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2011 NFL Draft: Von Miller, Robert Quinn Highlight Strong Class Of Rush Linebackers

It's about time I go through and clumsily list my rankings, big board and projections when it comes to the 2011 NFL Draft. I say clumsily because we already have an NCAA guy, Drew K, and he's very likely my superior in most cases, but I've been hitting more often than I've been missing, and it's led folks to ask me to post my own thoughts in a more expanded format, so I'm here to do that. I will cover most positions, list a big board at the end, and generally talk at length about guys, of whom 95% won't be wearing Red and Gold next year.

The 3-4 Outside Linebacker

We all know that the 3-4 outside linebacker is chiefly a pass-rusher. We all know that the 49ers have a few guys who range from decent to, (the technical term) "pretty darn good" at the position on the roster (or were on the roster in 2010), but none of those guys are the total package. Manny Lawson is set to be a free agent, but he had a great 2010 in my mind, and I'd like to think the 49ers retain his services, but he's still not a complete pass rusher. The prevailing argument seems to be that Lawson will perform better under somebody like Vic Fangio, and that his athleticism will lend itself to Fangio's aggressive blitz-heavy defense. I can't dispute that, but there's no way that we can keep Lawson as the only option going forward, especially considering the fact that he's a pending free agent.

Parys Haralson is the definition of "underwhelming" and Ahmad Brooks always seems to be one step away from breaking out. Maybe Brooks will be the 2010 Isaac Sopoaga, or maybe even the 2009 Aubrayo Franklin, and break out, but they can't bank on that alone. Travis LaBoy and Thaddeus Gibson round out guys that could be options going forward, but I think it's basically universal that the position be upgraded going forward.

This is a strong draft class for the position, the top guys are some of the best prospects in years, and the bottom guys round out a very high-ceiling class with potential scattered through five or so of the seven rounds. The 49ers absolutely need to draft a guy early, or maybe they know for sure they like someone later on, in which case they need to grab a couple developmental guys just to do it. After the jump, I've got some rankings, some percentages regarding the chances any given player is drafted by San Francisco in each round, and thoughts on each of my top fifteen guys.

3-4 Outside Linebacker Prospect Ranking

Rank Player/School Height/Weight/40 Time Rd 1. Rd. 2 Rd. 3 Rd. 4 Rd. 5 Rd. 6 Rd. 7
1 Von Miller, Texas A&M 6'3'', 246 lbs, 4.46 95% 100% N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
2 Robert Quinn, North Carolina 6'4'', 265 lbs, 4.58 85% 100% N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
3 Justin Houston, Georgia 6'3'', 258 lbs, 4.68 60% 90% 99% N/A N/A N/A N/A
4 Brooks Reed, Arizona 6'3'', 263 lbs, 4.66 20% 85% 100% N/A N/A N/A N/A
5 Akeem Ayers, UCLA 6'3'', 254 lbs, 4.68 15% 70% 90% N/A N/A N/A N/A
6 Aldon Smith, Missouri 6'4'', 263 lbs, 4.74 70% 90% N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
7 Sam Acho, Texas 6'2'', 262 lbs, 4.63 0% 75% 90% 99% N/A N/A N/A
8 Jabaal Sheard, Pittsburgh 6'3'', 264 lbs, 4.66 0% 75% 90% 99% N/A N/A N/A
9 Dontay Moch, Illinois 6'4'', 250 lbs, 4.55 0% 30% 65% 80% 90% N/A N/A
10 Cliff Matthews, South Carolina 6'4'', 257 lbs, 4.82 0% 0% 40% 70% 75% N/A N/A
11 Chris Carter, Fresno State 6'1'', 248 lbs, 4.66 0% 0% 0% 40% 45% 50% 70%
12 Martez Wilson, Illinois 6'4'', 250 lbs, 4.49 0% 40% 70% 80% N/A N/A N/A
13 Greg Romeus, Pittsburgh 6'5'', 264 lbs, 4.79 0% 0% 15% 40% 80% 85% 95%
14 Steven Friday, Virginia Tech 6'4'', 252 lbs, 4.66 0% 0% 10% 20% 45% 60% 65%
15 Bruce Miller, Central Florida 6'1'', 254 lbs, 4.66 0% 0% 10% 20% 25% 40% 60%

Talking Points

  • Da'Quan Bowers is not a 3-4 outside linebacker and he never will be. His recent Pro Day told us as much, but that only served to put the issue to bed - most already knew as much. That isn't a huge knock on Bowers, because he will make some team very happy with his abilities at the defensive end position.
  • If you're looking for someone who is a potential late round steal, Greg Romeus is a guy who sort of fell off at one point, but played at a very high level before doing so. He could come in and, at the worst, put on some weight and play defensive end, or even be a backup on the inside. Steven Friday is my sleeper.
  • If anybody tells you that Justin Houston can't play 3-4 OLB, give them a pride-obliterating [site decorum]-slap. They deserve it - as Houston can basically play any position on the line in a 4-3, both end spots in a 3-4, and he can definitely stand and be an outside linebacker.
  • You may notice that Aldon Smith has a higher percentage to be drafted than some players above him, that's because I do not consider Smith as good a 3-4 OLB as the guys above him, but he has a lot of value for the 49ers as a defensive end, and I could see him being the pick in a trade down situation, or even at seven if they really, really like him.
  • I don't think Ryan Kerrigan will be a 3-4 OLB in the NFL. Folks have questioned his athleticism, but I do think it is a littler overblown. Still, I don't see him as someone who will drop into coverage with regularity, nor do I see him as someone who can get the better of NFL offensive linemen from a 3-4 OLB position. I just don't see it, and as such, he's not on this list. He probably would be in the top ten if I included him here, but I consider that a huge waste of his talents, I don't know that he'd be productive in anywhere near a consistent basis.
  • I noted that this is a strong class of rush linebackers, and it really is, but the problem is that many of them are severely hit-or-miss. Someone like Jabaal Sheard could come in and excel right away, make an impact and adapt to the position well, or he can fall flat, never develop the moves he needs, and be a complete bust. There's a lot of that in this class.
  • If you couldn't tell, the percentages above in the table are relating to the chances that I think the 49ers will draft a guy. When you see 'N/A', that implies that there's just no chance the guy is around at that point.
  • My sleeper is Steven Friday, I talked a bit about that below. Who's yours?

Individual Thoughts

1. Von Miller - Do I need to say anything about Miller at this point? I don't think I do ... he's one of the best players in the draft, potentially the second best player behind Patrick Peterson. He's essentially a sure-fire prospect at outside linebacker, and he does everything well. He's fast, he's strong, he's got great burst and can shed blocks. The 49ers would be fortunate to land him with the seventh overall pick.

2. Robert Quinn - Want to know a secret? These guys are 1a. and 1b. for me at this point. I was skeptical of Von Miller for a long time, though I eventually came around - but I've always been high on Quinn. He had some issues with the tyrannical dictatorship also known as the NCAA, but that doesn't worry me at all. Literally the only red flag is the tumor in his brain that is supposedly not an issue. I don't care what you say, it's a concern. Beyond that, Quinn is athletic and skilled enough to rival Von Miller for the top spot, and I would have happy with him at the seventh overall pick.

3. Justin Houston - I'm not sure what he's weighing right now, but Houston is a beast, or at least he was a beast this past season at Georgia. 18.5 tackles for loss, folks - what a number! It goes nicely with his ten sacks, and the fact that he was high up on the team in tackles and the like. But I'm not just about stats and measurables, when I watch Houston, I see a guy who carries a big frame and a lot of weight like forty or so pounds of it just isn't even there. He can play defensive end in a 4-3, but I honestly feel like his athleticism and strength will be an asset in a 3-4, more than anything. It sure would be nice if the 49ers could hang onto Manny Lawson on top of getting Houston, because he will be lacking in coverage to start.

4. Brooks Reed - A lot of people will say that Akeem Ayers is the better prospect, but I sincerely disagree. Reed is fast, athletic, and will translate much better to a 3-4 OLB. I feel like he will do much better against NFL linemen than Ayers will, and there might be a chance for the 49ers to get him in the second round.

5. Akeem Ayers - I was never too high on Ayers, and I was waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. I know that sounds pretty arrogant, but I just can't present it any other way. Ayers has been falling down draft boards with a sub-par combine and a slow 4.80 40-yard dash time. I just can't see him making the transition without a ton of hard work, and his poor 40 time may be indicative of someone who doesn't want to put that work in. Still, he was highly rated at one point and did produce in college. He's got the size and strength to make it at the next level, but he needs to put the work in. Ayers needs to concentrate on rushing the passer for a good while, so retaining Lawson would be a good idea opposite him.

6. Aldon Smith - This guy is hard to pinpoint, he could be a top fifteen pick, but he's got almost no versatility, so options are limited. He can play 3-4 OLB, and his strength, intelligence and work ethic alone is enough to consider him for that role, but I don't know if he has the immediate strength and acceleration from the 3-4 DE position to make him worth it for the 49ers in the first round. I think the teams that will spend a pick on him in the first round will be 4-3 teams looking for strength on their defensive line.

7. Sam Acho - I'll make you folks aware right now: I love this kid, and I think he can be something special. I have him a little higher than most, but I think Acho is a very complete linebacker. I think he will come in and be able to do all the things you want as far as coverage and run stopping is concerned, and he has the ability and moves to be a dominant pass rusher. He's a little under the radar, and that's perfect for the 49ers to grab him in the second round. 17 tackles for loss, 9 sacks, five forced fumbles and fumble recoveries, and then on top of that, 17 quarterback hurries .. I'll take it. Acho has good moves when it comes to pass rushing, though he favored the power in college. I like his ability to maybe lose a little weight and take a more finesse-based approach in the NFL. This is a guy who we could start opposite Haralson/Gibson/Brooks and let Lawson walk.

8. Jabaal Sheard - He went under the radar for the majority of his college career, but this past season he was given the chance to excel, and he did. As such, with only one exceedingly good season under his belt, he's a bit of a wild card. Some people have him higher than I do, but I'm just not ready to make him into something he hasn't proven he can be yet.

9. Dontay Moch - A tackle-for-loss guru, Moch is a guy I would love to grab in the third round if I've missed out on an outside linebacker in the first two. Moch is a fantastic athlete on par with the top players at this position, and he's willing to do anything. He's right there at 250 lbs and he can choose to do a number of things with his frame. He can play OLB in a 3-4 or a 4-3, he might be able to pack on weight and play on the defensive line, but I think he has excellent range and should be allowed to play the edge as an OLB in a 3-4. This is a guy who we could start opposite Haralson/Gibson/Brooks and let Lawson walk.

10. Cliff Matthews - I'm not entirely sure he's going to be drafted as a 3-4 OLB, but it's definitely something he could be drafted for. His strength and ability alone will put him above the other guys, even if he's better suited for a position along the defensive line. The best thing I can say about Matthews is the fact that he's hard-working and intelligent. He'll do whatever you ask him to, or he'll burn himself out trying.

11. Chris Carter - He'll have a smooth transition to 3-4 OLB at the next level with solid speed and instincts. His ceiling is just not as high at this point though, he may hit it sooner rather than later, but in the later rounds, could be a great spot-treatment kind of guy.

12. Martez Wilson - Wilson can probably play any linebacker position, but he's low here because I'm just not giving him all-that-much thought. He'll be gone in the second round, maybe even the first, as an inside linebacker. Still, if the 49ers wound up with him, he has insane athletic ability and could be a force at the OLB position.

13. Greg Romeus - He's got a very, very high ceiling and any team in the league would be smart to take a flier on Romeus at some point. There's raw potential in every aspect of his game and I personally would be very happy with him any time in the fifth round or later. He could play end, OLB, ILB, whatever you want. A very coachable prospect.

14. Steven Friday - My personal sleeper of the draft, I like everything about Friday's game. Fifteen tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, two forces fumbles and 18 quarterback hurries highlight his only year starting in college, and he's got the strength and speed to excel in the NFL. I have developed a late round draft crush on Friday, and would love to get him in the sixth or seventh round. With a good coordinator and linebackers coach, Friday could excel if he learns some more moves.

15. Bruce Miller - Someone I have limited knowledge on, but I love his athleticism, he's got a lot of speed that will translate well at the next level. Or rather, I like the athleticism that he's displayed recently. It seems that, leading up to the draft, he really is putting in the work, and that's important, because his lack of physicality was something that was a knock in college. Teams will love a guy that can reinvent himself in a positive light when the chips are really on the table.