Penn State linebacker Dan Connor. AP Photo.
INDIANAPOLIS – It looked as if this Draft was going to be loaded at the inside linebacker position.
With blue-chip prospects – USC's hard-hitting Rey Maualuga and Ohio State's versatile James Laurinaitis – it was a good year for teams like the Patriots looking for inside linebackers to be selecting near the top of the Draft.
But a funny thing happened on the way to New England grabbing its much-needed inside linebacker of the future. Maualuga and Laurinaitis both decided to return to school for their senior seasons, instantly downgrading this year's inside linebacker class from strong to average.
"I think there's some talent there," declared Tennessee Titans GM Mike Reinfeldt this week. "It has the chance to be an impact crew. I think it compares well to prior years."
Jaguars VP of Player Personnel James Harris, however, was less enthused about this year's crop.
"It's probably not as strong as some other years, but there are still some good players in this Draft."
Maualuga and Laurinaitis are both expected to be top 15 selections, which means the Patriots would have likely had an opportunity to select one of the young studs with the seventh pick. However, unless the unlikely happens and the Patriots are picking in the top 10 again next year, it's doubtful that either one of those players will be calling New England home.
So, after being bit by some bad luck, Pats head coach Bill Belichick and player personnel boss Scott Pioli must now focus their attention on other options at inside linebacker because one thing is for certain: the Patriots need to add some youth and athleticism at that position.
While no inside linebacker in this year's draft is worthy of being taken with the seventh overall pick, there are some solid players available, led by Penn State's Dan Connor (6-3, 231). Connor could be the first inside linebacker taken off the board but No. 7 is probably a little high for the former Nittany Lion standout.
After Connor, other linebackers who could be enticing to the Patriots include Oklahoma's Curtis Lofton (6-0, 240), Vanderbilt's Jonathan Goff (6-2, 245) , UNLV's Beau Bell(6-1,243), South Florida's Ben Moffitt (6-1, 231), and Syracuse's Jameel McClain (6-1, 253).
The Dan Connor Chronicles
If Connor becomes a Patriot, it will likely be due to New England trading down in the first round. At 231 pounds, Connor is a little undersized but he has the frame to get bigger. Connor played mostly on the outside at Penn State but some teams view him as an inside backer in the NFL because he lacks great speed.
"From what I've been hearing from coaches," Connor said Saturday, "[I could play] both inside and out, depending on the scheme. With a 3-4, obviously you want two inside spots. A 4-3,outside or in. I feel comfortable with both, and feel I can do both pretty well."
Conner is more physical when it comes to taking on blockers than his former college teammates Paul Posluszny – who was drafted early in Round 2 last year by Buffalo. An intelligent player with good awareness, Connor finished his college career with 419 tackles and 14 sacks, including a team-high 145 stops as a senior.
Connor did have one off-the-field incident at Penn State. He was suspended for three games in 2005 for making harassing phone calls to a former assistant coach.
According to Connor, it was nothing more than a juvenile prank. He and a couple of teammates called the then-assistant, doing voice impressions pretending to be another coach on the Nittany Lions staff.
"Definitely joking. We were doing impressions of the coaches, things like that," he admitted.
When head coach Joe Paterno found out about it, he lit into his players, punished them, and that was that.
As far as on the field is concerned, Connor has the versatility and athletic ability to play in either the 3-4 or 4-3 at the pro level. Whether or not he has the mental capacity to grasp the sometimes complex defenses of the NFL – like New England's – remains ot be seen.
Connor can also be used as a goal line back. He rushed for 1,807 yards and 28 touchdowns as a high school senior.
Mentally, Lofton may be more prepared than Connor to assume a role in New England's 3-4 scheme.
"At OU, our base is a 4-3, but we also play the 3-4, so I have experience in it and definitely know what I'm doing," observed Lofton, who also revealed that he has had conversations with the Patriots. "At Oklahoma we have a very complex defense, so I don't think I'll have a problem adapting to an NFL scheme.
He ranked third in the nation with a career-high 157 tackles. He started the first 10 games of his senior season at strong-side outside linebacker before moving inside for the Sooners final four contests, so Lofton certainly possesses the flexibility Belichick looks for in a linebacker.
One concern is that Lofton never started a game before his senior season and only had 35 tackles coming into 2007. However, he burst on the scene, winning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors.
He has set equally high standards for himself at the next level.
"My goals for my roookie season are I definitely want to come in and make an immediate impact, play as much as I can, play special teams; I want to make the rookie team and go from there."
The challenge for NFL teams will be to decide whether Lofton is a one-year wonder or just now starting to realize his potential.
Lofton admitted that coming to a team like New England, with its veteran linebacking corps, could be good for his development.
"I think it would be great [to play in NE]. There's Tedy Bruschi, Junior Seau … some great guys to have kind of mentor me and teach me little things about the game and kind of help me along in my career."
An explosive hitter and reliable open-field tackler, Oklahoma Head Coach Bob Stoops called Lofton the best defensive player he's ever coached.
Goff a New England native
Born in Atlanta, Goff and his mother moved back to her native Massachusetts when he was a child. They lived predominantly in Stoneham, Mass., and Goff played high school football at powerhouse St. John's Prep in Danvers.
Goff has flown under the national radar playing at Vanderbilt, and it showed somewhat during his media interview, where he appeared a little camera shy.
But he appears to have all the ingredients to be a good fit at inside linebacker for the Patriots. A physical player who doesn't mind mixing it up with bigger offensive linemen, Goff started 40 consecutive games at middle linebacker in college and recorded at least twelve tackles in his final three games to close out his career with the Commodores.
While he played in a 4-3 alignment at the collegiate level, many scouts believe that Goff will be best suited as a 3-4 inside linebacker in the NFL because of the way he fights through blockers and attacks the line of scrimmage on running plays.
"Absolutely," Goff told reporters when asked if he thought he could fit into a 3-4 scheme. "At Vanderbilt our linebackers coach coached us to learn all three positions, just to give us that versatility. He just taught us that the more versatile you are the better the player you will be."
Goff will probably slip to the middle rounds of the draft because his lack of straight-line speed may relegate Goff to a two-down linebacker in the NFL. But since Belichick likes to use a lot of different personnel groupings on defense, a player like Goff has more value to New England as a two-down run-stuffer than he would to other teams that employ different defensive schemes.
A player who is picking up steam as the draft nears is Bell. Despite struggling at the Senior Bowl, Bell is a physical specimen who should really benefit from the tests done at the Combine. The reigning Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Bell could be intriguing to the Patriots because UNLV is currently one of only three teams that runs the 3-4 as its base defense at the collegiate level.
Not only does Bell have experience in the 3-4, he's also played both inside and outside linebacker, something that's sure to draw the Patriots interest. Bell played mostly inside as a sophomore and junior but last season he started all 12 games at weakside outside linebacker. At 243 pounds, Bell is an athletic linebacker with good range and would seem to be a logical fit in New England's defensive system. Bell is definitely a player to keep an eye on heading towards the draft.
A couple of projected late-round prospects that could peak the Patriots interest are Moffitt and McClain. Moffitt is someone who is always around the football. He's similar to Tedy Bruschi in the sense that he won't blow you away physically but put a football helmet on him and point Moffitt to the field and he'll take care of the rest.
Moffitt was a Butkus Award semi-finalist and the leader of a South Florida defense that was among the nation's best in 2007. In the later rounds of the draft, it may be worth taking a shot on a guy who, at the very least, will be a standout on special teams and could eventually turn into a solid NFL linebacker because of his heart and desire.
At 6-1 and 253 pounds, McClain is the classic 3-4 inside linebacker in the Ted Johnson mold. If a team is looking for a versatile player in the later rounds, McClain is their guy. McClain played defensive end, outside linebacker and inside linebacker at Syracuse, performing well at all three positions. Scouts appear to be divided on where McClain fits best in the NFL but a player with his kind of flexibility could be intriguing late in the draft, especially for a team like the Patriots that puts an emphasize on guys who can line up and contribute at multiple positions.