2014 NFL Draft Prospects: Linebacker

USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Van Noy headlines a group of linebacker prospects the Broncos could target in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Kicking off the second week of our draft prospect profiles, we begin by keeping our focus on the defensive side of the ball and address the linebacker positions. With several free agents at the position and a lack of a true man in the middle for the Broncos defense, linebacker is certainly a position the team will be considering early (or at least they should be) in this years NFL Draft.

This class might not be filled with elite, blue-chip prospects at linebacker, but it does have a lot of versatility, depth, leadership and experience. I feel that there are quite a few prospects who would be good fits for the Broncos and help our defensive out in 2014 and beyond.

Kyle Van Noy, OLB -- BYU -- Senior

6'3 - 245 pounds, 4.68 40 yard dash

Career Production: 52 GP, 226 tackles, 62 TFL, 26 sacks, 7 INT

Van Noy is perhaps one of the most pro-ready and well-rounded defenders in the entire draft. His instincts and reaction skills are very good, which allows him to diagnose plays effectively and close in on opposing ball carriers quickly. In addition the aforementioned, he shows great poise in the booth and gets through blocks well by using proper technique. While not excellent, Van Noy has serviceable pass defense skills that will allow him to stay on the field for three downs. A true defensive cornerstone for the Cougars whose leadership qualities will translate well to the next level.

If there were any weaknesses in his game that would need to be pointed out, they would be his average athleticism and lack of physical nature. Lack of nasty demeanor isn't a huge concern, though it would be nice to see him play with a fire consistently. Moreover, his pass rushing numbers went down this year, but that is partly due to the focus offenses placed on him and the loss of Ziggy Ansah. Additionally, Van Noy doesn't have the best array of pass rushing moves and often goes back to his old reliable (bull rush) when rushing off the edge.

Outlook: If the Broncos are on the clock and Van Noy is available, it is likely that he is one of, if not the top defender on the board and should garner strong consideration from John Elway and Co. One of the most important things you can ask for in a first round selection is that they can contribute immediately as a starter and Van Noy fills that role. Although his true position is OLB, I believe that Van Noy has the intangibles and mental make up to be a very effective professional player, even on the inside. Long story short, he isn't a player who has to come off the field in sub-packages, and his sound pass defending skills would be a welcomed addition to a Broncos LB unit who ended up struggling in that regard for most of the season.

Yawin Smallwood, ILB -- Conneticut -- RS Junior

6'3 - 235 pounds, 4.68 40 yard dash

Career Production: 36 GP, 332 tackles, 27 TFL, 9.5 sacks, 2 INT

C.J. Mosley is likely to be the top inside linebacker taken in the 2014 NFL Draft, but there is a name rising up draft boards league wide who might have the potential to sneak in to the end of round one -- that prospect is Yawin Smallwood of Connecticut. Smallwood was a three year starter for the Huskies and is coming off one of his best campaigns to date which earned him first-team AAC honors and the title of UConn's Defensive Player of the Year.

He has the size and athleticism you look for in an inside linebacker. He is quick to diagnose the play and is strong run defender whose passionate play elevates the play of those around him. Demonstrates good tackling ability -- taking proper angles to adequately stop the ball carriers in the open field. An effective blitzer who showed the ability to get through traffic and attack the quarterback. A smart, instinctual player who showed consistent growth throughout his collegiate career.

While athletic, Smallwood can be had in coverage and sometimes looks out of place. That being said, he did progress in this regard as a senior, doubling his pass break up total from his prior two seasons. One big question is his level of competition, and whether he would have produced at such a high level had he been in a different conference.

Outlook: As mentioned above, Smallwood is likely to be a fast riser up draft boards if he impresses with his combine and pro-day workouts. This isn't a top class for ILB, so Smallwood may get over drafted due to a team in need of someone to man the middle, but he is certainly worth a selection in the second to third round and would be an excellent fit for the Broncos defense.

Christian Jones, LB -- Florida State University -- Senior

6'4 - 235 pounds, 4.65 40 yard dash

Career Production: 54 GP, 225 tackles, 24 TFL, 8 sacks, 1 INT

Christian Jones was one of the players I had discussed after the 2013 draft as a person of potential interest for the Denver Broncos in 2014. Last season under defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, Jones ended up shifting inside for the Seminole difference and amassed 49 tackles, 7.5 FL and 2 sacks. In his prior seasons at Florida State he played both the strongside (2011) and weakside (2012) positions and finished his career on a high note helping the ferocious Seminole defense soar to a National Championship. There is no doubt that Jones is one of the most flexible and versatile linebackers in this class.

There is a lot to like about Jones game. He is one of the best athletes in the entire draft (not just linebackers) and can match-up and cover receivers and tight ends. The combination of his athleticism, speed and size (height and length) give him the ability to break up plays downfield. In addition to Jones pass coverage skills, he shows good side-to-sideline playing ability to make plays in he run game.

One of the biggest knocks on Jones is his lack of a true position and whether he has the mental make-up to be the man calling the plays on the inside. Reports out there suggest that he may be a better fit on the outside than on the inside, which will allow him to blossom in the NFL. He could also play with better leverage and technique to be more effective at getting through traffic and disengaging blockers at the next level -- as he will not be able to rely on superior athletic ability to consistently get to the job done in the NFL.

Outlook: The combination of Jones' athletic ability and schematic versatility at linebacker should land him a spot in the first 75 selections. There is no doubting his physical traits as a player, but his ability to be elite will depend on his maturity and mental growth as he reaches the NFL. Is quite comparable to former Broncos LB DJ Williams, who also was moved around a lot position wise in the NFL.

Shayne Skov, ILB -- Stanford University -- RS Senior

6'2 - 245 pounds, 5.0 40 yard dash

Career Production: 36 GP, 332 tackles, 27 TFL, 9.5 sacks, 2 INT

If it hadn't been for an ACL tear in 2011 that slowed down Stanford Cardinal ILB Shayne Skov's collegiate career -- he very well could have been a first round selection in the 2013 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, Skov's injury took a while to completely heal, but he made his last year of eligibility worth it as he posted 109 tackles (13 TFL) and 5.5 sacks and leading one of the nation's best collegiate defenses.

Skov is a sound run defender whose mental aptitude helps him succeed for what he lost in explosion after his gruesome injury. He is a sound wrap-up tackler that displays endless effort and pursuit to the ball carrier on every down. To supplement strong defense against the run, Skov also has shown promise as a blitzer through the middle; exercising his strength, physicality and straight-line speed to his advantage to bypass the guards and center. However, what makes him most effective in such a regard is how times his blitzes. Last but not least, he is a vocal leader on the field who brings out the best in his teammates.

The big draw back to his game is his lack of play making ability against the pass. He won't have the speed or athletic ability to cover efficiently in the NFL and doesn't showcase great sideline-to-sideline ability. At times he can take poor angles and as a result, miss an occasional tackle.

Outlook: Past injury history, especially his ACL tear (which took three surgeries to repair, along with fixing a broken tibia) is a concern. Undoubtedly his DUI in 2012 will be brought up during the interview process and could cause him to fall down some team's boards. Despite such concerns, Skov has demonstrated the ability to overcome adversity and rise to a field general on defense. He plays with a lot of poise and it is likely that he will solidify himself as an top three round draft selection with good medical clearance and workout numbers in Indianapolis.

Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB -- Georgia Tech -- Senior

6'3 - 253 pounds, 4.70 40 yard dash

Career Production: 49 GP, 196 tackles, 43.5 TFL, 31.5 sacks, 1 INT

If there is any name you should pay attention to over the next several months leading to the NFL Draft it would be George Tech Yellow Jacket Jeremiah Attaochu. After compiling double digit sack totals the past two seasons, Attaochu earned All-ACC Honors and a spot to showcase his abilities at the annual Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.

Attaochu's role with the Yellow Jacket's defense was a versatile one. He primarily stood up at outside linebacker, but also saw his fair share of time with his hand in dirt while playing defensive end. A hard-working player, whose motor runs non-stop, he has a penchant for collapsing the pocket with his natural athletic ability, and superior football acumen. He has a unique way of displaying initiative while performing stunts or alternative rushes to get behind the line of scrimmage. His length gives him a great advantage against opposing linemen, and has natural swim and bull rush moves and a great initial burst off the line of scrimmage.

Several drawbacks exist -- primarily his lack of pass coverage skills, as it was not something required of him at Georgia Tech, which was a glaring deficiency scouts and observers saw consistently at the Senior Bowl. Finally, his undisciplined play on the field and knack for personal fouls became are a cause for concern -- and he will have to mature as an individual to prevent placing his professional team in such predicaments.

Outlook: Overall, Attaochu is athletic playmaker whose best fit in the NFL would be as a pass rusher in a 3-4 defense or in a position much like Von Miller's current role (which is less traditional than most prototypical SAM's) for the Broncos. Easy to overlook his weaknesses as a player when you see his production over the past two season with the Yellow Jackets and his consistent ability to get after the quarterback. A prospect who I feel could rise as high as the late first round due to immense potential and the belief that his best football is yet to come.

Keep An Eye On. . .

Max Bullough, ILB -- Michigan State -- Senior

6'3- 265 pounds, 4.80 40 yard dash

Career Production: 53 GP, 299 tackles, 30.5 TFL, 8 sacks, 3 INT

Bullough's stock has seen a hit lately after weighing in twenty pounds heavier than his listed college playing weight and by refusing to answer questions regarding his suspension from the Spartans' prior to the Rose Bowl will certainly move him down further than his production would indicate. He isn't going to wow you with all-word athleticism, but he is a smart player who has the knack for making a big play. In summation, his stoutness against the run and experience in the middle would make him someone worth considering in the mid-to-late rounds of the NFL Draft.

Telvin Smith, LB -- Florida State University -- Senior

6'3 - 218 pounds, 4.65 40 yard dash

Career Production: 54 GP, 214 tackles, 129 TFL, 7 sacks, 4 INT

Smith isn't an elite prospect by any means because his lack of bulk (weighing in at just 218 pounds at the Senior Bowl) is always going to hinder his ability to be able to physically handle positional rigors of the NFL, but is worth mentioning because of his great ball skills, coverage ability and athleticism. He brings a positive energy to the game and his leadership qualities resonated well with his teammates. Reminds me a lot of Denver Broncos FA linebacker Wesley Woodyard when he came out of Kentucky. Range, height and athletic ability may even garner him consideration to make the switch to SS by some teams in the NFL. Projects as a middle round selection, but at the very least will be a quality special teamer.

Chris Borland, ILB -- Wisconsin -- Senior

5'11 - 248 pounds, 4.85 40 yard dash

Career Production: 53 GP, 420 tackles, 50 TFL, 17 sacks, 3 INT

Though Borland has arm length equivalent to a tyrannosaurus rex, he is a fundamentally sound football player that has produced at a high level throughout his collegiate career. Has drawn favorable comparisons to former great linebacker Zach Thomas. One of the best run defenders in the country, Borland shows surprisingly good skills as a blitzer despite his lack of length and size. I feel comfortable having a late third round grade on him, but NFL teams will undoubtedly downgrade him due to limits imposed by his size and workout numbers. Sometimes the best choice is selecting someone who is a true football player, rather than someone who could be great because of physical attributes. That is why I believe Borland should garner selection as early as the third round for the Broncos.

Andrew Jackson, ILB -- Western Kentucky -- Senior

6'2 - 235 pounds, 4.82 40 yard dash

Career Production: 37 GP, 326 tackles, 143.0 TFL, 6.5 sacks

Like Bullough, Jackson is a big thumper in the middle who lacks the athleticism to be a three down player in the NFL. A straight-line, stuff the run defender who doesn't offer much in terms of coverage, but showed growth in his final three seasons. Teammate of current Denver Broncos DE Quanterus Smith, Jackson is also another prospect who will garner mid-to-late round consideration for teams looking for someone at MIKE.

Christian Kirksey, OLB -- Iowa -- Senior

6'2 - 235 pounds, 4.70 40 yard dash

Career Production: 49 GP, 315 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 4 INT

Versatile defender and quality starter for the Hawkeyes who averaged over 100 tackles per season in his final three years at Iowa. Doesn't make a whole lot of impact plays in the passing game or behind line of scrimmage, but always seems to be around the ball when the whistle blows. Kirksey has the chance to be an effective weakside in the NFL in the right scheme.

Which one of these linebackers catches your eye, Broncos Country?

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