NFL scouting combine preview: inside linebackers

The NFL scouting combine starts Feb. 22. In advance of the annual meat market in Indianapolis, staff writer Matt Vensel will examine each position and give Ravens fans the 4-1-1. In this post he looks at inside linebackers.

The top prospects: Boston College’s Luke Kuechly is the consensus top inside linebacker in this class. He is projected to go in the middle of first round, way before the Ravens are on the clock at No. 29. Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict, who has been linked to the Ravens in mock drafts and who has been compared to Ray Lewis by some analysts, is a first-round pick who should wow scouts at the combine. Alabama's Dont'a Hightower is on the heavier side, but he will appeal to NFL teams with 3-4 defenses after playing in that scheme in college.

Other intriguing names: Bobby Wagner of Utah State, James-Michael Johnson of Nevada and Shawn Loiseau of Merrimack are among the lesser-known prospects who can get on the national radar with strong showings at the combine (Wagner already started to impress at the Senior Bowl). Texas linebacker Emmanuel Acho is the brother of Sam Acho, who plays for the Arizona Cardinals. N.C. State's Audie Cole is another one to watch.

Grading the class: Kuechly and Burfict are both talented prospects, though Burfict is said to be undisciplined on the field. Hightower could be a very good pro player if he gets in the right system. After those three inside linebackers, who could all be drafted in the first round, there are plenty of question marks with this C-plus class.

Fitting the Ravens: Linebacker is a position of uncertainty for the Ravens. Lewis will be back for a 17th season, but it might be time to look for his long-term replacement in the early rounds, especially if Jameel McClain leaves as a free agent. Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson is a free agent, too, and Dannell Ellerbe is restricted. We don’t know how much longer Lewis plans to play, but his future could dictate whether the Ravens draft an inside linebacker in April.

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