A decade ago, SAM LBs were supposed to be 6’4, 250. They needed to be rugged at the point of attack (POA). They had to set the edge on run plays. They needed to be able to cover TEs, based on a size matchup. Guys like Marcus Washington and Carlos Emmons were exactly what teams wanted.
Football has become more and more of a passing league. The emphasis on size has gone away. Teams need a SAM to be someone that can hold his ground on run plays that come at him, but that can be done by a 6’1, 240 LB. The key now is for him to be able to hang with TEs, based more on athleticism that just size. Teams are now moving TEs around so if that happens with the SAM on the field, he must be able to play more in space.
Some blitzing or 3-4 teams will still have interest in converting DEs to SAMs. You see this with Mathias Kiwanuka in NY or Brian Orakpo in WAS. Kiwi can be a liability in coverage, but is good vs run and still a good pass rusher. Orakpo is okay in coverage, but still a good pass rusher. Teams that run the Tampa 2 or Wide-9 are going to prefer pure LBs at SAM.
So let’s talk about some SAM prospects:
Zach Brown – UNC – 6’1, 236
I’ve written quite a bit about Zach in the last 6 months. He is a special athlete. He covers ground like a DB. He can cover TEs or RBs and even some WRs. Zach is going to be lacking as a run defender. He’s not at his best as a POA guy. You can’t coach speed. Zach has that. He flies all over the field. You can coach tackling and run defense. In time, Zach could become better at taking on blockers. There’ s no guarantee he will, but the potential is there. He’s acknowledged in interviews that he must get better at tackling and run defense. That’s a key…admitting you need to improve. Not all teams will want Zach as a SAM, but he fits there for plenty of teams. Great cover guy. Can even make coverage plays (7 career picks). Good blitzer (5.5 sacks this year). Big enough. Has potential as a run defender. Let’s face it, in today’s NFL you’re more worried about stopping Eli Manning than Brandon Jacobs. Brown can do that. Will go in the 20-40 range. With sensational Combine, maybe goes before 20.
Travis Lewis – Oklahoma – 6’2, 228 (est.)
Trying to find a spot for Lewis is tricky. He’s listed as an ILB on the Combine invite list. Has the body of a WLB. Is tough enough vs the run and covers well enough to play SAM. I think teams will have differing opinions on how best to use Lewis. Will strike blockers and fight through trash to get to the ball. Has pretty good cover skills. Has a bit of a nasty streak. Gets in his shots when he can. Lewis can be a sloppy tackler (too high at times), but it isn’t due to lack of physicality. Posted ridiculous numbers: 446 tackles, 9 INTs, 31 TFLs, 12 PBUs, and 4 FFs. Has different type of personality and that can help or hurt him. Spirited, emotional leader. And cocky…or is that arrogant? Need to see him at the Combine to find out exact size and just how athletic he is. OU has had some guys turn out to be surprisingly unathletic over the years.
Keenan Robinson – Texas – 6’3, 240
This is the closest thing to a complete SAM. Has the size you want. Slender build so he will add on bulk and get up in the 250 range. Pretty good cover skills. Able to hang with TEs and get depth on zone drops. Only a limited playmaker in coverage (2 INTs). Showed at the Senior Bowl that he can play up on the LOS and battle blockers. Wasn’t great, but showed promise. Mostly off the ball at Texas. In his best game (vs OU in 2010), Robinson looked like a stud LB. Played tough, physical football. Shoved blockers around. Fought to get to the ball on every play. Finished with 19 tackles and 1.5 TFLs. Had 5.5 sacks in career, but showed good pass rush skills at Senior Bowl in the practices. With the right coach pushing the right buttons, could become a really good NFL SAM. Could go 2nd or 3rd. Interesting to see how he does at the Combine.
Bobby Wagner – Utah State – 6’0, 241
Played SAM at the Senior Bowl. Played all over in college. Literally lined up at OLB, ILB, and as upright DE. Love the versatility, but downside is that he didn’t develop fully at one spot. Lacks ideal size for SAM. Even today you’d prefer a guy to be 6’2 to handle TEs. Wagner is a good athlete. Showed that in Mobile as he made a leaping INT and later a leaping PBU while covering a TE. Physical enough to handle run plays that come at him. Probably best suited for WLB so he can chase plays, but I’m sure a team or two will like him at SAM due to versatility and athleticsim. Was the MVP of the Senior Bowl. Finished career with 445 total tackles, 4 INTs, 4.5 sacks, and 28.5 TFLs.
Shea McClellin – Boise State – 6’3, 248
This is the guy that really intrigues me. Boise State listed him at DE, but played all over. Was DE, OLB, and ILB. Got used as WLB in Mobile. Has the perfect build for SAM. Physical enough to handle the POA on run plays. DE experience helps in that regard as well. Good pass rusher. Can use quickness off the edge or blitz as stand-up LB. Actually looks okay in coverage. Saw him in one game tracking the RB down the field on a wheel route. Does need work, but lots of potential. Great motor. Chases the ball all over. Doesn’t just feast on light competition. Had 2.5 sacks vs Georgia this year and 2.5 sacks vs Virginia Tech in 2010. Finished his career with 4 INTs, 20.5 sacks, 33 TFLs, and 5 FFs. Could be a bit of a project, but major upside. I see him as 3rd rounder at this point.
Josh Kaddu – Oregon – 6’3, 235
Raw. Didn’t play much in first couple of years. Has the frame you want in a SAM. Good pass rusher, totaling 6.5 sacks this year and 10 for his career. Good athlete. Can play in space. Needs to develop cover skills. Bit of a project, but has the size and athletic ability that any team would want in a SAM. Mid to late round guy.
Lavonte David – Nebraska – 6’1, 225
I’m listing him here simply because he played SAM in Mobile and some team may be interested in him at that spot. Doesn’t have the build or game for SAM right now. Struggles with taking on blockers, but spent a lot of time working with coaches so he knows that’s an issue and is working on it. Could bulk up to the 235 range. At his best playing off and then attacking, but he is a physical player. Good hitter and tackler. Has some real pop. Good cover skills. At his best vs TEs. Only played at Nebraska for 2 years after coming over from JC, but was a great college player for them. Posted huge numbers in 2011. Had 2 INTs, 5.5 sacks, 3 FFs, 12 TFLs, and 133 total tackles. Had a better year than Kaddu did a career. I think David is more of a WLB, but in today’s NFL, never say never. I think of him as a 3rd round player.
* I have Nigel Bradham slated as WLB and Audie Cole as ILB. Nigel isn’t meant to play up on the LOS and Audie lacks athletic ability.
* Jake Bequette played SAM in Mobile, but I think he’s a DE to 4-3 teams. 3-4 teams will want him more as a pass rusher than true SAM.