2012 NFL Draft: Outside Linebacker Prospects for the Buffalo Bills
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I recently posted my first complete seven-round mock draft for the Buffalo Bills for the 2012 NFL draft. One of the areas that garnered the most interest was the strong-side OLB position.
After working the past two seasons to become a 3-4 team, the Bills are now switching back to a 4-3 base. However, they’ll still be using hybrid fronts. This means they’ll continue to look for depth and versatility at all linebacker positions.
The Bills recently re-signed OLB Kirk Morrison. Considering defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt’s comments, it sounds like he’ll enter 2012 as a candidate to start on the strong side.
In my mock draft, I have Buffalo selecting Nebraska’s Lavonte David in Round 2, who fits best as a weak-side linebacker.
A lot of folks aren’t as high on David, claiming that he’s a bit too small and lacks ideal size. Don’t forget, though, he’s only an inch shorter and less than 10 pounds lighter than North Carolina’s heralded prospect Zach Brown, currently projected to go late first or early second round by most analysts.
I do have Buffalo taking a more natural strong-side linebacker in Darius Fleming from Notre Dame. Fleming is a late-round prospect who is sound, though he won’t be an immediate impact on defense.
Certainly, there are many other prospects to consider. So I thought it would be useful to compile a list of other potential OLBs who could fit in on the strong side for the Bills.
Here are some names to monitor as we inch closer to April.
Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma
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Ronnell Lewis looks the part for what the Bills are looking for at strong-side OLB. He’s 6’2”, 253 pounds, with lots of total body strength. At the combine, he posted an official 4.68 40-time and put up 225 pounds 36 times.
Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor would call that some serious power.
Even though Lewis mostly played DE for the Sooners’ 3-4 defense in 2011, he excelled against stiff competition and demonstrated his overall athleticism and tenacity.
In the NFL, Lewis is expected to move back to outside linebacker, and NFL.com mentions that he could even make the move to a 4-3 OLB because of his package of abilities. In this brief footage, he demonstrates the ability to get after the ball with quickness and burst from various spots on the field.
Another notable observation in the clip is Lewis’ consistent production on special teams. Buffalo just re-signed WR Ruvell Martin to an extension, primarily due to his special teams contributions. I’m sure the Bills will have no problem drafting a player at a position of need who can also do the dirty work on kickoffs.
Keenan Robinson, Texas
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After drafting former Longhorn CB Aaron Williams last year in Round 2, Buffalo could look to grab another Texas standout in Keenan Robinson. At 6’3”, 242 pounds, he’s a big, physical athlete with great size and natural athleticism for the Sam position.
According to NFL.com, Robinson was a three-year starter in the Big 12 at inside linebacker, though he may be better suited for a switch to the outside.
[He] is an athletic mover who can run down faster players. He is a solid all-around prospect who may be better suited to play outside linebacker, where he can play more freely and get pursuit production from the inside out.
During an interview at this year’s Senior Bowl, Robinson acknowledged that he has experience playing all linebacker positions and is comfortable playing outside. He also pointed out that he had been training with pass-rushers Melvin Ingram and Jake Bequette to hone his pass-rushing skills.
WalterFootball.com and NFL.com both allude to the fact that Robinson may need to do more to stay aggressive, since he’s capable of having more production than he did in 2011. If he comes to the Bills, I’m sure former teammate Aaron Williams will have no trouble telling him about the defensive culture that Dave Wannstedt is trying to establish.
Demario Davis, Arkansas State
Photo taken from ArkansasSports360.com
A standout in the Sun Belt Conference over the past two seasons, Demario Davis has been gaining steam since the end of 2011. According to WalterFootball.com, "He was a late addition to the Senior Bowl and held his own against the better competition."
Like the other Davis (Lavonte) I initially selected for the Bills, Demario Davis’ biggest strength is speed. He’s 6’2”, 235 pounds, and he had a very productive season last year, totaling 69 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three sacks and an interception.
His lower body explosiveness was evident by his 4.61 40-time, 38.5" vertical jump and 124" broad jump at the combine. Each of those numbers qualified him as a top performer for his position in each category.
As an OLB at the next level, Davis would be able to roam the field and flash his impressive sideline-to-sideline speed. From the video clips I’ve watched, he consistently shows patience in pursuit, has a knack for reading plays and knows when to deliver a blow and when to wrap up.
His leadership qualities in this clip also remind me of what the Bills saw in LSU’s defensive captain Kelvin Sheppard in last year’s draft. That kind of energy is contagious.
Nigel Bradham, Florida State
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NFL.com describes him as "physically imposing and a strong player who is a feared tackler in the ACC."
Speaking of tackling, Bradham led the Florida State Seminoles in tackles for three consecutive seasons. Being the physical and aggressive player that he is, he showed that he is capable of sealing off the outside while also flashing some potential in blitzing the quarterback.
His official combine measurements were 6’2" and 241 pounds. In addition, he has great arm length (33.75") and hand length (10.5"). Considering his big, long frame, Bradham posted a seriously impressive vertical jump of 37" while also running a 4.64 40-yard dash.
Overall, the verdict on Bradham is that he is a very physical athlete who tackles well and delivers big plays. On the other hand, he needs to improve his awareness and instincts and become more consistent at reading plays.
Buffalo can live with that. After all, you can’t coach things like speed and size, which is what the Bills are looking for at OLB. With some coaching and experience, Bradham should be able to develop his defensive awareness.
Tyler Nielsen, Iowa
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At Iowa, Tyler Nielsen was a steady producer who put on his hard hat and went to work each week. Unfortunately, he accumulated a rather large list of injuries, including a serious neck injury his junior year.
Nevertheless, the OLB fought through each of them and had a solid collegiate career.
Nielsen is another big and fast linebacker (6’3", 238 pounds), though he isn’t great in coverage. While some of the other OLB prospects on this list may be more fluid in their natural movements, Nielsen is more of a hard-working playmaker who reads plays well and relies on his instincts.
So, what he lacks in athletic ability he makes up for in football smarts. Will Buffalo be interested?
Nielsen is more of a late-round prospect. Personally, I’d rather see Buffalo take a look at Notre Dame’s Darius Fleming late in the draft, but that’s not to say the Bills won’t consider the Iowa product either.
Nielsen’s combine results were average. His college production was steady. There’s nothing flashy about his game, and it’s probably safe to say that trend will continue in the NFL.