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Zombo, Walden cushion Green Bay Packers' linebacker needs

Apr. 21, 2011
 

Linebackers

• Overall: Anywhere from five to eight 3-4 outside linebackers could go in the first round, but with the ever-increasing emphasis on smaller outside pass rushers in the spread-offense college game, there often are some quality lesser-known prospects in the middle and later rounds as well.

• Top prospect: Texas A&M’s Von Miller led the nation in sacks two years ago and though on the smallish side can turn the corner with the best of them.

• Packers outlook: This is perhaps the lone position where a high-round pick would be a good bet to start immediately for the Packers. Their top returnees opposite Clay Matthews are Brad Jones, who missed most of last season because of a shoulder injury, and Frank Zombo and Erik Walden, who combined to play well enough to help the Packers win the Super Bowl. Inside linebacker rates low on the priority list, where the Packers are salary-heavy with A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop having signed new contracts, and either Brandon Chillar or Nick Barnett will probably have to go because of budget concerns.

• Rising star: Aldon Smith played for a shaky defense at Missouri but zoomed up draft boards because of his pass-rush potential after surprisingly declaring as an early entry.

• Falling star: Pittsburgh’s Greg Romeus started the college season as a potential top prospect, but a disc injury early in his senior season and torn ACL late moved him to a mid-round prospect at best.

• Sleeper: Marc Schiechl from little-known Colorado School of Mines is the Division II all-time sacks leader (46), has good enough size (6-2½, 251), and tested well for an outside linebacker at a campus workout (4.64 seconds in the 40, 35-inch vertical jump, 10-5 broad jump and 38 bench-press reps). He’s a late-round prospect.

• Wisconsin ties: Central Michigan ILB Nick Bellore ( Whitefish Bay); Winona State ILB Cody Dummer (Waterford); UW outside linebacker Blake Sorenson; UW inside linebacker Culmer St. Jean.

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Yes, the Packers won the Super Bowl with undrafted rookie Frank Zombo and street free agent Erik Walden sharing time at right outside linebacker the second half of the season and the playoffs.

But considering how crucial that playmaking position is in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme, it’s a good bet General Manager Ted Thompson is open to trying to upgrade the talent opposite Clay Matthews with a high draft pick.

Drafting at No. 32 overall in the first round means the highest-rated outside rushers will be gone, but there still could be multiple prospects of interest to the Packers when it’s their turn to select.

UCLA’s Akeem Ayers, Georgia’s Justin Houston and Arizona’s Brooks Reed could be available at No. 32 overall. Teams’ grades vary on them, though Ayers might be the most ready for the 3-4 because in college he played in all the various roles (coverage, the point of attack, outside pass rusher) the Packers ask of their outside linebackers.

“He fits exactly what they’re doing up there (in Green Bay),” one NFL scout said recently. “When you watch (Ayers) on tape, he’s a big man that can move. His (4.28-second short) shuttle showed he has some change in direction and balance and some acceleration in short areas.

“I think he’ll be fine (in the 3-4). If you want him to guard a running back all the way down the field 40 yards, then you might be in trouble. But coming off that edge, rushing the passer, doing what they do up there, I think he’ll be good.”

The Packers’ need isn’t desperate, because they also have third-year pro Brad Jones returning. He was the starter opposite Matthews the second half of 2009 and opened there last year before a shoulder injury ended his season in October.

But if Thompson selects an outside linebacker in the first round or two, there’s a good chance that player will be a starter, depending in part on whether the lockout cancels some or all of training camp.

Five prospects as 3-4 outside linebackers figure to be gone by the time the Packers select: Texas A&M’s Von Miller probably is a top-five pick; Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers (knee) and North Carolina’s Robert Quinn (benign brain tumor) appear to be top 15 to 20 picks despite medical concerns; Missouri’s Aldon Smith is a surefire top-20 pick; and Purdue’s high-motor Ryan Kerrigan appears likely to go somewhere from the late teens to the late 20s of the first round.

Whereas Ayers’ physical testing wasn’t impressive for a late first-round prospect, Houston’s was. Though Houston is bigger than Ayers (270 pounds to 254), he ran faster (4.62 seconds to Ayers’ 4.81 in the 40) at the NFL scouting combine and was markedly better in four of the five other most important tests: bench press (30 reps to 18), vertical jump (36½ inches to 31 inches), broad jump (10-feet-5 to 9-8) and the three-cone drill (6.95 seconds to 7.49 seconds). Ayers was better only on the short shuttle (4.28 seconds to 4.37 seconds).

But some scouts think Houston tests better than he plays and question his instincts for the demanding role of a 3-4 outside linebacker in Capers’ scheme.

When asked if Houston is in fact instinctive enough, one scout paused for several seconds before answering.

“I think he’s instinctive enough to get it done out there,” he said. “I like his size, I like the way he runs and hits, he’s violent. Some people are trying to stack him in a 4-3 (as an end) because of his size. He can play in that (3-4) defense, there’s no question. I actually have Houston a little bit ahead of (Ayers).”

Reed is the wild card of the three. Some scouts see him as an overachiever who is close to maxed out physically, a player that shouldn’t be drafted until the third round. But others see a savvy, productive player who should go at the bottom of the first round or early in the second because he’s a little more athletic than he appears and has the versatile skills needed of a 3-4 outside linebacker, or to play for a team that uses both a 3-4 and a 4-3 in its weekly game plans.

“I really liked (Reed), he’s a perfect fit for what New England does (in its 3-4),” another scout said. “They like a guy that can rush the passer but (also) can do a lot of different things, can play a lot of different schemes, can play on the end, can stand up. I think Brooks Reed is a very good football player.”

Rating the top outside linebackers

1. Von Miller, Texas A&M, 6-2 5/8, 246, Round 1: A pass-rushing machine who might be among the first five picks and in the last two years had 39 tackles for a loss and 27½ sacks. “Looks like it to me,” one scout said when asked if Miller is the best pass rusher in this draft. “You talk about somebody that can run low and corner and all that, wow, he’s special now.” Led the nation with 17 sacks as a junior, then last year suffered a sprained ankle in the opener that cut his production. Can be a 3-4 outside linebacker or 4-3 rush end. Not stout but extremely explosive. Blew away the 40 in 4.42 seconds, which tied for best among linebackers at the NFL scouting combine, also tied for the best three-cone drill (6.70 seconds) and had the second-best vertical (37 inches) of the linebackers. “If somebody like the Packers had him on the other side (of Clay Matthews), that would be like unbelievable,” said a scout for a team that runs a 4-3 defense. “He’ll be top 10 for sure. He can play for anybody. I’d take him and play him at defensive end and let him stand up.”

2. Aldon Smith, Missouri, 6-4¼, 263, Round 1: Entering the draft after his redshirt sophomore season, has moved up the charts as teams have scrutinized his play for a mediocre Missouri defense. “I’m in love with him,” one scout said. “He doesn’t play hard, he’s the opposite of reckless. But he’s got some instincts, pass-rush stuff that’s off the charts, freak show, he’s just got it. He’s got a built-in GPS, he takes short cuts to the ball, he never looks at a blocker. He’s special. For a guy that only played two years? Oh lord.” Was Big 12 Conference freshman of the year in ’09 (19 tackles for a loss, 11½ sacks), then last season missed three games because of a broken fibula. Limped through a couple games after his return, saw his production drop to 10 tackles for a loss and 5½ sacks. Tested only OK (4.74 seconds in the 40, 34-inch vertical) for his apparent talents, also young and immature, which could limit his success early in his career. But has major potential in some scouts’ eyes and won extra points by returning quickly from his broken leg. “He has outstanding pass-rush ability,” a second scout said. “If you go back and look at his freshman year, he’s a premier rusher, I’m talking about top-level rush skills on a very young frame, this is a young kid that’s (263) pounds. He plays much faster on the field than he does in his 40. He’s long, he’s rangy, he’s got a great nose for the ball whether it’s sacking the quarterback, tipped passes, chasing down run plays. I mean, this guy’s tougher than (crap).”

3. Robert Quinn, North Carolina, 6-4, 265, Round 1: Talented junior who’s difficult to grade because of a medical issue and year off football last season. Was ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA and missed all last year for taking improper benefits from an agent but is considered more of a follower than leader and not a big character risk. However, when he was a senior in high school he had a brain tumor that caused swelling in his brain, which required surgery. The tumor was benign, remains in his head and is re-examined every six months. “He can turn a corner, I’d give him a 10 on cornering,” one scout said. “Fluid running low to the ground, all that real stuff. He’s remarkable at that. But he plays like a chicken (expletive), afraid of piles. He doesn’t play hard. But he had a brain tumor. I wouldn’t stick – how do you think he feels sticking his head in a pile with a brain tumor?” As a sophomore had 19 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks as a defensive end. Looked agile enough in offseason workouts to play 3-4 outside linebacker though he’s not a natural in coverage. Tested well but not great (4.62 40, 34-inch vertical). Not nearly in the class of former North Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers. “His production comes off non-competitive competition,” another scout said. “It’s selective, it’s not dominant. When I went and watched Julius Peppers, it was like, ‘Whoa, OK.’ Robert Quinn is not Julius Peppers, he’s not the athlete Julius was. But what really concerns me is the benign brain tumor. I’ve never ever heard of a guy getting drafted in the first round with a brain tumor. That worries me.”

4. Da’Quan Bowers, Clemson, 6-3 3/8, 280, Round 1: Junior entry might have been in the running for the top choice overall if not for a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery in the offseason. Is a medical red flag because some teams think the knee will require microfracture surgery, which can be hit or miss. “There are some saying you’re going to get a contract and a half out of the guy, and then there’s going to be some issues,” a scout said. “Others are saying the guy played hurt, was extremely productive, and he got a cleanup. It’s going to take him a little time to get back in shape, but you know what? You’re still getting a good football player.” Had a monster season in ’10 with 26 tackles for a loss and 15½ sacks, then had surgery in January to repair torn meniscus cartilage in his knee. Wasn’t fully recovered when he finally worked out for scouts April 1, ran the 40 in just under 4.9 seconds and had a 34½-inch vertical jump. Because of his size fits best as a 4-3 end but looked athletic enough to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 even at 280 pounds. “A lot of speed rushers when you bring ’em inside (on stunts) they’re not real big about getting into the tall trees, they stop,” a scout said. “This guy gets vertical. He outworks people. Two things were most impressive: how fast he gets on the edge, and then No. 2 is his work, he’s relentless. You might block him, but he ain’t stopping, he’s going to keep going until he gets to your quarterback. That’s the hard thing to teach young guys.”

5. Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue, 6-3 7/8, 267, Round 1: Only an OK tester for a first-round prospect but made too many plays to dismiss as only a try-hard player. “He plays fast, and the whole thing is he’s so dang productive, all those forced fumbles and all that,” a scout said. “I think he would buy into (your coaching), he’s the kind of guy that would buy into all that stuff. I think he’ll be a good player, I think you’ll be proud to have him on your football team.” In his three years as a starter had 55 tackles for a loss and 32½ sacks and tied the Football Bowl Series record with 14 fumbles forced in his career. Played defensive end for Purdue but appears athletic enough for a 3-4 outside linebacker. Ran the 40 in 4.67 seconds at the combine and had a 33½-inch vertical. Probably will go between picks 15 and 25. “Great kid, works his (butt) off,” a second scout said. “Wherever he goes, if he gets in the right system he’ll be a good player. I don’t know if he’ll ever get in the Pro Bowl, but he’ll be a good player.”

6. Akeem Ayers, UCLA, 6-2½, 254, Rounds 1/2: Junior entry who didn’t put up big numbers on the field or testing, but shows versatility to play the run and rush the passer. “Ayers can play all over the place,” one scout said. “He played on the right side, he played on the left side. He rushed as a four-down lineman on the end, played as a strong outside linebacker. He was always around the ball, really good football player.” In two seasons as a starter had 24½ tackles for a loss and 10 sacks, including a pedestrian-looking four sacks as a senior. Performed poorly in tests at the combine (4.81 seconds in the 40, 31-inch vertical), knocked his 40 down to 4.69 seconds at his campus workout. Impressive on the hoof, but some scouts are wary of his toughness, a common complaint of players from UCLA. “He’s not an overly explosive dude, but he’s a really good athlete,” another scout said. “He can rush the passer, he can play outside linebacker. He’s not an explosive point-of-attack-player, he’s a little more finesse. But he’s very athletic, he can rush, he can drop, he can do a lot of stuff. I just don’t know if he’s a (butt) kicker. But we might be beating him up too much because of the UCLA thing.”

7. Justin Houston, Georgia, 6-2 7/8, 270, Rounds 1/2: Junior entry who tests great and shows pass-rush ability. Played defensive end in college and will have to drop a few pounds to play linebacker in a 3-4. “Only thing with Justin is, he was 270 pounds at the combine,” a scout said. “Is that the weight he’s going to stay at? That’s a big rush outside linebacker. He looks like he could be in that 255, 260 range pretty easily. He’s got natural pass-rush ability, bend around the corner. He’s had really good production in the SEC. He can be a standup outside linebacker as well. I do like him.” In two seasons as a starter had 33½ tackles for a loss and 17½ sacks. Ran the 40 in 4.62 seconds and had a 36½-inch vertical at the combine while carrying 270 pounds. Was suspended for two games in ’09 for violating Georgia’s substance-abuse policy. “Real inconsistent,” another scout said. “You can find stuff where he’s dominating, you can find times where he totally disappears. Looks like effort (shortcoming) to me.” Ran the 40 in 4.62 seconds and had a 36 ½-inch vertical at the combine while carrying 270 pounds.

8. Brooks Reed, Arizona, 6-2½, 263, Rounds 1/2: A high achiever who’s considered a late first-round prospect by some and a third-rounder by others. “A lot of people like him though, a lot of people are talking about the guy,” said a scout who had a later second-round grade on Reed. “I saw a good athlete that runs, good production on tape. He’s a collision tackler, that’s what you want, and he has the ability to play in space. He has a chance.” Moved from H-back to defensive end after his redshirt freshman season. In three seasons as a starter had 24½ tackles for a loss and 16½ sacks, though his junior season was diminished by a sprained ankle. Had 10 and 6½ last season. Surprised at the combine with a 4.65-second 40, and put up an impressive 30 bench-press reps. “I say (he’s an) overachiever, but his workout numbers were pretty good,” a second scout said. “I think he’s about as good as he’s going to get. He’s a good effort player with some nice pass-rush ability, plays the run pretty solid. A nice all-around player. I don’t think he’s special, I think his workout numbers are a little juiced up – I don’t mean juiced steroids, I mean as pumped up (from practicing them) as they’re going to get.”

9. Jabaal Sheard, Pittsburgh, 6-2 7/8, 264, Round 2: Defensive player of the year in the Big East Conference last season, projects better to 3-4 outside linebacker than 4-3 defensive end even though he played the latter in college. “I did (like him) and I didn’t,” a scout said. “I could see him go in the third round. He just doesn’t want to play the run, he really wants to be a linebacker.” Put up solid numbers in three years as a starter (35½ tackles for a loss, 19½ sacks) and produced last year (14½ and nine) while playing through injuries to his elbow and thumb. Not a great athlete (4.68-second 40, 31-inch vertical) but isn’t bad and has some intangibles. Was arrested last summer for throwing a man through a glass door, pled guilty to disorderly conduct, and served an offseason suspension. “He’s a good effort player, plays tough,” another scout said. “He could probably be a standup rush guy. He’s got some natural pass-rush ability and he’s tough.”

10. Dontay Moch, Nevada, 6-1 3/8, 248, Rounds 2/3: Slightly undersized prospect with exceptional speed. “He’s got speed and speed and speed,” a scout said. “He plays football pretty well too. A 3-4 team is really going to be interested in Dontay because of the flat-out ability to run and chase. He can run like nobody, really can. (That speed) shows up in his play, which is very intriguing.” Put up good playmaking numbers as a three-year starter at defensive end with 59½ tackles for a loss, 26½ sacks. Had 22 and 8½ last season. Blew away the physical testing with a 4.42-second 40, 42-inch vertical jump and 10-8 broad jump, all bests among defensive ends and linebackers at the combine. “He’s a flat-out athlete,” another scout said. “He’s going to contribute on special teams right away, he likes to run and hit. He likes to deliver. He’s got good rap and speed. Some people might say he’s a better athlete than football player, but not when you turn the film on, you see him making some plays. I really like him. I like his athleticism, and this guy is fast.”

Rating the top inside linebackers

1. Martez Wilson, Illinois, 6-3¾, 250, Round 2: Junior entry and three-year starter with an Adonis physique and some explosiveness. Might be able to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 but fits better on the inside in that scheme or any of the three spots in a 4-3. Was a medical redshirt in ’09 because of a disc injury in his neck that ended his season after the first game. Last year had 112 tackles, 11½ tackles for a loss, four sacks and three fumbles forced. Blazed the 40 in 4.42 seconds at the combine. Could be an excellent blitzer. “I loved his size, his ability to get to the ball,” a scout said. “He can run and hit, he likes to play in space. When he drops back he’s very aware in space. He has a good nose for the ball, good eyes, and he has the size you’re looking for. His Pro Day, the guy’s drill work was exceptional.”

2. Bruce Carter, North Carolina, 6-1½, 241, Round 2: Four-year starter probably would have been a first-round prospect if not for a torn ACL last November, which means he won’t be able to work out for scouts before the draft and might not be ready to play at the start of the season. In his career had 24 tackles for a loss and 9½ sacks. A big-time athlete who plays fast. “If this guy gets healthy again, he’s a Pro Bowl-type football player, he really is,” a scout said. “Very instinctive. Great eyes, he can sift and find the ball in the traffic, he’s more of a slip and dodge guy when it comes to taking on offensive linemen, that’s what they’re teaching now, it’s not a negative for me.” Another scout, though, questioned Carter’s instincts: “I don’t think he’s a natural football player. When he sees something and knows where he’s going, he goes very quickly and gets there in a bad mood. At other teams he sees things and he’s not sure and he just floats. You can’t play as a linebacker in the NFL if you’re not sure, you’re going to get killed.”

3. Quan Sturdivant, North Carolina, 6-1, 241, Rounds 3/4: The lesser talented of North Carolina’s strong linebacker duo. Full-time starter his final three seasons who had 262 tackles, 26 tackles for a loss and six sacks in that time. Not the athlete Carter is, ran the 40 in an OK 4.65 seconds at his campus workout after sitting out most of the combine testing because of a hamstring injury. Did 21 bench-press reps and had a 34-inch vertical jump. Arrested for misdemeanor possession of less than a half-ounce of marijuana last summer, charges were dismissed when he reached a deferred prosecution agreement. Scouts like his instincts and leadership skills. “I like Sturdivant, but I like Carter much better,” a scout said. “Sturdivant is going to be good, this guy’s going to be really good. There’s not a lot of middle linebackers.”

4. Colin McCarthy, 6-1 3/8, 238, Rounds 3/4: Undersized go-getter who became a starter as a sophomore and missed half his junior season because of a shoulder injury. Last year had 119 tackles, 10½ tackles for a loss and a sack. Played well at the Senior Bowl, scores high as a leader. Tested well (4.59 seconds in the 40, 36½-inch vertical) but doesn’t play like that type of athlete. “Overachiever,” a scout said. “Tough kid. Sometimes I wonder what he’s looking at. He gambles, he freelances at times. He’s the stack backer and the guard is pulling to the right and he’s going to the left, I don’t know what he’s looking at sometimes. But when he attacks things he’s going to get there. He’s not very good in man coverage. He couldn’t cover anybody, that’s a limitation. But he was better this year and healthy for the first time.”

5. Nate Irving, North Carolina State, 6-1, 240, Rounds 4/5: Missed the ’09 season after a devastating, life-threatening car accident, came back with a strong second half last year. Among other injuries, broke his leg in two places and suffered a collapsed lung after falling asleep at the wheel and crashing his car in the summer of ’09. Two-year starter had 92 tackles and 22½ tackles for a loss last year, and showed excellent blitz ability (seven sacks) as the season wore on. Was only OK in physical testing (4.76 in the 40, 32½-inch vertical), but showed some strength in bench press (27 reps). Was more committed to academics and football after the accident and also emerged as a leader. “The leg is not a problem that he broke in the accident,” a scout said. “His liability is going to be in pass coverage, he’s not an instinctive pass guy, he’s attack the line of scrimmage and blitz him. He led the team in sacks, and he’s very instinctive, he sees things, and when he sees them he has the ability to snap the picture and go there quickly.”

Reach Pete Dougherty at pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com or at www.twitter.com/PeteDougherty.

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