It's true, the dynamic of the LB position changed a bit when we added Adam Seward from Carolina. However, LB is arguably still in the top four or five positional needs for the Colts entering the draft. Two players who have been getting a lot of attention amongst Colts fans have been California's Zack Follett and Western Illinois' Jason Williams. How far these two players will fall in the draft is arguable (they'll likely be available in the third and maybe fourth rounds), so I will just compare the two players and put up a poll where fans can indicate who they would prefer (assume both are available and we can only get one of them).
Zack Follett - California
2008 Season Highlights
2009 Senior Bowl Practice Analysis
2008 Highlights v. Miami (FL)
6'2, 236 lbs.
4.69 40 Yard Dash, 7.31 3-Cone
21 Bench Reps, 37 Inch Vertical
2008 SEASON STATS:
87 Tackles, 23 TFL
10.5 Sack, 5 FF, 1 FR
INJURIES: Missed nearly 3 games in 2007 (Neck Stinger).
NOTABLE PERFORMANCES 2008:
Oregon - 11 Tackles, 3 Assists, 1 Sack , 3 TFL, 1 PD
Oregon State - 10 Tackles, 4 Assists, 1 TFL, 1 PD
Stanford - 10 Tackles, 5 Assists, 2.5 Sacks, 3.5 TFL
Miami (FL) - 9 Tackles, 1 Assist, 2 Sacks, 4 TFL, 1 PD
Strengths: Broad frame with the room for an additional 10-15 pounds of muscle mass... Improved play recognition as he gained experience... Plays with reckless abandon on every snap... Forcefully takes on blocks with an impressive pop that can gain him the separation he needs to make big plays behind the line of scrimmage... Downhill defender who can explode into the ballcarrier and has forced eight fumbles over his career, despite only emerging as a full-time starter in 2007... Looks to intimidate his opponent... Reads the quarterback's eyes and will break on the ball.
Very physical and good strength... Reliable tackler... Excellent in pursuit... Does a nice job versus the run... Good pass rusher and blitzer... Has a burst to close... Very intense and competitive... A big hitter... Has a non-stop motor... Superb instincts... Hard worker... Tough and durable... Has a lot of special teams potential... Productive and really had a terrific senior campaign.
Zack Follett is an exceptional linebacker. He excels stopping the run, delivers punishing blows which separate the ball from its carrier, shoots into the backfield to stop plays behind the line of scrimmage, and quickly closes on the quarterback when he rushes the passer. That he has a non-stop motor and plays with reckless abandon, looks to intimidate the opposition, and has the vision to make a break on the ball in the passing game makes him even more valuable.
Weaknesses: Relies on his aggression and physicality to make the play... Inconsistent in his reads... Will take false steps and can be beaten over the top by play-action... At his best coming off the edge as a pass rusher, but showed only marginal technique when facing athletic pass blockers who could absorb his initial charge as a pass rusher... Only flashes the lateral quickness to evade blockers... Tackled with his head down too often in 2007, leading to some missed takcles and, more important, putting his spinal cord at risk. Follett missed nearly three games in 2007 due to a neck stinger.
Just average size and bulk... Stiff and not a great athlete... Doesn't play real fast... Has some health and durability concerns... Sub-par change of direction skills... Too aggressive at times... Lacks fluid hips... A liability in coverage... Marginal ball skills... Struggles in space... Limited upside.
Many of Follett's weaknesses can be marginalized by playing in a different defensive scheme. It's unlikely that Follett would often encounter athletic pass blockers on the Colts, partially because of the 4-3 system but primarily because of the attention required by Freeney and Mathis. Follett may lack lateral quickness but he most certainly has a nose for the football, as game film will indicate. Additionally, it is a rather astonishing suggestion that Follett does not play very fast... you watch the game film and tell me if you agree with that. However, suffer no delusions, Follett is not going to excel in pass coverage. He definitely lacks hip fluidity and does a better job making plays on the ball with his ability to read the quarterback's eyes and use his burst and explosion to close on the receiver to break up passes or knock down balls.
Monday Practice Notes: Moving inside as Follett has been asked to do this week obviously is a transition for the Cal product. Slow reacting through the day and simply did not scrape well tackle to tackle after making his reads.
Tuesday Practice Notes: Appeared a step slow most of the day, awkward in coverage, and took some bad angles to the ball carrier in scrimmage work.
Wednesday Practice Notes: Looked more comfortable than he did on Tuesday. At times, he even helped his teammates get lined up before the snap. He performed well in pass rush drills and reacted well to screens during scrimmage work. Probably his best practice of the week.
Thursday Practice Notes: Slow reacting in his reads initially, but picked up later in the day. Follett even snagged an interception very late in the practice. Very stiff dropping back into coverage.
Analysis: Follett struggled and one wondered why he was invited to begin with. He's a downhill linebacker who struggles moving laterally and can't move in reverse.
Trying Follett inside, to me, is a mistake. I am not surprised that he underperformed during Senior Bowl practices playing outside of his natural position. While many suggest that Follett is most suited to playing in a 3-4 scheme, which he was most successful in, I believe Follett would fill the SAM role in the Colts defense beautifully. A hard hitting, quick, run stopping LB with a nose for the football and a knack for forcing fumbles sounds an awful lot like exactly what we ask of our SAM backers.
NFL Draft Q&A: LB Zack Follett - Ed Thompson, Senior Analyst, Scout.com
If you want some insight in how Follett feels he has been able to excel at California, visit the link above. He is a proud guy, clearly, who works hard to produce.
Jason Williams - Western Illinois
Buck Buchanan Award Video
6'1", 241 lbs.
4.49 40 Yard Dash
26 Reps Bench, 39 Inch Vertical
2008 SEASON STATS:
67 Tackles, 17 TFL, 4 Sacks
6 PD, 6 FF
INJURIES: None noted
NOTABLE PERFORMANCES 2008:
Arkansas - 7 Tackles, 1 Assist, 2 Sacks, 2 TFL, 2 FF, 1 PD
Missouri State - 6 Tackles, 2 Assists, 1 Sack, 1 TFL, 1 FF
Indiana State - 8 Tackles, 5 Assists, 4 TFL
Souther Illinois - 5 Tackles, 1 Assist, 2 TFL, 1 FF, 1 PD
The National Football Post
Strengths: A thick, compact linebacker with good overall power and base strength at the point of attack. Does a great job attacking downhill at the line of scrimmage and filling holes in the running game. Is a powerful tackler and drives his hips through contract. Displays good fluidity and balance in his back-pedal and is a much better athlete than given credit for. Displays excellent straight-line speed for the position.
At first glance, it would seem that while Jason Williams is capable against the run, it may not be his strength. So long as he avoids getting engaged by opposing blockers, particularly offensive linemen, and can use his speed to make plays, he does well. Otherwise, it would seem that Williams' true strength is his ability in pass coverage with a good back pedal, good size and excellent straight-line speed to stick with potential receivers out of their breaks. That's not to say he is weak in any one aspect of his game, simply that he could probably use more work on his technique against the run.
Weakness: Lacks ideal height and length, struggles getting his hands inside on defenders and shedding blocks. Needs to do a better job using his hands to protect his lower half at the line. Is easily washed out of plays when offensive linemen get out to him.
Concerns about Jason Williams' height obviously are not a major concern for the Colts, as he is as tall or taller than most LBs on our roster. His weakness shedding blocks is his biggest concern for a team like the Colts if he's called on to defend against the run. Unless the interior of the defensive line gets larger, it is likely that players on the opposition OL will continue to get to the second level and engage our LBs. Hopefully we can address that problem in the draft, but for now, it is what it is while we are evaluating potential LBs in the draft.
The other major concerns about Jason Williams, at least to an amateur analyst like me, are that he played against a lower level of competition and that no notable game film is readily available online or has been played on TV. Accordingly, Jason Williams is a much bigger worry to be a "workout warrior" potentially who has been given a lot of stock because of his raw athletic ability but has not done much ON TAPE to analyze his strengths and weaknesses.
That said, Michael Lombardi's National Football Post is not exactly a source which that should be dismissed quickly. Additionally, finishing 4th overall for the Buck Buchanan award essentially means that he was arguably the 4th best player overall at the NCAA Division II level. Clearly, a player is a player no matter where he played or who he played against in college, and Jason Williams might be one of those rare talents who just might prove very productive in the NFL. I like him as a Will prospect for the Colts initially. If he can develop his technique shedding blockers, he could also make plays all over the field at the Mike. For what it is worth, I consider Jason Williams a high risk/high reward selection and I can't see him bringing anything higher than 4th round value for the Colts.
Feel free to follow the following links for other coverage and analysis on Jason Williams.
Small School Stars Who Might Get Drafted - Steve Wyche - NFL.com Senior Writer
Player Analysis: Jason Williams - Universaldraft.com
Jason Williams: Big League Prospect - Bleacherreport.com
East-West Shrine Game Practice Report - The National Football Post
Jason Williams Wows At Pro Day - Rob Rang - CBS Sports
Zack Follett looks to be a highly effective SAM LB for the Colts if he is drafted. Very strong against the run, average against the pass, extremely athletic, explosive, and a hard-hitter. Jason Williams displays rare athletic ability who could excel as a future Will for the Colts but would most likely take more development than Follett. Williams could have a dual-use in the Colts system, however, as he could fill the role Melvin Bullitt did last year in our "strong nickel" packages because he has the speed and pass coverage ability to fill that role. However, with one of the most proficient passing defenses in the game already, it is my opinion that a player in Follett's mold would be a higher need for the Colts right now. Accordingly, if I were forced to choose only one of the two prospects I would select Zack Follett (probably would take a 3rd round pick).
But who cares what I think? They're both strong prospects.