By Dan Pompei, Chicago Tribune reporter
1:53 PM AKDT, April 22, 2012
12th in a series exploring the April 26-28 NFL draft.
The 2012 class of middle linebackers is led by underclassmen Luke Kuechly of Boston College and Dont'a Hightower of Alabama. If neither player had declared himself eligible for the draft, it's possible no middle linebacker would have been chosen in the top two rounds. Even with the presence of Kuechly and Hightower, this still is a pedestrian group.
1. Luke Kuechly, Boston College, 6-3, 242. What stands out most about him is instincts and foot quickness. Kuechly is an excellent pass coverage and sure tackler in the open field. He would fit best in an attacking 4-3 defense, and could play either middle out outside linebacker. Kuechly is not an elite athlete, but he is above average. He plays bigger than his size, but is not much of a take-on linebacker.
2. Dont'a Hightower, Alabama, 6-2, 265. This big thumper hits with a wallop. He is a traditional stack middle linebacker, but also might have some ability to play outside in a 3-4. He is not the quickest or most explosive player. Hightower was a little inconsistent in 2011, but still might have been affected by a 2009 knee injury. Hightower shows a feel for the game. He is considered a boom or bust player.
3. Mychal Kendricks, California, 5-11, 239. Kendricks is a play maker who reads well and finds the ball. He plays hard and is an explosive tackler in the box. He has a nice short area burst. He does not have ideal size but plays like he's bigger than he is. He is not the best player in space. He also can be a candidate to play outside.
4. James-Michael Johnson, Nevada, 6-1, 241. His athleticism and speed are his best traits, as he showed at his pro day. Some scouts believe his instincts may be off. He has played outside and inside, and is an effective player in space. He is a three down linebacker. Johnson hits hard. He has been a producer.
5. Audie Cole, North Carolina State, 6-4, 246. He is a big linebacker with long arms who made a lot of plays in college. Cole isn't the fastest, and he relies more on instinct than speed. He could take better angles and wrap up better as a tackler. He is average athletically. He won't fit every scheme. He has experience at strong side linebacker as well as in the middle.
6. Emmanuel Acho, Texas, 6-1, 238. He was a productive college player who plays smart. Acho looks like an excellent special teams prospect. He also has some pass rush ability. He does not shed blocks well. He also might be used as a strong side linebacker in a four man front. His brother Sam Acho plays for the Cardinals.
7. Najee Goode, West Virginia, 6-0, 244. He lacks ideal height but is a powerful backer who can deliver a big hit. He is active and productive. He plays with his eyes well. Goode gets hung up on blocks at times. He played strong side linebacker in college but might be best on the inside in the NFL. His father John Goode was an NFL tight end.
8. Jerry Franklin, Arkansas, 6-1, 242. He was a very productive college player. Franklin is active and makes tackles outside the box. He sometimes is not the most physical when the play is right at him. Some scouts question his instincts.
9. Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State, 6-1, 248. He has worked out horribly (5.0 40 yard dash at the combine) and interviewed poorly, and his stock has plummeted in recent months. Burfict was once thought of as a potential first round pick. He did not have a good 2011 season. Scouts like his size and how explosively he hits. He can blitz and is effective playing downhill. He is an undisciplined player who commits too many penalties. He can be exploited in coverage. Conditioning has been a problem.
10. Ian Thomas, Illinois, 6-1, 232. His impressive pro day, which included a 37 ½ inch vertical and 31 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press, has his stock on the rise. Thomas looks like a good candidate to play special teams. He does not have ideal size or lateral range, but his instincts allow him to make plays. He also could be considered as an outside linebacker.
11. Max Gruder, Pittsburgh, 6-1, 235. He lacks ideal size and athleticism and gets bounced around some, but Gruder's exceptional effort makes him pesky for opponents. He is an instinctive player who is around the ball a lot. Scouts consider him an overachiever.
12. Ronnie Sneed, Kentucky, 6-2, 241. He is a try-hard player who can hold his own at the point. Sneed is a solid tackler who uses good form. He lacks lateral range and isn't the most effective in space.
13. Caleb McSurdy, Montana
14. Shawn Loiseau, Merrimack
15. Noah Keller, Ohio
16. Korey Williams, Southern Mississippi
17. Cameron Collins, Oregon State
18. Chris Galippo, Southern Cal
Brian Urlacher soon will be 34 years old, but he remains one of football's best middle linebackers and the heart of the team. The Bears aren't looking to replace him anytime soon. But they wouldn't mind getting a young player in the pipeline who could be his replacement one day. It's possible they could draft a linebacker who could start his career playing outside and eventually shift inside when Urlacher moves on.