It's clear that the Patriots should be in the market for an outside linebacker in the NFL Draft and it seems if everyone is set on the Patriots spending one of their three top 33 draft picks on an outside linebacker. Well, I don't think it's going to happen. I believe that the Patriots are going to wait until the middle rounds to take an outside linebacker prospect.
The University of Georgia just had its Pro Day and reports have come in stating that OLB prospect Justin Houston looked weak in the coverage drills. That's just another name on the list.
The following is a list of players with first round, or borderline first round grades, with links to their combine performances:
Von Miller, Texas A&M - Miller shows great athleticism and shows he can rush the QB and drop into coverage. However, he lacks the size of a typical 3-4 OLB (he could bulk up) in order to set the edge against the run.
Robert Quinn, UNC - Looked extremely stiff in his coverage drills and seems better fit for the 4-3 DE spot. He has the short range athleticism, but he won't be able to cover after 5 yards.
Aldon Smith, Missouri - Similar to Quinn, Smith showed tight hips while dropping into coverage, which means that he'd be roasted by quick change of direction players in coverage. Better fit for the 4-3 DE spot.
Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue - Violent athlete, he also seems better fit for the 4-3 DE spot. Doesn't appear to have the fluidity necessary to drop into coverage and shadow receivers or tight ends.
Justin Houston, Georgia - Houston had a solid combine and has the athleticism to be a 3-4 OLB, but his Pro Day showed that he can't drop into coverage.
Akeem Ayers, UCLA - Ayers is the opposite of the other players. He can definitely drop into coverage, but he lacks the speed and strength to rush the quarterback.
Brooks Reed, Arizona - Shows better cover skills than Quinn/Smith/Kerrigan/Houston, but they have superior pass rushing ability.
Read the analysis after the jump!
Out of that list, it appears that four (Quinn/Smith/Kerrigan/Houston) would play a similar game in the NFL as Jermaine Cunningham, meaning that they would only be asked to rush the quarterback and not drop into coverage. Would you use a first round pick on a player who doesn't really add anything more than what is already on the roster? Sure, they might be an upgrade over Cunningham, but they don't really solve the problem at OLB because both Cunningham and QSKH can't be on the field together all the time.
The other solution would be to draft a player who complements Cunningham's skill set, which I believe is what the Patriots should do and what they will do. Von Miller is out of reach and that leaves Akeem Ayers and Brooks Reed as viable prospects. However, I do not believe that Ayers would be able to set the edge against the run, nor would he have the finishing speed to reach the quarterback, which makes me think he's better off as a 4-3 OLB (just like Von Miller).
Reed, on the other hand, appears to be a solid prospect. He may be able to drop into coverage and he can rush the quarterback and set the edge. I just worry that the combine inflated his value to a level much higher than his actual production. He was a solid player in college, but I question if he can play in his lane and gap contain in the NFL. It seems as if he can get run out of his lane, which lowers his value at setting the edge against the run.
I clearly enjoy poking holes in most of the top prospects and there are no prospects without fault. I just believe that none of the OLBs in the first round are worth a Patriots' first round draft pick. If the Patriots are going to take a player with a hole in his game, he'll be a mid-round selection because they prefer their first round picks to be solid all-around prospects.
After hearing that Houston had a poor Pro Day with coverage drills, I just have a hard time believing that the Patriots will use an early pick on an outside linebacker. Maybe if Reed falls to the middle of the second round- but don't count on it. Instead, look for the Patriots to draft an offensive and defensive lineman with more complete overall skill sets in the first round.