I know it is the middle of the NFL season. I know the Eagles are playing in a huge game on Sunday night. I'm one of those crazy guys that always has one eye on the season and one eye on the NFL draft. I know I'm not alone in that so I decided to go ahead and get some draft talk going, even though it is still very early in the process.
Since linebacker is the obvious position that everyone is focused on, I'll cover that initially. There will be a lot more draft talk between now and April. We'll cover all the possibilities. Remember, this year we'll have the offseason prior to the draft. The Eagles could very well sign a player or make a trade for a veteran linebacker. I'm going with what we know right now and that means linebacker is at the top of the list. Just remember that this is a very fluid situation.
I think middle linebacker is the most important spot the Eagles need to fill. Jamar Chaney has the job now, but has yet to play a legitimately good game this season. Casey Matthews had the job initially, but lost it. The Eagles need to bring in a quality player to battle with one or both of those guys for the spot. The thing I think the defense needs most is a guy who makes a lot of tackles and just has a nose for the ball. Neither Matthews nor Chaney was a super productive tackler in college.
My favorite middle linebacker in college football is junior Luke Kuechly from Boston College. He isn't a lock to come out, but I think it is a definite possibility. I'm sure Mark Herzlich will tell him to get out and strike while the iron is hot. Kuechly is a true middle linebacker. He isn't a great athlete. He isn't an elite playmaker. He's not a human highlight reel. Kuechly is a tackling machine. He gets to the ball and brings the runner/receiver down, over and over and over.
Kuechly currently leads the nation in tackles. He led the nation last year. He was 12th as a freshman (slacker, right?). Some schools in the past have been liberal with handing out tackles in order to help the stats of their star players. I wondered if that was the case with Kuechly. Not at all. Put on the game tape and he's around the ball all game long.
Kuechly has good size. They list him at 6-3 and 235 pounds. He is a tough, physical player. Kuechly uses his hands well to shed blocks and also to keep players from cutting him. One of the ways that Kuechly racks up so many tackles is by staying on his feet and hustling to the ball. He has great instincts. He anticipates plays well. He reads his keys and gets to the correct position. Kuechly doesn't have great speed, but covers a lot of ground because he reads plays so well. I love the fact that he handles inside runs well, but also is effective against teams running the spread offense and throwing bubble screens left and right. Kuechly does make some plays. He's got five career interceptions, 31 tackles-for-loss, and a pair of forced fumbles.
There are a couple of other junior prospects that are flashier guys. Arizona State star Vontaze Burfict goes over 250 pounds. Go find a YouTube clip of his and your jaw will hit the ground at times. There are some plays where he looks like a freak. There are a couple of problems for Burfict. First, he plays out of control at times. He get more personal foul penalties than any college player I can recall. He has a bad habit of hitting players late or out of bounds. Burfict wants to get in on as many tackles as possible. That's fine, but you've got to be smart. The other issue with Burfict is that he lacks good instincts. He's at his best attacking up the field. That was good in the old Eagles system, but not so much anymore. Despite the fact that Burfict is big and strong, he doesn't do a good job of engaging and shedding blockers. He's much better on the run than standing still and dealing with blockers.
Burfict is more of a playmaker than a guy who will consistently get to the ball and make stops. He has 19 solo tackles so far this year. Kuechly had 17 solo tackles in one game (against Duke). That should give you an idea just how different these guys are. Burfict does have six career sacks and four forced fumbles.
The other junior of definite interest is Manti Te'o from Notre Dame. He's started since arriving in South Bend and has mostly lived up to the hype that came with him. Te'o is big at 6-2 and 255 pounds. He runs well. He is a good athlete. He is quick, agile, and powerful. Te'o moves really well for a big linebacker. He plays in the middle for the Fighting Irish and does a good job. He led the team in tackles last year (6th in the nation) and is leading the team this year.
The problem I have with Te'o is that I'm not sure he's a natural middle linebacker. He can stuff inside run plays, but I think he's actually at his best playing in space where he can use his speed and athleticism. Between the tackles Te'o is effective, but out in space is where you see special potential. Te'o is comfortable in coverage. He's good at chasing down runners/receivers to make tackles. I could see some 4-3 teams considering him as a SAM linebacker or on the weak side.
I don't like Burfict for the Eagles. I love Kuechly and think he's just what the team needs. Te'o fascinates me. He could play in the middle for the Eagles, but might make a good SAM as well. An under the radar name to watch is J.K. Schaffer from Cincinnati.
Zach Brown is the headliner. He plays weak side linebacker for UNC. Brown is a terrific athlete and gifted playmaker. He has a standard build at 6-2 and 230 pounds. Brown would give the Eagles their most talented player at WLB since Shawn Barber (2002) or William Thomas (the 1990s). Brown leads the Tar Heels in tackles and is also a playmaker. He's got five career interceptions and 4.5 sacks. He is a senior. Brown started some in 2009, but has been full time in the last two years.
Brown uses speed to make most of his plays. He covers a tremendous amount of ground in coverage. He has good hands and plays the passing lanes well. He is a good blitzer because of his speed. He can be physical at times, but needs work on shedding blocks.
An interesting WLB is Sean Spence from Miami. I've gone back and forth on how much I like him, but recently studied his performance against Georgia Tech and came away highly impressed. He played in the middle in that game was terrific against the run. Spence is undersized at 6-0 and 225 pounds. Put on the tape and you see a good player. He is a big time tackling machine. Spence led Miami last year and holds that same spot this year. He's 10th in the country. Spence will finish his career with over 300 total tackles.
Spence has great range and instincts. He makes plays all over the field. Part of this is due to speed, but he also has a great feel for the game. If he's not in on every tackle, he's standing right by the pile. He uses his hands well to fight off blocks and plays bigger than he is. He only has one career interception, less than you'd like for a guy his size. He has 11 pass break-ups and 10.5 sacks.
Danny Trevathan, 6-1 and 232 pounds, is an athletic, highly productive linebacker from Kentucky. He's currently 8th in the nation in tackles. Trevathan has good speed and makes plays all over the field. He has more than 300 career tackles already and has eight forced fumbles. That shows you he's got some pop when he hits.
Travis Lewis, 6-2 and 227 pounds, is a senior from Oklahoma and might be the most productive linebacker in the nation. He's got more than 400 career tackles, as well as eight interceptions, 29 tackles-for-loss, and 11 pass break-ups. Lewis is athletic and can be physical. He's banged up this year and not playing up to his usual level. One concern with him is erratic tackling. He likes to hit guys up high. That's not a big issue with players from Kansas, but won't work against NFL teams.
Audie Cole is a senior at NC State. They list him at 6-5 and 239, but he doesn't look a full 6-5. He has played inside and at SAM for the Wolfapck (due to injuries). I think he's a natural fit outside. Cole is a tough, physical player. He's more linebacker than athlete. He can attack off the edge or play off the ball and be disciplined. Good hitter and tackler. Has some coverage ability. Likes to jam tight ends and slow them up that way. Cole has 11 career sacks, six forced fumbles, and six pass break-ups.
I don't have a strong feeling with the outside linebackers. Part of that is confusion over exactly what Juan Castillo and the coaching staff are looking for. Spence is the tackler. Brown is the athlete. Lewis is the complete linebacker. Cole is the big guy.
I left out some players I think are significantly better in the 3-4. Alabama has a pair of star linebackers in Donta Hightower and Courtney Upshaw that I think will be 3-4 targets.