'09 NFL draft: Top 10 LB prospects
USC Trojans Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing & Clay Matthews claim top 10 spots
A nearly-flawless game makes Wake's Aaron Curry draft's top defensive prospect
Ohio State's Marcus Freeman is making a late push after an injury-plagued season
With the NFL combine set to begin this week in Indianapolis, SI.com's Bucky Brooks, a former scout, is ranking the top 2009 draft prospects by position group. The lists were compiled through a series of conversations with scouts and game-tape evaluations. The schedule will be as follows:
1. Aaron Curry, Wake Forest, OLB: An outstanding playmaker with exceptional athleticism and movement skills. As a sideline-to-sideline player with remarkable instincts and awareness, Curry is always around the ball, and he shows an unbelievable knack for producing game-changing turnovers (he recorded three fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and one touchdown during his senior season). He displays solid skills in pass coverage, but is also a threat off the edge as a pass rusher. Although Curry is regarded as a big hitter, he is a solid tackler who rarely misses ball carriers in space. With an overall game that lacks any glaring weaknesses and skills that mesh well with a 4-3 or 3-4, scouts unanimously believe Curry is the best defensive prospect available in this year's draft.
2. Rey Maualuga, Southern Cal, ILB: The former Trojan is a ferocious hitter with outstanding instincts and skills for the position. Maualuga diagnoses plays well and shows explosive quickness attacking the line of scrimmage. His ability to weave through traffic while hunting ball carriers is exceptional, and he is a disruptive force when turned loose on blitzes. In pass coverage, Maualuga displays exceptional awareness and has a great feel for sorting through routes. His outstanding anticipation for throws has resulted in five career interceptions, including one that he returned for a score. Maualuga's skills and intimidating demeanor have been likened to perennial Pro Bowler Ray Lewis, and scouts believe he is poised to make an instant impact as a likely top 10 pick.
3. Brian Cushing, Southern Cal, OLB: A tough, hard-nosed linebacker with outstanding skills. As the SAM (strong-side) linebacker in the Trojans' scheme, Cushing filled a variety of roles in stellar fashion. As a run defender with exceptional strength and hand skills, Cushing routinely mauls tight ends at the point of attack and sets the edge for the defense. When he is not forcing runners to bounce on play-side runs, he is using his explosive burst and suddenness to chase them down from the backside. In coverage, Cushing is solid in all aspects and plays with outstanding awareness. Though he fails to get his hands on a number of balls, he makes a ton of "bang-bang" plays and shows a knack for sifting through trash to blow up screen passes. As a good football player with a great motor and high football IQ, Cushing should carve out a nice career as a long-time starter.
4. Larry English, Northern Illinois, OLB: The former Husky is projected to transition to a 3-4 outside linebacker after playing defensive end as a collegian. As a high motor pass rusher with outstanding speed and quickness, English is a disruptive force off the edge. He routinely defeats offensive tackles with his explosive first step and uses a crafty "dip" move to turn the corner. He pursues quarterbacks with a relentless passion and his outstanding production over the years is a testament to his pass-rushing prowess. Although English is not a stellar run defender due to his lack of bulk, he has the ability to play stout against tight ends on the play-side, and will get better with more experience as a pro. With more teams using the 3-4 as their base defense, English is a highly-coveted prospect who will come off the board early for a team looking for a legitimate pass rusher.
5. James Laurinaitis, Ohio State, ILB: A "throwback" MIKE (middle) linebacker who excels within the tackle-to-tackle box. Laurinaitis shows outstanding instincts as a run defender and works quickly off blocks to fill the lane. Though he doesn't consistently attack the line of scrimmage to create negative plays, Laurinaitis is a productive tackler who acts as the "thumper" in the middle of the defense. While some scouts cite his pursuit angles and missed tackles as concerns, his production outweighs those negatives. Laurinaitis shows good instincts, ball skills and athleticism as a pass defender. He covers a lot of ground in his drops and flows quickly to receivers while keying the quarterback's eyes. Additionally, Laurinaitis flashes some skills as a rusher. He lacks polish with his moves, but is an active and athletic blitzer who finds a way to get to the quarterback. With several teams intrigued by his combination of athleticism, instincts and skills, Laurinaitis rates as a late first round prospect as a 4-3 middle 'backer.
6. Clint Sintim, Virginia, OLB: An experienced 3-4 linebacker with solid skills and instincts. Sintim is a stout player against the run who is capable of holding up against offensive tackles or tight ends on the edge. He plays well with his hands and his ability to shed after initial contact is impressive. In addition, Sintim flashes enough quickness to be an effective chaser on backside runs. As a pass rusher, Sintim is a high-motor rusher who is surprisingly effective off the edge. He lacks an explosive first step, but is a relentless pursuer around the corner. He has an array of counters, including a spin move that routinely gets him in a position to track down quarterbacks in the pocket. Sintim doesn't have the sizzle of some of the prospects at the position, but his combination of experience and solid all-around ability will make him one of the few prospects who outplays his draft status.
7. Clay Matthews, Southern Cal, OLB: A former walk-on who blossomed into a productive college player with solid overall skills. Matthews plays with a high motor and outworks his opponents in every facet. Although he is not necessarily a skilled or polished pass rusher, he is able to put pressure on the quarterback due to his persistent work ethic and motor. His refusal to quit on plays results in a few garbage sacks over the course of the season. Matthews shows inconsistent skills as a run defender due to his inability to take on bulky offensive linemen at the point of attack. However, he is stout enough to battle tight ends on the edge and flashes good quickness while chasing from the backside. Matthews is one of the hottest prospects on the board, but he carries a bit of the "one-year wonder" tag and may go much higher than his skills merit.
8. Connor Barwin, Cincinnati, OLB: A versatile two-way performer (he also played tight end for most of his career) who converted to defensive end during his senior season. As a good athlete with solid movement skills, Barwin shows natural pass rush skills off the edge. He flashes an explosive first step off the ball and uses his exceptional closing quickness to run down quarterbacks from behind. He also uses his superior athleticism to work effectively on stunts and games. His ability to slither through cracks is impressive considering his lack of experience at the position. Though Barwin struggles at times against the run, he gradually improved over the course of the season as a run defender and has better hand skills than many more experienced players at the position. With unlimited upside, Barwin is shooting up draft boards and should be considered one of the top 3-4 pass rushers available in the draft.
9. Darry Beckwith, LSU, ILB: A downhill linebacker with solid instincts and awareness. Beckwith excels within the tackle-to-tackle box as a run defender. He attacks lead blockers in the hole and has a knack for delivering punishing hits on ball carriers. Though he lacks the quickness to effectively chase on perimeter runs, he is a solid open field tackler who flashes some pop on contact. Beckwith shows decent instincts as a pass defender, but lacks the athleticism to consistently make plays on the ball. While scouts like Beckwith's versatility (he played MIKE and WILL linebacker for the Tigers) and experience at the position, his extensive injury history is a concern and will play a significant role in where he lands on draft day.
10. Marcus Freeman, Ohio State, OLB: A fluid athlete who moves well in space and shows above average instincts for the position. He attacks the line of scrimmage quickly after diagnosing plays and flashes explosive quickness while pursuing ball carriers from the backside. As a pass defender, Freeman's athleticism shines in man or zone coverage. He has the speed to run with tight ends and running backs down the seam and is instinctive enough to make plays on the ball while dropping as an underneath defender. Moreover, Freeman's athleticism allows him to be an effective rusher off the edge. While scouts have dinged Freeman for his sub-par production during an injury plagued senior season, his play in two post-season bowl games (Fiesta Bowl and Senior Bowl) have some scouts rethinking their Fall evaluations.