They are the captains and anchors of the defense. They are the offense-crippling pass-rushers coming off the edge.
They're linebackers. And they come in all different shapes, sizes, speeds and specializations.
Who are the best linebackers in the 2014 draft class? These are the players that NFL teams will invest high draft picks in as they look for the next great middle or outside linebacker. And as you're introduced to the top 10, you'll meet some who play in the middle, some who play on the outside and some who can do both.
What are NFL teams looking for when they scout these linebackers? Strength, instincts, vision, tackling ability and raw speed. You can learn more in our "How to Scout" series, too.
Strap on a helmet and get ready to roll. These are the 10 best linebackers in this draft class.
An All-American defensive end for the University of Missouri, Michael Sam hadn't given much thought to an NFL career before the 2013 season. Then he posted 19 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks in 14 games. That's two sacks more than he had in his first three seasons combined.
Now he is looking at the NFL, but he might see a position change. The former left defensive end is ranked here as an outside linebacker. That's where his 255-pound frame is best suited, especially given the prevalence of 3-4 and 4-3 over schemes in today's NFL.
Sam is a proven pass-rusher, and he gets into the backfield with knifing speed and smart hand use. He'll need to transition once in the NFL, but his ability to frustrate quarterbacks is well-documented.
The 2014 NFL draft class is loaded with pass-rushers at the linebacker position. One of the more exciting players filling that hybrid role of defensive end/outside linebacker is Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu. And there's a lot to like about him.
He knows how to get into the backfield and make plays. And at 6'3" and 245 lbs, he has the frame you want to see from a stand-up edge rusher in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. The question is whether he can stop the run and help in coverage if playing exclusively on the outside.
Attaochu can make an instant impact in the NFL as a pass-rusher, but his draft stock will vary from team to team as they determine his fit in their individual schemes.
Evaluating Shayne Skov brings about a tale of two very different seasons. That will be the biggest question mark that NFL teams face when checking out this talented, productive Stanford middle linebacker.
During the 2012 season, it looked like Skov had reached his ceiling and started to plateau as a player. He was too often stiff and unproductive. Then 2013 came, and he looked like the game-changing athlete who broke out in 2010. A healthy Skov was electric and helped his draft stock with a very good senior season.
His athletic ability and range are ideal for today's NFL, and it's easy to see why teams will want him to anchor their defense.
Wisconsin's Chris Borland isn't the tallest guy in the draft, and for a middle linebacker, that can be an issue for some teams. But that should change as soon as scouts put in the time to review his game film.
Some teams will be concerned about his under-6'0" stature, but Borland has a rocked-out body with muscles filling out his chest and legs—right where a linebacker needs power to fuel his tackling ability. And while a 6'3" inside linebacker may look ideal on the surface, he also has a much bigger target area for offensive guards and fullbacks to key on when sizing him up in the run game.
Borland's lateral quickness is as impressive as his instincts. Put the two together, and you have a "Mike" 'backer who lives around the ball.
Sitting in the press box at Ladd Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., I turned to my scouting assistant Dan and asked, "Did BYU send a safety here? I can't think of anyone they'd send." But it wasn't a safety I was seeing in coverage drills—it was linebacker Kyle Van Noy. And that's what makes him so exciting.
He is a fluid, natural athlete, but he's also incredibly smart on the field. BYU coaches told me at the Senior Bowl that Van Noy was a huge influence on Ezekiel Ansah during their time together in college. Ansah went on to become the No. 5 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
Finding the right fit for Van Noy in the NFL is a great debate, but I see a pass-rusher with stand-up ability in a 3-4 or 4-3 over style scheme. NFL teams will too.
When you watch Ryan Shazier play, the first thing you notice is his ridiculously good first-step quickness. The Ohio State outside linebacker is an athlete, but he's not just a speedster who is running down ball-carriers. Instead, he attacks the ball and the offense.
Shazier isn't the biggest guy on the field, but his 230-pound frame is strong enough to take on edge blockers and still allow him to get into the backfield and make plays. And with that unreal first step we mentioned earlier, he's able to get past linemen before they can get a hand on him.
You don't have to be the strongest guy on the field if you're the fastest. And Shazier just might be.
The top-ranked inside linebacker in the 2014 draft class, C.J. Mosley is another in a long line of Nick Saban products headed to the NFL. Unlike some of the linebackers who've come before him, Mosley's three-down ability makes him very attractive to the NFL.
When we talk about scheme versatility at the linebacker position, you can essentially picture Mosley as that player. He's athletic and strong enough to play any linebacker position in a 3-4 or 4-3 defense.
Want him to stuff the run inside the tackles? Sure. Need someone shooting A-gaps and pressuring the quarterback? He can do it. Need a coverage 'backer jamming the tight end off the ball? He's exceptional there.
Mosley is a rare treat at linebacker. His speed, instincts and tough-nosed mentality are that of a future All-Pro.
No player on defense had a better week at the 2014 Senior Bowl than Auburn's Dee Ford. He opened a lot of eyes with his quickness, flexibility and the way he uses his hands like a ninja to attack blockers. Suffice it to say, he made himself some serious money in Mobile.
He also stands out on film. You can see him attacking the offensive tackle against Texas A&M, and he pushes and drives players off the ball before disengaging to get to the ball-carrier. Ford's body type may scream "speed player," but his film shows that he has the strength to attack on every down.
Where do you play him in the NFL? That's to be determined. He can line up as a wide defensive end in a 4-3 scheme or stand up as a pass-rushing outside linebacker. Wherever he lines up, you can expect to see a ton of speed at that position.
A former running back, Anthony Barr converted to linebacker at UCLA. And that conversion was a godsend to the Bruins defense.
He is a lean, fluid, explosive athlete with natural gifts that most defensive players only see when they're on the receiving end of a juke or stiff arm. But Barr brings those talents to the defense, and he's had quite the impact there in his two seasons at outside linebacker.
He is a three-tool 'backer, meaning he can stop the run, drop into coverage or rush the passer. And he does all three well. Given his natural length, speed and agility, he projects well as a 3-4 or 4-3 outside linebacker who can put his hand in the dirt and rush the quarterback from defensive end in passing situations.
When you combine elite athleticism and a ton of versatility, you get a prospect who is expected to be drafted very early.
If you want to see what it looks like when a linebacker takes over a ball game, check out Khalil Mack versus Ohio State from the 2013 season. The University of Buffalo had no business hanging around against the Buckeyes, but Mack was all over the field to keep his team alive. His one interception returned for a touchdown, nine tackles (2.5 for a loss) and 2.5 sacks recorded in the stat book don't quite do his play justice.
He is explosive, strong, smart, prepared and deadly. Offenses can try to chip him with a tight end or a running back, but he's strong and smart enough to use his body to beat it. If you sit back and try to block him one-on-one, like Ohio State did with potential first-rounder Jack Mewhort, he'll embarrass your left tackle on national TV.
Linebackers are tough to scout, but Mack is just tough. And he's going to make one NFL team very lucky.