North Carolina LB Zach Brown is considered one of the few true 4-3 outside linebackers in this year's NFL Draft.
As recently as the beginning of the 2000s, the value of a big time outside linebacker was as high as it’s ever been. With most teams playing standard 4-3 defenses, a play making outside ‘backer like Tampa Bay’s Derrick Brooks or Chicago’s Lance Briggs were considered prized possessions.
But the recent proliferation of 3-4 defenses combined with the propensity of teams using three and four receiver sets has relegated many outside linebackers to part time jobs.
Considering that paradigm shift, the Rams and any other team still using a base 4-3 defense don’t value outside linebackers as much in the draft and, there simply aren’t as many available as there once were.
That could be good news for the Rams, who have a need on the outside as
According to NFL Network draft analysts Charley Casserly and Chad Reuter, the emphasis once placed on outside linebackers has changed and it leaves opportunities to find solid contributors for those positions later in the draft.
“I don’t think it’s a great class,” Casserly said. “I think it might depend on your system. In the old Tampa system, the weak side backer was kind of the star of your defense with a guy like Derrick Brooks. But I think getting a guy in the second round, that area is probably a good pick.”
“The increase in the passing game has made those positions more of a coverage position than a run stopping position in a lot of ways,” Reuter said. “They go to one or two linebacker sets more often.”
In this instance, it doesn’t appear that there are any true 4-3 outside linebackers that will come off the board in the first round though a handful could slide in to the latter portions of the round.
Boston College’s Luke Kuechly is considered a middle linebacker but has the talent to play outside. He’s almost certain to go off the board in the first 15 or so picks. Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are a middle linebacker and a 3-4 rush linebacker, respectively.
Don’t expect the Rams to grab a linebacker in round one but they could start at least looking more closely in round two. There, a group that includes Nebraska’s Lavonte David, California’s Mychal Kendricks and North Carolina’s Zach Brown will draw interest from teams on the search for outside linebacker help.
David and Brown are pure athletes at the position with David a bit on the small side while Brown has some questions about his instincts. Still, both figure to be available to the Rams with at least one of their second round picks, if not both.
“If they will continue to use a stack there, Zach Brown could be there in the second round,” Reuter said. “He’s got his issues but he can go to the ball, he can cover guys. He could be a similar value to what they got in James Laurinaitis. Lavonte David can do a little of everything as well but the size is an issue for him.”
Because there is a general lack of outside linebackers coming out of college, the other option is to find guys that might have played in the middle or even at safety and project them to the outside.
Kendricks is a prime example of such a player and one that is very intriguing. He’s scheduled to visit with the Rams today.
“There’s a guy that many have projected as a middle linebacker, Kendricks from Cal, who is 5’11 in the 230s with terrific speed, I was looking at him the other day and he has great instincts,” Casserly said. “If you put him outside, he might be a real star because he can do more run and chase.”
Kendricks might be available in the third round, a place where the Rams could also consider someone such as Miami’s Sean Spence, who also paid a visit to Rams Park earlier in the week.
After that group, there are some intriguing players that figure to be available in the middle rounds. The lack of depth at linebacker could even bolster the stock of some of those players as teams figure out where they fit on their respective boards.
Players like Nevada’s James-Michael Johnson, Arkansas State’s Demario Davis, Utah State’s Bobby Wagner and San Diego State’s Miles Burris all could be interesting prospects in the mid to late rounds.
“There are guys here and there through this draft that will get picked earlier than they normally would,” Reuter said. “I called linebacker one of the positions that doesn’t have a lot of depth and you are going to see guys get pushed up because of it. If you can cover guys and play the run as a 4-3 linebacker, you will have value. It’s the guys that don’t cover that have some problems.”
Such is life as an outside linebacker in today’s NFL.
Top Five Inside Linebacker Prospects
1. Luke Kuechly, Boston College
2. Dont’a Hightower, Alabama
3. James-Michael Johnson, Nevada
4. Travis Lewis, Oklahoma
5. Tank Carder, TCU
Sleeper: Bobby Wagner, Utah State
Top Five Outside Linebacker Prospects
1. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama
2. Lavonte David, Nebraska
3. Mychal Kendricks, California
4. Zach Brown, North Carolina
5. Andre Branch, Clemson
Sleeper: Demario Davis, Arkansas State