Linebacker draft prospects shouldn't be ignored

(Fourth in a series)

With the proliferation of 3-4 defenses and the attention paid to outside linebackers in those schemes, who have become the marquee sack artists in the NFL, inside and middle linebackers are often overlooked.

But this year's group of draft-eligible inside 'backers shouldn't be ignored. It includes Alabama's Reuben Foster, a first-round lock; and Northwestern's Anthony Walker, who put together back-to-back 100-plus-tackle seasons including 30½ behind the line of scrimmage.

Foster didn't become a full-time starter until his senior season, as he was forced to wait his turn on Alabama's always-stacked defense. As a football player, he's a can't-miss prospect, a fast, physical and violent tackler. He has the talent to become a perennial Pro Bowl player immediately.

But there are major off-the-field questions about his character. Most recently he was sent home from the NFL's Scouting Combine after he had a heated verbal altercation with a hospital worker. Foster had become frustrated by the long waiting lines for medical evaluations that almost all players deal with.

He has an 8-year-old daughter, and his own father is in jail for shooting his mother and, inadvertently, Reuben, when he was 18 months old. His father, Danny Foster, eluded police for 16 years before being apprehended.

There are teams that will not draft Foster, certainly not in the first round, and the team that does will have to manage him away from the field.

There are no such concerns with Walker, who is stout, sturdy and strong but can also run pretty well. His 4.66 40-time was among the fastest of all inside linebackers who ran at the Combine.

If there's a knock on Walker, it's that he lifted too much and became overly bulked up, which impeded his movement skills.

Walker doesn't play with the dominance, toughness or power that Foster does, although they are similar in size. But Walker was a three-year starter and was considered a team leader. He could sneak into the latter part of Day Two, when the second and third rounds will be held.

Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham, who is expected to be drafted somewhere between Foster and Walker, led the SEC in tackles each of the last two seasons. Thirty-three of his 228 tackles came behind the line of scrimmage.

Cunningham is longer and leaner than Foster and Walker, and he's more athletic with better burst and explosion. His 35-inch vertical jump, 10-foot-5 broad jump and 1.58-second 10-yard split in the 40-yard dash were all among the best marks for linebackers. But he lacks the bulk and strength of the other two, as he managed just 15 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press.

"That's definitely been a knock that I've heard about me - being able to have that strength," Cunningham said. "Most of the questions I've gotten are: 'Would I be able to put on 10 more pounds?' That's something I would definitely be open to. With my frame, that's something I would be able to do."

At 6-foot-3 ½, Cunningham has room to grow, and he could make it into the late first round.

(Next up: Tight ends)

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