Unraveling the intrigue

Posted Apr 24, 2012

When John Schneider looks at this year's draft class, the Seahawks GM sees "a number of attractive linebackers." But adding intrigue to the interest is that they come in a variety of sizes and styles

The opinions and analysis contained in this feature represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the thoughts and opinions of the Seahawks' coaching staff and personnel department.

BLOG: 2012 NFL Draft: Linebackers | A few moments with: Luke Kuechly

Will the real Melvin Ingram please stand up?

Teams from New York to San Diego, and Seattle to Tampa, are intrigued by the pass-rusher from South Carolina as they prepare for the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday night. But with the interest comes the obvious: Which position is Ingram best suited to play? Outside linebacker? Or as a hybrid end?


This is the seventh in a series of articles previewing the three-day NFL Draft. Today: Linebackers. Wednesday: Defensive backs.
Previously: The Seahawks’ take on the draft; the quarterbacks; the running backs; the receivers; the offensive line; the defensive line.

The Draft
Round 1: Thursday, 5 p.m.
Rounds 2-3: Friday, 4 p.m.
Rounds 4-7: Saturday, 9 a.m.

Seahawks picks
First round: No. 12 overall
Second round: No. 43
Third round: No. 75
Fourth round: No. 106
Fifth round: No pick; to Bills in Marshawn Lynch trade
Sixth round: No. 181
Seventh round: Own pick, No. 219, traded to Lions for Tyler Polumbus; No. 225, from Raiders in Aaron Curry trade

Seahawks Draft party: Thursday, CenturyLink Field Event Center, 4 p.m. More information available here.

Let’s go to the source: Ingram, whose 6-foot-1, 264-pound body plays into the where-should-he-play-at- the-next-level conjecture.

What is your best position? “I’m equally suited for either one,” Ingram said at the NFL Scouting Combine.

What is your preference? “It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “As long as I’m on the football field.”

Which position are you most comfortable playing? “Either one,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter. As long as I’m on the football field.”

What position have you been working at as you prepare for the draft? “I’ve been working at linebacker and defensive end the whole time I’ve been training,” he said.

OK then, don’t look for Ingram to help solve the riddle that is playing out in draft rooms across the league.

But Ingram is just one of the mysteries in this year’s linebacker class, a group that includes “a number of attractive linebackers,” as Seahawks general manager John Schneider put it.

After Ingram, who is generally rated as the top player in this linebacker class, there’s Boston College middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who plays a position where the Seahawks just lost leading tackler David Hawthorne in free agency; Boise State’s Shea McClellin, who like Ingram is an outside ’backer or rush-end depending who you ask; Illinois’ Whitney Mercilus, who also falls into that ’backer-or-end category; and Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower, a 265-pound thumper of a middle linebacker.

When it comes time for linebacker-needy teams to make their picks, it will depend on which player is available and also which best fits their scheme.

“Shea McClellan, very much a scheme-flexible guy,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “Whitney Mercilus, very much scheme flexible. Ingram from South Carolina has played everywhere. (Andre) Branch from Clemson, scheme flexible. Ronnell Lewis from Oklahoma – a little bit later, second or third round – scheme flexible.”

Look up “scheme flexible” in the draft-lingo dictionary and a picture of McClellan likely will be included.

“He’s just so versatile,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. “You watch a game and you’re going to see him at defensive end, outside linebacker, then he’s standing up playing inside linebacker. As the season progressed, he kind of got more natural in that versatile role doing different things.

“I like his motor. I like his toughness. I think he has the potential to be an impact pass rusher.”

And if the Seahawks have one glaring need after addressing several issues in free agency, it’s Carroll’s longing for someone – anyone – to provide some pass rush opposite Chris Clemons. The “Leo” end has produced 11 sacks in each of his first two seasons with the Seahawks, but last season the rest of the D-linemen combined for 10.

“It’s always important,” Carroll said this week when asked about the need to add a pass rusher. “You never have enough pass rush, so it’s always important. There are different aspects of it. There are a lot of edge-rushers in this draft, which is exciting. We’re always looking.

“Certainly in this draft, it’s one of the issues that we’d like to attend to.”

Carroll was then asked about two of those rushers – Ingram and North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples, who at 6-6 and 284 pounds is five inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than Ingram.

“The discussion that we’re on, we’re talking about the variety of styles,” Carroll said. “There’s a guy that 6-foot-5 that runs 4.6s (in the 40-yard dash) in Coples. He has prototypical numbers and he’s a classic in the profile of the big pass rusher.

“Ingram is much more of a different guy. He is an inside rush rusher primarily that plays outside linebacker at times, that plays (middle) linebacker at times. He’s all over the place and he’s utilized totally differently. He’s a shorter guy with shorter leverage, and has effectiveness and a totally different style.”

Carroll’s bottom-line assessment: “They’re just widely different – both very effective and great prospects that will go high in the draft.”

Kuechly also should go very high in the first round, which just doesn’t happen with middle linebackers. In the past 10 drafts, seven middle or inside linebackers have been selected in the first round and only three have gone in the Top 12 – Rolando McClain to the Oakland Raiders at No. 8 in 2010; Patrick Willis to the San Francisco 49ers at No. 11 in 2007; and Jonathan Vilma at No. 12 to the New York Jets in 2004 (he’s now with the New Orleans Saints).

Kuechly could join those select few, because he isn’t your typical middle linebacker.

“He’s one of the 10 best players in this draft,” Mayock said. “The intriguing thing about Luke is that historically inside linebackers are not valued, mostly because they get replaced on sub-downs in sub-packages and nickel packages.

“He’s the opposite and his strength lies in the passing game. He’s the best pass-dropping inside linebacker I’ve ever seen in college football. He has instincts and speed.… The NFL is a pass-first league and there is value in Luke Kuechly.”

But with Kuechly, as is the case with Ingram and many of the other linebackers in this draft class, it will come down to which team sees the most value in them.