Wednesday, March 05, 2014

2014 Cowboys Draft Weekly Notebook - Episode 7 - Linebackers

Another week and another group of draft prospects to digest and to get to know, with this week's group being the linebackers.

Now, much like last week when we broke down the defensive ends, we should note that there are so many way to designated players at these positions that a more thorough approach would be to put them in all of their subgroups, but we are trying to get you familiar with players who would be potential fits for the Cowboys and for the Top 50-100 picks rather than something more comprehensive, so we will note the differences as we go but put linebackers in the same overall grouping.

The biggest thing to notate is that the 30 fronts and the 40 fronts both count heavily on the LBs, but they are often looking for different types.  Now, I am not going to try to act like I have a real solid handle on the specifics involved for every nuance and idiosyncrasy, but I will give you the best I can.

But overall know the following:  In a 3-4, the outside linebackers are primarily pass rushers, but they will have to defend pass routes and coverages.  But, in a 4-3, the opposite is true.  The outside linebackers will have to pass rush on occasion, but primarily, they better be able to run with potential receivers and defend downfield first and foremost.

Middle linebackers are there to coordinate the defense, get the calls out, direct traffic, and then to run the middle of the field.  They are often asked to play a physical brand of football that starts with taking on lead blockers (fullbacks) in a traditional run set, and then to insure that between the hashmarks is a difficult place to function for the offense.  But, mostly, they must be able to get sideline to sideline which requires great wheels, the ability to navigate through traffic, and instincts that require anticipation and a mind that can predict what the offense is doing so as to get the jump on the play.

In the 4-3, we designate the linebackers as Will (weak side, opposite the tight end), Sam (strong side), and Mike (middle).  These are sometimes interchangeable, but for Dallas, here are a few things that separate them one from another.

The Sam is the strong side and generally is the easiest to find, least important to fret about, and a guy who often will not be on the field on 3rd down.  His overall speed is important, but not as important as he is more of a physical banger who fills runs and tries to keep the TE from a free release.  3rd Down is also code for 2 minute offense and when you add up all the 3rd downs and all of the 2-minute offense situations, you will find that is nearly half of your snaps, so a player that misses half the snaps cannot be highly compensated, as well.

The Will is the guy that the entire scheme requires as the key to it all.  He is an incredible athlete that can do whatever you need, but mostly can run like the wind.  When it runs right, he will be flying in as the unaccounted for defender who can blow up plays, as Lance Briggs did for years in Chicago.  He can blitz, cover, and tackle well, and due to Bruce Carter's disappointing 2013, this is a real issue right now with the Cowboys plans.  Do they need to replace Carter and move Carter to the less leveraged Sam position?  There is that very conversation happening, as Carter may not be an option any longer as an every-down backer, which will of course affect his earning power very soon.

One other thing about this Will position before we get to the prospects - in fact, this may apply to all linebacker spots.  That is the issue of size.  Going all the way back to Jimmy Johnson who often was credited for making defense a speed-first objective, where he would make LBs into DEs, and Safeties into LBs, and Corners into safeties so as to get the best runners on the field as possible, we have heard all about athletes.

Well, I don't disagree.  I like guys who can run and can cause chaos, but you should know that defenses want more speed and more speed these days.  They want corners to play safety and safeties to move up to linebacker so as to cover the power forwards who now play tight ends, because 260 lb linebackers can't run with Jimmy Graham.

But, do not forget, the title in the NFC goes through the NFC West with San Francisco and Seattle.  And if you think that little linebackers will scare those physical teams, you better think again.  The ground and pound of Marshawn Lynch, or the Niners huge line, or Eddie Lacy up in Green Bay suggests that the 220 lb linebacker will not get off the field.  If you can promise this league is going away from running altogether, fine.  But, otherwise, with Chip Kelly in the division, you better remember to stop the run and remain physical on defense, and that is why I hesitate to call these little safeties like Telvin Smith a linebacker and hope for the best.  Marshawn Lynch would love that strategy, but I am not sure your defense will.

On the other hand, Smith is just the runner that teams want chasing Danny Woodhead when Bruce Carter was getting lit up.  You can see how tough it is to design a defense these days.

With all of that in mind, let's get started on this crop:

Khalil Mack - Buffalo - 6'2 - 251

This will not make me very original, but when you look at the linebackers in this class, the one that appears to be a star in the making at the next level is this guy.  I can't tell you how impressive he is, and although your first instinct is to discount his competition level, I was really blown away with his games against Ohio State and Baylor for contests in which he saw top rated power.

He flies around and covers well.  He has a major bull rush with power behind it.  He is very impressive in his confidence and handle of his assignment and plays with a very sure plan.  For lack of a better way to say it, he just looks like he plays angry and on a mission.


He is the type of talent that could go at the very top of the board, and if a guy like Clowney scares you with questions of his passion for the sport, I might argue that this guy is the type to quiet those concerns by watching him play for 5 minutes.

His pass rush is a great combination of speed and power, but he can absolutely jack up a tackle who is off balance and then close around him with athleticism that makes you think of DeMarcus Ware.  Not only that, but he sets off alarms with his explosive traits at the combine with a 40" vertical, 23 reps on the bench, and nearly 11' on the broad jump.  There appears to be very little he can't do.

They line him up all over and surely some of his statistics are helped by his going to Buffalo, but if you go back to his freshman year when nobody recruited him and saw how productive he was right off the bat as a college freshman, you have to wonder what the recruiters did not see.  He can play any linebacker spot you have for him and I wouldn't rule out DE either.  He is a monster and the type of player that has almost no apparent weaknesses and therefore would be the type of guy that you would drop everything and pick because he is just too good to pass up.

I trust you get the idea that I believe he will be a star in this league.

CJ Mosley - Alabama - 6'2 - 234

Here is a player that anyone who follows college football is aware of as he was likely the most talked about player on a defense that was universally feared at Alabama.  Mosley runs the Alabama defense like you would want any traditional middle linebacker to do.

He has great, fluid movement skills where he can fly around the defense and destroy plays.  He sheds blockers and makes tackles all day long and can take on a lead blocker with intent.  He is quite strong and has the type of wheels where he can run with running backs and faster than tight ends all day long that would make him an ideal fit for the Tampa 2 defense here in Dallas.


It is important to not get carried away with looking at his numbers behind the line of scrimmage as Alabama was not asking him to rush or dart back there very much.  They ask him to patrol 5 yards deep and destroy anything that heads in his path and he did that very, very well for the last several years for the Tide.

He is quite strong and just thumps players at a level that you won't see with all of these candidates.  In fact, some of the players on this list might qualify as the dreaded finesse linebacker, but Mosley is not that guy at all.  He is a bull in a china shop and plays to intimidate and affect your courage.

Now, there are concerns.  He is not a big pass rush guy, but when I give you a comp like Brian Urlacher, I would think you know that he wasn't that guy, either.  They are mike linebackers and rushing is a rare blitzing treat, not the diet.  Can he get there?  Sure.  But, you aren't asking him to do that.

But, the biggest red flag is his health concern.  Now, I want to be careful here, because this time of year, there is misinformation because teams wish to influence their competition and move a guy down the board with a smear technique, only to take the player long after he would have been gone.  Mosley likely does not drop to #16 if his medical is clean.  However, we hear that the wear and tear on his shoulder, elbow, and even a bit on the knee have teams worried about how many miles are on his odometer.  He looked healthy enough in the film I watched, but I am not being asked to make a 10-year investment in a player like this, which is what you want from a 1st rounder (as unrealistic as that might be).  They have to decide where he is at physically, but this is not Bruce Carter with a blown out knee.  At some point, if you want an experienced player from a big-time school, you need to understand what is normal for a player who has been through some wars at the SEC level.

However, as we see with Carter and Sean Lee, the best players in the world are useless in street clothes.  And how would Mosley fit in this scheme with Lee?  I think I would confidently say that both of them could play both spots.  Both are very intelligent players with tremendous athleticism.  So, medical pending, I would have no issue turning in the Mosley name at #16.

Anthony Barr - UCLA - 6'5 - 255

Also projected into Round 1 is this former RB, Anthony Barr.

He is a converted offensive player who is still learning on the fly about the fine arts of playing defense in space, and honestly is one of the more interesting projections of the entire draft.  What will he turn into at the next level?

I have no problem confessing that the more tape I watch of Barr, the less confident I am in where we are headed.

I don't like his power at all.  He just doesn't look like he is able to navigate with power against a tackle, which is the match-up of choice in most situations.  But, his movement skills for a player of his size are quite impressive.  He is smooth in space and can cover when asked to do so.  Against the run he is far more in his element when he is chasing down plays from behind, rather than when they are running right at him.

Here are his numbers and they are awesome for a guy just learning how to play:


He looks like a defensive end in a 4-3 to me, but I am projecting that he would put more weight and strength on his frame, because if I put him there now, it is going to be ugly against the run.  But, man, you talk about a guy that a team rich in assets might want to mold and develop, you would start with anyone who made that many plays in a major conference just moments after he learned how to play defense.

That is 74 explosive plays in about 25 games for an absurd 3 negative plays per game!

He is on the ground a lot.  He lacks enough strength to excel right away, and I just don't know where I could put him in Dallas because he doesn't look like a 4-3 LB in any way, but I can't ask him to play DE full time - which is what the Cowboys need any 1st round pick to do.

If he fell into the 2nd, now it is a different question, but I don't see Barr falling into the 2nd with this resume.  He has a rare combination of size and athleticism and therefore he is going to make some 3-4 team pretty happy, I assume.  And it may be in the top half of Round 1.  

Ryan Shazier - Ohio State - 6'1 - 237

In every position group, I want to identify the one guy who is thought of as a top talent that I "just don't get".  Well, the linebacker group is an easy one for me to throw out, because it is this Ohio State Buckeye.

I see what everyone talks about with his tools.  He is an impressive physical specimen and has the combination of a 42" vertical, 25 reps on the bench, and almost 11" in the broad jump that combine for a silly explosion number.  I know he has manipulated his weight by bulking up for the strength tests, but not running at the combine.  He will then, lose a bunch of weight and run his 40 at his pro day back down near 220 or 225 and post a solid time there, too.

But, I wanted to see way more on the field.  What I saw was a safety playing linebacker who can run and tackle, but was easily blocked too often.


He missed tackles in the Clemson and Michigan State games that I wasn't crazy about and didn't seem to pack much thump in his hits.  He can cover down field, so if you want a nickel LB who can run with guys, I think you are ok here, but I don't like a major investment in a guy for just 3rd Down situations.  I want a guy who can punish and intimidate guys from taking liberties across the middle of the field, and he just doesn't play that way.

He seems like a fantastic human being and everyone raves about his personality.  He just doesn't pop off the tape enough for my liking and he had a few mental busts that scared me off him pretty quickly.

He is very productive, but on his defense, there were many opportunities for him to benefit from others attracting attention.  He will really help a team as he is a very talented kid, and his plays on special teams were notable, including a blocked punt in the Big 10 championship game, but overall, I would say that this is a case where I think everyone else loves him more than I do.

And in Dallas, I just don't see a fit at all.

Jeremiah Attaochu - Georgia Tech - 6'3 - 252

This player might be the opposite of Shazier, in that I can't stop raving about Attaochu.

There are a few tapes over the course of the year that you find that you want everyone to see.  LaMarcus Joyner's performance against Clemson is one that you must find.  Another is what Attaochu did against Pittsburgh.  Good gracious.  On that day, he looked like the absolute best player in America as he terrorized both Panther tackles and made a menace of himself.

Overall, he is as relentless a pass rusher as there is here, and therefore might be that defensive end in the 4-3 that is undersized but worth it as he can hold his own in most rushing scenarios.  


Now, he did not compete in the Combine, because he hurt himself a bit at the Senior Bowl and sat out with a hamstring injury.  What that does to his value will depend on his pro day performance on March 28.

But, from watching him play against Clemson, Virginia, and Pittsburgh, I am willing to say that he looks like a player who red-lines his RPMs and plays his tail off at such a relentless rate that the sacks seem to follow.  He is a great effort guy, but also has tools and speed that the combination is a guy who makes huge plays.

There are talks that he might not be an ideal LB because of his ability to cover.  That might be true, but I think I would want him as a Sam/Nickel pass rusher, if not a full-time DE.

I love his passion, his work ethic, and his versatility to be a real solid joker candidate.  They say he is raw and possesses upside and he seems to have a real discrepancy in his draft projections, but this is  a guy I am ready to pound the table for in the 2nd round.  I really like his work.

Kyle Van Noy - BYU - 6'3 - 243

Kyle is a player who has a recognizable name and reputation as a linebacker who can contribute.  He will be 24 years old this summer, so he is an older prospect, but not for normal BYU mission reasons.  He actually had to sit out a year for an honor code violation for a DUI that turned into a bit of a story of redemption.

He may be the ultimate "going forward" guy.  When going north at the snap, his quickness is just shockingly good.  He really can close a gap like you want for a Tackle For Loss/Sack machine.  You aren't getting away from him if you are a QB and he is watching your flank.  That, of course, is a very useable skill these days.

StatsSacks TFLs FF's

I love him as he terrorizes tackles with his edge rush and uses his leverage well with that deep bend to gain the corner.  Open field tackles are hit or miss as you can tell that his lateral quickness is not quite why you would hope.

He works to shed and battles hard.  He covers in the slot and drops into zones, but he is not locking down a top TE or slot receiver for sure.  He is very interesting and like I said, if you can just have him as a rusher, he is very talented.  Everything else, he is ok.

I am interested at the right price, but I assume that would have to be the 2nd or 3rd round.  If he is still around, it would be exciting to get him in here, but schematically, I think you can find a more ideal fit.

He is very productive and moves pretty well, but he is not on the top tier.

Telvin Smith - Florida State - 6'3 - 218

I don't want to say that he is not my cup of tea, but as you saw above, I have a philosophical distaste for the belief that football is all about speed these days.  It is, of course, but with Seattle and San Francisco running the NFC, I am not going to be able to talk myself into putting defensive backs at linebacker.

Telvin Smith was part of a Florida State defense that absolutely believes they can win with 7 defensive backs playing at all times, and you know what?  They did.  They won the national title with this safety playing middle linebacker.  They also had tiny LaMarcus Joyner playing right next to him as a modified LB, too.  That dude doesn't weigh 200 soaking wet.

They were never worried about being overtaken, partly because they had defensive tackles that took up most of the attention and allowed these track stars to run wild all around them.  But, I think that is the difference between the ACC and NFC.  I don't think the Cowboys have DL that is abnormally taking on loads of players and they also don't have the ability to swarm with just speed.  In the NFL, at some point, I am going to need to show some physicality.


So, that is why, as I watch Telvin Smith play, I am just having an impossible time talking myself into this guy who looks like Orlando Scandrick playing Linebacker in the NFL.  I am sure Smith will help some team get it done, but I just can't see that fit being here in Dallas.  In fact, I think it would be a disaster to run him out there if my tackles are Nick Hayden and Ben Bass.

Smith runs fast and has great range.  He ran a 4.5 40 and obviously covers very well for a linebacker. If you need him to chase Danny Woodhead (as Carter could not), he is your guy.  He talks and plays with plenty of Florida State attitude and is looking to intercept the ball and run it back.  But, man, is he small.  And he is not hitting like he is 230, either.

I love speed and all that implies.  But, I will have to disagree with those that think this makes sense in Dallas.  To me, I cannot see it.

Carl Bradford - Arizona State - 6'1 - 250

Finally, Bradford from Arizona State bears our attention.  He is also rather tough to discern because he is playing DE at Arizona State, but does not have neither the DE size, nor DE quickness that I need to stay there in the NFL.  Attaochu seems to have enough quickness and strength to stay there, but Bradford, for me, looked like a guy who was joined at the hip by prospect Will Sutton and therefore did most of his damage on stunts were Sutton drew the attention.

Now, don't get me wrong, there is plenty to like with him.  He does accomplish plenty and looks like a player who could help in a few different departments.  Just know that I believe that he is well down the list and only someone I would consider if Attaochu was gone.


He can really rush the passer, but his hips don't say much about his coverage.  He can chase down from behind and can certainly move well going straight ahead, but the sudden change of direction is not his forte at all.

I am not positive where I would put him, because he is not a DE and I don't love him at LB.  He is a situational player early in his career who would have to demonstrate his ability at the next level and surely not someone you just hand 800-1,000 snaps to right off the bat without a perfect scheme fit.

I enjoyed watching him play, but was suspicious that Sutton (who I really do like) was responsible for a lot of the big plays.  He is a prospect, but one that I would likely not jump through hoops to grab.


So, in summary, Mack is amazing, Mosley requires medical consideration.  Barr and Shazier are not worth the 1st to get for Dallas' situation, Attaochu would be worthy in the 2nd, and Bradford and Van Noy in the 3rd.  Telvin Smith, for me, would not be ideal here in Dallas at the spot where he will get picked. 

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