Rams Draft 2011: Looking for Linebackers

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click to enlarge James Laurinaitis is the man in the middle for the Rams, but he needs help on the outside. - commons.wikimedia.org
James Laurinaitis is the man in the middle for the Rams, but he needs help on the outside.
Whereas the wide receiver class of 2011 has taken some serious hits as players chose to return to school rather than go pro, the linebacker contingent has seen no such attrition. Even so, it isn't a particularly strong group this year. There isn't much in the way of James Laurinaitis/Clay Matthews sort of talent to be had. There are intriguing players, to be sure, but none who carry that can't-miss sort of pedigree. 

With that in mind, the Rams picked kind of a bad year to need a linebacker, but that's just what they need. Laurinaitis has the middle of the field locked up for years to come, but the outside linebacker positions were a huge liability in 2010. Weakside was especially onerous; Nai'l Diggs played well enough at strongside to at least remain unnoticed most of the time. As it stands, though, the Rams absolutely have to come up with some kind of upgrade at one or both OLB positions if they hope to build on the success the defense saw this year. 

Looking at the available free agents, there doesn't look to be much help there. There are a few great names, guys like Chad Greenway (MIN), LaMarr Woodley (PIT), and Tamba Hali (KC), but I just can't see those teams letting such high-end players get away. Unfortunately for the Rams, I think any improvement in the linebacker corps will likely have to come through the draft. 

Without further ado, some scouting reports of persons of interest for your consideration: 

Von Miller, Texas A&M -- Miller's stock is rising through the roof of late, especially since he's started receiving some good press out of the Senior Bowl practices this week. He came into the season ranked as the top 3-4 outside linebacker (also called a rush linebacker), in the draft, and didn't do anything during the season to change that opinion. 

What has changed a bit is the view of Miller as strictly a 3-4 player. He's gotten good marks for his play in coverage, and there are some teams now looking at him as a potential fit for a 4-3 scheme as well. (The Rams run a 4-3.) 

I'm not sold on Miller as a 4-3 guy just yet. His best attributes are his elite first step, explosiveness, and a variety of moves he can put on an offensive lineman or tight end in the pass rush. All of that points to him being an elite pass rusher, and a much more valuable commodity to a defensive scheme that would utilise him as such. He's good enough in coverage I think he could make it in a 4-3 scheme, but I don't know if he would be the same kind of high-level player he's expected to be in a 3-4 alignment. Bottom line: He's a first-rounder for a team running a 3-4 easily. A 4-3 team, though, I think he's a little riskier and more of a second round draftee. Problem is, he won't be there in the second round. 

Akeem Ayers, UCLA -- Akeem Ayers may be the only linebacker in this draft who would legitimately go in the top half of the first round based on talent. He's a physical freak at 6'4", 250 with elite speed (for his position), and off-the-charts athleticism. If you're looking for the one player at linebacker this year who will make scouts absolutely drool, Ayers is the guy. 

Here's my problem with Ayers, though: I'm not sure he's nearly as good a football player as he is an athlete. There were plenty of games for UCLA this season when he virtually disappeared, and I don't see the high level of desire from him you can immediately spot in most of the truly elite players. His tackling form is sloppy, and he's prone to overpursuing on misdirection plays. Most of the time Ayers' speed and raw ability allow him to make up for any mistakes he makes, but that likely won't hold true at the professional level. There just isn't the aggressiveness and instinctive play you like to see. Linebackers have to enjoy hitting people, and I'm just not sure Ayers has that in him. He does have exceptional coverage skills for a linebacker, which could make him a good fit for the Rams' system. 

Ayers is clearly the most athletically gifted linebacker in the 2011 draft, and going by physical tools alone he should be a monster in the NFL for years to come. When I watch him, though, I see a player with questionable intangibles and a lot of work to do to become the player he has the talent to be. 

Greg Jones, Michigan State -- I've said before Greg Jones may be my favourite linebacker in the draft this year, and I'm standing by that. His stock has gotten dinged a bit at the Senior Bowl, where he came in shorter than listed. (And he was already considered undersized before.) He also hasn't looked particularly good in practice at the event so far, either. All in all, it hasn't been a very good week for Jones, watching his draft stock take a couple hits. 

Then again, I'm not all that interested in what players do in practice at the Senior Bowl. Don't get me wrong; it's certainly valuable to see the best college football has to offer all together working drills and taking coaching. Still, there's danger in reading too much into what a player does over one day or one week, especially when what they're being judged on isn't even game situation play. That's how teams end up with combine monsters who aren't nearly as good at football as they are the standing broad jump. 

For my money, Jones was one of the most productive linebackers in college football this season, and I believe in him going forward. He has outstanding range from sideline to sideline and a knack for making plays on the ball carrier. He's not a blow-up tackler, but he also rarely fails to bring his man down. His lack of size is a concern and will force him to weakside linebacker, but his range, instincts, and playmaking ability more than make up for it in my opinion. He has an outstanding motor, and that's something that can't be taught. 

There may be a silver lining to Jones failing to impress this week. It's never really a good thing for a player when his stock drops, as it's going to cost him money, but when a player falls it also makes it more likely some team is going to end up with a great value at a lower pick. 

Mason Foster, Washington -- If you're looking for an old-school linebacker, one who plays with a zest for hitting and tackling the guy wearing the other uniform, look no further than Mason Foster. I really like him, and I think he could be a steal in the third round range. 

Foster has outstanding instincts and tackling abilities, much like Greg Jones. He's bigger than Jones, though, and is arguably even better dropping into coverage. He doesn't have the kind of ridiculous range Jones possesses, but still has plenty of mobility to make plays all over the field. Foster has been a remarkably consistent player for Washington all four years, even when playing on some of the worst teams college football had to offer his first couple seasons in the program. That kind of professionalism, of doing the job no matter how ugly the circumstances, is very impressive in a college kid, and speaks well for Foster's future. 

The only downside for Foster may be his rising stock. Guys with helium are always tough to pinpoint in terms of draft slot, and Foster is no different. He's shooting up draft boards as it is, and where he ultimately goes will be difficult to peg. 

Ross Homan, Ohio State -- Hey, the last time the Rams drafted a linebacker from Ohio State it worked out pretty well, so why not again? 

Homan is an interesting case in that he's on the smallish side (6'0", 230 lbs), but his skillset seems better suited to the strongside position than over on the weak side. He's strong and excels at filling gaps and making the stop, but struggles in open space at times. He was a monster in coverage his junior season but didn't play nearly as well this year. Still, his production numbers were very good, and he has the same solid tackling profile as his fellow OSU alum Laurinaitis. 

Unless Homan goes completely crazy at the Senior Bowl or the Combine, it looks like he'll probably go somewhere in the 3-5 round range. If he's available when the Rams go on the clock in one of those middle rounds they could do much, much worse than to add such a consistent, productive defensive player to the mix. 

Lawrence Wilson, Connecticut -- Wilson doesn't get much press, mostly because he plays for a UConn program that isn't much of a football powerhouse. Nonetheless, he's been a remarkably productive player in his college career and could end up having a very good pro career as well. 

The one knock you hear constantly on Wilson -- and it is valid -- is that he's just too thin. It isn't often you hear a guy who goes 220 described as being too thin, but Wilson has the frame to add another 15-20 pounds easily, and will probably need to if he wants to make it in the NFL. 

Wilson is another player with outstanding range sideline to sideline. He's a high-motor guy who racks up huge tackle numbers thanks to a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He has solid pass rush skills as well, and works his way through the line of scrimmage surprisingly well. 

Wilson is going to be hit with a lot of 'limited upside' tags because of his slight build and a perceived lack of strength. Even so, he already has the potential to be a solid player in the NFL, I believe, and if he could add more bulk and strength I think he could end up a steal for a team who takes him somewhere in the middle rounds. 

These are by no means all the players worth considering, of course; the later rounds are filled with small-school guys and late bloomers who will end up becoming great players. If the Rams choose to use one of their early round picks to address the glaring need at outside linebacker, though, there's a pretty good chance the name they call could be one of these players. 

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