Long gone are the days of Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel setting the tone on defense.
It goes without saying that the success of running a 3-4 defense relies most heavily on the linebacker corps. The corps must be well rounded as all four starters have multiple responsibilities in stopping the run, dropping into coverage, taking on blockers and rushing the passer. Ever since the Super Bowl loss to the Giants, there has been a serious talent drain at linebacker for the Patriots.
Recently the Patriots have been able to replenish the depth at inside linebacker starting with Jerod Mayo, who earned his first Pro Bowl selection this season after being drafted tenth overall in the 2008 draft. In the ’09 draft the Patriots selected Brandon Spikes out of Florida and the former Gator showed a knack for stopping the run. His size and instincts overshadow his lack of speed and he complements Mayo’s style well. Undrafted free agents Gary Guyton (2008) and Dane Fletcher (2010) have carved out their own roles as sub-package players who are adept at pass coverage and putting pressure on the quarterback.
While the Pats are well stocked at inside linebacker, outside linebacker is a different story. Besides 2009 second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham, there isn’t a whole lot to look forward to in the future. This is a key area the Patriots need to address in the draft if this defense is going to take the next step. That being said, here are five outside linebacker prospects who should be on the Patriots’ radar for the 2011 draft.
1. Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M: While he is slightly undersized at a shade under 6-foot-3, 237 pounds, Miller brings freakish athleticism and terrific production as a defensive end/outside linebacker at the college level. After leading the nation with 17 sacks as a junior, he came back from injuries and still put up 11 sacks in his final nine games last season. Outside of Cameron Jordan, Miller had the best performance at the Senior Bowl, displaying his elite speed and playmaking ability. Although he may not be a great run defender, his ability to get after the quarterback and drop into coverage will make him a top 10 pick.
2. Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, North Carolina: Many draftniks had Quinn slotted as the No. 1 overall pick for this year’s draft. However, the former Tarheel was one of several UNC players who were suspended for the 2010 season and he wasn’t able to play the entire year. As a sophomore Quinn was a monster, recording 11 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. He will have a big opportunity to showcase his elite athleticism at the combine and will have to prove that his character concerns are overblown. At 6-foot-5, 270 pounds and 4.5-4.6 speed, he seems like the ideal candidate to switch to outside linebacker in the 3-4, but the Patriots would have to move up into the top 10 or 12 picks to have a shot at him.
3. Aldon Smith, DE/OLB, Missouri: Much like Miller, Smith battled through some injuries last season after posting terrific numbers the year before. The former Tiger had a historic freshman season, posting a school-record 11.5 sacks to go with 19 tackles for loss. He missed three games with a broken leg in 2010 and only had 5.5 sacks, but his talent is undeniable. He has great length and size at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds and has a great motor. He still has room to add about 15-20 pounds which would only help him as he faces NFL offensive tackles. He is probably going to come off the board between picks 10-20 so the Pats will have a good shot at him; however, with a good combine, his stock should increase.
4. Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA: Perhaps no player possesses such an impressive physique like Ayers. A huge outside linebacker in the mold of Dolphins inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, Ayers stands 6-foot-4, 255 pounds and can do a little bit of everything. His game isn’t polished and his instincts are not where coaches would like, but his physical talent is undeniable. He could play both inside and outside in the 3-4 and would be a perfect fit on the strong side in a 4-3. He is a mid to late first round prospect, but my feeling is his lack of instincts and average production will raise many questions with Belichick.
5. Justin Houston, OLB, Georgia: SEC quarterbacks had to watch out for the former Bulldog for the past two years as he recorded 17.5 sacks. He has similar size to Ayers (6-foot-3, 258 pounds) and great up-field speed. However, he is not a great run defender and doesn’t move well in space. He is somewhat limited in what he can do, but rushing the passer is a skill that teams will pay big money for. His lack of versatility would seem to make him a poor fit in New England, but with Jermaine Cunningham’s fairly strong play as a run defender, maybe Houston would be a complement as a pure pass rusher. He is a late first-round prospect who could get a look with the No. 28 pick.