2009 NFL Draft: Rey Maualuga Leads USC Linebacker Trio into NFL Draft

John LorgeSenior Writer IJanuary 27, 2009

Every region of the country claims they are the home of Linebacker U and it's one thing that nobody can agree on.

Miami, the U of all U's is home to four of the NFL's elite linebackers.  Penn State up in State College, PA has a trophy case suggesting they are the best.  Ohio State, Florida State and others are all in contention.

If you ask someone in Southern California the answer is simple, USC.  They have the pedigree of Junior Seau and Willie McGinest, while Lofa Tatupu and Keith Rivers are currently baring the flag.

In 2009, USC's NFL linebacker stable will get much thicker with the addition of Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, and Clay Matthews, suggesting they are the current Linebacker U.

The last time we saw and elite trio of linebackers like USC's was in 2005 when Ohio State boasted A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter, and Anthony Schlegel. 

All three were impressive athletes and through a synergetic effect they all saw their draft status shoot up.  Hawk and Carpenter were both first round picks (5th and 18th) and Schlegel was a third rounder in 2006.

A.J. Hawk, the Rey Maualuga of the bunch, has been relatively successful so far for Green Bay. Although, he hasn't reached 100 tackles or five sacks in three years. 

Bobby Carpenter has been a bust, much like Brian Cushing he has a tremendous physical appearance, but so far Carpenter hasn't been physical or hungry enough for the NFL game.

Anthony Schlegel, the third wheel or Clay Matthews, played for the Jets his first year, Bengals his second year, and could not find a team to play for in 2008. 

All of this doesn't mean two or three great college linebackers on the same team can't produce in the NFL.

In 2003, Miami had D.J. Williams and Jonathan Vilma who were both first round NFL picks in 2004 and both have excelled.  Alongside Vilma and Williams was Darrell McClover, a seventh round pick who is a reserve on Chicago.

So what can we draw from all of this? 

We have three NFL athletes, who were very productive in college, on college football's top defense. 

Let's rate these three teammates as individuals to see how they will fare.

*Kaluka Maiava is another LB prospect from USC who I am not evaluating.*

Rey Maualuga

There are few things scarier for a quarterback than a 6'2" and 254 pound angry linebacker screaming towards you.  Meet Rey Maualuga.

Maualuga is so dominant on the field that scouts have thoroughly combed through his game to find any flaws that will prevent him from becoming the next Ray Lewis.  His most notable negative is that he overreacts to plays which can get him caught out of position.

On the flip side, even when he does find himself out of position he still uses his strength and motor to disrupt blockers or even in some cases make the play from behind. 

Maualuga is an elite run-stopping middle linebacker and he is the best blitzing middle-backer we have seen in years.  If the D-Line can open up a hole for him, he will quickly buck the running back and start hounding the QB. 

In the passing game Maualuga can get deep in his drop and does a good job of reading the quarterback's eyes and re-routing receivers.  His man skills are average, but won't be called upon much.

If there is a sure thing in the NFL Draft, Rey Maualuga is it because of his sideline-to-sideline play making presence.

Most projections have him going five through nine. Although, Kansas City could really use his run-stopping ability at the third pick. 

Brian Cushing

When scouts refer to a players as He-Man, you know he has been putting in work in the weight room.  You can slap 243 pounds on someone many different ways, but it doesn't look better than on Cushing’s 6'3" frame. 

There is no question Cushing is conditioned and his highlight reel shows he can play.  Cushing makes fully extended tackles, coming out of nowhere to spear the ball carrier.

As a strong side linebacker Cushing does a very good job of bumping tight ends and maintaining the edge.  He is versatile enough to play in the 3-4, but would be best suited in the 4-3 where he will be free to move all over the field. 

Like Maualuga, Cushing is a very good zone-coverage defender and he displayed very good ball skills at USC.  He may get beat one-on-one with a quick running back or wide receiver however. 

There is a small injury concern with Cushing, as he has sustained injuries to his upper and lower body at USC.  His reckless style of play leaves his body exposed often.

Cushing is a total package OLB and he is the number two prospect behind Aaron Curry for his position.  There are other hybrid DE/LBs that will be drafted before him too. 

It is suspected that Cushing will fall in the 15-25 range. He would be a nice fit in Tampa Bay, Minnesota, or New England.  If he slips in the draft the Giants or Cardinals could take a swing at him.

If Cushing can convince teams he can be a pass rusher in the 3-4 scheme it will seriously improve his draft stock.

Clay Matthews

Clay Matthews III to be exact.  That's right, Matthews will be a third generation NFL football player following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and uncle Bruce Matthews. 

Matthews has had the luxury of learning the ins-and-outs of linebacking from his father who was a four-time Pro Bowler for the Cleveland Browns. 

His bloodlines have also put longevity on his side.  Clay Matthews Jr. (now II) played 278 games over 19 seasons in the NFL.  Bruce was a 14-time Pro Bowler who played in 296 games on the offensive line. 

Continuing on his great genetics, at almost 6'4" and an estimated 242 pounds Matthews sports an impressive build for a weak side linebacker.  He has room to add bulk too which is promising.

While blockers were tied-up with USC's stout D-Line and other backers, it allowed Matthews to flow freely.  He doesn't hit as hard as Maualuga, but he still will bring a pop and has the speed to get to the opposite sideline.

Matthews is a very good blitzer, who can get to the quarterback on a combination of moves; he can lineup inside and go straight, stunt, or bring a hard rush from the outside.  I think he would be a better fit in the 3-4 than Cushing, and he would work well on a defense that moves guys around a lot like New England.

The main concern with Matthews is that he cannot handle the point of attack.  If you can get a tackle on him he's finished.  Teams should be worried that he was making plays in the shadows of his impressive teammates.

Matthews does cover well, showing his versatility, and he may be the best at man coverage of the trio.

Although Matthews will occasionally get mentioned among first round talent he will most likely fall in the second round, or possibly the third.

2009 NFL Draft Big Board

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