Commentary

Lack of range can be masked at ILB

Midround inside linebackers can overcome their weaknesses in the right schemes

Originally Published: April 13, 2009
By Steve Muench | Scouts Inc.
The Dallas Cowboys selected Bradie James in the fourth round of the 2003 draft to in an effort to improve its depth at outside linebacker and get a quality special teams players. James didn't disappoint but he didn't exactly exceed expectations during his first two seasons, either. Then Dallas switched to a 3-4 front and moved James, who played inside during his senior year at LSU, to the inside of its new defense.

[+] EnlargeBradie James
Scott Halleran /Allsport Bradie James played inside at LSU, and moving him back there in the NFL paid dividends for Dallas.
The new position clearly fit James well: he's started 64 consecutive regular season games and led the team in tackles each of the last four years. So why did a player with his skills slip all the way to the fourth round? Most draft pundits felt James projected as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme but he lacked ideal timed speed for the position. Sliding him inside in the 3-4, however, made his lack of elite range less of a concern and allowed him to make the most of his impressive instincts.

Below is a look at three inside linebackers from well-known schools and one small-school prospect expected to come off the board on Day 2 of the 2009 draft, all of whom could follow the same kind of career trajectory as James. Not all share his particular skill set but we've projected possible teams that would offer the best fits and take advantage of what these players bring to the table.

It's important to point out that these players aren't expected to make an immediate impact just as it took James three year before he emerged as a full-time starter. In addition, they don't all share James' particular skill-set so their paths to success and the roles they play will differ in most cases.

Jason Phillips, TCU
Phillips isn't a fluid athlete capable of consistently matching up with NFL backs in man coverage and he struggles to recover when he overruns the ball. Further complicating matters, he tore the meniscus in his left knee at the Combine and it's impossible to project how the injury might affect him in the long run. Still, Phillips' instincts and top-end speed make him an intriguing second-day possibility for a team that runs a base Cover 2 defense. In fact, we believe Phillips is such a cerebral player that the knee injury shouldn't cause his draft stock to dip as much as it would for many other prospects. Why? Because Phillips will use the time off the field to digest his playbook and get comfortable with his new scheme. As result, he'll be mentally prepared to contribute when the knee allows him to get back on the field.

Chicago Bears ILB Brian Urlacher turns 31 this year and the Bears would be wise to start grooming an heir, and Phillips has the tenacity and range to develop into an effective starter in the Bears' Cover 2-heavy scheme. Phillips also has the mental makeup and physical tools to develop into a valuable special teams contributor so he would make a lot of sense for Chicago in the fourth-round area.

To find out which other midround prospects could become contributors at the next level and which teams could provide a good fit for them, become an ESPN Insider. Insider
Steve Muench played four years of Division I-AA football before joining Scouts Inc. in 2002. He has evaluated both NFL and college players for Scouts Inc., but his current focus is on the NFL draft.