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    Richner: 2014 Top ILBs

    by Matt Richner, NFL Draft Expert
    Last Updated: 1/18/2015 8:58 PM ET
    With the speed and tempo of offenses increasing each season, defenses are becoming even more dependent on clear and concise communication amongst all 11 players. Typically the player in-charge with the role of getting everyone lined up, calling out coverages, and moving the defensive lineman is the inside linebacker. This year's inside linebacker class doesn't have the top end player such as a Luke Kuechly or Patrick Willis. The inside linebacker has evolved from a position of power and strength to a position of speed and finesse. This year's class is filled with players who excel in pass coverage, and are able to run stride for stride with some of the NFL's top tight ends. A few teams will find some quality starters later in the draft, this is a position of tremendous depth and talent. Don't be surprised to see a few late round picks become starters down the road.

    1) CJ Mosley (Alabama): Pure and simple, Mosley is a tackling machine. He leads all linebackers in this year's draft class with 446.5 career tackles. Mosley is an athletic middle linebacker who gets depth in his drops and can take away the middle of the field with his range and athleticism. At 6'2” and 234 pounds, Mosley isn't as big as the prototypical middle linebacker, but the game is starting to change and linebackers are more valued for their speed and athletic ability than their size and strength. This is why Lavonte David is one of the best young linebackers in the game. His speed allows him to track down ball carriers and make plays across the field.

    Mosley has similar Combine measurables to that of Lavonte David and Alec Ogletree. Both of these players are revered for their sheer athletic ability on the football field. As a three-year starter for Alabama, Mosley led the one of nation's top defenses during his career.

    In 51 games played, Mosley had 446.5 tackles, 23 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 19 PD, 2 FF, and 5 INT. His football intelligence and ability to read quarterbacks as evidenced in his pass deflection and interception totals, rank him in the top five amongst all the linebackers in this year's draft.

    Mosley has developed into a better tackler this past year. Instead of launching himself into ball carriers, he has improved his technique and will break down a ball carrier. In 676 snaps last season, he only had three missed or broken tackles. For his career Mosley had 65.5 impact plays, an average of 1.28 impact plays per game.

    Mosley is a solid student of the game and an accomplished athlete who comes from a pro-style defense designed to give him the freedom to roam and make plays. He should be able to step in and be a consistent starter from day one.

    2) Chris Borland (Wisconsin): Borland is a smaller linebacker at 5'11”, but a stout 248 pounds. He is an accomplished four-year starter who became one of the most accomplished defensive starters in Wisconsin history. A student of the game, Borland is able to quickly diagnose and react to plays, attack gaps and is able to shoot into the backfield to wrap up ball carriers.

    In 54 career games, Borland had 326 tackles, 49.5 TFL, 16.5 sacks, 15 PD, 14 FF, 3 INT, and 1 blocked kicked. Obviously he was able to make up for his lack of size with an impressive and productive career at Wisconsin. Sort of sounds like another former Badger who went on to lead his team to a Super Bowl this past season, Russell Wilson.

    Borland doesn't have the top speed that scouts are usually looking for in a middle linebacker. He is an aggressive tackler who won't give up on plays even when he has over-pursued and he always seems to be involved in the action. Borland won't back down from a challenge and has the hands and technique to slip away from the grasp of blockers to track down the ball.

    In 656 snaps last season, Borland missed 12 tackles. For his career, he had 105 impact plays, an average of 1.94, the third highest amongst this year's middle linebackers.

    From a statistical and scouting standpoint, Borland compares favorably to current Cincinnati Bengals linebacker, Vontaze Burfict.

    3) Yawin Smallwood (Connecticut): This tall, lanky, former outside linebacker will most likely slide inside in the NFL and become a middle linebacker. Smallwood should be suited to fit into most schemes, though he might excel in a 3-4 defense where he can play one of the two inside linebacker spots. He excels in both pass rushing and pass coverage. With his length, Smallwood can match up against some of the taller, more physical tight ends.

    At 6'3” and 246 pounds, Smallwood can hold up against the run, shed blockers and make a play on the ball. He plays well in space, his technique is solid and he is able to break down ball carriers. Not limited to pass coverage, Smallwood has decent pass rushing skills that can be utilized in multiple defensive schemes.

    In 36 career games he had 239 tackles, 27 TFL, 8 sacks, 16 PD, 5 FF, and 2 INT. In 823 snaps last season, he had eight missed or broken tackles.

    While he is still developing as a player, Smallwood is suited to become a productive member of special teams while also being used in multiple sub-packages. For his career he had 62 impact plays, an average of 1.72 impact plays per game.

    4) Shayne Skov (Stanford): Two seasons removed from tearing his ACL, Skov showed tremendous improvements in his speed, acceleration, and his ability to stand his ground against bigger blockers. For all intents and purposes, he has regained his old form to become one of the Pac-12's top inside linebackers last season.

    At 6'2” and 245 pounds, Skov is ideally suited for the “mike” linebacker position in the NFL. A solid tackler, he takes good angles to his target and gave up minimal yards after contact. In 846 defensive snaps last season, he gave up only eight missed or broken tackles.
    In 56 career games, Skov had 276 tackles, 39 TFL, 16.5 sacks, 12 PD, and 5 forced fumbles. He is one of the best defenders against the run from the linebacker position in this year's draft. He is quick to slip past would be blockers, yet he possess the strength to shed blockers and attack the ball carrier.

    Skov is a team leader on a defensive unit that has ranked in the top-20 overall defenses in the country for the past two seasons. He played in a 3-4 defensive scheme and is familiar with the responsibilities of his position. While he maintains good depth in zone coverage, Skov had a hard time keeping up with speedier backs coming out of the backfield and needs to develop his coverage skills further.

    For his career, he had 72.5 impact plays, an average of 1.29 impact plays per game. Overall, Skov is a solid, fundamentally sound player who has regained his pre-injury form.

    5) James Morris (Iowa): This big-bodied linebacker from Iowa has been one of the least talked about middle linebackers during the past few months, yet he is one of the better athletes from the linebacker position that has come out in the past few years. Morris is a physical player who reminds scouts of a throwback type of linebacker, a player who isn't afraid to stick his nose in a scrum and attack the ball carriers.

    One of the nation's leaders in TFL in 2013, Morris averaged 1.3 TFL per game last season. In 50 career games, he had 288.5 tackles, 31.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks, 12 PD, 3 FF, and 6 INT. A physical run stuffer, he has the size to tackle guards and offensive lineman and has shown consistent ability to out-muscle players almost twice his size.

    While some scouts lament that he doesn't have the speed and will bite on fakes, Morris is a sound tackler and he only missed 4 tackles last season in 830 snaps. He was a team leader last season and led a defensive unit that ranked sixth in the country in overall team defense.

    For his career he had 74 impact plays, averaged 1.48 impact plays per game. From a statistical and scouting standpoint, Morris compares to former Minnesota Vikings middle linebacker E.J. Henderson.

    Best of the Rest

    6) Andrew Jackson (Western Kentucky): Career impact plays: 61.5; Impact plays per game average: 1.71

    7) DeDe Lattimore (USF): Career impact plays: 72.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.48

    8) Kevin Smith (San Jose State): Career impact plays: 59: Impact plays per game average: 1.20

    9) Eddie Lackey (Baylor): Career impact plays: 56: Impact plays per game average: 2.15

    10) Nate Dreiling (Pittsburg State): Career impact plays: 130.5: Impact plays per game average: 2.72
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