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Continuing my look at prospects that are not getting the respect they deserve, but could become big contributors to the team in the years to come. This time it's all about the inside linebackers.
The depth at inside linebacker is really weak in this upcoming draft, but there could be some nice gems hiding in plain sight. Along with those, there are a couple of small-school players that would be an instant help to the New Orleans Saints on special teams and, if developed right, could provide great depth to an equally thin linebacking depth chart in New Orleans.
Right now, Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are slated to be starters next season on the inside. Behind them are Chris Chamberlain and Jonathan Vilma. Who knows what happens with this crew over the next few weeks? Will Vilma accept a pay cut? Does Mickey Loomis decide to cut ties with Hawthorne and his $4.8 million cap figure?
Only a couple of the prospects below could start next season, in my eyes, but all of them have the potential to be solid pros.
Bruce Taylor, Virginia Tech
Taylor is one of those players that I am sure, if you were to put him next to Curtis Lofton on Day One, you wouldn't have any worries with his ability to handle that spot. From what I have seen on film, he has come back from an ankle injury in 2011 as a better player. Despite missing four games with that ankle injury, Taylor has been pretty durable in his college career.
He is a natural leader and very smart. His numerous positive intangibles outweigh his physical limitations. His big issue is being able to shed blockers, but, when he is kept clean, Taylor would be a tackling machine at the weakside ILB position.
Jonathan Stewart, Texas A&M
Same name as the Carolina running back but there is no relation there. This Aggie is the other guy in the later rounds that could start immediately for the Saints. Stewart is a fast, sure tackler who has the speed to cover between the numbers at the next level.
The thing that stood out the most to me was his motor. He was on a very talented defense, but it always looked like Stewart was just outworking everyone. One play against Florida was most memorable: Stewart had blitzed in and missed the sack, but he never gave up on the play. He chased the Florida quarterback down from behind about 15-20 yards ahead of where he had missed the sack.
Keith Pough, Howard
Pough really put on a show during the East-West Shrine Game week. Pough displayed great technique, and scouts got to see his natural athleticism in person. The Howard product plays aggressively and with a violent streak that is needed when you are as good against the run as he is.
He is a gym rat who constantly works on getting better at his craft. He could use a little fine tuning, but this is a guy who can contribute immediately on special teams.
Jake Johnson, South Alabama
Johnson started his career at Virginia Tech and transferred to South Alabama after his sophomore year. He is the rare, non-injured player who had five years of eligibility in college and took advantage of every one of them. He had 130-plus tackles in 2012 along with 15 tackles for loss and three sacks.
He reads and reacts so quickly and is great at blitzing. He is better in zone coverage than man, but he could be covered up on that end by Lofton or Malcolm Jenkins. He would be an upgrade on special teams