Linebacker can often be one of the most overlooked positions in the NFL Draft, and this year’s crop isn’t the most spectacular collection of linebackers, but there are some real gems at the top. Let’s check out the top 10 linebackers available in the 2014 NFL Draft.
10. Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech – Attaochu may be limited to being an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, because he can be a liability in pass coverage, but if he’s put in a position where he’s going to go after the quarterback on just about every snap, he’s going to flush the quarterback from the pocket and get sacks on a consistent basis. He has a nice blend of speed and power, and is one of the best pure pass rushers in this draft.
9. Chris Borland, Wisconsin – Borland doesn’t have the size or speed that stands out, but he possesses all the intangibles you could ever want in a player. He’s smart, plays hard, and knows how to put himself in position to make plays. Borland could struggle to keep up physically in the NFL, but his sharp mind and passion for the game are going to give him a chance to earn a job and stick around a while.
8. Kyle Van Noy, BYU – Van Noy isn’t going to blow anyone away with his athleticism, size, or physicality, but he’s as smart and instinctual as they get. He’s not the most powerful player, but he can run sideline to sideline, he can blitz from the edge out of a 4-3 scheme, and he’s comfortable playing zone pass coverage. Van Noy won’t overwhelm anyone in the NFL physically, but he also won’t make mental mistakes, which should make him a steady contributor.
7. Trevor Reilly, Utah – Reilly possesses an impressive frame and the athleticism to match, which makes him look like a starting NFL linebacker. He moves well from sideline to sideline and strives to run around blockers rather than take them on physically when he comes with pressure off the edge. He’s already 26, so he doesn’t have as much room for growth as the rest of the players at his position, but he should be able to step in as a starter right away.
6. Yawin Smallwood, Connecticut – Smallwood has a good frame with long arms and good athleticism. He’s a well-balanced player with the ability to play coverage, stop the run, and get after the quarterback, with the latter being his best skill. He’s not the most physical player, but he has the skills to play either outside or inside linebacker, making him a useful and versatile player with a decent upside.
5. Telvin Smith, Florida State – Smith lacks some size and strength, but he has more than enough athleticism and instincts to make up for it, leading Florida State in tackles this past season. He has the hips to play in space, cover running backs, and elude blockers when he blitzes. Smith works as hard as anyone and plays the game with great passion, not allowing his small frame to prevent him from making plays. As far as under-sized linebackers go, he’s a player to bet on overcoming his size and carving out a significant role on an NFL defense somewhere.
4. Ryan Shazier, Ohio State – Shazier looks the part of a first round pick, and has a great combination of size and speed. He plays strong against the run, as he’s able to run from sideline to sideline and deliver good hits when he gets a chance, which should make him a productive player, possibly a 100-tackle per season type linebacker. He may not have the strength to push through blocks when rushing the passer, but he has enough of a burst to put pressure on the quarterback when he blitzes.
3. C.J. Mosley, Alabama – Mosley is by far the cream of the crop with regard to middle linebackers in this year’s draft. His athleticism is akin to a safety, which allows him to cover running backs and tight ends, but he also makes a lot of plays near the line of scrimmage and in the back field, even though he’s not a pure pass rusher. Mosley has a high football IQ and knows how to put himself in position to make plays, in addition to being physically capable of tracking down ball carriers and making good tackles. If necessary, he could move outside, but if a team needs a middle linebacker, he’s the guy to get in this draft.
2. Anthony Barr, UCLA – Barr has the size, speed, and athleticism to be the next great NFL pass rusher. He has the explosiveness around the edge that few possess, as well as incredible closing speed to make hard hits on ball carriers. Even against frequent double-teams this past season, Barr showed the strength and motor to power through blocks and rack up 10 sacks. He’ll step into the league right away and be a disruptive pass rusher, and if he can eventually become solid against the run and viable in pass coverage, he could turn into a special player.
1. Khalil Mack, Buffalo – As an athlete, Mack is not far behind Jadeveon Clowney as the second best defensive player in this draft. If there weren’t such a need for quarterbacks at the top, he would probably be a top-5 pick. He fits best as an outside pass rusher, but he showed the versatility in college to play all over the front-seven, which could pay dividends in the NFL. He has a great frame and incredible strength, which makes him a ferocious hitter who has the ability to fight through blocks and close fast on ball carriers. He isn’t great when he has to cover in space, and the NFL will be a big step up in competition after playing in a lesser conference in college, but Mack’s talent is overwhelming and he looks like a star in the making.