This is the eighth of an eight-part series previewing the NFL draft on April 28-30. Today's installment covers linebackers.
The Buffalo Bills' pass rush was anemic last season. The NFL draft may provide a solution.
Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller is the top prospect at his position and the cream of a deep crop of pass rushing talent. The Bills could take him with the third overall pick if they don't select a quarterback or if the Denver Broncos pass on him at No. 2.
The Bills have to generate more pressure on quarterbacks than a year ago when they registered 27 sacks, tied for the fourth-fewest in the NFL. There is no guarantee Shawne Merriman will recapture his past form and first-round disappointment Aaron Maybin has fallen woefully short of expectations. So Miller would fill a gaping hole in the defense.
The Bills are well-aware of Miller, who played on the South team coached by Chan Gailey and his staff in the Senior Bowl. A dominant week of practice that culminated in Miller earning defensive MVP honors in the game answered any questions Gailey might have had about him.
"I had first impressions and last impressions [at the Senior Bowl]," Gailey said at the NFL owners meetings. "The first impression was I heard so much about this guy, he's not nearly as big as I thought he was going to be. And the last impression when I walked out of there was I see why I've heard so much about this guy. He understands leverage, he understands blow delivery, he's got amazing speed and quickness. He's an interesting guy."
The 6-foot-2 1/2 , 246-pounder is the perfect fit for a team running a 3-4 defense. He also can put his hand on the ground in a four-man front during obvious passing situations.
Miller has remarkable speed (timed in 4.49 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Texas A&M's pro day) and you'll be hard-pressed to find a pass-rushing prospect that gets as low to the ground getting around the corner while maintaining his balance.
"The kid gets like a motorcycle driver coming around the corner," said ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. "You wonder how some of those guys can stay on the bike on motocross and this guy is the same way. He comes around that edge and I don't even know how he stays on his feet. He gets this tremendous leverage on those big tackles and they just can't handle him."
Miller terrorized Big 12 offenses at Texas A&M, leading the nation with 17 sacks and 21 1/2 tackles for losses as a junior defensive end. Moving to outside linebacker last season, he injured an ankle in the opener and didn't record a sack until the fifth game. But he still finished with 10 1/2 sacks, 17 1/2 tackles for losses, earning All-American honors and winning the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker.
Some may see Miller as one-dimensional because of questions about his stoutness against the run (he finished last season at 237 pounds) and whether he can be effective in pass coverage. But his one dimension is too good for him to fall out of the top five.
"My God-given ability is speed off the edge, just rushing," said Miller, who ended his college career with 172 tackles (50 1/2 for losses), 33 sacks, 10 forced fumbles and one interception. "I can drop back into coverage and do all that other stuff, too, but what God has blessed me with is pass rushing off the edge.
"I don't just label myself as an outside 3-4 linebacker. I want to be the best defensive player in this year's draft. That may be in a 3-4, a 4-3, a 5-2, I just want to play football and get on the field."
With so many teams using some variation of the 3-4, college defensive ends who can be hybrid outside rushers are in big demand. This draft is full of them.
UCLA's Akeem Ayers has the size (6-3, 254) to play the strong side in a 4-3 or an outside rusher in a 3-4. He didn't run very well at the combine (4.81 40) or his pro day (4.7), but the game tape shows that he can make plays all over the field. He should be gone by the end of the first round.
Georgia's Justin Houston and Missouri's Aldon Smith are two of the fastest rising players in the draft. Both are projected as mid-to-late first-rounders.
Houston, who had 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss in Georgia's 3-4 scheme, ran the 40 in the high 4.5 range at 270 pounds. He needs work in coverage, but the rest of his game looks solid. Smith is a risk because he's a 20-year-old redshirt sophomore. He had just 5 1/2 sacks last season and missed three games with a broken bone in his leg. But he displayed the exceptional pass rushing skills (school-record 11 1/2 sacks and 19 tackles for loss) in 2009 that have teams enamored with his potential.
Arizona's Brooks Reed, Texas' Sam Acho and Oklahoma's Jeremy Beal all figure to come off the board on Day Two.
The draft is pretty thin at inside linebacker, where Martez Wilson of Illinois is the only possible first-rounder. The 6-4, 250-pound junior is an impressive athlete whose 4.49-second 40 time at the combine topped all linebackers. Because of his speed, some 3-4 teams might target him at outside linebacker, which he played his first two years in college.
But he was productive inside with 112 tackles (11.5 for loss), four sacks, four quarterback hurries, four pass breakups, three forced fumbles, one interception, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick last season. The Bills, who need help at inside linebacker, will consider Wilson with their second-round pick (34th overall) if he's available.
The second tier of inside linebackers includes Michigan State's Greg Jones, LSU's Kelvin Sheppard and North Carolina's Quan Sturdivant. They will go between the second and fourth rounds.