I'm not an NFL scout. Nor am I Mike Mayock. I'm just a guy with some free time and one that loves the draft process almost as much as the season. So figured I'd just talk about what I look for in a specific position, and then look at a prospect.
This edition, I'm going to talk about a fan favorite position, LB.
First thing I look for is where the guy lines up. Is he outside or inside? Many college players play both ILB and OLB, so that doesn't really concern me too much either way. Secondly, I look to see how far off the LOS the 'backer sets up. A definite positive is when a LB can set up shop all over place, whether it be ten yards back, or right in an offensive lineman's face. It adds a bit of gamesmanship to the equation and that type of versatility really opens up the playbook.
POST-SNAP: RUN DEFENSE
A big part of the evaluation process (and indeed, the most important) are "instincts." But nobody ever really defines what that means. Every year, you hear people saying, "Oh, this guy is much more instinctual than that guy." I see a player's instincts as the time it takes to not only read and diagnose a play, but start reacting to it. You can physically compare the read and react abilities between different linebackers from the time the ball is snapped (in this case, handoff for a run play) to when they start their first movement towards the ball. An "instinctual" LB may even be able to diagnose the play as a run just from the set up of the offensive line. Those extra one or two steps are absolutely critical because it allows the LB to anticipate and plug up the seam that the line would create.
One such phrase that I use is "navigating the 'wash.'" What is the "wash" exactly? Basically just all the crap that goes on at the LOS. It's the LB's duty to disengage from any blocks that might emerge from there, avoid any other blocks, go through the battles raging between DLs and OLs and locate the ball carrier. If he has the vision and movement to do that fluidly and consistently, its a big plus.
After the LB reads and reacts, the next thing to look for when defending the run is "closing speed." That is essentially from the time they make their first step to towards the ball carrier, to impact. On tape, this is probably the easiest to see. When you talk about the LBs being missiles, its cause of their closing speed. Its the reason why everyone was so infatuated with Vontaze Burfict, he's got great closing speed and its one of the most visible aspects of the game.
Finally, you look for tackling technique. Can you drive the runner back? How do you tackle? Do you drive through the player and wrap up? Or do you lean in with the shoulder and go for the big hit? Tackling is technically coachable, but after playing a certain way forever, its difficult to change. Therefore, tackling technique is a priority.
POST SNAP - PASS COVERAGE
When the player goes back into coverage, if its zone, what I'm looking for the most is zone discipline. Does he have the sideline-to-sideline range? What that means is he can transition laterally smooth enough to cover his area. I'm looking for him to take away a spot for the QB to throw. Its not being unaggressive, its playing smart, and to be a Giants LB, that's a must.
In man coverage, its all about speed and hip fluidity. When covering someone, like a TE, for example, I'm looking for how and when the LB turns around and flips his hips. If he's too early turning around, he'll get beat when the receiver makes his break because the LB has his back to him. If he waits too long, he give the receiver the option when to get into his break and gives him extra time to get free. A well timed switch allows the LB to keep the receiver within sight as well as minimizing the distance to help break up a potential pass.
Finally, look for the basic things in coverage. Does he keep his hands up? Does he have ball skills and good body control? These last two aren't absolutely necessary, but they certainly don't hurt.
POST SNAP - PASS RUSH
Finally, the big thing with rushing the passer is the ability to detect and back off the passer if you sense a screen or run play. Don't like guys vacating their area to rush the passer willynilly. Have to be cognizant of the situation. Apart from that, apply the same ideas about closing speed and tackling technique.
The player I am going to evaluate is one that we are quite familiar with, because we've already done a prospect profile on him. Isn't likely to be targeted by the Giants because of his size, but a great prospect regardless. I present to you, Lavonte David, LB Nebraska. Here are his measurables:
Ht: 6-1 Wt: 230 40: 4.55 Bench: 19 Broad: 9-11 Vert: 36.5 Arm: 32
Lavonte David vs Michigan (2011) (via UploadingAMV)
0:00 - Right off the bat, we see David on the outside, about five yards away from the LOS in coverage. He maintains his zone, reads the QB quite quickly. As soon as the short pass is completed, we see him bend around to evade the oncoming fullback and leap to make a shoestring tackle. Nice work. Angle could've been a bit better, but he had to come from the top almost straight down because of the blocker.
0:16 - Starts the play out by going inside. Misjudges the cut by the runner and allows him to get past. Mistake. Nice recovery speed to grab the butt of the runner and bring him down.
0:27 - Nice play by David, recognizing instantly that its a run. Takes two steps, then evades the same blocker from the first play, hits the seam hard and stones the runner. Prototype play from what we discussed above.
0:38 - Playing inside linebacker on this snap. He takes one step in case its a run, sees that its a pass and stays in his zone. Discipline. I love it. Took away that entire area for the Michigan QB. Once the QB got past the LOS, there was no hesitation on David's part and he took off from the other end to make the tackle. The QB got significant yardage, but we're talking about Denard Robinson here. David was the only one to make up all that ground. Great play.
0:55 - David seems a bit unsure as to what to do. Keeps shuffling until he can find a crease. Nothing opens up until its too late. He grabs the running back, but only after he gains some yardage. Shows solid tackling technique.
1:03 - Lurches forward for just a split second, but that was the difference. Decides to go for a pass rush, but that millisecond of hesitancy costs him a sack when he goes unblocked.
1:11 - Once again vacates his zone to go for a blitz. Able to navigate through the wash quite effectively, and is able to remain unblocked by angling his route to the QB. Is helped by a teammate, who has the QB by the feet, and he simply cleans up. Not a bad play, but more or less an empty stat here.
1:46 - David gets caught up in the wash. He's undecided on what to do, and once he realizes its a run play away from his area, he tries to unsuccessfully get in on the play. He's fortunate to have the runner run right into him.
1:59 - Sniffs out the play quickly. Closing speed is excellent. Started out about 3 yards or so behind the LOS and was able to simply move up, plug up the hole, and stand up the running back. Nice play.
2:11 - Once again, David does mostly everything right. Obviously I can't tell if this is the case or not, but he seems to have diagnosed the play from the beginning, and is signaling to one of his colleagues. He immediately starts to flow forwards where he is met by an oncoming blocker. He is able to disengage somewhat easily from him and meet the runner and stone him while he gets help from friends to make the tackle.
2:23 - First time in this video I've seen David miss a tackle. He sniffs out the sneak, and while getting engaged by the blocker, he leaps, but overruns the target, and ends up getting turned around and whiffing.
2:34 - I really just feel like a broken record right now. Another impressive play by Lavonte David. He diagnoses run as soon as the ball is snapped, and finds the side the runner goes towards. He realizes the B-gap is plugged up, so he transfers over to the C position and makes the tackle. Great play recognition.
2:43 - David goes out in coverage to cover the running back in the flat. Does a good job of keeping the receiver in front of him and taking him away. Robinson, the QB, is forced to run. David is a bit slow in closing, but he does anyway, again showing that slippery way of eluding would-be blockers. Again shows good fundamentals when tackling.
3:00 - Starts out about 5 yards behind the LOS. Initially starts out in coverage, but soon recognizes that Denard will run. Follows him step for step, shows excellent closing speed, and flashes great sideline-to-sideline range by taking Robinson down from across the field.
3:10 - Obvious running situation. Incredible how he pierces through the offensive line and gets a great hit on the RB in the backfield. Simple run straight through, seemingly avoiding getting blocked.
3:28 - Closes in quickly for a run play. Runner goes opposite side to David's area, so he is able to turn quickly, get back and make the tackle. Shows great speed, but made the initial mistake of going straight upfield instead of waiting an extra second to figure out what crease the runner is going to choose.
3:38 - Given his size, I didn't expect David to be so stout against the run. But there it is. Is able to disengage from a block and completely stonewall the running back again in the backfield.
3:47 - Starts about 4 yards off the LOS. Once again comes in to play run defense. Unlike the play in 3:28, he waits that extra second and is able to anticipate the hole that the runner will choose, thereby limiting him to minimal gain.
4:00 - Bang-Bang play. Happened so fast that I'm not sure whether he guessed where the hole was going to emerge, or could tell based on the two schemes. Either way, he closes in on the running back ridiculously fast and makes yet another stop.
4:14 - For the final play, he starts off inside and pushes inwards towards the QB pocket in an attempt to tackle the running back. Simply put, he succeeds. Yet again.
Conclusion: It's really a shame that David is as small as he is. He's got everything else you look for in a prototype linebacker. As we saw in this video, he moved at a different speed than the rest of the linebackers on Nebraska's squad. He was the definition of "instinctual" and his read and react abilities were superb. He had great closing speed. One problem I saw, and its quite obvious, is that he needs to have perfect tackling form in order to just make the tackle. If he overruns the prospect by just a bit, he has neither the arm length, nor the strength, to take him down.
Won't seem to be much of a problem though, because its rarely been a problem for him. While he probably isn't on the Giants' radar due to testing out mediocre as well as being undersized, I've got him as a fringe 1st rounder because based on the ideals of a prototype LB that I detailed above, he checks out in spades.
He's aggressive and decisive, two skills that are highly translatable. A complete prospect that could've possibly challenged Luke Kuechly for the top LB spot had he been bigger and kept his speed, David projects as a starting WILL for a team or a Tampa-2 MIKE.