The 2012 NFL draft is going to be relatively weak at inside linebacker. You have one sure-fire first-round selection, two more top-of-the-end prospects and then a dramatic drop-off to the rest.
This has been somewhat of a trend over the course of the last few seasons. The last time multiple inside linebacker went in the first round of the draft was in 2007 when Patrick Willis, Lawrence Timmons and Jon Beason all had their names called.
With that said, we have seen tremendous value at this position in the draft over the course of the last few seasons.
This article is going to focus on the top 10 inside linebacker prospects in the 2012 NFL draft.
Smaller than your prototypical inside linebacker, Najee Goode was an extremely productive and instinctive player in college for West Virginia.
He will struggle fending off blocks and isn't great between the hashes. What makes Goode an interesting prospect is that he can fly to the ball on the outside and he wraps up extremely well on tackles.
Goode was a walk-on at West Virginia before earning a scholarship during his freshman year, so you have to believe that the work ethic and passion for the game is definitely there. If nothing else he should make an impact on special teams.
Talking with some former scouts I have heard that Goode could go as early as the sixth round or might not get drafted at all.
Chris Galippo just doesn't seem to have the athleticism to be a difference-maker at the next level. All of the intangibles are there in regards to coverage, technique, tackling and instincts. At this point it is all about whether or not he just has the talent to be an NFL player.
Much like with Goode before, Galippo just isn't going to be able to shed blocks between the tackles or defeat opposing offensive linemen at the point of contact.
What he will bring is a high motor and intelligence to the middle of the defense. Pretty much a sixth- or seventh-round pick, if that.
Probably one of the most underrated players on this list, Jerry Franklin looks like he has a chance to be successful at the next level.
The former Arkansas standout has great straight line speed, makes a ton of big plays in the middle of the field and is a sure tackler. He will struggle a bit in coverage and doesn't possess great lateral speed, which will concern scouts heading into the draft.
Franklin should be a fit on a 4-3 team looking for depth at the mike-backer position. Probably no better than a sixth-round pick at this point.
The embedded video is a perfect representation of how Vontaze Burfict plays on the football field. As you can see, the Arizona State product has a tremendous amount of raw talent, but just doesn't possess the fundamentals that teams are looking for at the next level.
I received a lot of grief for not including Burfict in the first round of my initial mock draft back in January. This was during a time when the vast majority of "experts" indicated that he was the best inside linebacker in the draft.
What I saw then and what is currently the overwhelming belief is that Burfict isn't anywhere near the prospect that many had concluded.
He struggled at the combine in Indianapolis and had a disastrous Arizona State pro day performance. There are now some that have even predicted that Burfict might not even be drafted at all.
With that said, you cannot deny the talent that the former All-American has. Look for some team to take a chance on him in the mid to late rounds.
James-Michael Johnson is an extremely intriguing prospect. He has loads of potential in his game, but doesn't play anywhere near as disciplined as you would want from a four-year starter in college.
He struggles against the run and takes himself out of plays way too often. There is also an issue with understanding when to be aggressive and when to sit back. You can see some of these shortcomings on the embedded video.
With that said, Johnson probably has one of the highest upsides of any player at this position in the draft. He is really good in coverage, reads plays prior to the snap and is instinctive from the get-go.
You are looking at a prospect that has all the ability to be a really good starting inside linebacker at the next level.
Probably a fifth-round pick at this point, but could go higher depending on team needs.
Audie Cole is probably one of the most fundamentally sound defensive players in the draft. He fully understands what to do on each play and makes the defense much better due to that field intelligence.
What I like most about Cole is that he wraps up on nearly every tackle, doesn't struggle taking on blocks and can be a field general.
With all that said, the North Carolina State product just doesn't have exceptional athleticism. This makes Cole pretty much a mid-round prospect at this point.
A team like the Detroit Lions or Washington Redskins could sure use him in the middle of their front seven. In fact, I expect him to go to one of those two teams later this month.
The outside world finally got a glimpse of what we in the Bay Area have known about Mychal Kendricks for some time now. There really is no other way to put it besides he is an absolute beast in every possible way on the defensive side of the ball.
This is where the truly elite inside linebacker prospects start in the 2012 NFL draft.
Kendricks has exceptional speed going sideline to sideline and plays with a fluid technique in coverage. The Cal product has the ability to play in a wide array of different defensive schemes because of his exceptional athleticism.
This is a prospect who can get to the quarterback on the blitz consistently, has the ability to hang with tight ends in coverage and stuffs the run with the best of them.
There is a strong possibility that Kendricks gets some play in the latter half of the first round. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are great fits for the talented linebacker.
Bobby Wagner might not be a natural inside linebacker prospect. In fact, many scouts have him as an outside backer at the next level. This is the position that he played at Utah State.
That really doesn't mean much moving forward. It is all about where Wagner best translates in the National Football League. In my opinion it is on the inside.
A great comparison in regards to this would be NaVorro Bowman, who played outside at Penn State. The San Francisco 49ers drafted him in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft to move him inside. After growing pains throughout the first half of his rookie season, Bowman progressed and is now an All-Pro performer.
The comparisons don't end there. Wagner has the same exact build as Bowman and is as talented. The up-and-coming prospect possesses everything that you look for in a linebacker.
Wagner plays at a consistently high level. He is able to go sideline to sideline, draw out a play and stop the running back behind the line of scrimmage. This is something that I noticed Wagner do a great deal of the time in 2011.
More than that, Wagner has the capability to get to the quarterback on a blitz. He has multiple dimensions and can line up at a wide array of different positions in any scheme. You are looking at a prospect that has the capability to perform at a Pro Bowl level in the NFL.
You could see Wagner get some play in the latter half of the first round. If not, there is no way he drops past the second round.
This is how good I view the small-school backer to be at the next level.
It is all about staying healthy for Dont'a Hightower. If the Alabama product did not have injury issues he probably would have been the consensus No. 1 inside linebacker in the draft and possibly a Top-10 pick.
He anchored a pro-style front seven with the Crimson Tide, consistently calling plays and making sure that players knew their assignments. This is something that I am sure is not lost on scouts.
Hightower really doesn't have a glaring weakness in his game. He can close off the edge on the outside, sits between the hashes as a true center fielder and has the capability to get to the quarterback if need be.
While Hightower does possess some rather tight hip movement in coverage, his athleticism has been able to counteract that in college. This is something he is going to have to work on in order to become an all-around linebacker at the next level.
A first-round lock in my book.
I have been wavering between Hightower and Luke Kuechly as the No. 1 inside linebacker, but the Boston College prospect gets the nod.
While Kuechly doesn't possess the upside that some of the other players on this list have, he is already a damn good player. He already has the ability to cover tight ends between the hashes, is as sure of a tackler that you will find and consistently makes plays on the edges.
Kuechly will not be a threat in the offensive backfield as he lacks both a pass-rush move and the ability to shed blocks at the line of scrimmage.
With that said, 4-3 teams are going to be extremely high on Kuechly because of what he brings to the table in that scheme.
Right now, I have Kuechly going to the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round.