CHESTNUT HILL MA - SEPTEMBER 25: Tyrod Taylor #5 of the Virginia Tech Hokies scrambles with the ball as Luke Kuechly #40 of the Boston College Eagles defends on September 25 2010 at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
It's becoming more and more likely that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won't have their choice of Trent Richardson and Morris Claiborne when they get to make their selection next Thursday. In fact, it's quite possible that both players will be off the board: the Minnesota Vikings are reportedly choosing between Matt Kalil, Morris Claiborne and Justin Blackmon while the Cleveland Browns are often seen as strong candidates to take Trent Richardson.
If Claiborne and Richardson indeed go third and fourth, the Bucs would have a decision to make. They could take the only remaining elite prospect in the draft in Matt Kalil. The USC-bred left tackle should be a staple as a left tackle for a decade or more, but he doesn't represent great value for the Bucs: he's not the best run blocker and more importantly, the Bucs already have a pretty good left tackle in Donald Penn. Drafting Kalil would not really fill a need, and although he would solidify an important (but slightly devalued) position, he would still leave the Bucs with massive holes at linebacker, safety, running back and even cornerback if we look toward the future.
Another option is to take linebacker Luke Kuechly out of Boston College over Matt Kalil. This, at least, is what Roy Cummings' gut says the Bucs will do. Kuechly would fill a major need as he could step right in as the starting middle linebacker, or he could move to the outside if needed. Kuechly is as pro-ready as they come - but does he really represent the right value? Hit the jump to see some of my thoughts on Kuechly.
'Instinctive' is one word that just keeps coming back when people try to describe Luke Kuechly. That's exactly what he is: much like Mason Foster in college, he always finds himself around the ball, he's always close to the play, and he's a very, very sure tackler. As with Foster, the consensus appears to be that he is not a special athlete and might be a little on the small side. But the Foster comparisons end there, as far as I'm concerned: where Foster looked like a solid player, Kuechly looks special on film. Watch his game vs Nevada in the 2011 Kraft Hunger Bowl orhis final game against Miami and he looks like an explosive, powerful, playmaking linebacker with outstanding read-and-react skills. At times some problems show up when blockers get their hands on him, which is especially visible in his game vs Clemson, but in general he does a very good job of keeping those blockers off him.
Still, the question is: do you really want to pick a linebacker who will not be used as a pass rusher with the fifth overall pick? The history of linebackers like that in the NFL isn't great. As with every position there are highlights and lowlights, with Jerod Mayo, Patrick Willis, Lawrence Timmons, Brian Urlacher and Jonathan Vilma providing some of the highlights. But there are plenty of lowlights too: Aaron Curry, Keith Rivers, A.J. Hawk, Ernie Sims, Dan Morgan and Thomas Davis all failed to live up to their lofty draft status. While some certainly turned into productive players, most didn't really become difference makers.
More importantly, linebackers aren't as valuable as they used to be - unless they can stay on the field for all three downs. That's why pass-rushing linebackers are so valuable: they can play on more than just rushing downs, as they can make an impact in the passing game as well. And that's the key to why Luke Kuechly might just be worth that fifth overall pick over Matt Kalil: Kuechly isn't a pass rusher, but he is absolutely outstanding in coverage, especially zone coverage. His ability to diagnose a play and react is incredible, and he's often moving to the right spot before the ball is even thrown. He demonstrated the ability to run with tight ends and slot receivers down the middle of the field. Greg Cosell claims that Kuechly "played with [his] eyes better than any LB [he's] evaluated".
Luke Kuechly looks like a special linebacker, but should the Tampa Bay Buccaneers really select him with the fifth overall pick? He wouldn't be my first choice, but he'd certainly add a lot of quality to the team.