Path to the draft: Linebackers

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When it comes to the Texans' 15th overall pick in this year's draft, most draft pundits have the team selecting an outside linebacker. That's because the Houston doesn't know who will start at the strongside or weakside spots.

DeMeco Ryans has secured his spot in the middle, and head coach Gary Kubiak said at the combine that Ryans wouldn't move to the outside. The Texans released Morlon Greenwood, who lost his starting position to Xavier Adibi. However, Adibi battled a nagging hamstring injury for most of his rookie season. Zac Diles, whose season was cut short by a season-ending leg injury, will battle Kevin Bentley for starting honors.

{QUOTE}The Texans also signed Pro Bowler Cato June to a one-year deal during free agency to add depth to the roster. Still, the Texans could be in the market for a disruptive linebacker who is quick to tackle and can help their pass rush.

"In the draft, we'll be looking at linebackers; there are a lot of linebackers available," Texans owner Bob McNair said. "We ought to be able to get another good linebacker."

In an exclusive for HoustonTexans.com, Michael Lombardi of The National Football Post offers his Top 5 linebacker prospects in the 2009 draft class. As the draft approaches, Lombardi, a 23-year veteran of NFL personnel departments, will list his Top 5 prospects at each position group.

Michael Lombardi's Top 5 Inside Linebackers

  1. Rey Maualuga, USC
    A tough, hard-hitting linebacker with good initial burst and read-and-react ability off the snap. Showcases good power on contact and is at his best attacking downhill and making his way toward the ball. Does a nice job getting under blockers and has the power to hold the point of attack in the hole. Displays impressive closing speed and knows how to get after the ball on the perimeter. Is effective as a blitzer and does a great job timing the snap count and getting after the QB. However, at times he'll take bad angles toward the ball or run himself out of plays. Is a bit stiff in the hips and lacks ideal fluidity in coverage. Will get caught freelancing trying to find the ball and has some noted character concerns dating to his freshman year.
  1. James Laurinaitis, Ohio State
    A smart, instinctive linebacker who reads and reacts quickly and consistently flows toward the ball. Showcases good footwork inside and displays ideal technique at the point of attack. Is very smooth and compact in his back-pedal and does a good job getting in and out of his breaks cleanly. Does a good job clicking and closing on the pass with the ability to make plays down the field. Is a great open-field tackler and rarely misses in space. However, he needs to add more bulk and power to his base. Plays with the leverage to take on blockers in the hole but struggles shedding blocks consistently. Doesn't always take the best angles in pursuit.
  1. Frantz Joseph, Florida Atlantic
    Showcases impressive power and leverage near the line of scrimmage and has the physical build of a real plugger inside. Loves to attack downhill and consistently creates collisions on contact. Plays with controlled rage and does a nice job taking on blockers in the hole. Has the strength and punch to shed blocks and get after the ball. Plays a lot faster than he times and rarely misses a tackle. But he isn't the most gifted of athletes and lacks great range and straight-line speed vs. the pass. Will struggle in man coverage and lacks burst in and out of his breaks. Might be considered only a two-down player at the next level.
  1. Darry Beckwith, LSU
    A tough, aggressive linebacker who plays with a mean streak and loves to create contact. Displays good power at the point of attack and understands how to gain initial leverage. Uses his hands well to keep himself clean in traffic and displays a devastating punch on contact. Is a better athlete than given credit for and exhibits decent footwork and balance vs. the pass. However, he lacks ideal height and length for the position and never played close to the line of scrimmage. Is washed out of plays too easily at times and lacks the burst and range to run sideline-to-sideline.
  1. Scott McKillop, Pittsburgh
    A smart, instinctive linebacker with good read-and-react ability inside. Does a great job keeping himself clean through traffic and uses his hands to stay off blocks. Is a tackling machine and seems to always find a way to make the play. Possesses good footwork and breaks down well in space. Never over-commits and is always balanced and ready to make the tackle. However, he isn't a real gifted athlete and lacks overall power in his frame. Struggles shedding blocks when linemen get into his body and never looks dominant in any area of the game. He simply fights and scraps on every play and finds a way to get the job done.

Michael Lombardi's Top 5 Outside Linebackers

  1. Aaron Curry, Wake Forest
    A thickly built linebacker with good power in his upper and lower body. Is strong at the point of attack and does a nice job extending his arms and keeping blockers off his frame. Is very fluid in pass coverage. Showcases smooth footwork and redirects cleanly in space. Has impressive closing speed and consistently makes plays on the ball. More of a wrap guy than a powerful hitter. Needs to do a better job reading and reacting quickly; at times will take a false step. However, he's a sideline-to-sideline athlete who will be one of the safest picks in the draft.
  1. Connor Barwin, Cincinnati
    Has been very impressive during his postseason workouts and looks ideally suited for the rush linebacker role in a 3-4. He only moved to the defensive side of the ball as a senior after playing tight end during his first three years at Cincinnati. However, he's a tremendously gifted athlete with an explosive first step and great closing speed in pursuit. Plays with a motor that runs non-stop and has as much upside as anyone in the class. Still developing from a technique standpoint, but he's a heady, hard-working football player who should develop quickly.
  1. Clay Matthews, USC
    An ideal 3-4 outside linebacker prospect who displays great instincts at the line of scrimmage. He's a fluid athlete in his drop and has the ability to stay with tight ends in man coverage and play all three downs in the NFL. Is also a polished blitzer with the power to bull-rush defenders and the lateral ability to slip blocks. Showcases good physicality as a tackler and breaks down well in the hole. However, he has only one year of starting experience and was surrounded by elite talent at USC. Needs to do a better job taking on blocks and using his hands to shed once he's engaged.
  1. Brian Cushing, USC
    A big, versatile athlete who can play a number of positions at the next level. He possesses decent fluidity in space but does a great job using his hands and body control to slip blocks on the outside. Is very instinctive and finds the ball quickly. Showcases good power at the point of attack and delivers a jarring punch on contact. Lacks some explosion out of his breaks in coverage and will struggle in man-to-man at the next level. Had some trouble staying healthy at USC, and his durability might be an issue. Isn't the gifted pass rusher his press clippings would lead you to believe.
  1. Larry English, Northern Illinois
    Displays a good first step off the edge and uses his hands well to shed blocks on the outside. Does a nice job getting offensive tackles to overextend and has the short-area quickness to redirect inside. Works hard in pursuit and chases the ball well from the backside. Is a physical tackler who has the ability to set the edge on the outside. Played defensive end exclusively at Northern Illinois and will need to make the transition to a 3-4 outside linebacker. Struggles redirecting in space and isn't real fluid in or out of his breaks. Will likely be a liability in coverage at the next level.

Brooke Bentley's Top 5 Linebackers

1. Aaron Curry: Wake Forest
Bentley: Curry is considered by many to be the safest pick in draft. He's a playmaker and a tackling machine, often drawing comparisons to Titans LB Keith Bullock. Curry won the 2008 Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker.

2. Rey Maualuga: USC
Bentley: Maualuga is an unrelenting, hard-hitting linebacker in the mold of former Trojan Junior Seau. His draft stock dipped when he tweaked his hamstring at the combine, but it's back up thanks to a solid pro day.

3. Clay Matthews: USC
Bentley: No one has climbed the draft boards faster than Matthews. Scouts can't get enough of his quick closing speed, fluid hips and ability to drop into coverage.

4. Brian Cushing: USC
Bentley: Cushing is a high-motor player who can get after the quarterback. He played about every linebacker position at USC, so he's versatile. There are questions about his durability and allegations of possible steroid use, but his work on film seem to overshadow any doubts.

5.Larry English, Northern Illinois
Bentley: English is making the transition to linebacker after playing defensive end in college, but he has all the right tools. He is fast off the edge and a physical tackler. He is ideal for a 3-4 team.

Michael Lombardi* spent 23 years as a high-level executive in NFL personnel departments, working with the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos. He has spent 26 years evaluating college and pro football talent. He currently serves as one of the main contributors of The National Football Post.*

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