2012 NFL Draft: 5 Linebackers the Cleveland Browns Must Consider
As the Cleveland Browns await potential NFL penalties pertaining to Scott Fujita's palpability in the BountyGate case, the reality that the Browns may start the season without Fujita dictates the organization examine their options at outside linebacker.
League politics aside, at 33 and without finishing a full season since 2006, Fujita's position merits an offseason examination anyway. While the veteran Super Bowl champion free agent from the Saints has performed admirably in his time in Clevleand and earned the organization's and fans' respect, frankly he's missed 18 games over the last three seasons.
The AFC North features some of the NFL's best linebacking units, but in 2011 the Browns faltered at the position, finishing 30th in overall rush defense.
Despite a renaissance on the defensive line featuring 2011 draft picks Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard, the Browns struggled to sack the quarterback. At 32 sacks on the season, the Browns ranked 23rd in the NFL. Of the 14 teams who managed 40 sacks or more, nine made the playoffs and only three suffered losing records.
Cognizant of the team needs of improving the pass rush and run defense, these linebackers could potentially fill in as plug-and-play rookies.
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1. Zach Brown—UNC
Projected availability: 22nd overall
Seven. Zach Brown registered seven interceptions in 43 games with UNC, only 24 of them starts. For those keeping score at home, Zach Brown registered an interception roughly every three-to-four starts at outside linebacker in college.
At 244 pounds, Brown stands an excellent chance to fill out into an adequate run-stopper on the weak side, provided any weight gain maintains his current athleticism.
Against Virginia in 2010, Brown undercut a post-route at the UNC six-yard line and outraced the entire Cavalier offense until they finally tracked him down across the field 70 yards later.
The Browns could use that kind of dynamic ability, and while 22nd might better fulfill another need, if Brown falls to 37th, the Browns might have to take him.
2. Lavonte David—Nebraska
Projected availability: 37th overall
David's draft stock has soared partially as a product of the thin OLB class, but also resulting from his taking care of business when the combine rolled around. Lavonte David's weight concerned roster wizards as he played around 225 pounds in college. The Cornhusker managed to add eight pounds of size while registering a 40 time in the cool 4.5s.
In his two seasons with the Huskers, David earned All-Big 12 and All-Big 10 honors at linebacker. His playmaking ability alone merits serious consideration in the second round.
3. Mychal Kendricks—California
Projected availability: 37th overall
Before his combine performance, Kendricks may have fallen to the Browns at 68th overall, but his blazing 4.41 40-yard dash time could skyrocket the Cal Bear into the early second round.
While Kendricks' combine may have established his position on the national radar, he's been terrorizing the PAC 10 for some time. Kendricks' breakout game came in 2010, when he recorded 15 total tackles and returned a fumble 45 yards in non-conference play against Eastern Washington.
4. Nigel Bradham—Florida State
Projected availability: 100th overall
Bradham burst onto draft charts as a Florida State junior, but saved his best performance for last in 2011. The Seminole senior could go as early as the second round, but may come into play should the Browns go all-offense in their top three selections and Bradham drops to the third round.
Bradham led the Seminoles in tackles the last three seasons and possesses the size, speed and demonstrated physical ability to play linebacker in the NFL. With a high ceiling, Bradham would be an excellent value pick.
5. Vontaze Burfict—Arizona State
Projected availability: 131st overall
Vontaze Burfict has managed to generate as much buzz as nearly any defensive player, but much of that discussion revolves around his on-field conduct and lackluster combine results.
In a division populated by pugnacious linebackers, Burfict's cruelty would match that of Baltimore's Ray Lewis, Pittsburgh's James Harrison or Cincinnati's Rey Maualuga. Despite Burfict flashing nearly every red flag a player can—simultaneous questions about personality and athleticism—no one would discuss the Sun Devil linebacker were it not for his eye-popping highlight reel.
In this game against Cal, Burfict demonstrates his ideal credentials for the run-happy AFC North. Luckily for the Browns, Dwayne Rudd won't be teaching him how to keep his helmet on.
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