VON MILLER, TEXAS A&M
Given the explosion of 3-4 defenses in the NFL and the success of rush linebackers (See: Matthews, Clay), it's no wonder teams covet fast, aggressive outside linebackers who can put pressure on quarterbacks.
Enter Von Miller, the prototypical 3-4 pass rushing specialist.
"It's a great time to be a linebacker," Miller said. "It's a great time to be a linebacker every year. 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."
Miller's 17 sacks in 2009 led the nation. His total dropped to 10 1/2 as a senior partly because of an ankle injury that bothered him all season. Miller is one of the top-ranked defensive players in the draft and a likely top-five pick. Draft experts view him as the next dynamic rush linebacker.
"The kid gets like a motorcycle driver coming around the corner," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. "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. There's a great motor he plays with, great leverage he plays with, great speed, attitude, approach, all those things."
Miller said he's more than just a pass rusher and is versatile enough to play in a 4-3 scheme. But ...
"My God-given ability is speed off the edge, just rushing," he said. "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."
1. JUSTIN HOUSTON, GEORGIA
Houston is a hybrid-type player who could play outside linebacker in a 3-4 or defensive end in a 4-3. He collected 10 sacks and 18 1/2 tackles for loss this past season. He has to prove that he can do more than just rush the passer. Teams must discern whether Houston (6-3, 260 pounds) is better suited playing with his hand on the ground or standing up.
2. AKEEM AYERS, UCLA
Ayers is regarded as one of the most athletic linebackers in the draft, and one who is equally comfortable defending the run and pass. He intercepted six passes and had 24 tackles for loss combined in his final two seasons at UCLA. There's no denying that Ayers is an athletic playmaker, but he needs to become more consistent.
3. MARTEZ WILSON, ILLINOIS
Wilson said he often gets compared to Miami Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby because they have nearly identical size (6-4, 250 pounds), long arms and versatility. Some teams envision Wilson playing inside linebacker while others see him on the outside. Wilson said he's comfortable in either role. A neck injury caused him to miss nearly the entire 2009 season. Wilson said his neck is no longer a problem, but it's something to consider.
MARK HERZLICH, BOSTON COLLEGE
It's easy to admire and root for Herzlich, who beat cancer and returned to football this past season. The 2008 ACC defensive Player of the Year, Herzlich missed the following season while getting treatment for Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. "I talked to a lot of people who are going through cancer right now and the biggest problem they have is not having a light at the end of the tunnel, not having a goal," Herzlich said at the combine. "My goal happened to be running out of the tunnel, running with my team. It kind of got me through a lot of things." Herzlich is expected to be a mid-round pick.
This position isn't a high priority for the Vikings. E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway are entrenched as starters. They likely will have to replace veteran free agent Ben Leber, but they could look in-house to fill the role. They could add a linebacker in later rounds for depth.