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Position Preview: Linebackers

The Texans struck gold during the 2006 NFL Draft by selecting NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Demeco Ryans with their second round selection, but that doesn't prevent them from digging again for another standout prospect at the position.

With last year's starters Shantee Orr and Morlon Greenwood back in the fold for the 2007 season along with free agent signings Shawn Barber and Danny Clark, linebacker does not appear to be an immediate need. However, with the ability of many linebackers to play different defensive schemes and their versatility in special teams, don't be surprised to see a member of this talented crop in Houston next season.

Like 2006, which saw Green Bay's A.J. Hawk, Detroit's Ernie Sims, Cleveland's D'Qwell Jackson and Ryans come in and lead their respective defenses, this year's class has the potential to have the same type of impact.

The Crème of the Crop

Patrick Willis (ILB, 6-1, 240), Jon Beason (OLB, 6-0, 235), Paul Posluszny (OLB, 6-1, 237)

Patrick Willis sits atop many draft board at the linebacker position and with good reason.

The 2006 Butkus Award winner possesses the combination of size and speed (4.45 40-yard dash) at linebacker that teams crave along with a tremendous work ethic and the leadership ability to step in and take over the defensive huddle from day onne.

Projected to play on the inside in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defense, Willis is equally adept at stonewalling the run and rushing the quarterback (three sacks in both '05 and '06).

During his time in Oxford, Willis was a tackle machine recording 265 total stops and 21 tackles for loss during his final two seasons. While questions remain regarding his ability to drop back in coverage and be an every down linebacker, Willis has the athletic ability to improve in that area and become a star for years to come.

Teams in need of an improvement at linebacker like San Francisco and Buffalo could be angling to select Willis in round one.

On the outside, Beason and Posluszny are vying to be the first at their position selected in the draft.

Beason, looking to follow in the shoes of recent Miami linebackers selected in the first round, D.J. Williams and Jonathan Vilma, is a phenomenal athlete finding success attacking the line of scrimmage as well as dropping back in coverage.

His compact frame may scare some teams away, but Beason's versatility should eliminate any concern about size. With experience at all three linebacker positions, Beason could fit into almost any defensive scheme and wreak havoc from sideline to sideline just as he did with the Hurricanes.

Health is a concern for Beason who missed time with various knee and shoulder ailments during college, but if he can stay healthy, whatever team makes him their first round selection will reap the benefits of his great football character and limitless upside.

Like Beason, Posluszny looks to carry on the fine tradition if his alma mater, known as Linebacker U, in the professional ranks.

The versatile backer, who some called the best ever to play at Penn State, may be the safest pick of the bunch, starting 36 games at the college level and registering at least 100 tackles during each of his final three seasons.

During the 2006 Orange Bowl, Posluszny tore both the PCL and MCL in his right knee, but he was able to bounce back to win his second straight Bednarik award in 2006 as the best defensive player in the nation.

Posluszny may not be as physically impressive as other linebackers in the draft, but he gets the jobs done consistently using his superior smarts and instincts. He could be a terrific fit on a veteran team looking for someone to step in immediately with a very small learning curve like New England, Philadelphia or New Orleans.

The Best of the Rest

Lawrence Timmons (OLB, 6-3, 230), David Harris (ILB, 6-2, 239), Brandon Siler (ILB, 6-1, 240), Buster Davis (ILB, 5-9, 244)

In the group above, Timmons should be the first to hear his name called on April 28th.

Many people have Timmons ranked ahead of even Beason or Posluszny at outside linebacker, but his limited playing experience (one year starter) may overshadow the ideal size and apparent athletic ability he has to play the linebacker position.

Despite his limited experience, it would be a shock to see a gifted athlete like Timmons fall outside the first round.

Timmons' teammate at Florida State Buster Davis could be better suited to make immediate contributions next season.

Standing only 5-9, Davis may not look like the prototypical linebacker, but his playing style, experience (37 career starts) and production (260 tackles, 2004-2006), help to conjure up images of the success stories of smaller linebackers like London Baker- Fletcher and Sam Mills.

Brandon Siler, a key contributor and emotional leader on the Florida Gators national championship team, has the ability to step into a team's lineup after starting for three years in college.

Siler is instinctive, disciplined in his reads and has an ability to get after the quarterback, but will need to improve dropping back in coverage for him to standout in the NFL.

David Harris is a player that came to the forefront as a senior at Michigan on one of the nation's best defenses in 2006, but his development could be limited at the next level.

His instincts in anticipating screens and draws, aggressive nature and ideal size are unrivaled by anyone in this class, but an improvement in his pass rushing and coverage skills must be seen for Harris to be a consistent contributor.

The perfect opportunity for Harris would be to play on the inside of a 3-4 scheme with a team like New England, Pittsburgh or San Diego that values size and playmaking between the tackles.

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