This is the sixth in a seven-part series previewing the NFL draft. Today's installment: linebackers.
Luke Kuechly is a tackling machine. Think of him as a bigger, faster Zach Thomas, the former Miami Dolphins star.
Kuechly -- pronounced KEEK-ly -- started at outside linebacker as a true freshman for Boston College and led the Big East Conference with 158 tackles in 13 games. His sophomore year he led the nation with 183 tackles as an inside linebacker. His junior year he made a national-best 191 tackles -- an average of 16 a game.
"He's the best inside linebacker in this draft by far," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. "He's a natural, three-year junior. He's got more production than you can imagine. He's never been hurt. He's clean off the field, he's intelligent and he has great instincts."
Kuechly figures to be a top-15 pick when the NFL Draft is held April 26. He's at the top of what is a mediocre class of linebackers overall.
There's nothing mediocre about being compared with Thomas, who made seven Pro Bowls in a 13-year NFL career. Kuechly, 6-foot-3 and 242 pounds, has a nose for the ball like Thomas, who played at 5-11 and 230. Kuechly says it's a comparison he has heard a bunch.
"Definitely," he said. "We worked with some guys at IMG that are close with Zach Thomas. They did draw those comparisons. To be mentioned with somebody that had a great career like him, that played in the NFL that long, it's a great honor."
Kuechly's father tries to keep him humble by occasionally accusing him of "JOP-ing" tackles (jumping on piles). He says diligent study helped him win the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker.
"I think I do a pretty good job preparing myself," Kuechly said. "That's something I take pride in; being prepared and knowing what each individual guy is responsible for. I can point at different guys, and let them know what they're doing if they have questions. Doing that, and knowing what everyone is doing, you can play faster. It allows you to be more successful."
The Buffalo Bills figure to be in the market for outside linebacker depth at some point in the draft.
Second-round candidates include Nebraska's Lavonte David and North Carolina's Zach Brown.
David has great instincts and was all over the field for the Cornhuskers. He's only 6-1, and he projects as a weak-side 4-3 'backer. Brown has better size and set a Tar Heels record in the indoor, 60-yard dash. But he wasn't as consistent as David. Utah State's Bobby Wagner might last to the third round.
In the third or (more likely) fourth round, the Bills could consider players like Arkansas State's speedy Demario Davis, Florida State strong-side 'backer Nigel Bradham and Miami's undersized Sean Spence (6-0, 224). In the fourth or fifth rounds, the outside prospects include Texas Christian's Tank Carder, North Carolina State strong-side 'backer Audie Cole or Texas' Emmanuel Acho.
NEXT: Running backs