There's a lot to like about the top of the 2012 inside linebacker class, especially when you consider recent draft history at the position.
The only true inside linebacker taken in the first round during the past four drafts is the Oakland Raiders' Rolando McClain, who was drafted eighth overall out of Alabama in 2010. What about Houston's Brian Cushing (15th, 2009) and New England's Jerod Mayo (10th, 2008), you might ask?
Cushing was one of the best strongside linebackers in the country coming out of USC and didn't move inside until the Texans went to the 3-4 in 2011, and while Mayo played in the middle while at Tennessee, he was seen as a versatile prospect -- so in the NFL he lined up primarily on the outside until last season.
Even if you include Mayo in the conversation, that still makes only two inside linebackers taken in the first round over the past four years, and during that stretch the average number of ILBs drafted in the first two rounds is only 1.25.
This year's inside linebacker group could buck that trend. Two prospects are likely to come off the board in the first round and another could be taken before the second round is over. The class isn't extremely deep, but the remainder of the top five includes a pair of intriguing middle-round prospects.
Here's how each player breaks down and he they might fit in the NFL.
Luke Kuechly, Boston College (Scouts Inc. Grade: 95)
Kuechly's instincts are impressive. He consistently reads his keys, tracks the ball well and beats blockers to the point of attack as a run defender, while he reads quarterbacks and shows above-average awareness in underneath coverage.
There's also a lot to like about his range and tackling. At 6-foot-3¼ and 242 pounds, he's fast enough (4.58 seconds in the 40-yard dash) to make plays from sideline to sideline. He's not perfect, though. Kuechly could do a better job of taking on offensive linemen and doesn't have the fluid hips to match up with quicker backs in man coverage.
Kuechly ends up in Kansas City in Todd McShay's latest mock draft, which makes sense from both a value and need standpoint. The Chiefs could take Memphis DT Dontari Poe (grade: 94) to fill their need at nose tackle, but Poe is too much of a reach there. Kuechly is the safer pick and Kansas City has a pressing need at inside linebacker, where the Chiefs have struggled to find a quality starter alongside Derrick Johnson in their 3-4 scheme.
Dont'a Hightower, Alabama (93)
Hightower's aggressiveness can get him in trouble at times against counters and misdirection, but he has above-average overall instincts, and on tape he's regularly the first Alabama linebacker to diagnose plays. And at 6-2¼ and 265 pounds, he's even better than Kuechly when caught in a phone booth against blockers, where he sinks his hips and uses a powerful punch to discard them.
In terms of range, Hightower ran a 4.68 at the NFL combine (and doesn't cover as much ground as Kuechly on film) but moves well for his size and is still fast enough to make plays outside the box and in pursuit.
Hightower and Kuechly are different players on third down, as well. While Kuechly is at his best making plays in underneath zone coverage, Hightower's game is rushing the passer. He has the flexibility and speed to provide pressure off the edge in addition to the instincts, hands and burst to provide pressure up the middle. In fact, he could even play outside linebacker in a 3-4.
Tennessee drafted Colin McCarthy in the fourth round last year, but the Titans' taking Hightower with the 20th overall pick is an interesting possibility for two reasons. First, they need to strengthen the interior run defense. Secondly, they need to build on the signing of free agent Kamerion Wimbley and continue to address the pass rush after finishing with the second-fewest sacks (28) in the NFL last season.
Mychal Kendricks, California (85)
One of the first things scouts consider when evaluating inside linebackers is whether they have to come off the field on pass-heavy downs, and Kendricks passes that test with flying colors. The speed he showed at the combine (4.47) shows up on film in his ability to provide pressure off the edge and locate seams in the protection when he blitzes up the middle, and he can match up in man coverage and shows above-average range in zone coverage.
At 5-11⅛ and 239 pounds, Kendricks will get engulfed by blockers at times and doesn't read blocks as well when tracking the ball, but his quickness makes it tough for offensive linemen to get their hands on him when teams don't run right at him, and he is a sideline-to-sideline run defender who tackles well.
The Houston Texans traded ILB DeMeco Ryans to the Philadelphia Eagles earlier in the offseason, and while Darryl Sharpton should compete for the job, he's coming of a season-ending quadriceps injury. Houston is likely to address a need at wide receiver or offensive tackle at No. 26 overall, but if Kendricks is available to the Texans late in the second round, he would make a lot of sense. Kendricks' range and athletic ability would be a nice complement to Cushing's strength and toughness in the middle.
Utah State's Bobby Wagner (65)
Wagner (6-0¼, 241) is a disciplined run defender with above-average instincts and range, thanks in part to sound pursuit angles. He could shed blockers more quickly at times, but Wagner flashes above-average upper-body strength so he's capable of improving in this area. On third down, he's an instinctive pass-rusher who exploits weaknesses in protection and tracks the quarterback as he works upfield. And while he has limited man-to-man cover skills, Wagner is rangy and he uses his hands to reroute receivers.
Chicago is an interesting possibility in the middle rounds because Brian Urlacher turns 34 this year and free-agent signing Blake Costanzo isn't the long-term answer. Wagner has enough range to drop to the deep middle in the Bears' Tampa 2 scheme, and like any other young linebacker he would benefit from playing behind Urlacher and WLB Lance Briggs.
James-Michael Johnson, Nevada (64)
The main reason Johnson doesn't grade out higher is his instincts. Four-year starters who take as many false steps as he does on film raise a red flag. However, there is a lot to like otherwise when it comes to defending the run.
Johnson (6-1⅛, 241) has the long arms (32⅞ inches) and upper-body strength (23 reps on the 225-pound bench press) to keep blockers off his frame when teams run at him. He also has above-average speed (4.68) and flashes the ability to chase backs down from behind. While his awareness and footwork raise concerns about his ability to contribute on third down right away, he has the natural ability to develop adequate coverage and pass-rush skills.
Detroit could target Johnson in the fourth round thanks in part to his versatility. Lions MLB Stephen Tulloch is back in the fold, but his production dipped last season in his first year in Detroit and the team struggled to slow the inside running game. Johnson could improve the depth and competition there, and he also has the ability to provide depth behind SLB Justin Durant.