The Tennessee Titans have one of the youngest, most athletic linebacker corps in the entire NFL. The front office has invested 2nd round picks in both Akeem Ayers (23) and Zach Brown (23), drafted in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Starting MLB Colin McCarthy (24) was drafted in the 4th round in 2011. While McCarthy battled through injuries for much of 2012, Ayers and Brown combined for 11.5 sacks and 197 total tackles, as well as 4 interceptions. That’s incredible production from a rookie and 2nd year player, and Titans fans can expect both players to continue improving.
As the NFL has transitioned into a pass-happy league, the traditional designation of linebacker has adapted as well. Ayers and Brown are prime examples of this positional evolution, possessing the rare athletic ability to both cover tight ends and rush the passer. McCarthy is certainly more of a traditional MLB, but if he can’t remain healthy, then the Titans have a glaring need in the middle of their defense.
In today’s NFL, many teams are also running both the 3-4 and 4-3 defensive schemes, requiring talented athletes that break the traditional mold. There are inside and outside linebackers for both schemes, as well as players that may shift to defensive end. In light of the vast changes to the position in recent years, it’s necessary to review a wider sample to paint a clearer picture. Therefore, we will review the top 8 linebackers in the 2013 NFL Draft:
1. Dion Jordan, OLB/DE, Oregon
Dion Jordan is a perfect example of the hybrid OLB/DE. Jordan arrived at Oregon as a nationally acclaimed tight end, but his continued growth (6’6”, 248 lbs) prompted the coaches to move him to defensive end. During his 2011 and 2012 seasons, the Ducks utilized him as a drop end, asking him to rush the passer and cover tight ends/slot receivers. He displayed his freakish athleticism at the combine, blazing a 4.60 40-yard dash, as well as looking fluid in the position drills.
Jordan will be a top-10 pick, mark my words. I believe the Jaguars could snag him with the 2nd overall pick, so the Titans won’t have a chance unless they package several draft picks to move up. Jordan will continue to grow in an NFL strength program, and he has the potential to become a force comparable to Julius Peppers. It’s extremely rare to find an athlete capable of covering slot receivers and overpowering offensive tackles, and therefore Jordan’s name will be called very early in the 2013 draft.
2. Barkevious Mingo, OLB/DE, LSU
Barkevious “KeKe” Mingo is another example of an elite athlete with a diverse skill set. Listed as a DE at LSU, he projects as a 3-4 OLB in the NFL. His combination of size (6’4”, 241 lbs) and speed (4.58 40-yard dash) provides versatility to drop into coverage or rush the passer. However, some scouts are concerned about his lean frame, unsure if he’ll be able to handle the physicality of NFL linemen. It shouldn’t be too much of a concern though, as Mingo projects similarly to the successful Von Miller.
After absolutely blowing up the combine, Mingo has dramatically risen up draft boards. Mingo had 8 sacks in 2011, but that number dropped to just 4.5 in 2012. Mingo has also never recorded an interception, leading many to question his ability in coverage. Mingo has all the athletic tools to succeed in the NFL, but his limited college production makes him a boom or bust prospect. He will likely be drafted in the top half of the 1st round, but I don’t see the Titans targeting a guy that can’t play DE full-time.
3. Arthur Brown, ILB, Kansas State
After transferring from Miami in 2010, Brown excelled during his first year at Kansas State, racking up 101 tackles and being named a team captain. He continued on that success in 2012, once again recording over 100 total tackles and starting every game. His 6’0”, 241-lb frame projects him as an ILB in the NFL, and he plays with consistency and incredible instincts. A shoulder injury prevented him from participating in the Senior Bowl and combine, but his pro day in March helped to alleviate concerns: 4.60 40-yard dash, 32.5” vertical, and 21 bench press reps.
Brown has largely gone unnoticed leading up to the draft on April 25th. Most scouts project him as a 2nd round pick, but I have a feeling that some team will consider him late in the 1st, possibly Chicago or Baltimore. He may lack ideal size, but he plays with unrelenting tenacity and instinctual quickness. If he falls into the 2nd round, the Titans could consider him as a perfect fit at MLB between Ayers and Brown. I still like McCarthy, but his inability to stay healthy may have the front office concerned.
4. Jarvis Jones, OLB/DE, Georgia
Jarvis Jones (6’2”, 245 lbs) was a one-man wrecking crew during his 2011 and 2012 seasons at Georgia, amassing 28 sacks, 44 tackles for a loss, and 9 forced fumbles. With that type of eye-popping production, why isn’t Jones higher on this list? Unfortunately, he suffered a neck injury his freshman season at USC and was subsequently diagnosed with a medical condition known as spinal stenosis. Georgia doctors later cleared him, but many NFL teams are still wary of the medical condition.
Jones did not participate at the combine, so there was extra pressure coming into his pro day in March. He then disappointed scouts with a 4.9 40-yard dash, drawing concern about his athletic potential. Now teams must decide how to evaluate the two-time All-American. Jones certainly has some red flags concerning his neck and speed, but his college tape shows a dominant force capable of single-handedly changing a game. He will most likely be drafted in the middle of the 1st round. If the Titans believe he can become a full-time pass rusher, they may consider him at 10th overall, but it doesn’t seem likely.
5. Jamie Collins, OLB, Southern Miss
The athletic Jamie Collins began his career as a safety at Southern Miss, eventually moving to linebacker in 2010. The Golden Eagles had a stellar season in 2011, posting an impressive 12-2 record, including a win in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. Unfortunately, Southern Miss imploded in 2012, failing to win a single game. Collins, however, played exceptionally well in 2012, earning first-team All-Conference USA honors. He consistently made plays all over the field, breaking up numerous passes and tallying 10 sacks.
Collins followed up his strong season with a stellar combine, ranking as a top performer in several drills. Most notably he displayed his explosiveness, notching a ridiculous 41.5” vertical (2nd best among all prospects) and 139” broad jump (a combine best). He combines ideal size (6’3”, 250 lbs) with supreme athletic ability, and he currently is projected as a 2nd round pick. The Titans already have Brown and Ayers patrolling the outside, so they will most likely look for a more traditional ILB.
6. Alec Ogletree, ILB/OLB, Georgia
Georgia’s hard-hitting Alec Ogletree has garnered some attention as possibly the best ILB prospect in this year’s draft class. He has ideal size (6’2”, 241 lbs) and more than adequate speed for the MLB position. His impressive closing speed may project him as a weakside linebacker in the NFL, as he’s at his best when chasing down ball carriers from sideline to sideline. His immense athleticism is also reflected in the fact that he began his college football career as a safety.
So what’s the catch? Well, Ogletree has experienced a myriad of off-the-field incidences since his time at Georgia. He was arrested in 2010 and charged with misdemeanor theft, causing the team to suspend him for the first game of his freshman season. Heading into the 2012 season, Ogletree was again suspended for four games for violating team rules. When he returned to the field, he was an absolute tackling machine, racking up 112 total tackles in just 10 games. Scouts assuredly noticed his production, but then Ogletree made a another mind-boggling error when he got arrested on charges of DUI, and just days before the combine at that. I hate to point out all the mistakes of such a talented player, but the Titans front office will have to recognize the huge risk that comes with Ogletree.
7. Manti Te’o, ILB, Notre Dame
Not since the glory days of Tebow has a player been so polarizing and overly scrutinized. I am not a fan of the constant media attention surrounding the girlfriend hoax, so we will focus on Te’o as a football player in this analysis. Te’o had an outstanding senior season at Notre Dame, racking up several national awards including: the Nagurski Award, the Lombardi Award, the Bednarik Award, the Maxwell Trophy, the Walter Camp Award, the Butkus Award, the Lott Trophy, and he also finished 2nd in the Heisman Trophy voting. He averaged 125 tackles over his last three seasons, displaying an instinctual nose for the football.
Te’o has achieved all the college success (minus a National Championship) that an athlete can ever hope to. Even with all his accolades and solid game film, he could possibly fall into the 2nd round. He certainly has immaculate football instincts, but his marginal size (6’1”, 241 lbs) and athleticism will limit his potential at the next level. Te’o represents a high-floor, low-ceiling prospect. He will be a solid pro in the league for years to come, but he likely won’t become an elite player at his position. The Titans did formally interview Te’o at the combine, possibly looking for an insurance policy for the oft-injured McCarthy. However, the 2nd round is likely too high for that replacement, so it’s doubtful that Te’o becomes a Titan.
8. Kevin Minter, ILB, LSU
Minter made the most of his lone season as a starter at LSU, compiling 130 tackles and 4 sacks in 2012. His efforts earned him first-team All-SEC honors, and LSU named him the team’s most valuable player. Minter (6’0”, 246 lbs) projects as an ILB in a 3-4 defensive scheme, or a MLB in a traditional 4-3 scheme. He aggressively attacks blockers, never shying away from even much bigger linemen. Minter also has the tenacity and short-area quickness to disrupt interior rushes.
Minter likely will be drafted in the 2nd or 3rd round. He is a consistent and fearless tackler, but he possesses only marginal speed. His ability to play in any defensive scheme adds to his value. The Titans might view Minter as an ideal backup to McCarthy, as well as a valuable special teams contributor. If management wants to add depth to the position, Minter would offer great value in the 3rd round.
Conclusion: As we look forward to the 2013 season, the Titans still have a few holes on a defense that struggled mightily last year. The most pressing concerns lie in the secondary and on the defensive line, so adding another prospect to the linebacker corps may seem like a luxury pick. The Titans signed MLB Moise Fokou this offseason as an insurance policy for McCarthy, but there is little depth otherwise. I imagine they will target someone in the later rounds, unless a pass-rushing hybrid falls to them in the 1st or 2nd round.
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