On the Clock: Why not a LB at No. 1?

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Mention the name Aundray Bruce to an Atlanta Falcons fan and you'll get that "sour milk left out too long" face in return. You know the one. Pursed lips, pinched face — the look of sheer disgust. "Aundray Bruce helps to define the ineptitude of one of the dismal franchises in sports history," says Steak Shapiro, host of Atlanta's 790 The Zone "Mayhem in the AM" radio show. "A franchise that has never had back-to-back winning seasons has Aundray Bruce as their poster boy."


Want to know about the next generation of NFL stars? We've got you covered as the clock ticks down toward the 2008 draft.
To be kind, Bruce, the top overall pick out of Auburn in the 1988 NFL Draft, had a rather non-significant career with Atlanta. Hyped as the next Lawrence Taylor, the gangly linebacker with "unlimited potential" was expected to be the league's breakout star at OLB, a prototype for the next decade. In a first round that would net 15 eventual Pro Bowlers and two future NFL Hall of Famers (Michael Irvin, Randall McDaniel), it was Bruce — with just 32 career sacks — taken first. No linebacker has been selected with the top overall pick since. Insert Wake Forest LB Aaron Curry. An expected top 10 pick entering the Combine last month, Curry did more than raise eyebrows in Indianapolis. He dropped jaws. Three weeks later, various mock drafts on the Internet — from some of the most respected prognosticators out there — have Curry going first overall to Detroit. A linebacker taken with the top pick? Really? It's worth dissecting. To be certain, as a group, the linebackers taken in the first round over the past two years have been far more successful in the league than the other positions taken in the top 32. Overall, their impact has been high on performance and immediacy. You want a first round pick to contribute right away? Snag an LB. Consider the linebackers picked in the first round of the '07 and '08 drafts: 2007
  • Patrick Willis, 11th overall: 2007 NFL Rookie of the Year, 2-time Pro Bowl selection, 2-time All Pro
  • Lawrence Timmons, 15th overall: Steady contributor and up-and-coming player for Super Bowl XLIII champion Steelers
  • Jon Beason, 25th overall: 2008 Pro Bowl selection, 2008 First Team All-Pro 2008
  • Vernon Gholston, 6th overall: Used primarily as a defensive end in college, did not contribute anything whatsoever in 2008 for the Jets at linebacker
  • Keith Rivers, 9th overall: Was having a fine, if not overly impressive, first season with the Bengals before suffering season-ending injury vs. Pittsburgh. Seems to be the centerpiece of the Cincinnati defense's plans for the future. Rivers was the only player other than Jerod Mayo to receive a vote for the 2008 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year Award
  • Jerod Mayo, 10th overall: 2008 AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. In a normal year in which the AFC wasn't loaded with All-Pro performers at linebacker, Mayo would have been a Pro Bowler. With the exception of Gholston, who under Rex Ryan may flourish in Year 2, every linebacker taken in the first round over the past two years has been a quality selection. Timmons, taken 15th overall, would likely be starting in Pittsburgh if it wasn't for teammate LaMarr Woodley, a linebacker grabbed in the second round that same year.
    Where are we going with this? Perhaps linebacker — not quarterback, not running back, not offensive tackle — is the:"sure thing" pick at No. 1. And if Curry, who is being held in higher regard than all of the aforementioned first-round picks prior to their respective draft days, lives up to expectations — maybe it's him, and not a Stafford or Jason Smith, that the Lions should be looking to base their 1,000th rebuilding phase around. I asked fellow draftnik Rob Rang over at NFLDraftScout.com about this thought process. With so many first-round miscues in the past and the worst defense in the league for about 10 years running, should Detroit simply go with the top "pro-ready" linebacker — which, based on recent historical evidence, is the position most likely to succeed and make an impact in a positive and immediate way? "The NFL currently operates under the belief that there are very few positions worthy of consideration with the top pick. Those positions are quarterback, left tackle, defensive linemen, and cornerbacks," Rang explains. And why not linebacker? "The value just simply isn't there for linebackers. This may, in part, be due to the many different defensive schemes that have evolved over the past 20 years. Blame it on the specialization that is occurring among linebackers. Teams using the 3-4 scheme, for example, are often finding success in converting collegiate 4-3 defensive ends into rush linebackers. These players aren't going to be valued by a team using the so-called Tampa 2, as their linebackers are generally smaller and more agile in coverage. With different schemes requiring different skills, rarely is there a linebacker with the size and athleticism to handle the outside position in multiple systems." Is Curry that guy? The rare linebacker that can work in any coordinator's system in a variety of spots? Perhaps. But I'd be shocked — regardless of his Combine performance, regardless of whether Jim Schwartz preaches defense or not, and regardless of what the "safe" thing might be — if Detroit went with the Wake Forest star with the first pick. We haven't seen an LB taken top overall since 1988, and with offensive line and quarterback such dire needs for Detroit — I just don't see the streak ending. Then again, these are the Lions. And if we've learned anything over the years, they're not the most "conventional" franchise when it comes to the draft.

    Beware of the Pro Day

    Now that we've moved past the Combine, it's time for all of the top prospects' respective Pro Days. As someone who's been roped in hook, line, and sinker by knockout Pro Day performances in the past, I'd like to provide a healthy warning prior to the next few weeks. These Pro Days? They're not everything. And they certainly do not ensure immediate success at the next level. But boy, they sure can help a kid's draft stock. The conversation starts and ends with Vernon Gholston's 2008 Pro Day performance. In the cold of the Columbus winter last March, Gholston and some fellow Ohio State draft prospects hosted a bevy of scouts and media at the Buckeyes Pro Day. To say Gholston stole the show would be a gross understatement. The defensive end/linebacker ran a 4.57 40 yard dash (half a second faster than the one he ran in Indianapolis a few weeks earlier), popped off a personal-best 42-inch vertical jump, and weighed in at just under 270 pounds. He looked like Hercules. With that one workout, Gholston made himself millions, leaping from a top 10 consideration to the potential top overall pick. He'd ultimately go 6th overall to the Jets. As mentioned earlier, Gholston struggled mightily in his rookie season. Despite a $50 million contract, Gholston did not start any games, struggled to get on the field in even special teams situations, and recorded just five solo tackles on the year. He wasn't injured. The lesson? How high you can leap in the standing broad jump does not necessarily equate to quarterback sacks and the ability to comprehend the complexities of a 3-4 defense your rookie season. Lawrence Taylor worked with Gholston towards the end of the year and advised the fans and media to give the kid some time before labeling him a bust. That's fine. For now, though, he's certainly a questionable pick. Undoubtedly, that Pro Day last March did wonders for Gholston. The Pro Days I'll be most interested in this month? Andre Smith, who was No. 1 on my list, had his on Wednesday. Here are four more: 1. Matt Stafford, Georgia, QB: On March 19, Stafford will get to perform between the hedges in Athens in a setting he's most comfortable in. As the top-rated quarterback entering the draft, it'll be interesting to see just how sharp Stafford will be. Don't be shocked if All-World sophomore receiver A.J. Green is hauling in passes from the early entrant. 2. Pat White, West Virginia, QB: White was the MVP of the Senior Bowl and ran a sub 4.6 40 at the Combine, performing well in all of the quarterback drills. But is it time for White, expected to be a second-day selection at quarterback, to at least consider working out at positions other than QB? From several reports coming out of his Thursday Pro Day performance, there seems to be some confusion whether or not White wanted or didn't want to run pass patterns at WR. According to reports, White's agent David Dunn told teams he was willing to run routes if asked, while WVU head coach Bill Stewart allegedly told teams he was not allowing his QB to play WR. Regardless, White wants to be an NFL quarterback, but could be drafted a few rounds earlier if he exhibits the Wildcat ability to run, pass and catch. 3. Clay Matthews, USC, LB: USC's Pro Day is treated like a Hollywood premier out in LA. Matthews, the son and nephew of former NFL stars Clay Matthews and Bruce Matthews, has seen his NFL stock steadily climb with every passing week since the end of the college football season. A kid who didn't even start until his senior season, Matthews is now being discussed as a top 20 pick. Though his celebrated teammates may receive more media spotlight and attention on April 1, I'll be watching Matthews. 4. Johnny Knox, Abilene Christian: Considered a late second day reach pick entering the Combine in February, Knox blew it out of the water in Indy, recording a 4.29 40 yard dash time. The scouts heard he was fast, but few knew he'd be the fastest burner of the bunch. Can he repeat the performance and possibly sneak into the first day come April? He'll be running on March 13.

    "Someone You Might Not Know" — Version 1.0

    We did this last year every week leading up to the draft. We'd give you a player from a relatively unknown program, tell you a bit about him, and then cross our arms and wait for Draft Day to see where he ended up. Last year, I urged readers to keep an eye on East Carolina's Chris Johnson and Tulane's Matt Forte in the first two versions of "Someone You Might Not Know." Hold on. (Pause) Wait. (Still Pausing) Okay, I'm done patting myself on the back for now. This year's debut "Someone You Might Know" subject? Jarrett Dillard, a receiver out of Rice. Pegged by most as an early second day pick, I wouldn't be shocked if a smart team grabbed the touchdown machine in the second or third round. To see a receiver prospect out of Rice, long considered a dormant program that ran the Wishbone for about 10 years too long, is a testament to Dillard, his quarterback Chase Clement, and the coaching staffs both players have worked with down in Houston. Dillard is the all-time leader in college football receiving touchdowns with 50 and scored in 37 of 49 games. His vertical is nasty and his hands are glue sticks. The knock? He's only 5-10. I spoke with Rice head coach David Baliff on Tuesday. He thinks Dillard will be a fine NFL player: "Jarrett has accepted challenges at every step of his career and look at the results. Last year, he went into Texas and had over 150 yards receiving, the best day anyone had against them, and that included all the Biletnikoff finalists. He did very well in the drills at the Shrine Game when he had to go head-to-head with a number of top corners. There really is no doubt in my mind that the team who drafts him is going to be very pleased with what they see when they get him into camp." Amen. Keep an eye on Jarrett Dillard. The kid can flat-out play.
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