Richner: Top ILBs
Top 5 Inside Linebackers
The talent pool is a bit shallow this season for traditional inside linebackers. The top two players are Luke Kuechly and Dont'a Hightower. They are two premier players who should be able to step in and be starters in the NFL for years to come.
1. Luke Kuechly (Boston College): Having played the least number of career games of any other inside linebacker in this year's draft, Kuechly was still able to produce at an elite level. He has 532 career tackles, which is 87 more than the second leading tackler for inside linebackers. An NFL GM told me that when he scouts middle linebackers, he looks for a player who has the ability and history of getting interceptions. He believed so much of the middle linebacker position is to run down field with the tight end or drop into coverage that they must have good coverage abilities to go along with some pass catching skills. Kuechly has seven career interceptions. He is an all-around solid defender who has shown a high degree of football intelligence, work ethic, and physical abilities to compete at a high level. He should have a successful, long term career in the NFL.
2. Dont'a Hightower (Alabama): A tackling machine at Alabama, who Nick Saban allowed to roam sideline-to-sideline pummeling would-be ball carriers. At 6'2" and 265 lbs., he is a destructive force when he gets his wheels moving. When reviewing his game tape, what initially jumps out is his ability to shed would-be blockers, slip into the gap, and find the ball carrier. As only a two-year starter, his career 21 tackles for loss are very impressive. He is perfectly suited to play inside on a 3-4 defense.
3. Bobby Wagner (Utah State): I like to refer to Bobby Wagner as the "Little Engine That Could." At 6'0" tall and 241 lbs., he isn't the most impressive physical specimen to play football, but he is all over the field making plays. Last season, Wagner had 147 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and two interceptions. He showed his strength to start the season against Auburn where he had nine tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack. He will be able to step in and be a leader in special teams as well. Give him some time to understand the game and he could be a great find in the middle rounds of the draft.
4. Tank Carder (TCU): There have been five linebackers from TCU since 2009 to be drafted (or who will likely be drafted this year) and Tank Carder is the best of all of them. He posted solid career numbers with 182.5 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 25 tackles for loss. He played in a defensive system that is run in a 4-2-5 scheme, which causes him to take on blockers and occupy gaps, so his play making opportunities are diminished compared to linebackers playing in a 3-4 or a 4-3 schemes. For his career, he had 19 pass breakups. Carder excels at covering running backs and tight ends down he field.
5. Mychal Kendricks (California): The Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Kendricks has a knack for slicing his way through a pile and getting to the football. With 259 career tackles, 13.5 sacks and 36.5 tackles for loss, Kendricks proves his ability in being successful at going after the ball carrier. Having played in a 3-4 defense in college, he would be well-suited in step right in a play the inside linebacker spot for a 3-4 defense in the NFL.