1- Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina
Analysis: Brown has an impressive combination of size and speed. He has a listed sub 4.55 40 yard dash time and while he is only 6’2″, 225 pounds he can really fly around the field. He has a lot of potential and should help replace Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant at linebacker. As a junior Brown produced 72 total tackles (47 solo), 1.5 TFL and had 3 INT’s with an impressive 113 return yards after those interceptions. I expect Brown to step up and continue the strong defensive tradition that has developed recently at UNC.
2- Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska
Analysis: David plays MLB for Nebraska from what I remember but at his size he will probably have to move to WLB in the NFL, though if he packed on some weight to get to 230+ he might have a shot at playing the Mike. Regardless, he might not have great size at 6’1″, 220 pounds but he is an absolute tackling machine. He ended last season with a remarkable 152 tackles (85 solo), 12.5 TFL, 6.0 sacks and 8 pass deflections. He is going to get knocked for his size but he can flat out play, and that’s why I have him ranked higher than a lot of other people.
3- Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama
Analysis: Upshaw has a lot of potential and he is returning for his senior year which will be a huge lift for Alabama. He was productive last year as a junior and was arguably Alabama’s top pass rusher. At 6’2″, 265 pounds he is very well built and was able to amass 52 total tackles (32 solo), 14.5 TFL, 7.0 sacks, 4 FF’s and 2 pass deflections. He has a lot of potential and flashed some impressive hand usage last year if I recall correctly. I am anxious to evaluate him further, but I was always impressed with him when I saw him last season.
4- Travis Lews, OLB, Oklahoma
Analysis: Lewis has been a potential NFL draft pick since he was a redshirt sophomore so now that he is a senior he will finally be in the draft. He has impressive athleticism and has a good reputation in coverage, but I have never been that impressed with him when I have watched him periodically. I am withholding judgement until I see more of him however. Last year he produced 109 total tackles (64 solo), 5.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 3 INT’s and 5 pass deflections. I think if he replicates his junior season and demonstrates his ability in coverage to me and other talent evaluators he could be a top 50 pick in the draft.
5- Brandon Lindsey, OLB, Pittsburgh
Analysis: Lindsey plays DE for Pittsburgh but I am not sure whether he will be a 4-3 DE or a 3-4 OLB at this point or not. At 6’2″, 250 he might be forced to transition to OLB, but if he gained weight he might be able to stick as a 4-3 DE. We will have to wait and see on that front, a lot of that will have to do with how he plays and develops this year. As a junior who stepped up to replace Romeus in the lineup opposite Jabaal Sheard Lindsey produced 51 total tackles (32 solo), 18.0 TFL, 10.0 sacks, 3 FF’s and one pass deflection. He has a lot of pass rushing upside and was quite disruptive opposite Sheard last year, so it will be interesting to see if he can maintain his effectiveness now that Sheard has moved on to the NFL.
6- Bruce Irvin, OLB, West Virginia
Analysis: Irvin had a very big year as a pass rusher last year but was fairly one dimensional as he did not have a single tackle for loss that was not a sack, meaning he was not much of a factor playing the run. That’s not entirely surprising considering he was playing at a listed height and weight of 6’3″, 235 pounds. However, he was dynamic when rushing the passer as he amassed 21 total tackles (18 solo), 14.0 TFL, 14.0 sacks, 2 FF’s and 1 pass deflection. It will be interesting to see if he can reproduce that effectiveness as a pass rusher but even more interesting to see if he can be more effective versus the run.
7- Sean Spence, OLB, Miami
Analysis: Spence might be undersized for the position (about 6’0″, 220 pounds) but he is an impressive athlete and he is a tackling machine much like Lavonte David for Nebraska. Spence produced 111 total tackles (59 solo), a whopping 17.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 FF’s and 6 pass deflections. I don’t think he will be able to stick at MLB in the NFL necessarily, but he could play WLB effectively based off of what I have seen from him last year. He plays the run very well despite his size as evidenced by over 14 tackles in the backfield versus the run. He avoids blocks well but the true test of his potential will be how well he sheds blocks despite his relatively small stature.
8- Nigel Bradham, OLB, Florida State
Analysis: Bradham is on my list of potential break-out players in a previous post, and I think he has a good chance to do it. He stands at 6’2″, 241 pounds and produced 97 total tackles (53 solo), 5.5 TFL, 5.0 sacks, 5 pass break-ups and 1 kick/punt blocked as a junior last season. It will be interesting to see how well he plays the run and drops into pass defense, as I have not seen him play very much yet.
9- Nico Johnson, OLB, Alabama
Analysis: Nico Johnson is a junior who may emerge as the starter opposite Upshaw at OLB. He has a lot of potential at 6’3″, 238 pounds and in a rotation last season he managed 33 total tackles (22 solo), 3.5 TFL, 1 INT and 1 pass deflection. With Upshaw as a mentor he could very well develop into a dynamic pass rusher, though I have not seen him play much so I can’t elaborate on his edge speed or get-off from the stand-up linebacker position. It will be interesting to see what his role is this year, and if he forms a formidable duo with Upshaw for Alabama.
10- Emmanuel Acho, OLB, Texas
Analysis: Acho returns to a Texas unit with some emerging talent up front and that should give him the opportunity to make plays at linebacker. Last year as a junior he was productive and displayed a lot of talent when he finished with 81 total tackles (47 solo), 10.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT (returned for TD), 1 FF, 2 pass deflections. I am excited to see how he develops and progresses as a senior, but I have high hopes for him.
Thanks for reading my pre-season outside linebacker rankings! Hopefully you enjoyed them. Feel free to comment on them as you see fit. I will have my inside linebacker, cornerback and safety rankings up soon.