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2016 NFL Draft Preview: Five Intriguing Outside Linebackers

The seventh article in our series leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft


If there's anything we learned from watching the Denver Broncos win the Super Bowl last season, it's that there's nothing more dominant and impactful in a football game than a relentless pass rush.

The Kansas City Chiefs have had this throughout their storied history, resulting in the nickname "Sack City" thanks to players like Art Still, Derrick Thomas, Neil Smith, Jared Allen and now Tamba Hali and Justin Houston.

But injuries and age are catching up with the players who've been making an impact for them on defense recently.

While pass rush can come from anywhere, the target is normally set on the outside linebacker position.

For the Chiefs heading into 2016, Houston is coming off knee surgery and the timetable for his return isn't yet known. He has 50.5 sacks for the Chiefs over the past four seasons, which is second in the NFL over that time (J.J. Watt, Houston Texans, 69).

Hali, who will turn 33 years old in November and currently ranks second in franchise history with 86 career sacks, just signed a new contract extension but has consistently talked about snap counts and making sure he's fully rested for the snaps he's on the field for next season.

Former first-round pick Dee Ford had a breakout game against the San Diego Chargers a season ago, which included 3 sacks and a key pass defensed late in the game to seal the victory, but he finished the season with just 4 total sacks in 479 snaps played.

A look at five of the top outside linebackers in the 2016 NFL Draft.

This offseason, the Chiefs re-signed veteran special teams ace Frank Zombo, who stepped up and made plays in limited action with injuries to both Hali and Houston last season, grabbing 3 sacks in just 202 total defensive snaps. They also signed former Atlanta Falcons linebacker Jonathan Massaquoi and former Green Bay Packer Anthony Mulumba.

Both of those guys have NFL experience, although it's limited.

With that said, the Chiefs could try and upgrade their pass rush via another outside linebacker in the draft that begins next Thursday, April 28.

Here are five intriguing guys who are available in the upcoming draft, including a little bit of analysis on their abilities from CBS Sports NFL Draft analyst Dane Brugler.

Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence (6 feet 2, 251 pounds)


After beginning his collegiate career at Ohio State as one of the most highly sought-after recruits in the country, Spence was banned by the Big 10 conference because of repeated failed drug tests.

It's a question Spence has had to answer throughout the entire pre-draft process and something he's been open and honest about.

Spence was suspended by the Big 10 for the 2014 season and subsequently left to enroll at Eastern Kentucky, where he was just as dominant last season as a redshirt junior as he was in his first two seasons at Ohio State.

In 2013, his last season at Ohio State, Spence finished with 14.5 tackles for loss and 8 sacks. Last season at Eastern Kentucky, where he was named the conference's Co-Defensive Player of the Year, Spence had 22.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.

Spence said back at the NFL Scouting Combine that he had met with the Chiefs while in Indianapolis, and he's recently been connected to the Chiefs in several mock drafts by different experts.

According to the latest positional rankings by NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, Spence is the No. 4 edge rusher available this year.

Here's what Brugler had to say about Spence:

"He might be the greatest wildcard in the 2016 class due to his immense talent, but heavy baggage off the field – dominant at the FCS level and also showed dominance at Ohio State. Spence is a slippery rusher with the initial burst, lateral quicks and natural leverage to threaten the pocket on a regular basis – gets upfield quickly and closes fast. He is still learning how to put together a consistent pass rush plan, but it's all there athletically and he is comfortable on his feet to cover space. Although his former coaches and teammates speak highly of him as a person, Spence requires maintenance and monitoring in the NFL due to his checkered background and teams need to meticulously inspect his character."

Georgia's Leonard Floyd (6 feet 6, 244 pounds)


Floyd spent time at both the inside linebacker position and then slid outside on passing downs to come off the edge for Georgia's defense throughout his career. It's the kind of versatility that NFL teams will covet, but it doesn't take an expert to see that his tall and slender frame may be an issue when he gets to the professional level.

That said, Floyd's game is built around the burst he shows off the edge and his athleticism in space. Some draft analysts project him as a top-15 pick, while others believe he's a second-day player.

Over the course of his three years at Georgia, Floyd had 28.5 tackles for loss, 17 sacks and 5 forced fumbles.

Floyd is Mayock's No. 2 edge player available.

Here's what Brugler had to say about Floyd:

"A highly intriguing size/length/athleticism prospect, he shows the impressive skills to stab, dip and flatten around the edge, maintaining his balance without losing speed to the pocket, but doesn't do this consistently. Floyd is deadly in space, but his lack of functional strength and growth potential are glaring concerns – once blockers make contact, he's usually shut down. Georgia's coaches rave about his natural ability and selfless versatility, plugging him at different spots in the front-seven to attack match-ups."

Clemson's Shaq Lawson (6 feet 2, 269 pounds)


While Floyd is tall and slender and could have issues at the point of attack at the NFL level, Lawson would be the opposite. He's shorter, stockier and won't face the same kind of physicality issues in one-on-one situations as Floyd.

Last season, playing for a dominant Clemson defense, Lawson was a first-team All-American who finished with 25.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks.

Lawson had just one year of starting at Clemson after sitting behind the former first-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons last season, Vic Beasley, but he made it count.

He's Mayock's No. 3 edge rusher available in this draft.

Here's what Brugler had to say about Lawson:

"He is an intelligent and powerful edge defender with the lower body athleticism and flexibility to be equally dominant against the run and the pass. Lawson isn't a long-armed, twitchy athlete, but his efficient pass rush process and ball awareness allow him to be productive – top-20 prospect and NFL starter as a rookie."

Virginia Tech's Dadi Nicolas (6 feet 3, 235 pounds)


Nicolas was born in Haiti before his family moved to Florida when he was just 3 months old.

After redshirting at Virginia Tech in 2011, Nicolas picked up 17.5 sacks and 36.5 tackles for loss over the course of his four-year collegiate career.

Nicolas' best season came as a junior in 2014, when he had 18.5 tackles for loss and 9 sacks. 

Here's what Brugler had to say about Nicolas:

"Athletic edge rusher with fluid footwork…excellent first-step momentum with the flexible joints to easily bend the corner while picking up speed…quick reactor to avoid blocks, split double-teams and penetrate…smooth lateral agility to stunt and loop…very good chase speed to close the gap…jolts as a tackler with wrap skills…doesn't avoid contact and stays assignment sound, working to hold the edge and leverage the field…has the length required for the edge – eight passes defended and two blocked kicks in his career…active hand work and keeps busy…persistent motor and never lets up…improved ball awareness and sniffs out screens…plays through nagging injuries, including a broken left hand in 2015."

Grand Valley State's Matt Judon (6 feet 3, 275 pounds)


A Division II player looking at playing in the NFL must show dominance against the kind of lesser competition he would have consistently faced at that level, and that's exactly what Judon did last season for Grand Valley State.

He was virtually impossible to block and finished the season with 23.5 tackles for loss and 21 sacks.

Here's what Brugler had to say about Judon:

"Division II offensive tackles couldn't keep up with his initial speed when he stayed low off the snap, using his athleticism to leverage and flatten around the corner. Judon said he "wised up" as a senior with his preparation habits, studying more film and embracing the coaching he received. He is still a work-in-progress as a run defender and faces a large jump in competition from Division II to the NFL, but he has intriguing pass rush traits worth developing – worth a mid-round pick with the upside to be a nickel rusher early in his career, but needs to buy in to pro coaching and polish his mechanics."

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