Top inside LBs could provide immediate help

Ryan Wood
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Miami inside linebacker Denzel Perryman.

INDIANAPOLIS -- On his back, Denzel Perryman wore a target every snap. There's tradition at Miami, a long lineage of linebackers who left their mark on the game.

One number stands above the rest.

Perryman knew his No. 52 jersey demanded a high standard. It's the same number future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis wore at Miami. Perryman first met Lewis as a freshman. After addressing the team, one of the greatest middle linebackers of all time pulled the youngster aside.

Perryman still remembers Lewis asking about his number.

"He told me he was going to be watching me," Perryman said. "So I pretty much felt like I had eyes over me, no matter what."

Over four seasons, Perryman did the No. 52 proud. The Hurricanes' defensive MVP exceeded 100 tackles in each of his final two seasons. He consistently caused problems behind the line of scrimmage, finishing with 27 tackles for loss in his career.

As a senior, Perryman was a Butkus Award finalist, third-team all-American and first-team all-ACC. Lewis must've been pleased. Not long ago, the two-time Super Bowl champion returned to his old college. After addressing the team, he pulled Perryman aside once again.

"He just told me to get ready for this process," Perryman said.

The process hit its climax Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium, where Perryman met the media at the NFL Scouting Combine. He doesn't want the similarities with Lewis to stop at his jersey number, he said. Perryman's goal is to be the first inside linebacker drafted in his class.

Just like Lewis.

"It would mean a lot," Perryman said. "It's something that I can say was one of my goals when I first started playing football. Obviously, get to the NFL. Now I'm here. To be the first inside linebacker taken, obviously that's a blessing."

He's one of three inside linebackers competing for that distinction. UCLA's Eric Kendricks and Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney could also put themselves in contention.

UCLA inside linebacker Eric Kendricks

Kendricks, younger brother of Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks, has an impeccable family history. McKinney, a spread quarterback in high school, has raw athleticism and loads of potential. Of the three, Perryman has earned a reputation among scouts for being most polished.

"I'm smart," Perryman said. "I'm a physical, downhill, hard-nosed dog."

If they're available when Green Bay's turn arrives with the 30th pick in the first round, it wouldn't be surprising if the Packers select any of the top three inside linebackers. For a team that had few weaknesses in 2014, this is a major exception. Even before they cut Brad Jones on Friday, saving $3.75 million on next season's salary cap, inside linebacker represented the Packers' biggest need.

A year ago, Green Bay entered the offseason knowing it needed to upgrade a safety position that combined for zero interceptions in 2013. They did that, using a first-round pick on Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and helping Morgan Burnett develop into a defensive captain and stout run defender. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said inside linebacker reminds him of where the safety position was a year ago.

He'd like to see the same one-year turnaround.

"You look at the outside linebacker position and the inside linebacker position, I think the first thing you've got to ask yourself is how many of these guys play four downs," McCarthy said. "That's what I look at as the head coach. I think it would be nice to have more of those guys that can play (four downs). If you want to say a guy's a starter in a certain personnel group of whatever, he's definitely a contributor on first and second down, and even has the ability to play third down.

"That's where I'm at. I think we need to add more guys that can play all four downs in there. I think that's definitely something that you look at."

Those linebackers are rare. They're usually taken high in the draft, though not always. McCarthy said Sam Barrington, a former seventh-round pick, took a "huge step" in his second season. Barrington might be one piece the Packers can build around.

Maybe Green Bay can uncover a late-round gem in this draft, but it's clear the Packers also are scanning the top of this inside linebacker class. Perryman and McKinney said Friday they'll meet with Green Bay personnel in Indianapolis. McKinney said he also filled out a questionnaire at last month's Senior Bowl.

The two linebackers present different styles. McKinney is a more explosive pass rusher, finishing his career with three more sacks than Perryman despite playing one fewer season.

Mississippi State inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney

Perryman also must prove he can hold up in man-to-man pass coverage. He stands only 5-foot-11, five inches shorter than McKinney, with a posted 40-yard dash time that's almost .15 seconds slower.

The speed gap could change in Indianapolis, but not the tape measure. Perryman said he's not worried.

"I've pretty much been getting knocked for my height since I got to high school, getting recruiting," Perryman said. "I'd say my play makes up for my height. I don't play like I'm 5-11."

There's no question Perryman saw more inside linebacker snaps in college.

McKinney lined up in multiple positions at Mississippi State. While inside linebacker was his primary spot, he also rushed the quarterback from the edge as a defensive end.

At 249 pounds, McKinney will play linebacker exclusively in the NFL. It will be a transition, but McKinney said he feels most comfortable at inside linebacker.

"You have to be tough to play inside," McKinney said. "You have to be a vocal leader because you have to set the fronts, get everybody lined up. You have to be smart. You have to know the game, know your opponent. You have to be ready to figure out formations, figure out what the offense is going to give you. So you have to be smart, and you have to be really tough."

McKinney said he's tried to avoid draft rankings. The only time he sees the scouting reports is when friends link to them on social media. Still, he wants to be the first inside linebacker drafted. Just like Perryman, it's a goal over the next two months.

Perryman knows the Packers are looking for immediate help at inside linebacker. Right now, he said, it'd be a dream to hear his name called by any team. The opportunity in Green Bay is especially exciting.

Just like Miami linebackers of the past, Perryman wants to leave his mark in the lineage.

"Whether it's the Packers or any other team, I feel like I can come in and make an impact right away," he said. "I've been playing football all my life. I know it's a big transition from college to the NFL, but at the same time, you're pretty much putting in the same work. It's just more."

-- and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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