Recently, the middle linebacker position has been treated like the red-headed stepchild in the draft (no offense to red-headed stepchildren). Even though they are the quarterback of the defense, their skills have been minimized with the advancement in the passing game.
More of an emphasis is now placed on the defensive line, especially exterior pass rushers, and cornerbacks. However, this year will see two Mikes go in the first 32 picks.
The first to go will be Luke Kuechly, and while I'm not as high on him as others, I definitely think he's worth a first round pick. If you take a look at his Combine numbers it's hard to say he's not a fantastic athlete, but I am.
He plays very tight and his feet look slow when moving laterally or in transition. But, what he lacks in athleticism, he more than makes up for in football IQ and instinct. He knows the game so well that he's able to gain back that split-second that the rest of his body lost him. I know he's going to go in the first 13 picks, but I think his value is more in the late twenties.
Next, Dont'a Hightower of Alabama should go somewhere at the end of the first round. Like Kuechly, at the top of Hightower's strengths is his football IQ, meaning he's very quick to diagnose plays and react accordingly.
On the negative side, again like Kuechly, he's very tight in the hips and his lateral movement leaves a lot to be desired. The edge for Kuechly is that he's a bit more functional in the passing game. Hightower can be effective in passing situations, but that's not the strength of his game.
Here are the rest of the rankings:
1. Luke Kuechly, Boston College
2. Qualin "Dont'a" Hightower, Alabama
3. Marvin "Mychal" Kendricks
4. Bobby Wagner, Utah St.
5. James-Michael Johnson, Nevada
6. Keenan Robinson, Texas
7. Ricky "Tank" Carder, TCU
8. Audie Cole, N.C. State
9. Najee Goode, West Virginia
10. Jerry Franklin, Arkansas
Usually I like to delve into an under the radar prospect here, but I have to talk about Mychal Kendricks. He is one of the hidden gems in this draft. While he's undersized, he certainly doesn't play like it and he has speed to burn.
He is definitely the best athlete in this group. His lateral movement and transitions are at an elite level for a middle linebacker. Of course, the primary concern is whether or not he will be able to shed blocks from professional lineman. In my opinion, the guy's a tough and talented football player and I would certainly be willing to spend a late-second, early-third round pick on him.