While doing my Pats research for our Phinsider Draft, I forced myself to really disect all the 3-4 OLBs. Considering that their needs are similar to ours we may have an issue where either one of us could move up to get the player they want. That worries me because the Pats have so much leverage to move up (3 2nd rd picks!)
Before I get into the prospects, let me lay out the very bare basics.
1) The 3-4 Defense:
Like all systems in the NFL, you can not lump them together because of all the different variations and schemes. The 3-4 does have two basic models, aggressive and basic. In the basic, 2-GAP 3-4, generally one OLB is blitzing while the other LBs are in read mode. DL eat up blockers in the gaps and free up the LBs. LBs need to have good coverage skills. This is what the Dolphins and Pats have today. The Aggresive zone blitz schemes allow for all LBs to blitz at anytime. This is what the Steelers and Ravens use.
2) The 3-4 OLB:
If your in a Basic Scheme you should be 60% rush 40% coverage. The the agressive scheme it's probably 70-30 rush. In any event, it depends on the teams' scheme, so if an OLB is always lined up on an OT for rush purposes only, like Porter, maybe its 90-10. While the OLB,on the other side, is better suited to stuff a TE, play off the ball, and play his reads
3) Key LB Traits to look for:
We need to be very careful here. When you see prospects play at the collegiate level keep in mind they are men among children. They are the elite. Their opposition is generally always at a physical mismatch. So what happens when you move that player to the NFL where the best of the best reside, where your new opponents may now have the physical edge.
Reckless Abandon: Is the linebacker fearless? Will he throw his body in the way of two oncoming blockers and blow them up, just for the sake of blowing them up? In the NFL, many tackles are made via sacrifice and blowing up a blocking scheme. Intensity is essential, but I like to see what the player is doing when he is away from the play. Over aggressiveness is the extreme and a major red-flag. The NFL has little tolerance for being in the wrong place because the defenses are so scheme oriented.
Low pad level: Low man wins. 99.9% of the time. Especially with a 3-4 OLB, you will need your pads low and legs firmly underneath you when rushing the edge. Without that leverage, an OT will dominate you with his hands and you will have no chance of making up for the size difference. Some players play tall and that means that their chest is not in line with their hips on a 45 degree angle. These players usually rely on dominating blockers by using their arms and not their legs. That ends in the NFL. Playing high reduces your reaction time and slows players down. Despite slower measurables, a player with low pad level will play faster than his 40 time "indicates".
Form Tackling: It's an art that is sadly being lost. Contact does not end the tackle. Some of the prospects are so big and fast that they can rely on the collision itself to bring carriers down. That too ends in the NFL. I can not count the number of times I've watched these "top" prospects make contact and end up dragging down a ball carrier with their legs flailing behind. Sure the hit was nice and it was a 3 yrd loss, but an NFL back will run through you.
Body type: Beware of workout warriors. When top colleges recruit HS kids, they want to know what a player's growth potential will be. What kind of frame do they have and what is their genetic potential. We always see top prospects who were red shirt freshman at 6'3 240 and 3 yrs later turn into All League players at 6'4 290. How did they get there? You can speculate all you want, but there is a method to the madness. Some guys come out of HS 6'3 245 and already full of muscle. they may get stronger and faster but their body size might be capped out.. at some point the muscle size will negatively impact speed and flexibility. Same hold true when moving from college to the pros.
There are so many more.. but these are the basic ones that help me separate those who are more pro-ready and those who might not translate into the pro game as well. And this is just a discussion on the physical... dumb-asses and those who need attitude adjustments will loose stock quickly... The NFL is a job and they will be evaluated as employees first and foremost.
As Conan The Barbarian once said, "ENOUGH TALK" ....onto the prospects:
( I'll put them in my order of preference)
1) Aaron Curry, Wake- Does it all, has all the intangibles. A solid character guy.
2) Brian Orakapo, Texas- He and Curry are interchangeable. Brian is bigger, faster and stronger, but I like Curry's potential more in space. Brian is a convert DE and that in and of itself will be a project.
3) Brain Cushing, USC- This Brian has all the things missing from the prior Brian. What worries me about Cushing most is that despite his athletic frame, he appears too lean with muscle. Too much lean muscle ? Yeah, it's hard to stay fresh and healthy when you are banging up your muscles over and over again. I love his motor and game speed. He is still 4.7 fast with the pads on. What I like least is that he does not use his legs enough when tackling. Something he will learn the hard way... see BOZ.
4) Everette Brown, FSU- Another DE convert, Everette's talent appears raw. He plays slick and with high pads. He also does not always finish tackles. His raw ability won't be enough in the NFL. He needs a good year or two of on job training. HUGE upside with Everette.
5) Larry English, No Illinois- He will be on most draft boards along side Sintim, Mathews, and Maybin. When I watch him on film with the others he stands out. Granted the competition may have been a bit less, what stands out are the traits I look for. When he tackles, he uses his legs and finishes. He resembles Curry and Orakapo with his burst and low pad level. As an edge rusher, he actually looks the most explosive. His biggest downside is the transition to LB. I am not worried about his slower 40 times, because his game speed is solid. I am worried about him getting schooled in coverage and in open space.
6) Clay Mathews, USC- Clay and Sintim are very close, and yet very different players. I like Clay more because he has that reckless abandon I'm looking for. I didn't see many times where he was slowed down. He's always moving forward, much like Roth. He is definitely unpolished and his aggressiveness might be his downfall, but that is something that can be taught. His football instincts are great however his skills are a work in progress...
7) Clint Sintim, VA- Clint is very intriguing. He does not impress me as a 1st round pick. Though he seems to have tons of potential like Everette Brown, his weaknesses are more profound. He is very fluid and slick, but does not show that raw power and explosiveness the other prospect have. (through the point of attack)He plays very tall, relying on his arms too much. This is not going to work with the masterful handfighting OTs in the NFL. And, much more so than Cushing, he leaves his legs behind when tackling. I hate using the word potential, but he reeks of it.
8) Zach Follett, CAL- A smaller Cushing, but better tackler. If you can a few pounds on him without sacrificing his speed, you might have a 2nd or 3rd round steal. Plays like Mathews with Cushings abilities, scary upside...
9) Aaron Maybin, PSU- Aaron is slipping on draft boards because his only hope in the NFL may be a 3-4 OLB. He is a true conversion and may need the most work. He is a solid athlete and physical specimen but does not move smoothly. He appears very stiff and robotic to me. Just ok as an edge rusher.
Marcus Freeman OSU: doesn't appear to play big enough as a true 3-4 OLB, but he is very polished. He has good size, but it doesn't translate into power. Great game speed. Pass rushing must improve, and as we know that's vital for a 3-4 OLB.
Paul Kruger, Utah: A Matt Roth project. Might be worth the investment, I'd wait for 4th 5th round for value.
Connor Barwin, CINCY: From TE to DE, can he translate to OLB. A project like Maybin. Even without the experience, I like the way he gets to the QB. He might be the fastest guy in here. A good 2nd 3rd Rd pick.
I am all for Larry English.... if OLB is where we go.
Vonate Davis is my hopeful:)
Sorry for length....