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NFL draft prospects on the rise: linebackers

Linebacker is a position the Patriots will most likely be targeting at some point in the upcoming draft. Here are the linebackers we think are on the rise and some players who could end up being future Patriots.

Bobby Carpenter, Ohio State – In my opinion, Carpenter is the best fit for the Patriots of any player in this draft. If New England is looking for a guy to come in and replace what Willie McGinest did for them on the field right away, Carpenter has a good chance of being the Patriots first round draft choice.

Carpenter has tremendous closing speed when chasing down a quarterback or running back. In the 10-20 yard range, Carpenter is one of the fastest players in this draft at any position. If anyone doubts Carpenter's speed, watch his performance against Texas this year. He ran down Vince Young from behind on more than one occasion and was all over the field making plays. Carpenter is one of those players where his football speed is much faster than any 40 times he runs.

I believe Carpenter is the best blitzing linebacker in this draft and that's why he can come in right away and help the Patriots. He said at the Combine that he patterns his game after Mike Vrabel and I think the two are very comparable. His speed off the edge is unmatched and he can also drop back and be effective in coverage.

If there's one knock on Carpenter it's that he doesn't do a great job of shedding blocks. When he rushes the quarterback, he doesn't have a problem but when a bigger player engages him in the open field, Carpenter sometimes gets tied up too long.

Carpenter isn't quite the overall talent that his college teammate A.J. Hawk is but he isn't far behind. When it comes to speed, rushing the passer and attitude, the former Buckeye has everything the Patriots look for in a player. Actually, the first line in Mel Kiper Jr.'s Draft Guide about Carpenter is, "A New England Patriots-style linebacker."

Some think he comes off as cocky but those people obviously never met Vrabel. I'll take a player who is extremely confident in his abilities any day. Both Vrabel and Carpenter have that confidence about them and I don't see anything wrong with that.

There will be a lot of good players on the board when the Patriots select but if they decide to go with Carpenter, New England fans should be ecstatic. Not only can he come in and help the Patriots as a rookie but playing under Bill Belichick, Carpenter has the upside to be a future Pro Bowler in this defense.

Oliver Hoyte, North Carolina State – There really isn't a middle linebacker in this draft who warrants being selected in round one. So Andy Hart and myself looked at some guys we thought would fit the Patriots system and would be available in the middle rounds. What we discovered is a player who could end up being an absolute steal in this year's draft.

When we watched Hoyte on tape, we were shocked. I thought I was looking at a first round draft pick. This guy made play after play and not only when we were watching him, but also when we watched other North Carolina State players like Mario Williams and Manny Lawson. Every time we watched tape of a Wolfpack player, Hoyte stood out.

At 250 pounds, Hoyte has the size the Patriots like in their linebackers and he hits like a ton of bricks. He's not only a big hitter, however, he's a great tackler. A lot of players can hit (Darnell Bing) but they don't wrap up and tackle. When Hoyte tackles someone he pops them, wraps up and drives the player back. He's the best tackler I saw at the linebacker position and that includes Hawk. Hoyte is a very physical player with a mean streak to him. He's kind of like Rodney Harrison playing linebacker.

Hoyte showed over and over again on tape that he has the ability to shed blocks and make plays. He makes a lot of tackles in the backfield and seems to always be around the ball. Like I said, if you watched the footage of Hoyte that we saw and didn't know where he was supposed to be drafted, you would think he was projected to go in the first or second round.

The negatives with Hoyte are said to be his speed and the fact that he benefited from playing with a great supporting cast in college but I would debate both arguments. Hoyte proved to me that he's a football player and a leader on the field.

He may not have blazing speed but he has football smarts that allows him to be in a spot before the play gets there. I think timed speed is overrated when it comes to middle linebackers because they usually play in a short area. Ted Johnson and Tedy Bruschi never had blazing speed but they worked out okay.

As far as playing with a great supporting cast, can't you say the same thing about Manny Lawson? What about John McCargo? These are first and second round prospects but maybe they excelled in college because they played on the same line as Mario Williams. I think downgrading a guy because he played on a good defense is idiotic. He made a lot of plays on that defense so Hoyte must have had something to do with its success.

Besides, if Hoyte comes to New England, he'll have a pretty good supporting cast around him here as well. I just think it's a shallow argument. USC had a great offensive line and another productive back on their team but it's not hurting Reggie Bush's draft stock at all. I'm not going to penalize Hoyte because he played on a good college defense with other great players.

There was a report earlier this week that new Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees was very impressed with Hoyte when he met with him and that doesn't surprise me at all. This guy is one of the most underrated prospects in the draft and in my opinion, the best player at his position. His leadership, intelligence on the field, physical style of play and mean streak all make him a great candidate to become a Patriot on draft day.

Gerris Wilkinson, Georgia Tech – Another underrated prospect at middle linebacker is Wilkinson. He's a very athletic player who is always around the football making plays. Much like Hoyte, I like Wilkinson much better than some of the players rated ahead of him going into the draft.

Wilkinson is the biggest playmaker at the middle linebacker position. Definitely the most physically gifted player at his position in this draft. Wilkinson runs down plays all over the field. He has the speed to both chase down ball carriers and get to the quarterback. Wilkinson is a very good blitzer from both the inside and outside. He also makes a lot of plays when he drops back in coverage. On tape, Wilkinson batted away a number of passes and showed the ability to stay with backs and tight ends down the field.

Wilkinson is another one of those players who looks to be a much better prospect than he's being given credit for and that's important this year when breaking down middle linebackers. There's no real clear cut stud at the position, so that means guys who aren't getting a lot of pre-draft hype could end up being better pros than the players being drafted ahead of them.

Wilkinson needs some work getting off blocks but once he's free, he can cause havoc all over the field. His stock has been on the rise recently so he'll probably come off the board somewhere in the third round area. With his upside and playmaking ability, Wilkinson would be an attractive option for the Patriots if they can get him in the middle rounds of the draft.

Dale Robinson, Arizona State – Robinson is the last of the middle linebackers I really liked when breaking down all the players on tape. The best way to describe Robinson is he's a bad dude with one heck of a mean streak.

Watching Robinson, he not only tackles people, he punishes them. Sometimes he tackles a little high but he's a vicious hitter and the kind of physical player who would fit in well as a 3-4 middle linebacker.

Robinson makes plays all over the field and really excels against the run. He makes a lot of tackles in the backfield. Robinson needs some work in coverage but he wasn't asked to do that much in college, so it may be an area he'll improve in at the next level.

Another positive with Robinson is he played both inside and outside linebacker at Arizona State. While he has the speed to play outside, his bruising style of play probably makes him a better fit inside in the NFL. Robinson takes on blocks well and even when he doesn't make the play - he's so physical at the point of attack - it ties up blockers and allows someone else to make the tackle.

When I watch Robinson I see a player with a nasty streak who has fun dishing out punishment on the football field. While some other middle linebackers - D'Qwell Jackson for instance - like to run around blocks and avoid contact, Robinson loves to take people on at the point of attack.

There's no question that Robinson is talented but the one thing that could hurt him in regards to becoming a Patriot is his size. At 238 pounds, he's a little smaller than Belichick likes his middle linebackers to be. In Robinson's defense, however, he does play bigger than his size because he's so physical.

I think Hoyte and Wilkinson are better all-around players but Robinson is an intense linebacker who should be around in the middle rounds of the draft. He's the kind of player who can be an asset to New England on special teams for a couple of years and possibly take over the starting role once Bruschi retires. A very intriguing prospect with a lot of the intangibles the Patriots look for in a player.

DeMeco Ryans, Alabama – I really like Ryans as a player, I'm just not sure he's the best fit for the Patriots scheme. The extremely fast outside linebacker may be more productive in a 4-3 defense, where he can use his speed without having to take on as many blockers.

It's no secret the Patriots like their middle linebackers to be bigger guys because in their scheme linebackers have to take on a lot of offensive linemen. Smaller inside linebackers can sometimes get pushed around in a 3-4 defense. While Ryans only weighs 235 pounds, you wouldn't know it watching him on tape.

Talk about a guy that's all over the place. Ryans lives in the backfield – as his 18.5 tackles for losses the last two years will attest. While he does a decent job of fighting off blocks, Ryans is at his best when he's chasing people down in space.

Ryans is a big hitter who actually plays a lot bigger than his listed 6-1, 235 pound frame would suggest. Remember, Belichick did like Jonathan Vilma – a smaller, quicker linebacker – when he came out of Miami a couple of years ago. Ryans reminds me a lot of Vilma with the way he makes plays all over the field and how hard he hits for his size.

Like I said, Ryans may be better suited to play in a 4-3 defense but some guys can produce in any scheme. I have a feeling Ryans is one of those guys. He's the kind of player who always makes an impact on the football field, regardless of where he lines up.

If the Patriots do decide to take one of the smaller linebackers in this draft, I think it will be Ryans. I love everything about him and see no reason why Ryans can't become a Pro Bowl linebacker in the future. A very impressive prospect who will be a steal if he's still available after the first 20 picks.

*Check back on Friday to see which linebackers are on the decline. *

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