Note: We decided to include Jon Beason and Zak DeOssie with the outside linebackers. Beason played outside in college and will probably remain there in most systems but he would project at inside linebacker with the Patriots. Meanwhile, DeOssie played mostly inside at Brown, but he's projected as a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL.
Best of the Bunch
Patrick Willis, Mississippi (6-1, 242)
Strengths: Willis is the best tackling linebacker in this draft. He plays with an attitude and really punishes the ball carrier. Willis has a perfect tackling form where he bends his legs, hits and drives through his man. He reminds me a little of Rodney Harrison with the kind of mean streak he has on the field. Willis never quits on a play. He's always chasing down whoever has the ball, even if he gets taken out of the play originally. Willis is also very fast and his speed makes him an effective blitzer. A strong player, Willis does a good job fighting off bigger offensive linemen. He showed his strength on one play in particular against LSU where he picked up and slammed 260-pound JaMarcus Russell when the quarterback was trying to scramble out of the pocket. Questions have been raised about his coverage abilities but those concerns are overblown. Willis has good football speed and showed on many occasions that he can stick with a tight end running down the field. He's also a high-character guy who does a lot of work off the field in the community.
Weaknesses: I don't think coverage is necessarily a big problem with Willis but he could stand to improve in that area. He can come right in and be a run stuffer for an NFL team and in a year or so his coverage skills should improve. The only other real negative with Willis is he sometimes takes himself out of a play by being too aggressive. However, my guess is most coaches would rather worry about a player being too aggressive than too passive, especially at inside linebacker.
Overall: The best inside linebacker in this draft and there really isn't a close second. Willis is everything you want out of a defensive football player. He's intense, athletic, fast, tackles well and is very intelligent on the field. Willis finished his career at Ole Miss with 355 tackles and 11 sacks, while claiming the Butkus Award as a senior. He can be a dominant player in any kind of defense and would be a perfect fit for the Patriots. If Willis is still on the board at 24, it should take roughly three seconds for the Patriots to get their card up to the commissioner. However, after a strong Combine and very few flaws in his game, Willis is likely to be long gone by the time the Patriots are on the clock.
Draft Projection: High-mid first round
David Harris, Michigan (6-2, 243)
Strengths: Harris is arguably the fastest of all the inside linebackers. He has the speed to run down receivers and running backs in the open field and moves well laterally sideline-to-sideline. While Willis is the best run stuffing inside linebacker in this class, Harris is the best in coverage. Because he runs like a safety, Harris has no problem covering tight ends and even slot receivers on occasion. Another quality Harris possesses is his ability to read and react. He diagnosis a play quickly and is usually in the hole before the ball carrier is. Harris is much faster on the football field than he is on a track and that shows up when you see him on tape.
Weaknesses: The Michigan back seven is a tough group to assess because its front four dominated most of the time. Harris does make a lot of tackles in the backfield. Although, one reason for that is because Alan Branch was so disruptive, he was always occupying two or three blockers at a time, allowing Harris to run free. Now, you can't blame Harris for playing on a great defense but he didn't have to take on blockers very often because the Wolverines front four was constantly collapsing the pocket. When he did get tangled up with bigger linemen, he had some trouble breaking free. Harris is physical, so he doesn't mind mixing it up, but he's at his best when playing in space.
Overall: A very solid pro prospect. Like I said, it's a hard to get a read on some of the Michigan players not named Branch or LaMarr Woodley but Harris was always around the football in college, both against the run and defending the pass. He had his most productive season as a senior when he registered 103 tackles and four sacks. In the right system, Harris could really shine but he may be better suited in a 4-3 defense where the tackles occupy blockers so he can roam free, similar to what Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher do. Because of his speed and coverage abilities, Harris is an intriguing prospect. There are only so many Donnie Edwards at the linebacker position and if you can get a younger, faster, bigger version of Edwards, that's something teams searching for linebackers will need to consider if Harris is available.
Draft Projection: Late first/Early second round
Brandon Siler, Florida (6-2, 241)
Strengths: Siler is one of those in-the-box linebackers that would be a good fit in the Patriots system. He has good straight-line speed in a short area. He's not as fast as Willis or Harris but Siler is very quick to the hole. The former Gator is a punishing tackler who almost always drives the ball carrier backwards. He's a very good blitzer and lights up quarterbacks when he hits them. Siler has great instincts and awareness on the field. He's one of those players who is always around the football. A physical linebacker, Siler makes a lot of tackles in the backfield. He plays with a mean streak and does a good job of discarding blockers to get to the ball. A classic run stuffing inside linebacker.
Weaknesses: While Siler is quick and fast in the 10-20 yard range, he lacks blazing speed. He does a decent job in coverage but still needs work in that area. Siler really doesn't have a lot of upside. He's one of those players where it's what you see is what you get. In contrast, a player like Harris could become a lot better in the NFL because of his physical ability. Siler may be relegated to a two-down run-stopper at the pro level. However, 3-4 teams like the Patriots don't necessarily consider that to be a bad thing.
Overall: Siler is a good, productive player but he's a shade below Willis and Harris, making him a solid second round selection. He's limited a bit physically but Siler is a smart player who goes all out on every play. He won't dazzle you with his 40-time but put a football helmet on him and Siler just goes out and makes plays. He's a great leader and all business on the field, two things the Patriots hold in high regard. If New England trades down into the second round, Siler could be a possible target.
Draft Projection: Second round
Buster Davis, Florida State (5-10, 239)
Strengths: Hits like a ton of bricks. Despite his size, when Davis lays into an opposing player, he really pops them. He's not just a big hitter, Davis is also a sure tackler. He doesn't allow very many people get by him. Davis is a smart football player. He rarely gets fooled and is usually in the right position to make a play. Davis is one of those high-motor guys that doesn't quit until the whistle blows. On one play after he originally missed a tackle in the backfield, he got back up and made the stop 30 yards down the field. That's the kind of hustle pro scouts will notice on film.
Weaknesses: Davis is extremely short. We saw him at the Combine and then saw Mike Singletary at our hotel and Singletary looked like a giant compared to Davis. While some players can make up for their lack of height and have productive pro careers (Zach Thomas, Dexter Coakley), there are countless others who wind up being special teamers. Because of his size, Davis can get swallowed up by bigger blockers and taken right out of a play. He has good instincts but not great speed, so he'll need to use his intelligence on the field to beat blockers to a spot before they're able to get their hands on him. Lack of size and speed could limit how good Davis can be at the NFL level but he combats that with tremendous heart.
Overall: Davis is the last blue-chip prospect at inside linebacker in my opinion. While he has more questions surrounding him than Willis, Harris and Siler do, it's hard to overlook the fact that Davis always produces on the field. He wouldn't be a good fit in New England because of his size but used in the right system that plays to his strengths, Davis has a chance to be a very good NFL linebacker. As he said at the Combine, people can't measure heart and after watching Davis on tape, it's evident he has plenty of that.
Draft Projection: Mid-late second round
H.B. Blades, Pitt (5-11, 236) – Blades is listed as being slightly taller than Davis but it sure didn't look that way at the Combine. Perhaps it's because Davis is so put together and compact, he just looks bigger than Blades but either way, Blades is small and he plays small. He looks like he's in slow motion sometimes and absolutely gets eaten up by offensive linemen. Blades is a good tackler but it's getting to the ball carrier that concerns me. His range is limited because of his lack of speed and he really struggles in coverage. When I look at Blades I see many of those short linebackers who didn't become Zach Thomas but instead made a living on special teams player like I mentioned above. Blades plays with a lot of passion but I don't see him ever being anything more than a backup linebacker and solid special teams contributor in the NFL.
Anthony Waters, Clemson (6-3, 245) – Andy Hart came back from the Combine yapping that Waters was one of his sleepers in the draft. Then he saw Waters on tape and that theory was put to rest quickly. Waters missed almost all of his senior season with a torn ACL that he suffered in Clemson's first game of the year. However, unless he was going to get a lot better in one year's time, he's not much of a pro prospect. The one thing Waters does well is celebrate after a play. Whether he tackles a ball carrier in the backfield (Doesn't happen very often) or gives up a 12-yard completion (Does happen often) Waters jumps up and down like he just won the Super Bowl. He does possess good speed but has terrible recognition on the field so most of the time his speed is useless because he runs himself out of plays. Waters has gone from a late-round pick to the fourth or fifth round area but in my opinion, he should be happy just to hear his name called on draft day.
Jon Abbate, Wake Forest (5-10, 231) – If fans are looking for the Tedy Bruschi of this year's draft class, Abbate is your guy. While he's not the biggest, strongest or fastest player at his position, Abbate is better than others who have more talent than he does simply because he flat out wants it more. This guy leaves it all out on the field in every single game he plays. Abbate is one of those players you don't really think much of just by looking at him. Then you watch him on tape and wonder why he isn't considered a first round draft pick because he's in on virtually every tackle. Abbate makes a lot of stops because of his intelligence and relentless pursuit. He doesn't stop until the whistle blows. If a ball carrier is in bounds and the play hasn't been blown dead, Abbate is going to knock his head off. He doesn't have the prototypical height or speed teams typically look for in a linebacker but like Bruschi, just point him to the football field and he'll start tackling anything that moves. Abbate needs to get better in coverage because he sometimes loses receivers and tight ends when they're going over the middle. I think Abbate is going to be a solid mid-round selection and the team that drafts him will get one heck of an inside linebacker. At the very least, Abbate will be a backup linebacker and great special teams player.
Justin Durant, Hampton (6-1, 230) – I didn't know much about Durant because I don't see Hampton play during the year but after hearing his name pop up a lot at the Combine and seeing him on film, I can tell you that this guy is a player. Durant was dominant in college at the Division 1-AA level. He became the first player in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference history to win three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards. Durant is a very good athlete who has the versatility to play both inside and outside linebacker. He's all over the field and one of the biggest hitters in this draft. During his four years at Hampton, Durant tallied 353 tackles, 47 tackles for a loss, 10 sacks, 16 pass breakups and four interceptions. Durant is still raw but he has a lot of upside and has yet to reach his full potential. If he gets drafted by a team that can make good use of his tremendous physical skills, Durant could be one of the biggest steals in this year's draft.
Desmond Bishop, Cal (6-2, 245) - Bishop is one of the better run-stuffing linebackers in the draft. He's not blazing fast and won't wow anyone running the 40 but when you see him on the field he just makes plays. Bishop led the Pac-10 with 124 tackles last year, so he's proven he can be a force against the run. He has the size and strength to discard bigger linemen. Bishop does a good job of meeting running backs in the hole and makes a lot of tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He plays much faster than his timed speed and is very good in pursuit. Bishop is that big, physical run-stuffing inside linebacker New England hasn't had since Ted Johnson retired. He needs to improve in coverage but Bishop is a sure tackler who plays with a real chip on his shoulder. At the Combine he said his favorite thing to do is take on big guards and throw them off to the side before making a tackle. Sounds like the kind of linebacker that would be a good fit in the Patriots scheme.
Justin Warren, Texas A&M (6-3, 245) – If you're looking for a guy who may not even get drafted that could be a surprise, check out Warren. A big, physical linebacker, Warren was the leader of A&M's defense the last two seasons. He led the Big 12 in tackles as a junior and was a first-team All Big 12 selection two years in a row after recording 95 and 90 tackles. Warren is basically a run-stuffer, so he'll most likely be a two-down linebacker in the NFL because of his lack of speed. He struggles in space and can be exploited by faster tight ends in coverage. However, if you are talking about an undrafted free agent, it will be difficult to find a player with a more impressive resume than Warren. In order to succeed in the NFL Warren needs to play in the right system and from the people I've spoken with, that system is inside linebacker on a 3-4 defense.
Willis – In a dream world the Patriots would select Willis at 24 but in the real world dreams don't always come true. Willis would be a perfect fit in New England. He could start off as part of an inside linebacker rotation during his rookie year and then take over for Bruschi once he retires. If Willis is still on the board at 15 or 16, don't be surprised if the Patriots trade up to get the one true stud at inside linebacker in this year's draft.
Harris – While not as good an overall player as Willis, Harris is very strong in coverage and is also solid against the run. The only concern with Harris is he might be better suited for a 4-3 defense. However, if Bill Belichick thinks he would be a good fit in New England, Harris' athleticism and versatility may be too good to pass up late in Round 1 or early in Round 2 if the Patriots trade down.
Siler – Siler would be a very good fit for the Patriots because he's a pure run-stuffing linebacker. The one problem is he's projected as a second round pick. If the Patriots were to draft Siler the most likely scenario is trading down into the second round and picking up some extra selections along the way. Siler possesses all the qualities to make him a very productive linebacker in the 3-4 defense.
Abbate– Abbate may not be big enough to play inside linebacker for the Patriots but he has everything else Belichick looks for in a player. Abbate is tough, smart and plays with passion. Sometimes if a team can get a player like Abbate in the right round, it will take a chance on him because of his intangibles. Abbate may not be a future Pro Bowler but he'll likely be a solid starting NFL linebacker for many years to come.
Bishop – A later round selection to keep an eye on for the Patriots is Bishop. We were told at the Combine that New England had already shown a lot of interest in Bishop and after watching him on tape, he's definitely a player that's being undervalued in this year's draft. A big run-plugger, Bishop is one of the most physical inside linebackers coming out this year. He was extremely productive in college and with the Patriots currently holding two six round picks, the former Cal standout would be an attractive option for New England if he's still on the board that late.
Warren – Warren isn't a guy who is going to come in and start right away but he may be worth picking up if he falls through the cracks on draft day. The worst case scenario for the Patriots is they bring in a big, physical linebacker from a major college program and if he can't play, he gets cut in training camp. There really isn't much of a downside to drafting Warren in the later rounds or signing him as a free agent. He could be one of those players Belichick gets a hold of and two years down the road, Warren is a contributor on defense and special teams.
Overall Position Analysis
Inside linebacker is traditionally a position in the draft that's top heavy and this year is no different. Willis is a one-man wrecking crew and has the talent to become a Pro Bowl-caliber player in the near future. He's considered by most as the one sure-fire inside linebacker in this class. Harris, Siler and Davis will most likely be the next three inside linebackers taken off the board, depending on what teams are looking for. After those four, there's a huge drop-off in my opinion. Blades and Abbate will probably go in that third round area but then you are looking at a bunch of mid-late round players who fit specific systems. After the top four or five guys, the position really thins out and teams will be hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with a Desmond Bishop or a Kelvin Smith (Syracuse) later on in the draft.