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2011 prospect watch (4-3 OLB edition) - Dec. 2nd

Washington OLB Mason Foster plays with passion.  And eye black.
Washington OLB Mason Foster plays with passion. And eye black.

(I'd been working on this for couple days, so don't assume TST is on some kind of draft binge today after Van's trio of picks and buckeyefan55's Rams-only mock 2.0. Coincidence is coincidental.)

Recently, I put up my big board for draft-eligible WRs, and it prompted a great discussion on prospects, WR names and how that affects their career projections, and even CBs. Now I'm not saying TST runs draft talk on SB Nation, but soon after we talked WRs & CBs, Brian Galliford did the same at the mothership. Let's stay a step ahead by getting to OLBs.

For reference, here's MTD's most recent OLB big board. Again, this board only addresses draft-eligible prospects, so the following true sophomore OLBs don't qualify for this board:

Nico Johnson Alabama
Ronnell Lewis OU
Gerald Hodges Penn St.

And the scouting reports come from Mocking the Draft (MTD), Walter Football (WF), Draft Countdown (DC) or ESPN (ESPN) if available.

1 - Bruce Carter, UNC - Sr. (MTD, ESPN)

Carter has the makeup you want in a Sam on and off the field. He was one of the few who escaped the tidal wave of infractions in Chapel Hill after coming back for his senior year to graduate. Without those returning defensive talents, the casual observer would look at Carter's stats and suggest he's plateaued or even dropped off. That's just not the case, and in fact you could argue the opposite.

Without the cover that his ex-teammates would have given him, Carter's much easier to avoid, and yet he's still making plays. He's got the requisite athleticism and size for a Will, and his instincts (especially in pass coverage) have improved this season. I'm skeptical of his prospects as a Sam at the next level in year 1, but with his natural ability, I wouldn't put it past him by his sophomore pro season.

The rest of my top 10 and a couple on the bubble after the jump.

2 - Akeem Ayers, UCLA - Jr. (ESPN)

Ayers is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Carter - bigger but less speed, though he's plenty fast to play in any system. He's an interesting case at the Sam in run support, though as too much of his weight is in his upper torso. You can check Ayers out in the UCLA-USC matchup this Saturday, although it's not being nationally televised to my knowledge. UCLA won't be making a bowl game this year, so you may have to hit up some YouTube footage.

3 - Travis Lewis, Oklahoma - Jr. (WF, ESPN)

Lewis is my highest-rated run stopper going into this draft, and he's got the versatility to play in a handful of positions in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. However, his coverage skills have been questioned by many spectators and exploited by opposing offenses, so if he finds himself at the NFL level being asked to play a lot of zone, he may be misdrafted. That being said, with his athleticism, I wouldn't be surprised if he improves as a pass defender and turns into an elite OLB. It just hasn't happened yet. Lewis will be on full display in the Big XII Championship on Saturday against a strong Nebraska team that is just 10 points away from being in the national championship discussion.

4 - Terell Manning, N. Carolina St. - Soph. (n/a)

Manning has exploded since the end of his redshirt freshman season in 2009, and I'm not sure if he's done yet. The only question is if he's making MLB Nate Irving look better or vice versa. I honestly think they're independently good enough to be successful at the next level. I love his game and he might have the highest ceiling on this list, IMO. He needs to work on his upright game, but that's easier to improve than the flaws other OLBs on this list have.

5 - Mason Foster, Washington - Sr. (n/a)

Foster's the most confusing prospect on this list for me. He plays on a very poor Washington defense, but he makes so many plays in nearly every aspect of the game. Wes Bunting over at National Football Post said:

"looks like a very solid, yet unspectacular, starting caliber linebacker who could play at a number of spots on an NFL defense."

And I agree. I don't see him as a star, but on the right team, I think he can be a very solid, very dependable starter.

(Note: Van just pegged Foster as a potential 3rd round pick for the Rams. Seems sensible IMO.)

6 - Nigel Bradham, Florida St. - Jr. (n/a)

He has the requisite size and power, but I have some issues with his instincts. He's either going to blossom into a James Harrison-type power backer, or he'll be a depth guy. I wouldn't mind if the Rams placed a bet on him though.

7 - Lawrence Wilson, Connecticut - Sr. (ESPN)

Absolute ball hawk. He has hit his ceiling, though. I could see him touching the 3rd round for certain teams, but he has the lowest ceiling of anyone on this board.

8 - Sean Spence, Miami - Jr. (n/a)

Spence plays with much, much more power than his size suggests (~6'0", 220-ish). And while that raises injury concerns at the NFL level, it shouldn't detract from what he's done at the U. I'm tempted to move him higher, but the size flag is holding me back.

9 - Dontay Moch, Nevada - Sr. (ESPN)

Maybe the most athletic of this group and probably the fastest in terms of top-end speed (see #10). Still, playing as a DE means a lot of tutelage is going to have to go in to making him productive in the NFL, especially if he's going to move into a 4-3.

10 - Zach Brown, UNC - Jr. (n/a)

Insanely fast, insanely athletic, insanely raw. Brown finally started getting a heavy workload this season. It paid early dividends, but teams caught on to his skills and started scheming him out. He's got a high ceiling, but he'll need more work to get there. Easily one of the most prominent candidates on this list who would benefit from another year in college.

Top remaining 4-3 OLBs:

Colin McCarthy Sr., Miami
Demetrius Hartsfield Soph., Maryland
Mark Herzlich Sr., Boston College
Doug Hogue Sr., Syracuse
K.J. Wright Sr., Miss. St.
Chase Thomas Jr., Stanford

Hit me up with your reactions to any of these guys whether you've seen them play or not. And feel free to disagree with the whole damn list. But let's be real -- the Rams need an OLB sooner rather than later, and if we don't go through free agency to fill the hole, one of these names will likely be a St. Louis Ram in 2011.