Building The Dallas Cowboys Roster: 2015 Middle Linebacker Prospects

The Cowboys frequently drafted Miami LBs in the 90s; will they go back tothe well in 2015? - Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Our offseason series on top collegians at deep positions in the 2015 draft concludes with a look at some of the top-rated inside linebacker prospects.

As I noted in earlier installments of this series, it can be of great benefit to begin studying college players at what are likely to be the deepest positions in the next year's draft. When a position is strong, and the majority of teams are drafting for need (which they are), it means that players at these strong positions will fall. When pursued over the long term, therefore, a strategy of drafting to positional strength yields greater value. And, in recent years, the Cowboys appear to have pursued this strategy, targeting players at deep positions, with the thought that they can accrue value by doing so.

In this series, we are taking a longer look at the top candidates at the 2015 selection meeting's perceived positions of strength: running back, quarterback, defensive end, inside linebacker. Last time around, we offered a list of defensive ends for your delectation; today, it's inside linebackers, a position that may prove to need replenishing, depending on how the Cowboys feel about Sean Lee's ability to stay healthy. And, given the interchangeability of linebacker sin the modern NFL, there's no reason to think that one of these guys couldn't be the future answer at on of the (still uncertain) outside spots.

This brings me to a proviso: many of these prospects have either played outside linebacker as collegians or are projected to move outside in the pros. The age of the massive but athletically limited two-down thumper is all but over, with NFL offenses featuring three-wide sets with such frequency. So, the distinction between MLB and OLB, I realize, is a tenuous one - and is made even more tenuous by the premium the Cowboys' system places on an middle 'backer's athleticism. Remember that what distinguished the "Tampa-2" is that the MLB must be capable of covering the deep middle, running down the seam with the likes of Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham. Okay, let's go...

Note: Juniors are designated with an *

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Denzel Perryman, Miami, Fla (6-0, 240):

As a sophomore in 2012, Perryman recorded 64 tackles (six TFLs),  two passes broken up, one forced fumble and returned an interception 41 yards for a touchdown. In 2013, he tallied 108 tackles (five for loss), one sack and three passes broken up. According to one scout, his performance against Florida "was the stuff highlight tapes are made of." Curiously, he has spent this offseason bulking up for a move to inside linebacker.

He will certainly be one of the nation's most athletic inside ‘backers in 2014. Perryman is a fast and physical linebacker who has three-down ability at the NFL level; not only is he strong against the run, he also covers a lot of ground in the passing game and does a nice job of blanketing receivers who came into his zone. Take a look at highlights from his junior campaign to see Perryman's skillset in action:

Perryman reportedly received a third-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory board before the 2013 draft. If he can have the kind of success inside that he has enjoyed as an OLB, he can be a top-ten caliber player.

A. J. Johnson, Tennessee (6-2, 240):

Johnson emerged as a standout for the Vols almost immediately upon arrival in Knoxville. In 2011, as a true freshman, he logging 10 starts, finishing second on the team with 81 tackles and a forced fumble. The following year, he led the SEC in tackles with 138 (8.5 TFLs), chipping in a sack and breaking up a pass. In 2013, Johnson added 106 tackles (8.5 for loss) while also recovering a fumble and breaking up three passes, earning AP and Coaches All-SEC first-team laurels.

Johnson showed his athleticism by serving as the Volunteers' short-yardage ball-carrier, running for 21 yards (12 carries) and six touchdowns. That said, he's the proverbial "better athlete than football player." While he's athletic, fast, physical and aggressive, hitting with authority, he needs to improve his ability to read offenses and to disengage from blocks; too often, he drops his head on contact and ends up on the ground. Here's Johnson in action against SEC rival Florida in 2012:

If Johnson can polish his game in 2014, he has the raw athleticism and physical nature to be selected in the draft first two days.

Ramik Wilson, Georgia (6-2, 232):

In 2011 and '12, Wilson was a backup who registered a mere 10 tackles working behind stalwarts such as Alec Ogletree. In 2013, however, he became every-down player, leading the SEC in tackles with 133, along with four sacks and three passes broken up - enough to garner an All-SEC First-Team nod.

Wilson is an every-down LB who is a consistent and dependable run stopper between the tackles but with the athleticism to drop and cover backs and tight ends in the passing game. He demonstrated good quickness and is blessed with excellent football instincts; he sees the game well. These traits are on display in Wilson's fine work against Tennessee last season:

The ‘Dawgs senior ‘backer has the quickness and instincts NFL scouts love; if he can repeat his outstanding 2013 campaign, it will positively impact his draft stock.

*Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State (6-5, 245):

After redshirting in 2011, McKinney made a splash in 2012, recording 102 tackles (4.5 for loss) with one sack and four passes broken up, receiving First-Team Freshman All-American honors. The following season, he had 70 tackles (seven TFLs) and 3.5 sacks. McKinney has logged 23 consecutive starts over the course of his MSU career.

Physically, McKinney is ready for the NFL. He's a superb athlete who boasts terrific length, strength athleticism, and explosiveness. He's widely considered the nation's top underclass inside linebacker candidate. But that's the problem; his versatile skillset offers the potential to add weight and play 3-4 outside linebacker, and maybe even some defensive end, along with inside and outside linebacker.

Want proof? Here's the Bulldog's middle man in action against Texas A&M last season:

After his stellar 2013 campaign, McKinney announced he was skipping the 2014 draft to playing one more season for the Bulldogs. If he can show better awareness and closing speed, his draft stock will go through the roof.

Eric Kendricks, UCLA (6-0, 230):

Kendricks was a backup for the Bruins until a breakout 2012 season in which he led the Pac-12 in tackles with 149 (the most recorded by a UCLA defender since Jerry Robinson notched a school-record 161 in 1978.), with two sacks, four passes broken up, two forced fumbles and one blocked kick. In 2013, despite the fact that he missed two games and was limited in a variety of others due to lingering shoulder and ankle issues, he was third in the Pac-12 in tackles, with 105 (four TFLs), and added an interception.

Kendricks is the younger brother of former Cal linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who now plays for the Eagles team that shall not be named. Like his brother, he is instinctive, aggressive and a considerably more explosive hitter than his frame suggests. He closes quickly and with force, leading to some emphatic stops. He boasts good agility, flexibility and balance to avoid would-be blockers when rushing the quarterback.  These traits are evident on tape; here he is (he's number 6) against Stanford in 2012:

In addition, Kendricks is receiving top-notch coaching from a UCLA coaching staff led by former Falcons and Seahawks front man Jim Mora, Jr. And, as if that wasn't enough for Jason Garrett to favor him; Kendricks was voted a team captain last year.  While Kendricks currently plays middle linebacker, his size and athleticism may well project to OLB at the NFL level.

Best of the Rest:

Trey DePriest, Alabama (6-2, 242):

As a freshman, DePriest was a valuable reserve off the bench, earning extensive playing time on defense and recording a team-high 14 tackles on the kickoff coverage team while helping the Tide to the first of two consecutive National Championships. In 2012, he jumped into a starting role, finishing second on a loaded defense with 59 stops. The following year, he totaled 65 tackles (7.5 for loss), one interception, one pass broken up and two sacks - and was voted Second Team All-SEC for his efforts.

DePriest is a smart, experienced player with good size and strength, and relatively good speed. However, as a classic two-down thumper, he might not be an ideal fit for the Cowboys' system. He'll have to stay on the field on passing downs in 2014 if he's to boost his draft stock to the level where he can follow in the footsteps of former ‘Bama greats Dont'a Hightower and C.J. Mosely.

*Frank Shannon, Oklahoma (6-2, 238):

As a freshman in 2012, Shannon had 40 tackles with two sacks in backup duty. The following campaign, he broke out with a total of 92 tackles (seven TFL), two sacks, one interception and one forced fumble. Shannon appears to be a good scheme fit for a Tampa-2 style offense; a former safety, Shannon has quickness to go along with decent size. In addition, he boasts good speed and instincts. That said, he must clear up his off-the-field issues to realize his potential; he currently faces sexual-assault accusations that place his 2014 season in jeopardy.

*Terrance Smith, Florida State (6-4, 228):

After a medical redshirt year in 2011, Smith was a backup and special teams contributor the following year before emerging as one of the Seminoles' leaders during their 2013 championship run. He took over as the starting middle linebacker a month into the season, starting the final 10 games and tallying 59 tackles (only 2.5 for loss), with two sacks, an interception and three passes broken up. Smith is a rangy player (he's 6'4"), with an impressive combination of size and speed. Although he's undersized, his athleticism jumps out on tape - one reason may NFL scouts project him at outside linebacker in the pros.

*Darryl Monroe, Washington State (6-1, 235):

Monroe has been a stalwart defender since his arrival in Pullman. After a medical redshirt in 2011, he broke into the starting lineup the following year and totaled 80 tackles (with an impressive 8.5 TFLs) and three sacks. Monroe enjoyed a breakout sophomore season in 2013, registering 94 tackles (6.5 for loss), two sacks, two forced fumbles and three passes broken up.

Like DePriest, Monroe is at his best in the box. He's a physical, aggressive player who sports a chiseled frame and impressive power to stack and shed and terrific striking ability when hitting ballcarriers. He has good straight-line speed, but not a lot of quickness, agility or change of direction skills, which leads cut-back opportunities when he overruns plays.

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Okay, people, there's our gallery of potential MLB greats. Like one of them? Feel somebody deserved inclusion but was slighted? Hit the comments section and let' er rip!

And, in case you missed a previous post in this series, you can look them up here:

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