high because he isn’t viewed as a strong defender against the pass. That being said, he’s one of the best run-stuffers available and that should make him a wanted man in the NFL. Coming from Alabama, we know that he’ll enter the league well prepared and should have no problem understanding the complexities of NFL defenses. Johnson can run, he can tackle, and he could play either inside or outside linebacker, so he’ll likely become a useful NFL player, even if he doesn’t improve his play against the pass.