When it comes to first-round caliber talent in this year's NFL draft class, the defensive line is widely viewed as the primary strength. ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper however, believes it goes beyond just the front line on the defensive side of the ball. That's good news for the Buffalo Bills, who will be in the market for linebacker help this spring.
"Front seven guys in general and just the defensive line, this is a great year," said Kiper. "Half of the first round is going to be front seven players on the defensive side."
With respect to the linebackers specifically, Kiper sees a lot of combination players helping teams that will at least play some 3-4 front defense. The Bills are expected to be one of those teams with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine now in charge on that side of the ball.
"I think it's a good group, but it depends on what you're looking for," said Kiper.
On his Top 25 Big Board Kiper has five combination pass rushers among the top 15 prospects. Topping the board is Georgia's Jarvis Jones, followed by Texas A&M's Damontre Moore (#2), Georgia's Alec Ogletree (#7), LSU's Barkevious Mingo (#11) and Oregon's Dion Jordan (#13).
"They're all different," said Kiper. "Mingo didn't produce the results I thought he would. He was blocked and handled in too many games to push him into the top group. He's still one of the top guys at number 11 overall. He's going to test out off the charts and can play up or down so he can play in a 3-4 or a 4-3. I think he's going to go fairly high.
"I look at Jarvis Jones and he's Von Miller-like. At linebacker you can use Jarvis Jones like Von Miller has been used in Denver. If you want the defensive end, Damontre Moore played down this year, up last year and is more like a DeMarcus Ware type. He's going to be a highly coveted player. I have Jones one and Moore two on the big board. They're both elite. Jarvis is phenomenal. The big question was going to be the medical, but it looks like that's going to be fine."
Kiper also believes that both Oregon's Jordan and Georgia's Jones offer scheme versatility and could still be effective players in a 4-3 system. One of the most multi-faceted linebackers in the class however, is Ogletree.
"Alec Ogletree and his great versatility as a former safety, now a heck of an ILB at Georgia this year," Kiper said. "He can fit a lot of schemes. He can cover. He's going to get bigger. He has tremendous range and had a great year. I think he could certainly be in the top 10 to 12."
Kiper currently has Ogletree going to the Bills with the eighth overall pick.
BYU's Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah is another pass rusher with hybrid qualities that he sees going in the second half of round one.
At inside linebacker the crop is considerably thinner in terms of top flight talent with only a couple of defensive signal callers expected to go in the first couple of rounds.
"A guy that has moved up a lot is Kevin Minter from LSU," said Kiper. "He was a tackling machine. He was kind of like Luke Kuechly was two years ago. That's what Kevin Minter was at LSU. I think he could go late first round maybe to Baltimore."
Kiper still thinks very highly of Notre Dame's Manti T'eo. He doesn't believe his lackluster performance in the National Championship game tarnishes his body of work all that much. He sees him as a mid-first round pick at the worst.
"I didn't drop him that far," he said. "The whole defense played poorly in that game. In my initial mock draft I had him eight to Buffalo. I've now got him at 13 to Tampa. Baltimore might want to jump up and get him. Manti T'eo would be a heck of a guy to replace Ray Lewis. I could see Baltimore being aggressive there if he drops a little bit."
Even outside of round one, Kiper feels there's linebacker talent that can help right away.
"If you want a 4-3 outside linebacker Khaseem Greene is the guy out of Rutgers," he said. "The 3-4 guys, Jamie Collins from Southern Mississippi is a second round possibility and a nice player. A very underrated player coming out of that program. He played on a losing team, but was a heck of a player each year.
"Chase Thomas from Stanford is an edge guy and pass rusher and a good football player, seals the edge against the run very effectively kind of in that Jarrett Johnson mold. Arthur Brown played inside at Kansas State, but projects outside in the NFL because of the size situation for him. All Arthur Brown did was make play after play. Inside-wise Kevin Reddick at North Carolina is a third round possibility."
Another inside linebacker that Kiper likes is Florida's Jonathan Bostic. He's been projected as a mid-round pick. He also mentioned Penn State's Gerald Hodges as a 4-3 outside backer.
"There are a lot of guys this year that depending upon scheme could draw a lot of interest," he said. "There are plenty of 3-4 guys, a lot of guys that fit that scheme in the fifth or sixth round that I think could help a team."
That's good news for Buffalo, knowing they're on the lookout for linebacker help in numbers.