What was expected to be a deep crop of top-rated linebackers has begun to fall into the second half of round one, which could make for some distinct value picks late on draft day.
"The linebackers have been disappointing," jaguars.com draft analyst Tony Pauline said. "Most analysts thought this would be a huge year for linebackers –three in the top 15 – but none of them performed up to expectations. As a result, they're sliding."
Jonathan Vilma, 6-1, 233, of Miami, may be the first linebacker to be drafted. Pauline refers to Vilma as a "lesser version of Ray Lewis; undersized and explosive but doesn't have the speed or range Lewis does." Vilma makes a lot of tackles and plays fearlessly, but doesn't pack much of a wallop and doesn't qualify as a play-maker. He projects as a middle-of-round-one middle linebacker prospect.
Miami outside linebacker D.J. Williams, 6-0, 250, offers great measurables, but his performance fell off last season and there are questions about his instincts to play the position. He's physically outstanding and can be dominant at the point of attack, but is a limited-area guy who must sharpen his grasp of defensive strategy. Williams offers distinct pass-rush potential and that'll attract someone in the second half of the first round.
Karlos Dansby, 6-3, 251, of Auburn, was the preseason pick to be the first linebacker drafted this year. Dansby is a complete player. He's explosive, forces the action up the field and can flash onto the scene. When he's at the top of his game, he's the best linebacker in this draft, but Dansby suffered from senioritis last fall and, as a result, his draft stock has fallen into the late first round. He also offers pass-rush potential, and Dansby could be a major value pick late in the day. He needs a coach who can motivate him. Dansby is an outside guy who has trouble keeping weight on.
Oklahoma's Teddy Lehman, 6-1, 240, is smart, instinctive and versatile. He can play any of three linebacker positions and his combination of intelligence and intensity could push him into the first round. Lehman flies around to the ball, is good against the run and adequate against the pass.
Michael Boulware, 6-2, 225, will tempt teams with his athletic ability. The Florida State star offers more play-in-space potential than any linebacker in the draft. He's tremendous in coverage and has the speed to be a big-time blitzer, but he's undersized and has trouble getting off blocks, which means he'll have to be used in creative ways to avoid getting gobbled up by offensive linemen. He's a candidate to go early in round two, to a team with a definite plan for utilizing Boulware's skills.
Auburn's Dontarrious Thomas, 6-2, 241, suffered from having made the move inside last year. Thomas was exposed for not being real instinctive, but he's a tremendous physical specimen and athlete who offers great range and likes to force the action. Thomas looks imposing and plays that way. He has to overcome the hesitation in his game. He'll go in the early part or at the middle of the second round.
Demorrio Williams, 6-0, 232, is the best pure pass-rusher of the group. He was used as an in-the-box player at Nebraska, but though he wasn't used in pass-coverage much, he has the athletic ability to develop pass-coverage skills in the NFL. He's a mid-second-rounder who will offer distinct value at that spot. Williams runs a 4.55 and plays to that and faster.
Georgia Tech's Daryl Smith, 6-1, 234, is a smart inside linebacker who is rarely caught out of position and offers all of the intangibles teams love. But he's a marginal athlete and runs a 4.7, which could drop him into the third round.
Tech teammate Keyaron Fox, 6-2, 227, is an athletic and explosive outside linebacker, though undersized. He flashes and is disruptive at the point of attack. Fox can cover backs and tight ends and would be a solid pick in the third round.
Notre Dame's Courtney Watson, 6-1, 237, is currently the fastest-rising linebacker. Watson is a smart player who is coming off a very strong postseason. He's a high-character guy who has moved into the third round.
Other first-day linebacker prospects include Bryan Hickman of Kansas State, Kendyll Pope of Florida State and Niko Koutouvides of Purdue.