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Rams' Draft 2011: Linebackers At the Combine

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We all know the Rams desperately need help at the outside linebacker position. A combination of poor play and injuries resulted in an ineffective linebacker corps in 2010, and the defense suffered accordingly. Too often we watched the Rams get burned on passes underneath, as well as running plays run to the B and C gaps. 

With a firm anchor set in the middle in James Laurinaitis, the Rams do have the foundation for an effective, perhaps even dominant unit. The middle or Mike linebacker in a 4-3 alignment is the tough one to find; he has to not only make the plays required of his position, but also serve as the quarterback for the defense on the field. Laurinaitis is well on his way to being one of the top players at his position in all of football; the question now is whether the Rams can find suitable flankers for him. 

Yesterday at the NFL Combine one of the two groups of players running drills were linebackers. Here are a few thoughts on some players who might be of particular interest to the Rams. 

Von Miller, Texas A&M -- The consensus top linebacker in this year's draft (particularly for teams running a 3-4 defense, as he looks perfectly suited for the rush linebacker spot), Miller looked pretty good in his drills. You could see the explosiveness and the athleticism, even though he seemed to be rushing a lot of the time. Still, it's hard to blame the guy for being a bit too keyed up for what is essentially the biggest job interview of his life. 

The only way the Rams would have a chance to draft Miller would be if they took in the first round, and I'm a bit doubtful they would do so. Steve Spagnuolo's defensive scheme emphasizes discipline, fundamental tackling, and proper gap responsibility more than explosive playmaking. All of which is just another way of saying in the Rams' scheme there are more important positions, and I have a hard time envisioning them using their first round pick on a linebacker. 

Greg Jones, Michigan State -- Long one of my favourite linebacker prospects in the upcoming draft, Jones has looked pretty much how you would expect him to look so far. In each and every drill he's been under control. He hasn't looked especially fast, but he hasn't really looked slow either. In other words, it's more of the same with Jones: you just have to watch him actually play to understand what he's all about. 

The one thing that is notable about Jones is his weight coming in. He's added considerable bulk in the lead-up to the combine, weighing in at 242 pounds. That's significantly heavier than the ~220 or so he played most of his college career. It was one of the big knocks on Jones, that he was undersized and needed to add some size if he hoped to make the transition to the NFL. Hopefully adding that extra weight won't slow him down. 

There is one potential silver lining to Jones not really standing out all that much: if his stock were to take a precipitous turn downward, he just might end up an outstanding value pick for some team who just happens to have a gaping need at linebacker and likes exactly what he brings to the table. But where oh where could we find such a team? 

Martez Wilson, Illinois -- There's a particular number you might want to remember when thinking of Martez Wilson: 4.49. That's his time in the 40-yard dash, fastest among all linebackers and pretty remarkable for a player who goes 6'4" and 250. He's big enough to play inside in a 3-4, but his best fit will be outside in either common defensive front. 

To be honest, I hadn't taken as much notice of Wilson as I had several other linebackers in this draft, but it was impossible to ignore the athleticism he displayed running the drills at the combine. He was very productive on the field in 2010 as well, so it isn't as if he's only good in shorts and no pads. He racked up 114 tackles, 4 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles after sitting out the previous season with an injury. 

Wilson's tremendous speed and athletic ability will make him attractive to plenty of teams, but I have a hunch he'll be snatched up by a 3-4 team dreaming of him blowing by defensive ends all day long with that sub-4.50 speed. If he's there in the second round, I could see the Rams picking him and banking on his versatility and mobility to make an impact. 

Mike Mohamed, California -- I didn't really know much of anything about Mohamed coming into the combine. I knew the name, but not really much else. After watching him run through the combine drills, though, I have to admit to being more than a little intrigued by him. 

Mohamed isn't the fastest guy, at least in a straight-line sort of sense. He doesn't have the speed or drive up the field to be much of pass rusher. What he does have, though, is outstanding length for a player at his position (6'3" with a great wingspan), and plus coverage skills. What really caught my eye watching him run drills was his change of direction. Where so many other linebackers put an extra little hop in their cuts, or struggled to find the correct footwork, or even fell over themselves trying to go full speed through a turn, Mohamed was smooth and under control. He flipped his hips unusually well for a linebacker, looking more like a safety, to be honest. He was under control and never missed a step. He even caught the ball well in interception drills, looking for all the world like a tight end. 

Mohamed ran a 4.70 40, which is right in line with guys like Mason Foster and Ross Homan, and significantly faster than Akeem Ayers, the UCLA linebacker whose athleticism was so highly touted coming in. Still, speed isn't a huge part of Mohamed's game, and he'll likely fall well down into the lower rounds due to his lack of pass-rushing ability. It's never a good idea to fall in love with a player when he's in shorts, but I was impressed enough with Mohamed's coverage tools that if he happened to be on the board when the Rams pick in, say, the sixth round, I would probably dance a little jig if they happened to scoop him up. He looks big for the weakside, but he can tackle and he can cover. Mr. Mohamed has definitely put himself firmly on my personal watch list. 

Mark Herzlich, Boston College -- It's always a shame when a really great story doesn't have a happy ending, and unfortunately it's looking more and more like Herzlich's story is going to fall short of fairytale status. He ran in the high 4.8 to 4.9 range in the 40 and didn't look particularly good in change of direction drills, either. 

Herzlich was one of the top linebacker prospects in the nation up until a couple years ago, when he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in his leg. He had to have a titanium rod implanted as a result, and just hasn't looked like the same player since coming back. Specifically, it's looking more and more likely his bout with the disease may have cost him some significant speed long-term. If that is ultimately the case, Herzlich could still make it in the NFL, but his ceiling may very well have been compromised. 

Still, there are outstanding instincts and toughness to like about Herzlich. He's a plus tackler and understands the game very well. He's incredibly strong and a big hitter. And, as much as anything, you know he has the mental fortitude to do whatever it takes to get to where he wants to go. I don't know that he's a fit for the Rams, necessarily, but there are certainly worse bets you could take than to bet on a man with such tenacity and determination. 

Ross Homan, Ohio State -- The last time the Rams took a linebacker out of Ohio State it worked out pretty well for them. What better way to complement Laurinaitis than with an old teammate of his? The two of them have already played together and know how mesh, after all, and Homan is no slouch on his own merits either. 

Then again, there's a problem with Homan, and it's not one he can do very much about. He's kind of small, and kind of slow. He's listed at 6'0" and 227, putting him solidly in that same territory as Greg Jones. He did post a good time in the 40 at the combine (4.68), so that may help out his draft stock a bit. Still, the concerns that he just doesn't have the kind of athleticism necessary to be a solid player at the professional level will likely continue to dog him. 

It's a shame, too, because Ross Homan is, in fact, one hell of a football player. He plays sideline to sideline and his motor never quits. He's an excellent tackler, as well, unsurprising given his college pedigree. In fact, Homan is a lot like his former teammate Laurinaitis in his style of play, only a couple inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter. If he were a little more physically gifted, Homan would be a first- or second-round prospect. As it is, though, any team taking him will be betting on his production rather than his athleticism. 

Oh, and one last thing: Homan posted the highest number of bench press reps of any linebacker, with 32. That's a strong dude. 

Mason Foster, Washington -- Finally, I have to say I was impressed (mildly, but still impressed), with Mason Foster. He's long had a rap as a player who plays above his talent and wasn't going to wow you in workouts, but he actually looked more athletic than I expected going through the drills. He was especially nimble in the three cone drills, showing quick feet and good agility. His 40 time was neither great nor awful. 

There were two areas Foster really failed to impress, though. He scored only 22 reps in the bench press, well off the pace set by the leaders, and his vertical leap of 21.0 inches was downright pedestrian. Neither of those are disastrous results, particularly for a player long known to perform better in games than in shorts, but Foster certainly didn't help his draft stock out by looking a little lacking in athleticism. 

On the whole, though, I liked what I saw from Foster. He looked good in shuttles and cone drills, showing a better change of direction than I had expected to see from him. I don't think he's moved much in either direction in terms of draft stock based on what he did here in the combine, and he's still a third-ish round pick for me, and one I would feel perfectly comfortable seeing the Rams make. 

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