2009 NFL Draft: Top Inside Linebackers

James LaurinaitisTotal Pro Sports – Alright, with all the underclassmen having made their intentions known, it’s time to begin picking these guys apart, learning their strengths and weaknesses, and basically doing the scouts jobs for them. With what I’ve seen in past drafts, the chances are very good that we won’t do any worse.

For our first order of business, why not start with another excellent question posed by TPS member, “Canadian Colts”, who asks, “Which linebacker will be the better pro prospect, James Laurinaitis (Ohio State) or Ray Maualuga (USC)?” This comparison is a tricky one, and will be hotly debated among NFL analysts and personnel people all the way up to draft day.

First of all, were I a General Manager in need of an excellent inside linebacker, I’d be thrilled to have these two guys to choose from. I’d have to carefully consider the type of defense I like to run, and the attributes that are required for a linebacker to be dominant in my defense. Maualuga has the size advantage, measuring in at nearly 6’3” and roughly 260 lbs. Laurinaitis is also about 6’3”, but tips the scales at just over 240 lbs. That is a substantial difference and should favor Maualuga on draft day. Usually with size, however, comes decreased speed—no exception here. Laurinaitis is a bit faster, expecting to run in the 4.55 range at the combine, while Maualuga expects to run in the 4.65 neighborhood. If you look at the game film, both of these guys are excellent tacklers, great at diagnosing plays, and at hunting down ball carriers from sideline to sideline. They are both intelligent, with outstanding football instincts, and are rarely out of position, though both have been burned at times for being overaggressive. As far as leadership and character, both are excellent leaders on the field, though Maualuga has had some trouble off it.

For me, physicality and versatility are the keys to this assessment. Talent evaluators value players that they can plug into more than one spot, and still feel comfortable that the job will get done. In Maualuga, you have a player that could easily play the “Mike” (middle linebacker in a 4-3 system) in all defensive schemes except the “Tampa-two”, the “Sam” (strong side linebacker in a 4-3), or the “Will” (weak side in a 4-3). If you run a 3-4, he is the ideal inside linebacker, which is the scenario where he would be most successful right away. He has enough burst and tenacity to be an excellent pass rusher in blitz situations, the size, strength, and ferocity to play the middle, and some of the best zone coverage skills I’ve ever seen in a college linebacker, enabling him to thrive in the 3-4 system. His ability to read the quarterback’s eyes, and defend or intercept passes are as good as many pro free safeties, and will be heavily weighed as evaluations are completed.

Laurinaitis is somewhat less versatile, but could play inside in the 3-4, and could easily play the Will in a 4-3, though he is not physical enough to play Sam. He is pretty solid in coverage and better in man coverage than his Trojan counterpart, primarily due to speed, but he is not a big hitter on receivers or ball carriers. I have serious doubts about his ability to be a long term solution at middle linebacker in most 4-3 systems. Based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think he’s tough enough to play there in the NFL. I know that some people won’t see it that way, but the film doesn’t lie. He can be, and has been, consistently handled by pulling guards and occasionally fullbacks. Once engaged, he doesn’t shake blocks well. He has utilized his speed to simply avoid blocks much of the time at the college level, and has been successful doing that, but that task will not be as easy in the NFL. Considering that his greatest asset is obviously his speed, he would be PERFECT as a Tampa-two Mike linebacker. The problem is that there are really only three teams that use the Tampa-two as their base defense—Indy, Chicago, and Tampa Bay. In each case, you have an aging and/or injury prone starter in place (Gary Brackett, Brian Urlacher, and Derrick Brooks), making Laurinaitis a tough player to pass on for those teams. Chicago has more pressing needs in round one, as does Tampa. Indy might consider him late in the first round, but is pretty happy with Gary Brackett, though he spent the end of the ‘08 season on injured reserve. Whether or not the Colts pass on Laurinaitis may depend upon the prognosis of Brackett’s injury.

My final determination is that Maualuga will make a much better pro. The NFL is a man’s league, and Ray is definitely that. He is an intimidating hitter, an emotionally driven physical player, and extremely versatile. Laurinaitis is not intimidating at all, and not nearly physical enough. He is somewhat versatile, but his exceptional speed at inside linebacker will be his primary selling-point. At the end of the day, Maualuga is a top 20 LOCK—look for San Diego to take him at 16. Laurinaitis gets selected early in round two, probably by one of the three Tampa-two teams trading up to get him. He has an outside chance of going at the end of round one, but due to the depth of this draft and the fact that inside linebackers are typically seen as “players that can be gotten later”, it would be a mistake to take him in the first. I’ve heard the media talk about Laurinaitis like he’s the next Dick Butkus, so that mistake may very well be made.

For NFL GM’s everywhere, take heed: The way you separate the first round talent from the rest of the draft is simple…You draft first round guys to make your system successful. You draft the rest if they’d be successful in your system. Enough said.

Tags: James Laurinaitis, Ohio State, Ray Maualuga, usc,