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2016 NFL Combine Preview: Noah Spence, Jaylon Smith top the list at Outside Linebacker

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Projecting college outside linebackers or defensive ends into a 3-4 defense is tough, but here is a look at a handful of them who could be available at 27 to complete the Green Bay linebacking corps.

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Outside linebacker is a position that changes entirely based on whether you are running a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. 4-3 outside linebackers are generally smaller and are expected to do more coverage. Although 3-4 outside linebackers are still expected to cover tight ends and running backs in space on occasion, they tend to be larger because they also rush the passer and have to hold the edge in the running game.

Since the Packers run the 3-4, this preview will try to focus on players who could fit the mold of an outside linebacker in this system. Players like Myles Jack, Darron Lee and Leonard Floyd will not be in this preview though they are all intriguing players in their own rights.  Defensive ends like Kevin Dodd are also missing from this list as their size projects more as a 4-3 defensive end.  It would be unsurprising if Dodd were picked as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but this focus is on more prototypical ranges.  Picking and choosing is sometimes more of an art than a science.

Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame

At 6'3" 240 pounds, Smith falls in the smaller range of 3-4 outside linebackers.  Smith would be equally capable in a 4-3 defense.  He is in the first round rankings of both CBS and Scouts Inc.  Smith has great speed for a linebacker, with a 40 time measured around 4.65.  On top of the physical skills, Smith was making the defensive calls on the Notre Dame defense as a true sophomore.

Smith was used more in the traditional 4-3 outside linebacker role at Notre Dame, but he could fit well in a 3-4 as well.  While Smith did not record high sack numbers, he has demonstrated the ability to blitz and get to the ball through a crowd.  His size is less than ideal for someone who would be routinely expected to take on offensive tackles and he has shown that he can take a little long to get off blocks, but he has the strength and quickness to get off blocks and attack.  The technique of pass rushing may take a little time, but his skill set will make him a clearly desirable player in any defense.

While Jaylon Smith has some tremendous upside as a 3-4 outside linebacker, it will be important to remember that he played the 4-3 outside linebacker position in college.  Further, many teams will be looking at him to fill inside linebacker spots in the NFL.  Since he has the sideline to sideline speed, he could line up outside or inside in a 3-4 defense (much the way Clay Matthews does).  With his skillset he will be someone to keep your eye on up and down the lineup.

The only true question mark on Smith is his health.  Smith was injured in the 2015 season and it will be key for him to show he is fully recovered and remains that player he was on all the film the scouts have been watching.

Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky

Spence was not a name people were hearing through the 2015 college season.  He did start his college journey on a very high note.  Spence was a five star high school recruit and committed to Ohio State.  He started 12 games in 2013 and put up 52 tackles, 14.5 TFL and 8.0 sacks.  The turn in his fortune came from multiple failed drug tests while at Ohio State.  The Big Ten Conference banned Spence and he had to leave the Buckeyes.  He credits much of the turnaround in his career to the fact he forced himself to sit down and watch his former teammates at Ohio State win the national title following the 2014 season.

Spence landed on his feet at EKU and had a very successful turnaround, recording 63 tackles, 22.5 TFL and 11.5 sacks last year.  Spence was named the co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Ohio Valley Conference (shared with Eastern Illinois defensive tackle Dino Fanti) and entered the draft after his junior season.

Spence is listed on many boards as a defensive end, but at 6'2" 254 pounds he may lack the size to be a pure 4-3 defensive end.  Still, since he played on the line in college he has not had the experience in coverage that could push him to the early parts of the first round.  Spence performed well in the Senior Bowl practices and was involved in a few scuffles.  He appears to be a competitor and his skills are certainly first-round worthy.  At the Combine, Spence will be able to showcase that athleticism and he will have the chance to explain how he has advanced beyond the problems with Ecstasy that derailed his progress at Ohio State.

Joshua Perry, Ohio State

Perry played the outside linebacker role in a 4-3 defense at Ohio State.  Still, he has more bulk than Jaylon Smith.  Perry tips the scales at 250 pounds.  While Spence and Smith are projected first round picks across the board, Perry faces more of a range.  CBS ranks Perry as the 50th best player available, but Scouts Inc. ranks him all the way down at 83. Perry clearly has all the tools.  He has the size and the speed (4.65 40-yard dash).  He played the big games, against the top competition.

Perry will be facing similar scrutiny to Smith.  Perry's experience in the 4-3 defense means he could translate as a 3-4 outside linebacker but also as a possible inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.  His speed and experience in pass coverage will give him some versatility that other names on this list will lack.

The issue in the evaluations seems to revolve around Perry's quickness, agility and ability to react in tight spaces.  While he demonstrates very good straight line pursuit, he needs to improve on changing direction and making quicker decisions when caught up in the wash.  Keep an eye on the Pass-Drop and Hip Rotation drill.  If Perry can show some burst out of the change of direction he could stabilize as a second round pick, otherwise, look for him in the third round.

Mid-Round Talent

Two names to keep your eyes on are Joe Schobert and Kamalei Correa.  Both could be available somewhere between the third and fifth round.

Schobert is a 3-4 outside linebacker out of Wisconsin.  Schobert has the advantage of having been in the 3-4 system already and the tape on him will translate directly into what teams are evaluating.  Schobert built himself from a walk-on to the Big Ten Linebacker of the Year in 2015.  He has great fluid movement and does not stay blocked.  Schobert also has the advantage of having played against elite offensive tackles.  Schobert has also shown ball skills as the Badgers took some advantage of his high school running back experience during special teams trick plays.  The Combine is built for workout warriors and Schobert should do well. However, he compares physically to Packers linebacker Carl Bradford, who was moved inside after his rookie year - Schobert may actually project better in a 4-3 or to 3-4 inside linebacker.

Kamalei Correa is a defensive end out of Boise State. Correa lacks the size to move to the NFL at defensive end (6'3" 245 pounds).  ESPN lists Correa's 40-yard dash at 4.7 seconds and Correa definitely plays fast.  He has great speed on the field and showed the ability to be a playmaker.  He was a second-team all MWC (behind Ian Seau, who was not a Combine invitee).  He also made some interesting pre-season watch lists, but did not garner any awards or defensive player of the year honors.  As he transitions to outside linebacker, the athleticism will definitely help.  Teams will be evaluating his ability in the Pass-Drop and Hip Rotation drill.  Because he relied on his speed so much, teams will also be watching his rip and swim technique.  Correa has to show some hand use in his pass rushing.  The intriguing athleticism and the unknown factors of his level of competition and inexperience in coverage range his projections from second round to fourth round.

Late Round Possibility

Someone way down the list right now is Cassanova McKinzy out of Auburn.  He has good size for an outside linebacker (6'1" 264 pounds).  The intriguing part of McKinzy is his versatility.  He played both inside and outside linebacker at Auburn, recording 5 sacks as a senior and 21 tackles for loss over his final two seasons.  Still, the run-heavy focus of the Auburn defense limited his exposure to coverage. In a 3-4 scheme he will likely have more of a line-of-scrimmage mentality anyhow, but coverage is an aspect that will determine how late McKinzy goes.  He is strong at pass rushing, but he needs to improve as a tackler as well.