This is the sixth in a series of stories on players eligible for the April 28 NFL draft. Today's story deals with linebackers.
With two starters gone, the Buffalo Bills have a big hole at linebacker. The upcoming draft will give them a chance to fill the vacancy.
"It's a pretty good group overall," said Tom Modrak, the Bills' assistant general manager and head of college scouting. "We have a little advantage in that our linebackers don't have to be a certain height or weight. If they can run, play downhill and are smart, they've got a chance to be successful in this defense."
A guy who seems tailor-made for the Bills' defense is All-American middle linebacker Patrick Willis of Mississippi. The two-time All-Southeastern Conference selection had a great senior season, finishing with 137 tackles (11 1/2 for losses) and three sacks. He was named the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year, won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker and earned defensive MVP honors in the Senior Bowl.
Willis was already the top-rated linebacker before running the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds at the Scouting Combine last month. But he elevated to a potential top-10 pick after his pro day workout that included a blazing 40 time of 4.37 seconds. That's the same time Bills wide receiver Lee Evans ran coming out of college.
The 6-foot-1, 242-pound Willis is not only fast, he's a big-time playmaker with toughness, instincts and range. He excels at fighting through blocks and delivering big hits on the ball carrier. He's also versatile with the size to play the middle and the speed to play outside.
"The first two years in college I played outside linebacker, covered some slot receivers," Willis said at the combine. "I'd say I'm confident in my abilities, but anything I need to do I'll work on and do my best to get the job done."
The Bills value high character players, and Willis has it in abundance. He has overcome a difficult childhood (his mother abandoned him and his three siblings when he was four) and personal tragedy (his 17-year-old brother drowned last summer) to be able to realize his dream of being an NFL player.
"My real life experience has taught me how to compete through adversity, no matter what the situation was," he said. "No matter what happens, if someone knocks you down, you have to find a way to get up and get the job done."
Willis could still be on the board when the Bills make the 12th overall selection, but that isn't guaranteed. San Francisco, which has the No. 11 pick, could take him. The 49ers' coaching staff coached Willis at the Senior Bowl.
"Patrick Willis, I think, is going to be a very good pro," said 49ers coach Mike Nolan. "He did a very good job, made a lot of plays and was all over the field. He catches your eye, not only in practice but in the game."
If Willis is gone, the Bills have other options. They could trade down and target a top-rated outside linebacker like Lawrence Timmons of Florida State or Paul Posluszny of Penn State.
Timmons, a junior, played strong side linebacker for the Seminoles. He has the athleticism and speed to make plays all over the field against the run and pass. He also can rush the quarterback.
Posluszny might have come out last year after winning the Butkus and Bednarik awards, but suffered a knee injury in the 2005 Orange Bowl. He bounced back with a strong senior season (116 tackles and three sacks). He's an intelligent player who diagnoses plays quickly and attacks the line of scrimmage.
Miami's Jon Beason can be an every-down linebacker with the speed and athleticism to play outside or in the middle in a Tampa-2 scheme. Florida State middle linebacker Buster Davis is an intriguing prospect. At 5-9 1/4 and 242 pounds, he is built like former Bills linebacker London Fletcher. But Davis was highly productive against top competition and made a lot of plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.
"Davis is an interesting guy," Modrak said. "He's not a real tall guy, but he is a tough, downhill, get-after-it kind of player. He will hit you and he knows where the football is. He has a knack for timing the inside blitz very well."
Next: Defensive backs