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B/R NFL 1,000: Top 64 Outside Linebackers

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterJanuary 14, 2017

B/R NFL 1,000: Top 64 Outside Linebackers

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    We've set out to find the best outside linebackers in the NFL—based on how well they tackle, stop the run and rush the passer. Each starter has been assessed as to how well he exemplified those traits in 2011. The quest comes as part of the B/R NFL 1,000. The series offers an in-depth look at every position in the NFL, breaking down players' skills in a way never before seen on the Internet.

    B/R 1,000 rankings don't assess who had the best year, or even who has the most potential. Rather, players—in this case, outside linebackers—are judged on their current skills and mechanics, based on film study of the 2011 NFL preseason and regular season only.

    After hours spent scouting every starter and every potential starter, the top 64 outside linebackers have been scored on 10 criteria. In the slides that follow, we'll explain each player's strengths and weaknesses as the final ranking is revealed.

64. O'Brien Schofield, Arizona Cardinals

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    Decent agility and ability to make athletic plays.

    Average ability to go head-up on a blocker and push him back.

    Below-average speed off the edge.

    Slow to diagnose the play and has a tendency to take a bad read step.

    Doesn't do well in running situations. Oftentimes takes bad angles.

    Struggles a bit to get his hands free to escape his blocker.

    Quick player that won't get outrun much, if at all.

    Solid base and strength. Won't get knocked around by blockers.

    Must work on wrapping up and getting lower on hits to even become average at his position.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Schofield is a young player with athleticism and potential, but he must improve fundamentals.

63. Ernie Sims, Indianapolis Colts

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    High-level athlete with good explosiveness.

    Absolutely horrible in coverage, Sims is a defensive liability when dropping back.

    Above-average pass-rusher. Struggles to beat blockers to the gap.

    Needs a more aggressive first step toward the line of scrimmage.

    Struggles to close on the ball and fight through traffic.

    Poor use of hands when trying to disengage from a blocker.

    High-level speed that allows him to run down the ball-carrier.

    Average strength. Usually won't get pushed around.

    Must learn to lower his pad level but is a good wrap-up tackler.

    Sims missed three games in 2011.

    Ernie Sims is a serviceable player, but as the No. 9 overall pick in the 2006 draft, he has not lived up to his potential. At 27 years old, the former Florida State star may yet have time to jump-start his disappointing career. But that window is quickly coming to a close for Sims.

62. Andy Studebaker, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Flashes of good athleticism and agility, but nothing consistent.

    Good lower-body strength and overall push, but nowhere near elite here.

    Average speed. Needs to work on quickness to get to and around the corner.

    Has a tendency to be slow to diagnose plays. Studebaker needs to get better here.

    Poor run defender that struggles with angles in pursuit.

    Has a hard time getting off blockers by using his hands and a strong base at impact.

    Average speed but will get beat to the corner at times.

    Enough power to hold his own against most blockers in the league.

    Must cut down on arm tackles and work on his fundamentals in this department.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    He's a solid player all around that could be ranked higher if he improves on his fundamentals.

61. Chris Gocong, Cleveland Browns

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    Possesses great athleticism and quickness that he uses to make plays.

    Below average in pass coverage. Better served as a downhill player.

    Good blitzes with a natural timing and jump at the snap.

    Struggles to make quick and accurate decisions on a developing play.

    Absolute liability in the run game. Struggles with angles and doesn't play a factor against the run.

    Uses his hands and a solid base well to disengage blockers.

    High-level speed from Gocong, especially when traveling downhill.

    Possesses good strength but isn't elite.

    Poor tackler that must work on wrapping up and getting his pad level down.

    Didn't miss any time in 2011.

    An athletic player that can be a factor in the pass rush but struggles mightily against the run.

60. Scott Shanle, New Orleans Saints

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    Low-level athleticism with average to below-average agility.

    Not necessarily the guy you want dropping back in coverage in big spots.

    Shanle is an above-average rusher but doesn't possess elite-level quickness on the edge.

    Good football instincts pre-snap and can generally diagnose a play.

    Average run defender, but nothing special.

    Must improve the use of his hands to get himself off blockers.

    Below-average speed. Not a factor in pursuit.

    Decent strength but will struggle against bigger opponents.

    Strong, fundamental tackler that won't miss many opportunities.

    Didn't miss any games last year.

    Scott Shanle isn't a star player by any stretch of the imagination, but he gets the job done and continues to be a serviceable 'backer for the New Orleans Saints defense.

59. DeAndre Levy, Detroit Lions

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    Levy is an agile linebacker with the ability to make plays in open space.

    Well below average in coverage. Struggles when dropping back into space.

    Solid factor off the edge of the line, Levy can make an impact in the backfield.

    Struggles to diagnose the play and take the proper read steps.

    Strong against the run. Can track down the ball-carrier and make plays.

    Highly susceptible to getting caught up and taken out of the play by a block.

    Above-average speed, can track down runners and play a factor at the edge.

    Can and will be pushed around. Not known as a big, strong player.

    Solid tackler that will get to the ball-carrier and wrap up.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    May be a product of a stellar front four in front of him in Detroit, but he takes advantage and is a positive contributor.

58. Joey Porter, Arizona Cardinals

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    At 35 years old, Porter isn't as athletic as he once was but still has it.

    Tenacious bull rusher, but no longer elite.

    With decent speed off the edge, Porter can still get around the corner.

    Has a high level of veteran football IQ and on-field presence.

    Not known as a huge factor against the run.

    Uses his hands well to disengage. Good knowledge of how to get off blocks.

    Still has good quickness and speed on the field.

    Good strength that allows him to push back blockers or runners.

    More of a big hitter but lacks true wrap-up fundamentals.

    Missed a large part of the season in 2011.

    Currently an unrestricted free agent, Porter still has the ability to make an impact and be a positive player. Good veteran presence.

57. Travis LaBoy, San Diego Chargers

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    Above-average athlete with good quickness and flexibility.

    Solid strength and push—LaBoy gets his pad level down and has good leverage.

    Can beat his defender to the gap or around the corner.

    Has a hard time reacting to the play and has a poor first step.

    Known as a much better pass-rusher. Struggles against the run.

    Has good hands and moves to get off blocks.

    Above-average speed and can run down most ball-carriers.

    Solid base and strength. Can go head to head with most of his opponents.

    Poor fundamental tackler.

    LaBoy missed two games in 2011.

    Travis LaBoy is a good pass-rush specialist that can be a factor off the edge.

56. Akeem Ayers, Tennessee Titans

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    Good athlete with natural quickness and strength.

    Poor in pass coverage. Not a factor when dropping back into space.

    Nearing elite levels as a pass-rusher, Ayers can blitz from the edge or through the line.

    Not good at analyzing a play and making the proper read steps as a linebacker.

    Does not play well against the run, but this will come in time.

    Decent ability to get off blocks for such a young player.

    High-level speed. Can track down the ball-carrier and make a play.

    Good strength for a young player. This will only improve in time.

    Decent tackler and had 76 tackles his rookie campaign, but he still must work on the fundamentals of wrapping up.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Started all 16 games as a rookie for the Tennessee Titans last season. The 6'2", 254-pound Ayers possesses incredible upside and has all the intangibles to be a high-level defender in time.

55. Will Witherspoon, Tennessee Titans

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    Witherspoon doesn't have great agility but has enough to get by.

    Does not excel at dropping back into coverage and defending the pass.

    Average to below-average ability to get to the edge and put pressure on the quarterback.

    Smart player that understands the game and where he needs to be.

    Shows average ability to stop the run. Far too inconsistent to get graded any higher.

    Good feel of how to use his hands and feet to disengage from opponents.

    Average speed at best and will get burned by speedy ball-carriers.

    Good strength and base allow him to take on blockers and runners.

    High-level tackler that wraps up. Needs to work on getting lower on the tackle though.

    Didn't miss any time last season.

    Now entering his 11th season in the league, Witherspoon is a veteran player who still has the ability to be a positive player on defense.

54. K.J. Wright, Seattle Seahawks

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    Good athleticism and quickness but has room for improvement.

    Not reliable enough to drop back in coverage and trust to defend the pass.

    Struggles getting to the edge and around the blocker.

    Wright lacks the experience and fundamentals to allow him to diagnose plays before and after the snap.

    Possesses good instincts in the run game and the ability make plays.

    Good at using his hands for a young player, but must improve as time goes on.

    Doesn't possess special speed but is serviceable.

    Average strength and lower-body explosion.

    Fairly good fundamentals but comes in too high and is susceptible to stiff-arms.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Young player with stellar natural instincts against the run. The 2011 Round 4 pick out of Mississippi State will be a bigger factor with continued growth and coaching.

53. Erik Walden, Green Bay Packers

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    Average agility and quickness. Effective player within the tackles.

    Good lower-body strength and leverage. Can get the job done in the bull rush.

    Good quickness allows him to get to his gap, but doesn't possess great speed moves.

    Walden has a good natural feel for the game but isn't always in great position.

    Very weak in the run game and does not take good angles to the ball.

    Decent hands and natural feel when disengaging a blocker.

    Good speed and natural quickness. Can get to the corner.

    Decent power and base—Walden won't get pushed around much.

    High-level tackler. Good fundamentals and base allow him to wrap up well.

    Didn't miss any time last season.

    Pass-rush specialist that has the ability to get after the quarterback. Needs to make a much more consistent impact for the Packers defense, though.

52. Clark Haggans, Arizona Cardinals

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    Haggans is a good athlete with above-average quickness and flexibility.

    Gets good leverage on the bull rush, which allows him to push his blocker back.

    Decent off the edge but struggles to get his blockers turned.

    Below-average ability to read the play and has a poor first step.

    Bad run defender that is a near-liability in running situations.

    Good hands and technique when disengaging his blocker.

    Speedy enough to get after the ball-carrier, but Haggans isn't a high-level runner.

    Very strong player that can hold his own at the point of impact.

    Strong fundamentals and wraps up nicely.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Is a solid player out on the field, but the 35-year-old's struggles against the run hurt his numbers and ranking.

51. Parys Haralson, San Francisco 49ers

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    Very good athlete with above-average speed and quickness.

    Struggles with going head-on and pushing his blockers back.

    Has a natural speed rush and effectiveness on the edge of the line.

    Good feel for the game and usually finds himself in optimal position.

    Shows good speed when chasing the ball and has the ability to get off blocks.

    As stated above, has the ability to use his hands and moves to shed blockers.

    Strong first step and quickness when going after the ball-carrier.

    Below-average strength. Will get blown up by a blocker and moved from his position.

    Good tackler with above-average open-field instincts.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Solid player with good athleticism and speed. Can be a factor on the edge.

50. Russell Allen, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Good quickness and flexibility, but not a high-level athlete.

    Below-average player in coverage that is poor dropping back and making plays in the passing game.

    Does not make an impact as a downhill player going after the passer.

    Allen usually finds himself in good position, but he needs to work on his first-read step.

    Good run defender. Puts himself in good position and makes plays on the ball-carrier.

    Struggles to get his hands free and will often get trapped in a block.

    Average speed but will get beat to the edge by quicker players.

    Below-average strength. Susceptible to getting pushed off his position by bigger and stronger players.

    Very good tackler that wraps up well and makes very few mistakes.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    An undrafted player out of San Diego State in 2009, Allen has become a very strong fundamental player that plays an important part in stopping the run for the Jacksonville defense.

49. Stephen Nicholas, Atlanta Falcons

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    Decent athlete but isn't a guy that will blow you away with his quickness, flexibility or power.

    Not a reliable player dropping back into coverage in either zone or man situations.

    Does not excel at getting to the gap before the blocker or getting around the outside edge.

    Needs to be more aggressive with his first-read step.

    Good reaction skills when going after the ball. Nicholas has the speed to close on the ball-carrier.

    Struggles to get out of a block and has a hard time getting his hands free.

    Decent speed but can be beaten to the edge.

    Above-average strength. Nicholas will get pushed out of position.

    A high-level tackler with great fundamentals.

    Played in just 10 games during 2011 season.

    Solid player with few major weaknesses. Stephen Nicholas is a very strong presence in the run game for Mike Nolan's defense in Atlanta.

48. Rob Ninkovich, New England Patriots

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    Not special as an athlete, but he can hold his own.

    Poor bull rusher. Does not get good leverage or power in his technique.

    High-level speed rusher. Can get into the gap before blockers and around the edge.

    Good read-and-react player with natural instincts for the game.

    Will get caught up in traffic when pursuing the ball-carrier.

    Must work on using his hands to better shed blockers.

    Average speed on the edge, but will get beat from time to time.

    Does not possess great strength and will get pushed back by stronger blockers.

    Comes in too high on many tackles—needs to work on dropping his pads and breaking the tackle down.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Rob Ninkovich is a solid player that can make plays laterally and occasionally in the backfield. The 28-year-old 'backer had a solid 2011 with 74 tackles and 6.5 sacks.

47. Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs

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    High level of agility and athleticism.

    Poor bull-rush abilities. Doesn't get good push or leverage.

    Very good at getting through the gap and around the edge with good speed.

    Does not possess the ability to read a play pre-snap or post-snap at a high level.

    Solid run defender. Doesn't stand out but also won't hurt much.

    Does not shed blocks well at all—Houston needs to learn how to utilize his hands more.

    Good speed and ability to run down the ball-carrier.

    Average strength. He won't get pushed around by most.

    Very good tackler with a solid breakdown and wrap-up technique.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Young player with great upside and athleticism. Houston must continue working on rounding out his game.

46. James Anderson, Carolina Panthers

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    Anderson does not possess great quickness or flexibility.

    All right in coverage, but this is not a strength of his.

    Good pass-rusher that displays good timing and anticipation of the snap.

    Does not possess good read-and-react skills.

    Very strong run defender. Anderson puts himself in the proper position to make plays on the ball-carrier.

    Needs to learn how to utilize a strong base at the point of impact to shed blockers.

    Average to below-average speed. Won't surprise you with his quickness.

    Decent strength but can be pushed around from time to time.

    Good tackling instincts but needs to show better discipline in the open field.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    With 275 combined tackles over the last two seasons in Carolina, James Anderson has turned out to be a solid defender that is very productive against the run.

45. Scott Fujita, Cleveland Browns

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    He has moments of great athleticism but is overall average here.

    Very good in coverage for a linebacker. Fujita closes on the ball well and can lock up receivers and tight ends over the middle.

    Does not excel in pass-rushing situations.

    Has a great feel for the game and of where he needs to be.

    Solid run defender. Sees the running lanes well and shows good pursuit.

    Struggles at using his arms to break free from blockers.

    Average speed at best, but serviceable enough.

    Fujita does not possess great strength, but he finds ways to cope on the field.

    Very good tackler. Does not miss very often.

    Sat out six games in 2011.

    Fujita is a difference-maker in the defensive backfield. He's got good coverage skills and is solid in the run game. Though he has struggled with injuries the past few seasons, Fujita is a leader and a guy you want on your team.

44. Justin Durant, Detroit Lions

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    Makes a ton of plays because of his pure athleticism.

    Poor in coverage. Not a reliable defender when asked to fall into space.

    Does not have good pass-rush technique or much burst off the edge.

    Has a good pre-snap read and reacts well to the action in the backfield.

    Great instincts and vision allow Durant to close down on the runner and make a play.

    Uses his hands well to get off blockers but needs to work on his footwork upon impact.

    Fairly good speed. Will beat the action to the edge and can chase down runners.

    Strong player that won't get pushed backwards.

    Not a good tackler, as he doesn't wrap up and shows poor form.

    Missed three games in 2011.

    Justin Durant is a smart player that can get into position and make plays, but he needs to improve his tackling to truly make an impact. To be fair, his whole team had trouble tackling in 2011.

43. Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Good quickness and athleticism at the linebacker position.

    Does not get good leverage at the point of attack, rendering his bull rush useless.

    Has success getting into the gap or the edge but won't surprise blockers with his quickness.

    Needs to develop a better first step, but Worilds has good natural instincts.

    Poor run defender. Oftentimes takes bad routes to the ball.

    Uses his hands well to disengage but must get stronger at the point of contact.

    Good speed allows him to track down the play from his starting point.

    He won't be pushing anybody backwards anytime soon.

    Very explosive tackler with the ability to wrap up and take down the ball-carrier.

    Missed four games in 2011.

    The 6'2", 262-pound Steeler has very good natural football abilities but needs work on his overall game and skills as a defender.

42. Jameel McClain, Baltimore Ravens

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    Does not have elite-level agility, athleticism or flexibility.

    Near-elite strength and very good leverage allow him to be a force with the bull rush.

    McClain does not make much of an impact with his speed rush.

    Above-average awareness and recognition skills as a defender.

    Struggles to fight his way though traffic and to the ball-carrier.

    Average here at best. Needs to work on using his hands to keep blockers from getting under his pads.

    Not extremely fast but is serviceable.

    Does not possess great strength. Will get knocked around by bigger blockers.

    Decent tackler but needs to get in the habit of having a lower base.

    Didn't miss any games last season.

    Jameel McClain is a powerful downhill player that can cause havoc in the backfield.

41. Michael Boley, New York Giants

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    Effective athlete, but nothing stands out in terms of agility and athleticism.

    Good in coverage but needs to work out route recognition.

    Has good timing on the edge, which allows him to get a jump on his blocker.

    First step is often lateral, which is ineffective. Needs to work on his read step.

    A poor run defender, Boley struggles to close on the football.

    Has trouble getting free when a blocker really locks onto him.

    He's quick enough, but he'll get outrun to the corner on occasion.

    Does not possess quality strength to take on blockers or runners with momentum effectively.

    Very sure tackler that will rarely miss or arm tackle.

    Boley missed two games in 2011.

    Very good when attacking the line of scrimmage or even dropping back in coverage, but Boley needs to work on his sideline-to-sideline abilities.

40. Philip Wheeler, Oakland Raiders

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    Wheeler is a decent athlete that can make plays but doesn't stand out.

    Fairly good in coverage, but he needs to learn how to read the quarterback's eyes if he wants to improve.

    Struggles to really set the edge and can get caught in the gap on blitzes.

    Needs to be more aggressive with his first step.

    Can close in on the ball but will sometimes get tied up and taken out of his lane.

    Must learn how to shed blocks better if he wants to improve as a run defender.

    Average speed at best, Wheeler can hold his own but will get beat to the corner on occasion.

    Does not show eye-popping strength but can hold his own.

    Solid tackler with very good fundamentals. Shows good pad level and awareness when tackling.

    Sat out three games in 2011.

    Philip Wheeler is a reliable tackler player and will give the Oakland Raiders defense a little bit of everything.

39. Jamaal Westerman, Miami Dolphins

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    Has a good ability to sink his hips and turn the corner. Flashes above-average athleticism.

    A former defensive end, Westerman has good strength to dig into blockers and drive.

    Limited athletically, but he has enough burst to get the jump on the edge.

    Does a good job recognizing outside runs but will get pulled in by strong play-action.

    Shows the ability to set the edge and can force the outside.

    Needs to work on getting stronger and using his hands better to shed.

    Has good baseline speed to chase and track down runners.

    Isn't limited by his strength but could show better lower-body strength.

    A wrap-up tackler who rarely misses tackles in open space.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    A versatile athlete who can play down in an outside technique, Jamaal Westerman is also able to stand up in space and attack the edge. Westerman proved his worth as an edge player in the Jets rotation last season and will now be taking his talents to the AFC East rival Miami Dolphins in 2012.

38. Calvin Pace, New York Jets

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    Pace shows good natural quickness, but he can be heavy-footed and slow to change direction.

    Has the technique to turn the corner and push tackles off the line but lacks the strength to dominate.

    Shows good open field pass-rushing skills with the ability to turn the corner off the edge.

    An inside-out player who will read and attack the inside run but can struggle to get outside.

    Locks down the run with sure tackling and the knowledge to cut off rushing lanes.

    Has the strength to take on fullbacks but will get bulled over by guards on the edge.

    Shows good enough speed to run down ball-carriers but can be limited when asked to drop into coverage.

    Pace is solid at the point of attack but not strong enough to make this a dominant part of his game.

    Will let too many runners go free due to poor form and agility at the point of attack.

    Didn't miss any games last year.

    The 18th overall pick in '03, Calvin Pace is a solid veteran presence at outside linebacker but just hasn't quite produced as expected for Gang Green. The Jets could look to replace Pace in the draft or free agency.

37. Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys

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    Has average agility but isn't an elite athlete.

    Below-average bull rush. Doesn't get enough leverage.

    Quick enough to get to the edge or gap on his blitzes.

    Needs to be more aggressive with his first step.

    A major strength, Spencer is an explosive run-stopper with very good instincts.

    Struggles when blockers are able to get their hands outside of his frame.

    He's quick but will get outrun every now and then.

    Solid base, won't get pushed around much.

    Poor tackler with a lack of fundamentals and ability to wrap up.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Very good run defender and serviceable against the pass but is a surprisingly poor tackler. Produced a solid six sacks last season but must improve on his 66-tackle total for the Cowboys in 2012.

36. Koa Misi, Miami Dolphins

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    Has good flexibility and speed that play a factor in his overall game.

    Effective bull rusher that uses his legs to drive back his blocker and has good hand placement.

    Is effective as a speed rusher but does not have the elite quickness to turn the corner.

    Often finds himself in the right place at the right time but needs to be quicker in diagnosing plays.

    Very good run defender. Puts himself in good position to chase down the runner.

    Does well at disengaging blockers but could stand to improve at the point of impact.

    Hes enough quickness to chase down the ball-carrier at a good clip.

    High-level strength. Can take on and push opposing blockers back.

    Not a good tackler. Doesn't have good fundamentals or pad level when going in for the hit.

    Missed four games in 2011.

    Strong and fast athlete that could be a bigger factor if he works on fundamentals.

35. D.J. Williams, Denver Broncos

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    Very agile and athletic player with good quickness and flexibility.

    Much more effective going forward than dropping back into space and defending the pass.

    Strong pass-rusher that can dominate the gap and get around the edge.

    Strong reaction skills with good pre-snap instincts.

    Good instincts and speed allow Williams to track down and make plays on the runner.

    Must get better at using his hands to get off his block.

    Good speed and quickness. Can accelerate and track down the ball from his starting stance.

    Below-average strength. Needs to improve in this area.

    Good, fundamental tackler that doesn't miss many opportunities.

    Williams missed three games in 2011.

    D.J. Williams is a well-rounded player that generally makes a positive impact on the defense. The former first-round pick out of The U produced 90 tackles, five sacks, two pass deflections and three forced fumbles in 13 games for the Broncos last season.

34. Chris Chamberlain, New Orleans Saints

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    Possesses average athleticism at best.

    Strong in pass coverage but needs to improve on his route recognition.

    Not a solid pass-rusher. Struggles to beat his man around the edge or into the gap.

    Strong reaction skills and good football IQ.

    Good run defender that can track down the ball and make plays.

    Good at using his hands to get off blocks. Needs to set his feet better on impact.

    Average speed, but not a huge liability.

    Possesses good strength and a solid base at the point of impact.

    Strong tackler that doesn't miss much but can be shaken in the open field.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    A solid all-around player with good reaction and football IQ, Chris Chamberlain should prove a quality addition to the New Orleans defense in 2012.

33. Jason Taylor, Miami Dolphins

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    Above-average agility and quickness, but not what he once was.

    Solid bull rush but isn't known as a guy that will overpower his blockers.

    Taylor gets around the edge at a good clip.

    Strong veteran presence that understands the game and can help his teammates get in position.

    Very poor run defender. Much more efficient at rushing the passer.

    An experienced defender that knows how to get blockers off him using his hands.

    Still has high-end speed, even after all these years.

    Strong enough to still make an impact and hold his own against bigger blockers.

    Very good veteran tackler with solid fundamentals.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    The two-time AFC Defensive Player of the Year and five-time All-Pro is no longer the elite pass-rusher he once was, but the wily veteran is still a serviceable player to cause some trouble in the backfield.

32. Brooks Reed, Houston Texans

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    Not quite an elite athlete, but Reed is well on his way.

    Will get better as a bull rusher. Needs to work on getting better leverage.

    Good speed rush. Able to shoot the gap or get around the edge.

    Doesn't have a great feel for the NFL yet but is still very young.

    Solid against the run. Takes good angles to the ball.

    Needs to work on using his hands to disengage from blockers.

    Above-average speed. Can keep up with quicker players on offense.

    Good strength for such a young player. This will continue to improve with time.

    Must work on wrapping up, getting his pads lower and breaking down his tackles.

    Didn't miss any time in 2011.

    Brooks Reed produced six sacks in his first season out of Arizona,and possesses incredible potential and upside as a young OLB in the league. Texans fans have to feel great about what they have in the Reed-Brian Cushing tandem.

31. Manny Lawson, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Above-average quickness, strength and flexibility.

    Decent in coverage but seems to be slow to react in passing situations.

    High-level pass-rusher that can get after the quarterback off the edge or through the gap.

    Good instincts and diagnosis pre-snap but needs to have a more aggressive first step.

    Takes poor angles to the ball and really struggles as a run defender.

    Lawson uses his hands well but needs to get better at planting his feet.

    Good speed for a linebacker. Can chase down the ball-carrier from his starting point.

    Doesn't possess elite strength, but enough muscle to hold his own.

    Fundamental tacker that will occasionally get shook in open space.

    Didn't miss any games last season.

    Manny Lawson, a former first-round pick in '06 out of NC State, makes an impact as a pass-rusher but really needs to work on his consistency and reliability against the run.

30. Ahmad Brooks, San Francisco 49ers

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    Brooks has solid, upper-level hip flexibility and quickness in space. A very good athlete.

    Lacks the strength to run through blockers off the edge.

    Brooks has the natural quickness to be effective in space, but he also brings good hand use to keep distance between himself and blockers.

    Outside run recognition is top-notch, but he can be tricked on an outside stretch run play-action.

    I liked Brooks' skills to turn the ball back inside, but his outside tackling skills were slightly above average when asked to get through traffic.

    Wanted to see better hand use—similar to what he shows getting around the edge in pass-rushing situations.

    Has the speed to catch in pursuit and to close on the quarterback in space.

    Okay strength, but will get tied up and can struggle to break off blocks.

    The Niner has textbook form and ability in the open field.

    Didn't miss any time in 2011.

    The San Francisco 49ers smartly locked up Ahmad Brooks in the offseason, securing their best all-around OLB with the team moving forward. Brooks has been underrated due to the stars around him, but his impact is huge.

29. Connor Barwin, Houston Texans

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    Barwin is a big guy with some lower-body stiffness, but he has good skills for a pass-rusher.

    Strong enough to initiate contact and break off blockers.

    Has a nice shoulder lean to get under blockers on the edge and a nice speed move to finish.

    Adjusted well to playing in space at outside linebacker after moving from defensive end. Could do better to react on inside runs.

    Can fall victim to over-pursuit at times. Barwin must play under control more when attacking the edge.

    Has the upper-body strength to beat blockers when engaged.

    A former basketball player, Barwin has more burst than long speed.

    Naturally very strong, which he uses to bring down runners and shed blocks.

    Uses his experience as a defensive end to wrap and tackle. Does a good job making one-armed tackles on the edge.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    A player to watch in 2012 as he gains more experience in the 3-4 defense of the Houston Texans. Connor Barwin has the skill set to become an elite outside linebacker in the league.

28. Nick Barnett, Buffalo Bills

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    An average athlete who can struggle with flexibility, but has nice closing speed and strength.

    Has a smooth pass drop that lets him sink into coverage. Shows some stiffness when asked to turn and run.

    Limited due to lack of speed, but Barnett can be a factor on blitzes and when closing on bootlegs.

    Has the experience to recognize formations and plays pre-snap. Could be better at anticipating hot routes when he's out in coverage.

    Can set the edge in run defense, shutting down the outside run and forcing plays inside for his teammates.

    Does a nice job taking on blocks instead of waiting for the contact to come to him.

    Barnett has never been a pure speed guy; he has enough quickness to attack outside runs but can be beat in coverage.

    Has good total-body strength but shows some limitations when taking on a pulling guard or tackle.

    A solid tackler who saw his technique slip in 2011 in terms of missed tackles and efficiency.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Nick Barnett can play both inside and outside linebacker but took the majority of his snaps outside in his inaugural season with the Buffalo Bills in 2011. Barnett's experience and all-around skill set allow him to keep up with younger, faster players.

27. Chris Kelsay, Buffalo Bills

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    A solid athlete with good skills, but definitely lacking in elite speed.

    Graded poorer than expected due to his change of position. Kelsay is much more effective when bull-rushing from a three-point stance.

    Brings a good combination of speed, burst and flexibility off the edge.

    Has good run recognition but showed weaknesses in identifying routes.

    Strong enough to be a factor against the run but can struggle to take effective angles and reach plays outside his position.

    Kelsay has a good combination of strength and technique to break free of blocks.

    Good burst, but lacks the speed to consistently play in coverage.

    Strong enough to take on blocks and brings power in his tackling.

    Biggest strength here. Kelsay is a lockdown tackler who can take on the edge and bring down runners and quarterbacks without issue.

    Missed four games last season.

    More of a natural defensive end, Kelsay played standing up in the Bills' 3-4 defense in 2011.

26. Antwan Barnes, San Diego Chargers

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    Barnes has good run and stop agility with nice hip flexibility.

    Lacks the power to win consistently when locking up with tackles.

    Did a great job getting a jump on tackles to crash the edge. Notched 11 sacks in spot duty for San Diego in 2011.

    Still learning how to effectively read play-action. Will find himself out of position.

    Barnes is a good tackler, but taking on blocks on the edge isn't his thing—it especially shows here in run support.

    Doesn't show the strength to take on blockers, keep his outside shoulder up and break through traffic.

    Shows good open-field speed and pursuit skills. Speed is a major plus for Barnes.

    Can struggle to win at the point of impact.

    Has good enough form but needs to improve his target area to secure more tackles.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Antwan Barnes emerged as a sack artist in 2011, but what was overlooked was his mediocre play against the run. Barnes has work to do, but he's an elite-level pass-rusher who has room to flourish into a stud player.

25. Leroy Hill, Seattle Seahawks

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    Hill shows above-average athleticism, but a heavy lower body hurts his score here.

    Is able to match up with tight ends and win battles for the ball.

    Works well on delayed blitzes off the edge. Strong and fast enough to get to the quarterback.

    Solid ability to quickly diagnose the play. Would like to see faster reaction time, however.

    Has the size to take on O-linemen but has poor angles and response time.

    Strong enough to take on stationary blockers, he'll lose in space facing moving blocks.

    Has enough get-up to hit the edge but will get lost in transitions trying to keep up in space.

    Shows very good upper- and lower-body strength to make head-up tackles and clear blockers.

    Doesn't let many runners get through his grasp.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Leroy Hill has been a productive outside linebacker, but there are still off-field issues to consider for the seven-year vet when assessing his potential in the NFL. He has the talent to be a solid starter, but teams' trust in him may be weakened.

24. Thomas Howard, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Howard has very nice open-field moves and the quickness to change direction against the run, rushing the passer and in coverage.

    Like his ability to flip his lower body and mirror tight ends. Would score higher if he was more effective in press coverage.

    Has the quickness to catch blockers off guard and create pressure in the backfield.

    Very good when moving and reading, but isn't a stationary player who can read and react.

    A major weak point for the Bengals 'backer—didn't show much in 2011 against the run. Must be stronger at the point of attack and more consistent setting the edge.

    Shows the hand use to distance himself from opponents..

    Top-level quickness and speed. Howard has the burst to close on the ball with great range.

    Has good functional strength without being a stud weight-room guy.

    Shows great ability to stick runners in space and traffic. Rarely misses tackles.

    Didn't miss any time last year.

    Free from the Oakland Raiders system, Howard rebounded from a bad 2010 season, showing the athleticism and tackling skills that previously made him one of the more promising linebackers in the league. Howard has big upside and should further improve in 2012 for the Cincinnati Bengals.

23. Aaron Curry, Oakland Raiders

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    Shows strong athleticism with good open-field burst and quickness.

    Has the athleticism to play in coverage but very limited cover skills.

    Has good initial quickness and closing skills to disrupt the backfield.

    Will find himself out of position when taking on the ball.

    Has good range to track the ball in pursuit. Fails to turn the ball back inside.

    Doesn't keep his outside arm free as well as he should for a player of his strength.

    Excellent quickness in the open field.

    Has high-level base strength, which shows up in his tackle skills.

    Curry missed just one tackle in all of 2011.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Labeled as a draft bust in Seattle, Curry found a better fit and role in Oakland's attacking scheme. He has great strength, is an elite tackler and shows the skills to be one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL if he takes to coaching.

22. Chad Greenway, Minnesota Vikings

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    Has quick feet and good change-of-direction skills when moving laterally.

    Has the size to be effective in coverage, but poor showing hip flexibility to turn and run with players.

    Greenway doesn't pile up a ton of sacks, but he does a good job pressing the edge and can make plays when asked to get after the passer.

    Rarely out of place, Greenway does a good job finding the ball post-snap.

    Does a great job taking on the edge and forcing the run back inside.

    Greenway has solid strength to take on blockers, but his technique could be improved through better leverage.

    Shows good burst within his first three yards but lacks elite speed to reach the opposite sideline.

    Has good upper- and lower-body strength to make a strong impact in the run game and bring down receivers.

    Will come up and thud ball-carriers but could play more balanced, as he gets too wide at times.

    Didn't miss any games last year.

    A very solid 4-3 outside linebacker, Greenway has the all-around tools to be one of the best OLBs in the league. The durable South Dakotan amassed 154 tackles in 2011 and has not missed a game the past five seasons (starting all but one). Better cover skills, renewed technique when tackling and taking on blockers and a little better pre-snap alignment would put the Viking near the top 15.

21. Ryan Kerrigan, Washington Redskins

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    Kerrigan is a superb athlete with great initial quickness and overall athletic ability.

    Improved over the year but must get better at keeping his arms free and not entirely locking up with blockers.

    Has the quickness to beat tackles who aren't yet out of their stance. Kerrigan has mad potential here.

    Is a little raw but did a nice job reading backs to the hole.

    Has the strength to improve in this area but must have better discipline to do a better job taking angles and not overrunning the play.

    Has the ideal speed-strength ratio, but his technique needs work. Slipping his shoulder and keeping that outside arm free are keys.

    Upper-level speed for OLB. Can chase and close without issue.

    Has great natural strength and the lower body to power through runners.

    Produced well enough but let too many tackles get through his hands.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    An up-and-comer with All-Pro skills, it's tough to remember Ryan Kerrigan was just a rookie in 2011. His play and skill set are worthy of high praise. We expect big things from the former Purdue Boilermaker in his sophomore campaign for the Redskins.

20. Sam Acho, Arizona Cardinals

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    Acho plays with exceptional quickness and great body lean.

    Lacks the power to take on tackles but does better than expected due to excellent leverage.

    A determined pass-rusher who shows a good move and counter move to set up tackles on the edge.

    Worked well to recognize backs coming out as receivers. Was able to identify and put a body on the ball.

    Acho's lack of elite size and strength limits what he can do in jamming up the run.

    Able to use his quickness to accelerate through blocks, slipping his shoulder and ripping through blockers' hands.

    Has an exceptional second gear and great short-area burst.

    Far from elite here, Acho will need to spend his offseason adding bulk and strength.

    Rarely missed tackles against the run or pass, showing an incredibly high charted tackle grade.

    Didn't miss time in 2011.

    A draft sleeper last year, the fourth-round pick exploded onto the scene in Arizona's flex defense. The former Texas Longhorn is incredibly fast off the edge, which allows him to become a menace in pass-rushing situations. If Acho can add strength in his first offseason, watch out.

19. Erin Henderson, Minnesota Vikings

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    Has good natural quickness and strength, but just average here.

    Able to swivel his hips and transition in coverage. Has the quickness to stay with tight ends and backs.

    Doesn't show much production or ability to be a pass-rusher off the edge.

    Does a good job finding the ball post-snap, but his angles can be off the mark.

    A solid, thorough hitter who can step up and close down holes in the run game.

    Strong enough to work through blocks if he keeps his feet moving.

    Has above-average speed, but it isn't his best asset.

    Shows a high-level strength to power through blocks and tackles.

    A lockdown tackler who rarely misses the mark.

    Missed one game last year.

    Henderson has loads of potential as a 4-3 outside linebacker. His ability in coverage and run support makes the 25-year-old one of the most exciting young players at the position in the NFL.

18. Jarret Johnson, San Diego Chargers

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    Shows decent open-field change of direction without having elite hip flexibility.

    Strong enough to pressure tackles into backpedaling, which allows him to run through them to the QB.

    Lacks the speed to be a major factor in space.

    Does a great job recognizing the play before the snap and gets himself in great position to attack the ball.

    Strong against the run, Johnson is among the best at his position.

    Can take on blocks on the edge and get through to make clean tackles.

    Has good burst but lacks speed to extend to the play.

    Enough power to take on blockers and bring down runners in space. Strength isn't an issue.

    Makes good shoulder-to-ball impact, but will also miss tackles when moving laterally.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Johnson is one of the best in the NFL at attacking the run, but his ability to rush the passer or drop back into coverage is limited. Moving to San Diego, Johnson will have the chance to add to his game.

17. Shaun Phillips, San Diego Chargers

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    Phillips has good footwork and quickness and is a top-tier athlete.

    Does a good job making contact and driving with his lower body to push blockers back off the line of scrimmage.

    Shows rare skill to bend at the edge and accelerate to the quarterback. Has great closing speed.

    Can be a bit slow to react to the pass coming his way out of the flats.

    Philips is quick enough to cut off the run but doesn't make many plays on his own.

    Does a better job maintaining leverage and keeping his outside arm free than he does in totally disengaging.

    Has very good burst and closing speed to match.

    Has nice strength to push the pile and move blockers off the line of scrimmage.

    Can be aggressive at times but will also let runners out of his grasp far too often.

    Sat down for four games in 2011.

    After a solid eight seasons in San Diego, Shaun Phillips is on the verge of becoming a top-tier talent in terms of 3-4 outside linebackers. His pass-rushing skills are largely underrated, and his all-around athletic ability is a major plus. If he can increase his run support and cut down on missed tackles, Phillips will move up quickly.

16. Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots

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    Mayo shows nice change-of-direction skills and the loose hips needed to get back in coverage and rush the passer.

    Has good presence of mind but limited experience and skills in man coverage.

    Able to pull the trigger and get to the backfield with positive results.

    Experience as a middle linebacker helps, as Mayo is rarely caught off guard or out of position.

    A tough, aggressive run defender who will make solo tackles and does a good job driving the ball back inside in the New England defense.

    Can take on blockers and win most battles, but will get shoved around if hit by a moving guard.

    Has very good speed and burst, but it's not his biggest strength.

    Can hold his own against most players he encounters.

    Strong enough to bring down runners with one arm when he's fighting blockers in the trenches.

    Injured for two games in 2011.

    Used as an inside linebacker when the Patriots run a 3-4 scheme, Mayo played exclusively at outside linebacker in 2011 as New England went to a base 4-3 defense. Mayo has good ball-tracking skills and brings a nice combination of pass-rushing and run-stopping ability to the position.

15. Mathias Kiwanuka, New York Giants

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    Shows a little stiffness in his hips when trying to bend at the edge but is otherwise very solid.

    Not much use here for the Giants, as Kiwanuka's ability to turn and run is limited. Much better working the jam and then dropping into a zone.

    Has natural pass-rushing skills and a developed repertoire of moves from his time at defensive end.

    When coming up to play the ball he rarely makes mistakes, but his score also reflects his struggles in pass coverage.

    Dynamic ability to attack the ball, but also disciplined enough to not lose contain on the outside.

    Hard to hit and maintain a block on a player this big and strong at 6'5" and 267.

    Great speed for an in-line DE—Kiwanuka has above-average burst for an outside linebacker.

    Deadly at the point of attack, he brings rare strength as a 4-3 outside linebacker.

    Will get too high at times, which allows quicker runners to cut off of his mistakes.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    A converted defensive end, Mathias Kiwanuka had his best season in 2011 as the anchor of the New York Giants linebacker corps. Kiwi's size and athleticism make him tough to beat on the outside.

14. LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Woodley shows good foot speed and quickness.

    An effective bull rusher, he uses his legs to drive off the ball and has good hand placement.

    Does a good job baiting tackles to sleep and then exploding off the edge.

    Has a quick eye and can pick up on what the offense is doing in a hurry.

    Has the quickness to be a chase tackler. Will fight for the ball but can be washed down at times.

    Brings a combination of burst and toughness, allowing him to outmaneuver most blockers.

    Has very good burst and good enough speed to track down the line of scrimmage in pursuit.

    Woodley's strength is largely in his lower body, which can hinder his block-shedding ability.

    Missed far too many tackles for a player of his caliber. Needs to break down better in space.

    Missed six games in 2011.

    LaMarr Woodley had a bit of a down year in 2011 as the defense around him suffered injuries. His pass-rushing ability is in the top level of all outside linebackers, but he must improve his tackling efficiency to move back up toward the top of the list.

13. Lance Briggs, Chicago Bears

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    Quick enough to be a factor in coverage, run support and in blitz packages.

    One of the game's best at jamming the tight end and then getting depth in coverage.

    Only utilized occasionally here, Briggs has the quickness but lacks a full contingent of moves.

    Great at finding the ball and getting himself in the proper alignment before the ball is snapped.

    A perfect example of setting the edge, Briggs locks down his side of the field.

    Able to get inside the block and bend the edge with his strength and quickness.

    Briggs has good but not great speed in the open field.

    Has top-notch strength for the position. Won't get bulled over by blockers.

    An area of regression in 2011—Briggs was caught standing up and runners were scooting past him with frequency.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    For years, Lance Briggs was the ideal 4-3 outside linebacker; his streak of seven consecutive Pro Bowl selections is among the most impressive feats that no one seems to talk about. Briggs still has it, even if he was a step slower in 2011. Few 4-3 outside 'backers pack the all-around punch that the career-long Bear does.

12. Kamerion Wimbley, Tennessee Titans

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    Has rare quickness and burst in his first few steps. Electric off-the-ball speed.

    Thrown to the wolves with virtually no experience in coverage, Wimbley was exposed in zone packages.

    Has quick enough feet and hands to blow past blockers who get caught waiting for him to attack.

    Wimbley enjoyed the perspective of a stand-up player in Oakland, allowing a better view of the backfield. He saw his read time dramatically reduced.

    Had trouble attacking the edge and in not getting washed out by pulling guards.

    Shows the strength and speed to either blow through the block or cut back inside to take on the ball head-up.

    Great open-field speed and the burst needed to violently close on the ball.

    Has the needed power to play in space or down on the line.

    A better traffic tackler than in space.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Wimbley played in a stand-up role in the Raiders defense in 2011 but will move back to defensive end with the Tennessee Titans next season. Wimbley is a dynamic pass-rusher who is better suited on the end of the D-line than in space, and the highly sought-after FA was awarded with a five-year, $35 million deal this offseason.

11. Mario Williams, Buffalo Bills

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    Coming in at 6'6" and 283, Williams is a freakish athlete for his size with rare quickness and agility.

    Incredibly strong at the point of attack, Williams did a great job bull-rushing given a three- to five-yard head start at outside linebacker.

    Williams brings exceptional explosion and quickness in space, but he has a nice set of moves to get free and turn the corner.

    A smart, heads-up player who puts himself in good position. Didn't show any signs of struggling in a new scheme or position.

    Takes on the run with good quickness but gets too high at times. Williams can do better at keeping his butt down and legs moving.

    Combines great strength with quick hands, making him tough to push out of the play.

    While Williams has exceptional speed for a defensive end, at outside linebacker he's closer to a second-tier burst, which is still very good.

    Has great natural strength that was rare for the outside linebacker position.

    Had some issues with playing too high, but before getting injured he was starting to show the flexibility to get low and make plays.

    Played in just five games in 2011.

    Mario Williams is tough to grade due to his season-ending injury, but also because he played a new position in 2011. Williams will move back to DE in 2012, but the small sample we saw from 2011 was good enough to warrant a top-11 grade.

10. Daryl Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    An excellent athlete with good explosiveness and the fluid motion to get deep in coverage.

    A very high-level coverage player who can lock down his man and is athletic enough to make plays on the ball.

    Good pass-rusher that displays good timing and anticipation of the snap. Separates himself from other OLBs with his ability to close on the quarterback.

    Has a great feel for the game and where he needs to be in every aspect of the position.

    Great instincts and vision allow the Jag to accelerate to the ball and make plays. Smith is very tough to run away from or around.

    Uses his hands well to get off blockers. Shows good footwork at impact.

    Top-notch speed. Will beat the action to the edge and can chase down ball-carriers.

    Very strong player that can hold his own at the point of impact.

    Strong fundamentals but can be too inconsistent in delivering a secure tackle. Is worthy of more than his 107 tackles in 2011.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Daryl Smith is one of the top handful of 4-3 outside linebackers. His all-around play—be it in pass coverage, run support or even blitz packages—makes Smith an invaluable member of the Jaguars defense.

9. Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins

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    A special athlete with good lateral agility and unbelievable strength.

    Strong enough to win at the point of attack, Orakpo would score higher if he had slightly better fundamentals in using leverage.

    Has blinding speed in the first three yards. Will get the jump on anyone the offense tries to line up in front of him.

    Sees the ball well, but would like better awareness in run support and when asked to cover. Hurt by tunnel vision at times.

    A major area where Orakpo can improve. Right now he's turning the run inside but can be beat to the edge with a stutter-step move.

    Strong enough to toss fullbacks and tight ends aside but will get caught up by the best tackles.

    Rare speed for the position, Orakpo moves like a 260-pound safety in space.

    They don't make them much stronger than Orakpo on the field and in the weight room.

    Plays too high and too wild at times. Better control and better open-field breakdown would help.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    One of the most exciting young players in the NFL, Brian Orakpo maybe hasn't hit your radar yet, but he should be in the middle of it. Few outside linebackers in the league have his combination of production and potential. The skills are there for the young Redskin to be the best.

8. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers

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    Athletic enough to execute a strong shoulder dip in space and turn his hips to attack the edge.

    Strong enough to get tackles to take a step back and then pound them with a heavy bull rush.

    Has a rare blend of strength, speed and flexibility in space. Does a great job changing direction to turn the corner.

    Will still get sucked in on play-actions but is otherwise tough to fool.

    Hasn't had a huge impact in the run game but does a great job limiting outside runs and making the offense go up the middle for his Packer teammates.

    If he can keep one arm free, Matthews will beat the blocker every time.

    Has more burst than straight-line speed. Closes on the ball with great range.

    Good overall strength that shows up in every part of his game.

    For an elite player, Matthews missed far too many tackles in 2011. He must do a better job breaking down and using his body to tackle, minimizing the number of arm tackles.

    Sat out Week 17 with an injury during 2011 season.

    A freak of an athlete on the edge, Clay Matthews saw less production and impact in 2011 as offenses game-planned around him. Still, Matthews was named to his third Pro Bowl in as many seasons in the league. The talent is there for Matthews to dominate this list for the next decade if he rededicates himself to perfecting his tackling ability.

7. Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Hali has very good open-field quickness and nice hip flexibility.

    Strong enough to generate pressure on the backfield with a strong bull rush off the edge.

    Has the speed and agility to separate off the edge and make plays in the backfield.

    Recognizes alignments and pre-snap formations. Rarely out of position for the KC defense.

    Strong enough to take on the run but is still primarily a pass-rusher.

    Has good strength and leverage to take on and dispose of blockers.

    With top-tier speed for the position, Hali can separate in space and track down the ball.

    Has good total-body strength to take on blockers and execute in traffic.

    Far too many missed tackles in 2011. Hali gets too high and too wide in pursuit.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Hali is one of the premier pass-rushers in the NFL and has racked up 26.5 sacks over the last couple years, but he's largely a one-trick pony. Though most outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense focus on the pass rush, he has yet to develop elite skills as a run-stopper. Even so, with what the Chiefs ask him to do, Hali is an elite OLB.

6. Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers

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    Has exceptional open-field quickness and hip flexibility.

    Has very good strength but also shows elite leverage and leg drive at the point of attack.

    Has superb quickness and burst to pressure the pocket and make plays on the QB. He set the 49ers rookie record for sacks with 14 last year. Smith is elite.

    Still developing his sense for where the ball is going, but Smith does a good job anticipating where the play will end up.

    Was barely a factor in run support, largely being removed on obvious run downs.

    Strong and agile enough to either take on or slip blocks on the edge.

    Has excellent, top-level burst and acceleration off the edge.

    Strong enough to take on the blocks and assignments against opposing linemen.

    Smith rarely misses tackles in space. This kid is the definition of a lockdown tackler.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Largely used as a pass-rusher and sometimes run-stuffer in his rookie campaign, Smith is less of an all-around player than others. Still, the No. 7 overall pick out of Missouri is such an effective pass-rusher that he easily warrants a top ranking at outside linebacker. Once he develops other areas, watch out.

5. Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins

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    Wake shows very good quickness and nice three- to five-yard agility.

    Strong enough to win most battles at the line of scrimmage facing a stationary tackle.

    You can't expect to hold Wake down on the edge. He's too quick and too smooth in his pass-rushing sets.

    Sees and flows to the ball very well. Won't get fooled by play-actions or misdirections.

    Does a good job tracking the ball from the outside, though Wake can get sucked down on counters.

    Strong enough to take on blocks and push the pile, he is impossible to keep locked up.

    Has exceptional speed off the edge. Wake shows the quickness to turn, catch and chase without issue.

    Wake is 250 pounds and strong in space but can be taken out in traffic.

    A good athlete who can break down and take on the run, Wake will get overpowered when he's not completely clean to make a form tackle.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Cameron Wake's transition from CFL to elite NFL pass-rusher is complete. In 2011 he became a premier pass-rusher for the Dolphins, showing the ability to close on the quarterback and take on the ball with ease. Wake will move to defensive end in 2012, where his speed and power should net big production.

4. Sean Weatherspoon, Atlanta Falcons

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    Weatherspoon has elite speed and the natural quickness and flexibility few possess.

    Showed improved cover skills but still lacks the ability to match up in man coverage.

    Flashed good quickness and burst, plus a natural instinct for using his body to attack the passer.

    Good overall understanding of where he needs to be pre-snap with few mistakes in post-snap reads.

    Has the ability to either step up and make the tackle or, at a minimum, to cut off the outside run and funnel the play back inside.

    Has strong hands and the skills needed to get free from blockers.

    Weatherspoon has top-level speed, allowing him to make plays from sideline to sideline.

    Showed improved strength in his second season, wrapping up better on tackles and proving harder to block.

    Has good range and decent form but lets too many runners get through his reach.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    If you are looking for a 4-3 outside linebacker with three-down skills, it doesn't get better than Atlanta's Sean Weatherspoon. Another Mizzou product, he's tough, athletic, quick and mean on the edge. SW's ability to drop back in coverage and attack garners him a top-five ranking.

3. Von Miller, Denver Broncos

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    Has rare quickness and elite change-of-direction skills. Brings a nice combination of power and athleticism.

    Even at a slightly undersized 245 pounds, Miller has very good strength. Once he improves his leverage, this area will continue to grow.

    Has the agility to fire off the line and make players miss. Can bend and turn his body to come off the edge and force tackles to overextend.

    Benched early in the year for missed assignments, Miller rebounded and finished out the year showing excellent awareness in space.

    Played the run better than expected. Has good strength to close on the ball. Must get better at playing disciplined, assignment football.

    Powerful and fast off the line, Miller is tough to get a hand on, much less contain.

    Rare speed for the position is a major advantage to Miller's game.

    Country strong—he uses his entire body to complement his natural strength and make plays.

    A violent, aggressive hitter who hardly misses tackles.

    Miller missed one game in 2011.

    Von Miller more than lived up to his billing as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, earning a Pro Bowl invite and AP Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. That's just the beginning. Miller has elite potential, and with a full offseason to learn, the Denver Broncos should have the NFL's best outside linebacker very soon.

2. James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Has very good initial quickness and strength. The Steeler doesn't lack range.

    Shows good leverage and lower-body drive but doesn't have the size to win every battle.

    Nearly impossible to stop when he has a full head of steam coming off the edge, Harrison has elite footwork and quickness to make tackles miss.

    A smart player who doesn't get enough credit for his pre-snap reads and alignment. His ability to flow with the football—even in coverage—is top-notch.

    If Harrison isn't making the tackle, he's shutting down outside running lanes and forcing the ball away. He's also great in backside pursuit.

    Very tough at the point of attack, Harrison's leg drive and continued movement make him a difficult assignment.

    Has very good speed and quickness off the edge.

    Harrison has natural strength but perhaps most importantly is incredibly tough.

    Is among the most violent hitters in the NFL today. Harrison launches himself at the ball, which results in either a monster collision or a missed tackle.

    Missed five games in 2011.

    One of the most active linebackers in the NFL, James Harrison may be most well known for his fines and big hits. What gets lost is that he's actually pretty damn good in coverage, against the run and in getting to the quarterback. Soon to turn 34 in May, Harrison may never be featured by the NFL due to his love/hate relationship with the commissioner, but his production on Sundays is elite.

1. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys

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    Ware has elite quickness, balance and body control.

    Strong enough to make an impact and drive the blocker, but follows it up with dangerous quickness to make a secondary move.

    No player at the position comes off the ball faster than Ware. His burst and acceleration allow him to beat tackles off the edge—no matter how far back off the line they set up in anticipation.

    Can change direction on the fly once he makes a read. A rare player who reads as well on the run as he does when stationary.

    The one argument Ware's detractors can make is he's not elite against the run. Still, he's better than most give him credit for.

    Has the size, speed and strength to be a force when moving forward—and he's always moving. Ware is nearly impossible to block.

    Ware brings great burst and acceleration to the position. There are OLBs faster in 10- or 20-yard runs, but none are quicker off the ball.

    Has strong arms and legs. Can dominate a play with this strength.

    Ware was charted with four missed tackles in 2011 but was otherwise rock-solid.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    This is what a 3-4 outside linebacker should look like. DeMarcus Ware has elite athleticism, combining burst, vision, strength and a nonstop motor. A Pro Bowl selection six consecutive years through 2011, his play, production and ability are all best at OLB. The Dallas Cowboy is hands down the best outside linebacker in the NFL today.

Honorable Mentions

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    A list of those players close to making the final grade, but not quite close enough to be in the Top 64 Outside Linebackers.

    Jordan Senn Carolina Panthers 51Dekoda Watson Tampa Bay Buccaneers 58Arthur Moats Buffalo Bills 55

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