By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff

This week we’ll take a look at the outside linebackers group. This obviously is an important position for the Patriots as they play a 3-4 defense, which outside backers have a very important role in. Yet, its difficult to find guys who project to their system. You need someone with good speed and size/strength combination to set the edge, yet many college linebackers lack the size/strength aspect. Many are more speed ‘backers who just don’t translate into a Patriots defense. If they do have the minimal speed/size a lot of college defenses use them as pass-rushing defensive ends. So teams like the Patriots are left to try and convert them to playing up as a linebacker in the NFL. This year, there are of course a couple guys in this top 10 that fit perfectly and play mostly stand-up ‘backer already. Then there are the conversion guys. And the guys that don’t fit at all. Down the bottom of the list, the bottom guys could be replaced with others as perhaps the top 5 is clear cut, but the rest of the way this position breaks down for the draft isn’t yet. Its an important position for the Pats. They perhaps found one good outside, young linebacker this year in Jermaine Cunningham. But they’ll be undoubtedly looking for another next spring for the other side. Lets take a look.

Akeem Ayers of UCLA

Akeem Ayers (#10), UCLA: A 6’4″ 255 lb. pure outside linebacker he is very good in coverage already. Ayers is not just a defensive end looking to convert to 3-4 outside linebacker, he already plays standing up. Ayers is a smart kid who’d fit into the Patriots system, while also fitting their profile of hard workers, team leaders and productive players who love football. While he is a good pass rusher and good in coverage, Ayers is also very stout versus the run. He is a senior academically, so could come out, but has a year of eligibility remaining. He’s already a dominant player, however, and it would seem to make sense he’d come out unless there was a lockout in the NFL due to labor issues. In about two and a half years, Ayers has racked up 13 sacks and amazingly six interceptions, two of which he’s returned for touchdowns. Watch him in UCLA’s toughest game of the season next Thursday night at 9PM on ESPN when the Bruins travel to Oregon.

Bruce Carter (#54), North Carolina: Carter is a 6’3″ 235 lb. dominating outside linebacker who reportedly runs a sub 4.4/40 as well as being very strong. For this season, Carter has put together a 26 tackle season thru 5 games and he also has an interception. While UNC uses him all over the field, he can rush the passer and does at times. But he’s just better in coverage where his speed lets him get to most plays. He is smart and can sniff out screens and his quickness allows him to get there. An instinctive player, he reacts quickly and delivers a big blow to many ball carriers or would be receivers. He reminds somewhat of Derrick Brooks. As such, he’s probably better off in a 4-3 attacking scheme. You can watch him a week from today, October 23rd, take on Miami on ESPN2 at 7:30 PM.

Von Miller (#40), Texas A&M: Von Miller is a stand up defensive end/outside linebacker for the Aggies who ended up with an impressive 17 sacks last season. For 2010, so far he’s slumped in that area with only 1 sack thru 5 games, though his coach Mike Sherman has said he’s played better this season overall than last year. He has also been battling an ankle injury this year. Miller is a pretty good all-around player who’ll play outside linebacker in the NFL, though he is somewhat of a hybrid in college. Texas A&M uses him in a variety of roles and he’s shown versatility. While he will likely be a first round pick, it may take him awhile to adjust to just being an outside linebacker with a specific role and not a playmaker moved all over the field. He should be great special-teamer with his speed, hustle and tackling ability.

Colin McCarthy (#44), Miami (FLA): A strong tackler and stout run defender, McCarthy won’t be a prolific edge rusher. What you’ll get with him is a good sized guy whose smart, quick, strong and holds the edge on the run. He’s also athletic, smart and can drop into coverage. A good, solid player you can plug in and know he’ll be solid for you in other words. I do think he could fit with the Patriots and probably has some position flexibility to play inside. Did suffer a serious shoulder injury as a sophomore. I may have him rated a bit high, but its more of a reflection of confidence he’ll be a solid player though its doubtful he’ll be a great playmaker. Just a low risk selection. He may go in the second round, but a further solid senior year and good postseason could put him in the first round.

Malcolm Foster (#40), Washington: Put up 85 tackles, 2 sacks and 3 interceptions, including 1 returned for a TD in a very good junior season. This year he’s taken his game to a new level with an impressive 60 tackles thru 5 games. Foster is another fast, speedy linebacker who really knows how to tackle. He is slightly undersized for a 3-4 linebacker, but a very good player who should fit perfectly in a 4-3 1-gap scheme. See him tonight at 10:15 PM EST against Oregon State in a good game on ESPN.

Aldon Smith (#85), Missouri: Tired of all the outside linebackers who don’t project into the Patriots 3-4 scheme every year? Here is one who projects perfectly. A 6’5″ 260 lb. giant, he is a terror on quarterbacks, a playmaker, strong against the run and holds his own against bigger linemen setting the edge. Smith is actually a redshirt Sophomore but could come out after this, technically his junior year. His first year playing at all was last year and he put up great numbers including 19.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. This year he’s been injured and only played in 3 games, though he does have 4 sacks in those 3 games. He’s currently suffering from a broken fibula and its uncertain when he’ll be back but it won’t be this week. He is a young player, so hasn’t had a chance to display leadership. Not that there are any questions, there just isn’t a lot of information about his character. But on the field, he seems to fit the Patriots scheme perfectly and as a younger player with a limited amount of experience, he seems to project as great as he’s already pretty dominant.

Mark Herzlich (#94), Boston College: Herzlich of course was as good an outside linebacker and as productive a college linebacker as I can recall seeing his junior year of 2008. After that excellent year, he was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer that had him sitting out all of 2009. Had he come out after 2008 before that, he would have had a chance to be a top 10 pick. He did everything in 2008, stuff the run, make tackles all over the field, terrorize quarterbacks, bat balls, drop into coverage, intercept balls, take turnovers back for touchdowns. You name it. If you watched BC play in 2008, you’d likely see Herzlich make a couple big plays on defense by the end of the game. This year, he’s come back in a field good story. Cancer free, thankfully, he’s struggled to regain form. He now has a metal rod in his leg to support the bone weakened from cancer. When he came back to practice, he broke his foot the first day. But he rebounded from that and is now playing. His play has been decent, but he’s yet to regain the form of 2008. He seems a bit slower and not as physically imposing. Watching him from the beginning of the season until now, he’s definitely improved. But its clear he has a long way to go. The kid is a fighter, very hard worker and just that he has himself playing solid football so soon after his ordeal is impressive. Everyone loves this kid and his leadership and toughness, even opposing teams. I put him in the top 10 as a reflection more of the level he was at than where he is at now. He probably isn’t playing as a top 10 outside linebacker right now in college football. But I wouldn’t count him out getting back at least close to where he was before. If so, he’ll be an excellent NFL player. Watch him today at Noon take on Florida State and you can assess how far he’s come. The game is on ESPN.

Sam Acho (#81), Texas: Acho plays defensive end for the Longhorns and could possibly play that in the NFL in a 4-3. He’s even at times played defensive tackle for Texas in their attacking defensive scheme. Last season Acho had 10 sacks to lead the team. A good strip-sacker, he forced two fumbles last year. This year he has 4 sacks thru 5 games and already forced two more fumbles. Acho is a good character, he’s reportedly volunteered at homeless shelters since he was in high school. His parents are from Nigeria and English is his second language. He also speaks Spanish. He does have speed, as is evident how he gets off the ball, but also in that he ran track in high school. While Acho more than likely will end up at defensive end, he does have at least some natural ability and skills to convert to outside linebacker. But he really hasn’t done it yet and probably never will be asked to.

Michael Morgan (#17), USC: Morgan is another quick, light linebacker who weighs 220 lbs. But at 6’4″, he may have the frame to put on some weight and probably will for the NFL. Morgan is used a lot in coverage due to his outstanding speed, but occasionally blitzes and put together a 4-sack season last year. Morgan is an excellent athlete, but right now just a good football player. He has a chance to grow into something better due to his skill set. He has had some history of should injuries. For this season, he has 29 tackles thru 6 games. He is still being used to cover backs and tight ends frequently. He’s not an outstanding pass rusher with his hand on the ground, but a solid blitzer due to his speed and quickness. USC has struggled on defense at times this year and sometimes its been blamed on their linebackers, including Morgan. He has a tough time shedding blocks at times in run defense and added weight would certainly help. He looks too much like a safety right now. Unless he can bulk up and not lose speed doing so, Morgan may merely be a nickle linebacker in the NFL. He is a good tackler and the skills are excellent, he just has a ways to improve to be considered a top prospect. Watch him play when Oregon visits October 30th at 8PM on ABC.