Written by Kip Earlywine
Here are some factors that led me to this rankings:
#1: My own rankings are based on the assumption that any of the three linebacker spots can be upgraded, and that KJ Wright has enough flexibility to play middle or even weak side.
#2: I liked our linebacker group last year, so if Pete Carroll is so determined to overhaul it, it must be because something was clearly lacking, whether it was speed, coverage, or the ability to cover ground in run support. I kept the team’s “speed” preference in mind when making these personal rankings.
With that in mind…
My top ten 4-3 linebackers in the 2012 draft:
#1: Luke Kuechly (deserves to be drafted: top 15 pick)
I’ll say with 99% certainty that the Seahawks won’t be drafting Kuelchy at #12, but I honestly wouldn’t mind if they did. Kuelchy is fast enough to become an above average coverage linebacker, and his instincts tracking the ball in run support are off the charts.
#2: Dont’a Hightower (deserves to be drafted: round 1)
Hightower isn’t just a very good inside linebacker, he’s also got the size and power to be an excellent SAM, and enough quickness to be a solid WILL. He can play both inside and outside in a 3-4 too. He even lined up as a 4-3 defensive end on 3rd downs, and showed a lot of promise as an edge rusher. Hightower can pretty much do it all, and he does it very well. Oh, and did I mention he does all this at 265 pounds? If Hightower lands on a team like Baltimore or Pittsburgh, its not hard for me to envision him as a perennial pro-bowler.
#3: Lavonte David (deserves to be drafted: late round 1)
Undersized but stellar, David put up the best statistics of any linebacker in this draft class over the last two years. From a 4-3 perspective, David is probably limited to playing the WILL spot unless he can add a ton of weight, but he has a chance to be perhaps the best WILL linebacker in the NFL on day one. David is excellent in coverage, instinctive, smart against the run, and deadly as a pass rusher. If Seattle passed on him at #43, it better be for someone amazing.
#4: Ronnell Lewis (deserves to be drafted: early round 2)
Lewis was a defensive end in college, but his excellent special teams play, speed, good instincts and hard hitting ability all point to him as a potentially dominant SAM linebacker in a 4-3 (or a passable outside linebacker in a 3-4). If Lewis is the best player available, he’s worth considering as he’d likely be an upgrade over Wright at SAM.
#5: Shea McClellin (deserves to be drafted: early round 2)
McClellin is one of the draft’s most diverse players. A high school linebacker who converted to defensive end, McClellin posted respectable pass rush statistics as a Bronco, but the Senior Bowl and Scouting Combine revealed that his true talent may be at linebacker. Carroll likes players with scheme diversity, and McClellin could play either outside linebacker position, he could play strong side end on pass rush downs and could even be a successor for Clemons at the LEO. Despite playing defensive end, McClellin’s forty time was among the best for outside linebackers, and its said he looked terrific in coverage drills. McClellin will also draw strong consideration from teams looking for 3-4 outside linebackers.
#6: Mychal Kendricks (deserves to be drafted: round 3)
I know that Rob and I have touted Kendricks as a second round option, and we even mocked him to Seattle in the SBN writers mock at #43, but when I put on the games, I see a guy who looks like a 3rd or 4th round pick. Kendricks’ amazing combine will boost his stock significantly and probably makes him a near lock for round two, but I personally wouldn’t feel great about drafting him until the third. The Seahawks may feel very differently though as they appear to be placing a very high premium on speed.
#7: Bobby Wagner (deserves to be drafted: round 3)
Wagner has boring tape and doesn’t make a lot of splash plays from middle linebacker, but he’s one of the best coverage inside linebackers in the draft and he has the speed to cover tight ends and slot receivers with ease. Wagner is a bit of a jack of all trades linebacker and would be a very solid pick in round three, though like Kendricks, he will probably be selected before then.
#8: Demario Davis (deserves to be drafted: round 3)
Davis posted a very strong combine and has electrifying tape. In terms of maximum potential, he would be much higher on this list. Uncertainty about his coverage ability, small school competition, and tackling issues drop him down this far, but Davis is a monster talent and I’d be stoked if Seattle picked him any time after the second round.
#9: James Michael-Johnson (deserves to be drafted: round 4)
You would think a guy with the last name “Michael-Johnson” would be ridiculously fast, but James is hardly “the world’s fastest man.” Michael-Johnson’s field speed is just barely above average, but he compensates for that speed with outstanding coverage instincts and reaction ability. There isn’t a obvious Derrick Brooks candidate in this draft class, but Michael-Johnson’s ability to work a zone and read a quarterback reminds me of Tampa’s Hall of Fame linebacker. No other linebacker I scouted this year was used in coverage more than Michael-Johnson was, not even Zach Brown or Lavonte David. Michael-Johnson isn’t the greatest run stopper, but his closing speed and coverage ability makes him a very attractive option for what Seattle wants to do on defense.
I excluded Michael-Johnson from my draft spotlight series for one simple reason: I want him to be a Seahawk. My previews have always been remarkably inaccurate. Two years ago I covered fifty or sixty players, and only one was drafted by the Seahawks. One year ago, I covered several options on the offensive line, but James Carpenter and John Moffitt were not among them. I fully expect to strike out once again in 2012. So there you have it. James Michael-Johnson: destined Seahawks draft pick. (Oh, and to the draft-gods that might be reading this, I should also point out that I didn’t cover Dont’a Hightower or Luke Kuechly either. Just throwing that out there…)
#10: Tank Carder (deserves to be drafted: round 4)
Lots of non-BCS talent at linebacker this year, eh? Half of this list is made up of linebackers from non-BCS conference schools, which is saying something as I discount success significantly based on level of competition.
Carder is the closest thing in the 2012 draft to a Lofa Tatupu middle linebacker. Like Tatupu, Carder is hard hitting with a well rounded skill set. He plays his ass off and shows good potential in zone coverage too. Like Tatupu, he’s a leader on the field and stood out despite playing on a very good defense.
Just missed: Sean Spence (4th round), Zach Brown (4th round)
The front office’s top ten 4-3 linebackers (my guesses):
(estimated draft grade in parenthesis)
For the purposes of this ranking, I’m assuming that Seattle is looking for linebackers that can cover first and foremost. I think when Pete talks about wanting “speed” at linebacker, that’s what he actually means. I’ve come to this conclusion based on the insider info that the team rates Zach Brown very highly, and if you’ve seen Zach Brown play at all, you know that his coverage ability is the only part of his game that he could brag about. I also think that while the Seahawks believe in KJ Wright’s versatility at all three linebacker spots, I suspect the team would like to keep Wright at SAM if possible. That means they would probably prefer options at MIKE and WILL over SAM, although SAM linebackers could still be considered if the value is just too good to pass up. Finally, I think the front office values versatility, so linebackers that have a chance to play two or three linebacker spots would be more strongly considered.
#1: Zach Brown (1st round grade):
Zach Brown is not a good football player, but the Seahawks love him and I can think of several sane reasons why they would. While he isn’t the very fastest linebacker in the draft, he’s close, and not many linebackers can run a 4.50 forty time at 244 pounds. Purely in terms of size and speed, Brown is capable of playing all three linebacker spots in a 4-3, which holds huge appeal to the Seahawks as they will want to move players around and show as many looks as possible.
In an extreme scenario, and by extreme I mean something approaching Mad Max / Water World territory, Seattle might even consider Brown in the first round. I don’t think a good enough offer will arise to nudge Seattle out of the 12th pick, but if one does and Seattle moves down in the 1st round, keep an eye on Brown as a possible fallback option.
According to Sports Illustrated’s Tony Pauline, Zach Brown didn’t make the top 33 list of draftable players (taken from a random sampling of NFL draft boards). It’s sounding more and more that Brown will slide into the second round. If that happens it should be very interesting to see how John Schneider handles the pressure of having such a highly rated player approach their 2nd round pick. Will Seattle hold firm and hope Brown makes it? Or will they cave and spend a valuable pick to move up?
#2: Lavonte David (2nd round grade):
I wish I knew how Seattle rated David. I’m assuming they’d like him a lot, as he’s field fast with good coverage skills and brings a lot to the pass rush as well. On the downside, David isn’t very scheme versatile for a 4-3 and will likely be locked into a WILL linebacker role for Seattle’s defense. Still, David is pretty much the definition of an “impact” player and could immediately take the Seahawks’ defense to the next level. Pete Carroll has connections to Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini too (thank you Field Gulls).
#3: Bobby Wagner (2nd round grade):
Wagner isn’t flashy, but he doesn’t have a lot of glaring flaws and is one of the best coverage linebackers in the draft. He also ran a 4.46 forty. I’m lukewarm on him, but his appeal is pretty obvious.
#4: James Michael-Johnson (2nd round grade):
This might seem very high for Michael-Johnson, but the few times Rob and I have been blessed to see the Seahawks draft boards they always struck us for being unusual and having plenty of surprises in them. I think Michael-Johnson could be one of those surprises. Michael-Johnson’s overall profile is similar to Bobby Wagner except that Wagner excels in man coverage whereas Michael-Johnson was more of a zone coverage expert.
#5: Mychal Kendricks (2nd round grade):
Kendricks is under-sized but a special athlete. I really like Kendricks’ upside at the WILL because of his speed in coverage and his ability to accelerate when blitzing. Kendricks can also play MIKE if needed. Depending on how the draft board falls, Kendricks could be a strong consideration at #43 due to his incredible speed, athleticism, upside, and scheme diversity. He’s also a Pac-12 player, which could cause Pete Carroll to favor Kendricks even more.
#6: Demario Davis (2nd round grade):
Davis is a very similar athlete and player to Kendricks. I like Davis’ tape more, but I have him a little lower on both lists because his performances came against weaker competition.
#7: Sean Spence (3rd round grade):
Spence is a playmaking linebacker who utilizes great hand usage to help overcome his lack of height and size. Solid in coverage and adept at making plays behind the line, I only have Spence this low because he possesses only average speed and makes too many mistakes. Seattle shipped off Aaron Curry in part because he was mistake prone, so that makes me think that Spence’s mistake problems could be a significant turnoff for this front office. That said, I wouldn’t rule out Spence as an option in rounds two, three, or four.
#8: Shea McClellin (3rd round grade):
McCellin might rank much higher than this, but I think Seattle would put him this low mainly because his coverage ability is an unproven commodity. I wouldn’t put it past McClellin to be a 1st round pick either, as many 3-4 teams will be seriously interested in his skill set.
#9: Korey Toomer (mid-to-late round grade):
For these last two options, I’ll list a couple of long shot options that could make sense in the mid to late rounds, should Seattle opt to add a linebacker in that range. Keep in mind that there are several small school linebackers with excellent forty times, guys that nobody is taking the time to talk about. I’m only going to list two, but there are probably a dozen small school linebackers with speed that could be in play.
Korey Toomer’s scouting report reads a lot like Zach Brown’s. He’s a guy that does a lot of things well and has fluidity on par with defensive backs, but lacks the aggressiveness and timing that separates great linebackers from failed ones. Toomer is 6’2″, 234 pounds, and ran a blistering 4.48 forty time. The Seahawks were one of twelve teams to meet with Toomer and were just one of four teams to have him do a private workout.
#10: Marcus Dowtin (mid-to-late round grade):
Dowtin is another linebacker who resembles a safety with his movement skills. He’s 6’2″, 231 pounds, and ran a 4.56 forty time. Like Toomer, Dowtin is a small school player. John Schneider has not shied away from small school talents thus far.
No Kuelchy, Hightower or Lewis? I have these three off of Seattle’s list despite how highly I think of them as their coverage ability is considered less than a sure thing. Additionally, Kuelchy and Hightower have no real chance to reach the #43 pick, and I don’t think Seattle would spend big to trade back up into the first round for either one. Obviously, I would love to be wrong on all three counts, as you can see from where they sit in my own rankings. I’d be pretty surprised if any of them end up Seahawks though.