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Linebacker crop weak


The following is the eighth of 10 installments previewing the 2003 NFL draft class. Today, we feature the linebackers.

This is a good year not to need a linebacker, but the Jaguars aren't that fortunate.

The free-agent acquisitions of Mike Peterson and Keith Mitchell were probably made with an eye on the 2003 draft crop of linebackers. There are a few worthy players at the top, but the fall-off at the position is sharp and it's unlikely to yield any late-round gems.

Georgia outside linebacker Boss Bailey would seem to be the cream of the crop. He's a first-round prospect who offers size (6-3, 233) and 4.4 speed. Bailey is a speed 'backer who offers big-play ability as a blitzer, but power football is not his game. The knock on Bailey is that he plays the run poorly and misses tackles. But there's no denying his potential impact on the game as a play-maker.

The Jaguars' specific need would seem to be at middle linebacker, and there are three solid candidates. The Jaguars would like to think one of the three will make it down to the team's second-round position.

Maryland's E.J. Henderson, Kansas State's Terry Pierce and Pitt's Gerald Hayes are the best of the middle linebacker prospects. Each is considered to be a low-first, early-second round candidate.

Henderson, 6-1, 245, entered last season as one of the premier players in college football, but his stock dropped as he struggled to overcome offseason back surgery. He began to assert himself late in the season, but there are still doubts about his back and Henderson's overall ability. He's not especially fast and critics say he could be a two-downs linebacker.

Pierce, 6-1, 251, is strong and forceful. He's described as a big-hitter who makes his presence known, but he lacks sideline-to-sideline range and isn't especially good against the pass. He would also seem to be a two-downs guy.

Hayes, 6-1, 238, is known more for his hustle than his athletic ability. He may not be the most talented guy, but he'll make every tackle on the field. One draftnik publication proclaims: "Is tough and productive. Can run and hit." That may be just what the Jaguars need.

With that, the fall-off begins. The next-highest rated linebackers may not be drafted until the third round, and there's a very limited cast of first-day prospects.

On the outside, Oregon State's Nick Barnett, Michigan's Victor Hobson, LSU's Bradie James and TCU's LaMarcus McDonald are first-dayers. Inside, Syracuse's Clifton Smith may be the only other player worthy of a first-day choice.

Barnett, 6-1, 236, has 4.6 speed, strong intangibles and athletic ability, but he is often overwhelmed by bigger, more physical blockers.

Hobson, 6-0, 252, is the opposite of Barnett. Hobson is strong and stout against the run, but lacks speed and must come off the field on passing downs.

James, 6-2, 242, has good physical qualities and plays hard, but he lacks speed and coverage skills. At first glance, he looks like a star. After watching the tape, he's just a guy.

McDonald, 6-1, 229, is all attitude. He loves to play the game, flies around the field and openly expresses his passion for football. On the down side, he lacks size and speed, and that's a bad combination.

Smith, 6-2, 253, is worth a hard look. He's loaded with physical ability and had more tackles in his Syracuse career than fellow Big Easter Ray Lewis had at Miami. But after a great junior season, Smith got lost in a down season for the Orange, then worked out poorly at the scouting combine. He could be a gem disguised by recent tarnish.

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