Simply put, Texas A&M's Von Miller is far and away the best player of the group and one of the elite overall prospects available in 2011. The Butkus Award winner is a relentless pass-rushing threat with amazing athletic ability and won't wait very long to hear his name called. No other prospect from this group is a first-round lock, but several have a chance to go on day one.
UCLA's Akeem Ayers is another stellar athlete that made plays worthy of any highlight reel during his tenure in southern California. He starred as a 4-3 outside linebacker for the Bruins, but saw plenty of action rushing the quarterback with his hand on the ground and projects better to the 3-4. Georgia's Justin Houston also fits well in the 3-4, but his transition has already begun. After playing his first few seasons as a defensive end, Houston converted to outside linebacker when the Bulldogs installed a 3-4 scheme prior to the 2010 campaign. Both players could be selected in the second half of the first round.
The next tier features two college defensive ends that lack great size and will more than likely convert to 3-4 outside linebacker. Arizona's Brooks Reed often earns comparisons to Clay Matthews. Aside from the obvious similarities in hair, both play with great intensity and their motors on high. However, Reed doesn't own the same athletic upside as Matthews and isn't a sure thing in the first round. Texas' Sam Acho is another high-energy player that is constantly hustling. He lacks the size to play with his hand in the dirt at the next level, but looks like a day-two prospect as a 3-4 linebacker.
The top two 4-3 prospects could go anywhere between the second and fourth rounds. North Carolina's Bruce Carter is a fantastic athlete with first-round talent, but a major knee injury suffered late in his senior season leaves his health as a major risk. Washington's Mason Foster is less of an athlete and more of a good fundamental football player. The Husky defense was an atrocious unit, but Foster was a tackling machine that was forced to make plays all over the field due to a less-than-stellar supporting cast.
POSITION REPORT CARD: This group lacks depth in 4-3 outside linebackers and a lot of the 3-4 prospects will be making the transition from defensive end. It's hard to put too much stock in players changing positions and there is a dropoff in talent after the first two days anyways. This group earns a C-plus grade.
Von Miller, Texas A&M
Good News: Outstanding athlete…Explosive burst off the ball…Fantastic speed off the edge…Exceptional flexibility to bend around the corner and can dip under the tackle's reach…Cat-like quickness and agility to bring the rush back inside…Savvy pass rusher who finds ways to get to the QB using counter-moves…Good overall instincts and underrated against the run…Relentless motor.
Bad News: Limited experience dropping into coverage, although he does possess the athletic ability to be successful in this aspect…Lacks elite size to anchor in the running game and can have some trouble disengaging when tackles lock on.
2010 Statistics: Butkus Award winner…Registered 68 total tackles with 17.5 tackles-for-loss and 10.5 sacks…Added six quarterback hurries, six pass deflections, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception.
Prediction: Miller is without a doubt one of the elite players in the draft and is probably the best senior prospect. He put on a show at the Senior Bowl, showing NFL personnel he's more than a one-trick pony by dropping into coverage and breaking down in space against the run. Miller won't last long and it would be a surprise if he escaped the top five picks.
Akeem Ayers, UCLA
Good News: Exceptional athletic ability…Good burst off the ball and naturally bends around the corner pretty well…Good all-around instincts and above-average ball skills…Does a great job getting hands up when in the quarterback's face to bat down balls or even come up with occasional interception…Excellent quickness and agility…Good closing speed and acceleration to finish the quarterback…Capable in coverage…Proven playmaker all over the field.
Bad News: Assignment discipline is lacking and is susceptible to play fakes and misdirection…Too often crashes in and fails to contain the outside lane…Must take better angles to the ball…Must use his hands better to disengage against the run…Strength is average.
2010 Statistics: Second-team Walter Camp All-American and first-team All-Pac-10…Registered 68 total tackles with 10 tackles-for-loss and four sacks…Added two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Prediction: Ayers is a terrific athlete who starred as an outside linebacker in UCLA's 4-3 defense. His ability to generate a pass rush also saw the Bruins line him up with his hand on the ground on occasion. He's the type of player who is much more effective coming forward rather than playing back, and fits better as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, in my opinion. Ayers could be selected later in the first or early in the second.
Justin Houston, Georgia
Good News: Excellent pass rusher off the edge…Experienced rushing with his hand on the ground and standing up…Good burst off the snap and exceptional speed off the edge…Good flexibility…Can dip his shoulder and turn the corner…Flashes a strong bull rush when he plays with good leverage, as well as strong hands to shed a block.
Bad News: One-trick pony…Relies heavily on his speed off the edge and lacks an array of pass-rush moves…Needs to use his hands better to disengage...Can be sealed off from the running lane by single blocks when he plays too high…Very limited experience dropping into coverage and looks a little stiff in space…Needs to play with more of a consistent effort – admittedly takes plays off.
2010 Statistics: Second-team AP and Walter Camp All-American…Registered 67 total tackles with 18.5 tackles-for-loss and 10 sacks…Added 14 quarterback hurries, two pass deflections, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovered and returned for a touchdown.
Prediction: After spending his first few seasons pressuring the passer as a defensive end, Houston converted to outside linebacker when Georgia installed the 3-4 scheme in 2010. The experience puts him a step ahead in the transition, but there are still major holes in his game. Houston is a bit of a one-trick pony that relies primarily on his speed and lacks a lot of technique. He's going to need to refine his game and give a more consistent effort, something he admits has been an issue. "My top thing is going hard every play," he said. "I feel like I take plays off at times. If I can go hard every play, I know I'll make more plays." Houston's ability to get to the quarterback will still be a hot commodity and he should be off the board late in the first round or early on day two.
Brooks Reed, Arizona
Good News: Good initial quickness…Plays with good leverage and flashes the ability to bull rush…Good use of hands and fights hard to get to the quarterback…Decent set of pass-rush moves, primarily spin and rip…Good awareness…Excellent effort and leaves it all out on the field…Never stops coming and looks to counter-move.
Bad News: Doesn't possess elite athletic ability or burst…Lacks great flexibility when turning the corner to take hard angles to the quarterback and can be ridden around the pocket…Not overly strong but works hard to disengage against the run…Very limited experience in coverage.
2010 Statistics: All-Pac-10 Conference first-team selection…Registered 47 total tackles with 10 tackles-for-loss and 6.5 sacks…Added one forced fumble and two pass deflections.
Prediction: Some others don't like the Clay Matthews comparison because Reed lacks the same athletic upside. But the two liken in that they play with a non-stop motor and leave it all on the field. While Reed doesn't necessarily own great physical tools, he gets by just fine on his effort and energy. He played defensive end for Arizona, but his size and skill set projects best as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He should warrant late first-round consideration, but if he gets by the first day expect him to go in the second round.
Sam Acho, Texas
Good News: Good upper body strength…Possesses strong hands and uses them well to combat blockers…Flashes a good initial punch…Plays with good leverage and flashes the ability to bull rush…Solid overall speed…Great effort and is constantly hustling…Great intangibles – hard-working on the field and in the class room.
Bad News: Doesn't show great burst off the ball and will have to work to take the edge at the next level…Sometimes appears to lack lower-body strength and can get stalemated by stronger blockers…Decent lateral agility to break down in space but will miss tackles against quicker NFL runners…Limited experienced dropping into coverage.
2010 Statistics: Winner of the William V. Campbell Trophy (top scholar-athlete)…Registered 58 total tackles with 15.5 tackles-for-loss and eight sacks…Added 12 quarterback hurries, five forced fumbles and a pass deflection.
Prediction: Acho was a standout defensive end at Texas, but his size lends itself better to outside linebacker in a 3-4. Although he lacks elite edge rushing ability, Acho gets by on outstanding energy and hustle. He flashed the ability to play in space at the Senior Bowl and should be gone at some point during day two.
Bruce Carter, North Carolina
Good News: Excellent athletic ability for the position…Terrific straight-line speed…Takes very good angles to the ball and displays outstanding closing burst…Reads and reacts well – generally isn't fooled by play-action or misdirection…Able to get good depth in coverage and owns the athleticism to stick with running backs and tight ends…Also a standout on special teams (blocked six kicks in career).
Bad News: Significant durability concerns – suffered a torn ACL late in the 2010 season and underwent reconstructive surgery on his left knee in December…Could use hands better to disengage and get off blocks…Athleticism allows him to rush the passer but isn't refined in this aspect and doesn't own a variety of moves.
2010 Statistics: All-ACC second-team selection despite missing the final two games of the season…Registered 57 total tackles with 3.5 tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks…Added two quarterback hurries, two pass deflections, an interception, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.
Prediction: Carter may very well have factored into the first round had he not suffered a late-season knee injury. He underwent reconstructive surgery on a torn ACL in December and is still only about halfway through the rehabilitation process. If he checks out medically, Carter could be a steal in the second or third round.
BEST OF THE REST
Mason Foster, Washington
Notes: Better fundamental football player than athlete and fits well outside in a 4-3 or inside in a 3-4.
Projection: 3rd-4th round
Dontay Moch, Nevada
Notes: Former defensive end with blazing speed will make the transition to outside linebacker in a 3-4, but struggles to hold up against the run.
Projection: 3rd-4th round
Chris Carter, Fresno State
Notes: Another former defensive end with pass-rushing ability, but lacks size and will need to convert to outside linebacker in a 3-4 or 4-3.
Projection: 3rd-4th round
K.J. Wright, Mississippi State
Notes: Intriguing size, length and skill set could see him develop into an effective outside linebacker in either scheme.
Projection: 4th round
Lawrence Wilson, Connecticut
Notes: Athletic outside linebacker with great range, but lacks the necessary size and strength to hold up against the run.
Projection: 4th round
Mark Herzlich, Boston College
Notes: Great story of a cancer survivor and could still be a great player, but hasn't shown the same form from previous years to this point.
Projection: 4th-5th round