2009 NFL Draft--Manning the Middle: Inside Linebackers, Ranked for Denver

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We all know how much help Denver needs on the defensive side of the ball, and ILB where only DJ and Larsen have more than a snowball's chance of remaining on the team, will be a high area of concern.

This draft crop features a host of desirable candidates, a number of tweeners, a few injury risks, and a whole rank of late-round, high-potential standouts.

I found it harder to look at ILBs this year across the board, as I ran into more instances of "surrounding talent" questions than I have in the past.  It takes some time to separate a LB from the play of the defensive line, and it is particularly hard to separate an ILB from the line play and of his outside helpers.  What I do like is there is something for everyone in this class, whether you want a smart, technically oriented LBer or a headhunter with rare explosiveness.  But this is an ILB class that tapers off strongly, before hitting a late-round glut of developmental guys with good-to-great instincts and some major pluses, from the kid with tremendous intelligence to the 47 game iron-man.

I like Denver's chances to get what they need at ILB, including their great position for targeting the cream of the crop, and their multiple late-round selections where they have multiple choices with the same kind of upside.

Let's check out the rankings:

 

ILB-Rey Maualuga  

1st

Rey Maualuga, USC:    Maualuga's motor is great, but not unheard of, and his sideline-to-sideline speed makes him very versatile, but there are several LBs with good speed.  What Maualuga does bring however, is a rare burst of explosiveness when closing on the line.  He has the power of a top DT bundled into the frame of an ILB.  One drawback is his recklessness, as he seems to sacrifice awareness for explosion, which could lead to gap trouble.  His tackling also suffers for this, as he sometimes gets his head down and loses track of his target.  As a base formation run stopper he could provide significant upgrade to Denver's defense, and with his average hips but excellent feet, he should be able to contribute in coverage as well.  He has a chance to contribute inside on almost any down, which makes him a tremendous value.  In fact, the only formation I can think of where he would be the odd man out is a straight base 4-3, where he is responsible for the line calls.

ILB-James Laurinaitis  

1st

James Laurinaitis, Ohio State:  If ever there were an aristocrat of the LB position, James is it.  What he brings to the game is an above average LB instinct, with a workmanlike attitude and a dedication to the craft.  He uses his hands very well, understands zone coverage and has adequate hips and feet to cover his responsibilities.  Where he shines is in the tactical department, baiting QBs, evading offensive blockers.  He is excellent at technically defeating blocks and he can contribute in sideline-to-sideline pursuit with his knack for finding the ball and keeping his legs clean.  If there is a knock against Laurinaitis, it is that he comes across as a more cerebral MLB and less of a pure athlete.  Questions about his ability to adjust to the physicality of the NFL, and what that would mean to his already lackluster production, make him a top prospect to consider, but at five stars, not six.

ILB-Darry Beckwith 

2nd-3rd

Darry Beckwith, LSU:  This prospect is all about the "upside".  With only limited exposure to the LB position Beckwith managed to accrue some good production.  But unfortunately, beneath the production are a tidal wave of concerns.  He was rarely used as a blitzer, and really doesn't have ideal size.  He was kept back in zones much of the time, and though his feet are good (he has played RB and WR before) his hips are below-average, and as a result he would often try to take up position in his zone too early.  His offensive pedigree is evident in his speed and terrific ball skills but he lacks the physicality sought in a run-stopping ILB.  Factor in some character concerns, including a brush with the law, and Beckwith, despite the obvious athleticism, just doesn't bring enough to the Denver Broncos' table.  3 stars.

ILB-Scott McKillop

3rd

Scott McKillop, Pittsburgh:  This tenacious and intelligent prospect has a lot about him to like, and reminds one of Denver's own Spencer Larsen.  McKillop has tremendous production to go with his intangibles however, and still has upside, having only two very consistent years as a starter under his belt.  By far McKillop is primarily an instinctual player, but he has great intelligence, and he shows patience and efficacy in executing MLB duties.  Not a tremendously strong player, he tends to wear out opponents rather than overpower them, including being a drag-down type of tackler.  But he doesn't shy away from making contact, and he has a rare knack for sniffing out the play.  Protects his body well from trash, and keeps his feet in any situation.  Where he really shines is situational awareness.  When match-ups send him to the slot he knows to get his hands on the receiver early and often, disrupting the routes, and when he is protecting the first down he has a great awareness of the markers and doesn't let routes press to close.  If he can show adequate strength at the combine his stock should rise, but any professional program should bring out the best in McKillop, in physicality and adding strength.

ILB-Gerald McRath  

3rd-4th

Gerald McRath, Southern Miss:  This player has value from a basic versatility standpoint, and he has very surprising numbers, which indicate a high level of production. But when I look at him, I don't see traits that suit Denver well.  He lacks strength and explosiveness, and has the build of a defensive back, but poor coverage awareness and tight hips indicate the transition would be a tough one.  Has a lot of hustle, which contributes to his production, but doesn't have the speed to compensate for mistakes that take him out of the play.  He is a very athletic player, however, and may project better to WLB for some team running a 4-3.  He is also a secure tackler, and takes smart angles.  In the final analysis McRath would project as a versatile backup and special teams contributor, with enough athleticism to compete for spot duty on the outside of the LB corp.  He is worth targeting, but would have to fall pretty far in the draft to warrant being taken as a one-star choice.

ILB-Dannell Ellerbe

4th

Dannell Ellerbe, Georgia:  In a 4-3 Dannell projects clearly as a SAM, which can be difficult to find, but he has the tenacity around the line of scrimmage, and the versatility in coverage to play well at LILB and LOLB in a 3-4.  He has a good frame and can add another 10 lbs of mass with no sacrifice, and at that higher weight could be an intimidating run-stopping force.  Has great hips, and is physical with receivers around the line.  Terrific body control, very fluid in motion and has good balance and lateral movement.  A recent knee injury makes him a wait-and-see prospect, and past character concerns make a stock-drop very plausible.  As a versatile backup, with experience at each LB position, and the ability to drop effectively into coverage, as well as a sure special teams performer, Ellerbe would be a great pickup in the right round.  If he checks out medically, three stars will be the going price.

ILB-Jason Phillips  

4th-5th

Jason Phillips, TCU:  Mostly a backup candidate, Phillips does a little of everything, including long-snapping.  He is a physical tackler, and an adequate coverage player in zone.  He doesn't have the speed or quickness to hang with receivers in man coverage, but he does do a good job of keeping his eyes in the backfield and his awareness up.  Can play a little too aggressively, and can expose gaps, and he doesn't have the athleticism or quickness to make up for errors or pursue laterally.  He can, however, continue to grow and add bulk, and as a defensive role player and backup, he could have value.  If he falls far enough he could be a valuable consideration for immediate special teams contribution, and a handy backup and heir apparent to the long-snapping position. One star.

ILB-Worrell Williams  

5th-6th

Worrell Williams, Cal:  DJ's little brother is long on athleticism and short on instincts.  Legitimate speed, quickness and balance, coupled with experience at multiple LB positions make him worthy of a long look, but outside of more brotherly intrigue on the defense, there doesn't look to be a lot of draw with this pick.  He is undersized, not nearly as productive as you would like a pure athlete ILB to be, and he has awareness issues in coverage.  One star, mostly for upside.

ILB-Antonio Appleby  

6th

Antonio Appleby, Virginia:  This is one of the few late round ILBs that I think has the potential to actually start for Denver.  He has terrific size at 6-4, 243, and he played in a primarily 3-4 alignment in college, starting for three years, so the experience is there.  He is stout at the point of attack,an excellent wrap-up tackler, though he can sometimes try too hard for the big hit.  Against the run he is every bit as effective as Maualuga in the 1st round, but he lacks Rey's explosive first step and pent up power.  Appleby's closing speed leaves something to be desired, but he is an experienced and effective blitzer, who knows how to use his hands to stay clean, and doesn't lose a lot of momentum shooting the gap.  Tight hips and only marginal feet make him a liability in coverage however, and he doesn't have the quickness to stay with WRs or even most TEs.  But this late in the draft his run-plugging ability is a rarity, and he could provide immediate two down help.

ILB-Jasper Brinkley  

7th

Jasper Brinkley, South Carolina:  I really love this prospect, and I think Denver should take a long, hard look at him.  He is a prototype for the 3-4, at 6'2", 260lbs, and he brings more than adequate physicality with those measurables. After an early transfer from a military college, he managed amazing production as a sophomore only to lose his entire junior season torn ACL injury.  He managed to return partway through the 2008 campaign, but couldn't duplicate his earlier production.  He isn't really a coverage backer, but he can drop back, with decent feet.  He needs to work on his hand placement and possibly include some explosiveness training in any rehab he does.  Watch for his "jump" scores at his pro day to see if he is getting back to his sophomore levels in these areas.  At his sophomore levels of production, he could be a three star prospect.  As it is he needs to check out medically.  One star for a bundle of possibility and potential.

ILB-Dominic Douglas  

7th-FA

Dominic Douglas, Mississippi State:  racked up production in college, but won't produce those kinds of numbers in the NFL.  But if you dig into this kids game, you see a lot of potential.  He isn't the biggest body, but his frame can take more weight, and he already knows how to uncoil and deliver punishing hits.  Excellent technique, especially in the lower body.  Does a fantastic job of getting and keeping low, and knows how to win battles in the trenches.  Needs to learn to trust his strength in taking on blockers, but this isn't much of a knock, because he instead relies on superb hand technique to separate from defenders, and release from blocks.  Has a great attitude and can bring leadership to the defense, and to special teams, where he could make an immediate contribution.  Not very quick feet, but good hips for his size.  He can turn and run enough not to be a liability, and he can drop quickly enough to cover medium downs.  Has experience calling the defense from the field.  A lot to like here.

ILB-Maurice Crum  

7th-FA

Maurice Crum, Notre Dame:  Sure and steady, great football intelligence, and hallmark leadership define this rare two-time captain for the Irish.  There is a pedigree here, as Crum's father was an All-American LB for Florida.  He is a solid all-around contributor, he made most of the line calls and defensive adjustments and he has experience at each of the LB spots.  He is also quite tough, playing through a chronic back injury, which will need to get cleared medically before a team takes a risk on him.  He doesn't quite have an ideal fit, being just undersized enough not to be ideal for stuffing the run inside, yet not quite fast enough to be able to hold his own in coverage on the outside.  What coverage ability he does have should be suitable for inside-backing.  Not a physical prospect, and hesitates when taking on blockers, including chip-shot RBs.  Endurance is questionable.

ILB-Morris Wooten 

FA

Morris Wooten, Arizona State:   Wooten is a capable inside defender with good build and size.  He is a very aggressive player, leaving cut-back lanes open and preferring the hit over the solid wrap-up tackle.  Enjoys getting into blocks and discards them violently, and is tenacious in pressuring the pocket.  His pass-rushing skills earned him extra reps in nickle passing downs, where he moved to DE in order to pressure the backfield.  Questionable coverage skills, but has decent feet.  Denver could look at him late for last chance potential at backup ILB.

ILB-Daniel Holtzclaw  

FA

Daniel Holtzclaw, Eastern Michigan:  MAC attack!  Terrific size and stunning durability with 47 straight games at MLB and no injuries.  He is very instinctual, looks good mixing it up around the line, and knows his job and the jobs of the layers around him.  A hard worker, with a tremendous work ethic, he is a player who did everything he could to help EMU win games.  No doubt he would be higher up the list with a few more W's under his belt, but expect him to be one of the first CFAs signed in the hours after the draft.

 

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