Monday, March 2, 2009

Nittany Lions in the Pros - Linebackers

The 5th entry in my Nittany Lions in the Pros series takes a look at the position that is unquestionably the most prestigious at Penn State; one that is regarded as the best of the best nationwide. I, of course, am referring to the linebacker position.

Below is the list of former Penn State linebackers and how well they have performed in the NFL since 1966 (or the Super Bowl Era). It's a big list, as expected.

Click to enlarge statistics.

Penn State is always in good hands. Basically, the linebacker position is always solid; there tends to be at least one LB that is a All American/Big Ten performer or potential award winner. However, the position has seen a renaissance of late thanks to Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor, Sean Lee, and Navorro Bowman (plus four or five freshman ready to carry the torch next).

Common sense tells you that just by the shear number of former Penn State LBs have played the position in the NFL (51) that the Nittany Lions are doing something right. Well they are also performing at the next level. Former Penn State 'backers have accumulated seven All Pro selections, 19 Pro Bowl appearances, 121 seasons as starters, and 266 seasons on an NFL roster. Four have been selected in the 1st, eight in the second, and eleven in the third round of the NFL draft. Just about 45% of Penn State linebackers entering the draft have been taken on the (old) first day of the draft (rounds one through three).

So, who's been the best Nittany Lion in the Pros? Despite there being so many choices, this is perhaps the simplest choice at any position. No questions asked.

Jack Ham. That's it. No way is anyone more decorated or distinguished than him. He accounts for six of Penn State's seven All Pro selections (Dave Robinson being the other) and eight of the 19 Pro Bowl selections. The man was a beast. In his 12 NFL seasons he accumulated 32 INTs (1 for TD) and 21 fumble recoveries (1 for TD). He is credited with a mere 3 sacks but that is because the NFL only recorded sacks starting in 1982, his final season in the NFL. He started in - and won - four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers (IX, X, XIII, XIV). He is a legend; no one will be close to unseating him for another decade or two.

2009 DRAFT
This is actually a down year for Penn State LBs entering the NFL. The only eligible player is Tyrell Sales. Sales was a solid yet unspectacular performer for the Nittany Lions over the last four seasons. He stepped in and started for the suspended Dan Connor in 2005 as a redshirt freshman and was the primary backup after Connor returned. He remained a backup in 2006 as Penn State trotted out the best linebacking corp in the nation with Connor, Paul Posluszny, and Sean Lee. When Posluszny departed for the NFL before the 2007 season, Sales became a starter. Sales played in all 51 of Penn State's games since 2005, which speaks for his ability to stay healthy. He also has played both OLB positions. Sales never was a big name nor media darling because he didn't have the outlandish numbers the trio before him had. Sales amassed 154 total tackles (82 solo), 12 tackles for loss, 1 pass defensed, 1 INT, and 3 forced fumbles.

Sales size (6' 2", 233 lbs.) is perfect for a 4-3 OLB in the NFL. However he may not have the speed, cover skills, or ability to diagnose plays that scouts are looking for. For Sales to be signed as a priority UDFA, he'll have to impress at the Penn State pro day this month. He may find his way on a roster for spring practices and for parts of training camp gut, unfortunately, I doubt he'll make it to the regular season.

Of course the outlook for 2010 is much brighter for Penn State. Sean Lee is out of eligibility and Navorro Bowman may make the jump a year early.

As you can see Penn State has the history to back up its claim to "Linebacker U". Not only do their players perform at a high level in college, they continue to have success in the NFL, too.

Next week, A.Q. Shipley will take "center" stage.

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