Top fantasy prospects: Linebacker

BY foxsports • April 20, 2011

I’ve recently heard several interviews with Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis.

As entertained as I may be by the NBA and NHL playoffs and the first weeks of the Major League Baseball campaign, the thought of No. 52 chasing down a ball carrier gets the blood pumping.

And, with the glory of the 2011 NFL Draft rapidly approaching, it’s time to put the spotlight on this year’s linebackers. Is there a Ray Lewis in this group?

1. Von Miller, Texas A&M

If Carolina foregoes the selection of a quarterback at No. 1, Miller might be the pick by new coach Ron Rivera. How about a trip to Denver at No. 2?

He packs an explosive first step off the line and closes out plays. He excels as a pure speed rusher and has the power to shed would-be blockers. Miller recorded 36 tackles for loss in his final two seasons for the Aggies, including 27.5 sacks. He finished 2010 with 10 sacks despite the fact that his first didn’t occur until the fifth game. Miller is an aggressive player with good size (near 6-foot-3) and speed (4.55-second 40-yard dash). Since Miller began his college career as a defensive end before shifting to linebacker, Miller is a versatile defender who reads formations and anticipates plays well. He’s an instant star.

2. Akeem Ayers, UCLA

Ayers is gaining momentum as the draft approaches. A two-year starter at UCLA, the 6-foor-3, 255-pound was an absolute terror as a blitzer (29.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks). Ayers times snaps well and has a nose for the ball. He regularly stripped the ball from ball carriers and explodes through runners. Ayers isn’t a dominant contributor in the run game just yet, but he becomes a disruptive force on passing downs immediately.

3. Martez Wilson, Illinois

Wilson earned second-team All-Big 10 honors in 2010 after racking up 112 tackles with four sacks (11.5 tackles for loss). He has the size (6-foot-4 and 250 pounds) to engage blockers and disrupt blockers and the speed to find a seam on the blitz. Wilson is a big hitter with great range and speed in pursuit.

Wilson sustained a neck injury in the 2009 season opener and missed the remainder of the campaign with a herniated disc. He also served a one-game suspension in 2008 (for violating team rules) and was involved in an altercation at a bar in December of that season. As such, there are some questions as Wilson moves to the next level. If those things check out, Wilson’s physicality wins out.

4. Justin Houston, Georgia

Houston amassed a ridiculous total of 18.5 tackles for loss in 2010 (with 10 sacks), giving Georgia fans a full season of dominance following his suspension-shortened 2009 campaign. He has tremendous instincts at the line and a fantastic first step. Houston uses his long arms to disrupt passing lanes and to disengage from blockers. He has the speed and athleticism to work in coverage.

Houston’s physicality certainly piques your interest. With a consistent effort in the right scheme, Houston could be headed to stardom.

5. Bruce Carter, UNC

Carter’s game at North Carolina was built on his closing speed, so the fact that he tore his ACL last year cannot be ignored. In addition to his ACL tear, Carter has been beset by myriad leg injuries during his career.

He possessed a dominant first step and exceptional sideline-to-sideline speed. Carter also excelled in pass coverage and has the strength to hold his ground against blockers and tight ends. He’ll definitely be an impact player on special teams, where his timing was impeccable (seven blocked kicks).

6. Kelvin Sheppard, LSU

Sheppard was a tackling machine in his final two seasons as a starter for the Tigers. He amassed 226 tackles, including 19.5 tackles for loss. He demonstrated versatility and durability as a three-year starter in the rough-and-tumble SEC. Sheppard possesses great instincts and does not give up on plays, often chasing down ball carriers from the backside. While he closes out plays well and owns his space in coverage, there is some concern about his foot speed and technique when defending in man-coverage.

7. Colin McCarthy, Miami

McCarthy performed at an exceptional level in his final two seasons for the Hurricanes, amassing a total of 223 tackles, including 20.5 tackles for loss. He’s got tremendous instincts and plays well in pursuit. Most reviews of McCarthy laud his ability to read plays and get into position against the run.

McCarthy underwent multiple shoulder surgeries during his career. As such, there is some concern about his durability and strength at the next level.

8. Quan Sturdivant, UNC

There’s a lot to like about Sturdivant’s game. He plays with great field awareness, drops into coverage well and finishes off tackles. Sturdivant has great burst off of the line and gets himself into position to make plays (122 tackles in 2008). He struggles somewhat against the run, a tradeoff for his ability to operate in space.

Sturdivant’s durability remains a concern. He frequently missed time because of hamstring injuries and was limited to eight appearances during the 2010 season.

9. Mason Foster, Washington

Foster’s tackle count from 2010 looks like a misprint until you find some tape and watch him emerge from the pile on seemingly every play. He racked up 163 tackles in 2010 (14 tackles for loss) and also registered 105 tackles as a sophomore (he led the Pac 10 in tackles in each of those seasons). Foster has tremendous instincts, reads a developing play well and gets himself into position to make a big hit.

He demonstrated great durability during his Washington tenure. There is some concern that Foster will struggle in coverage against longer receivers because of his size (6-foot-1).

10. Casey Matthews, Oregon

Yes, there’s another one on the horizon. Matthews’ size and speed don’t pop off the stat sheet, but watch the tape. Matthews possesses the same instincts and motor that made his brother a star. He plays through the echo of the whistle and gets himself into position to make plays.

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