A Look at This Year's NFL Draft Inside Linebacker Prospects
Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson faced an enormous challenge in 2010.
Wilson was attempting a comeback after a neck injury sidelined him for most of the 2009 season. He had suffered a herniated disc in the opening game of 2009 and needed season-ending surgery. The seriousness of the injury injected uncertainty into Wilson's future in football.
But the Illini linebacker was determined to put the bite back in his game.
"It was important to come off an injury like that," said Wilson, who accomplished his mission in convincing fashion.
"To come back and have the great season that I did, it was wonderful. I loved every bit of it. I think it was precious. Just having that moment, coming in off of neck surgery, most people wouldn't probably want to play football again."
Wilson's comeback performance last fall -- 112 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, four sacks -- played a major part in garnering the status he now enjoys. He is considered by many observers and analysts to be the best inside linebacker available in the 2011 NFL Draft. He has a chance to be a late first-round pick in the April 28-30 selection process.
Wilson is a rangy 6-4 and 250 pounds. He is long and strong, with the versatility and speed to play outside linebacker in some defensive formations. He led all linebackers at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 4.49-second time in the 40-yard dash. He recorded a 36-inch vertical jump.
Wilson's frame and athletic ability remind some observers of Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby.
"I heard that a lot," Wilson said at the Combine. "We're both tall and got long arms. Actually, our play styles are very similar. That's a great comparison; he's a great linebacker."
Wilson's speed makes him a strong candidate for special teams while he's learning NFL defensive schemes. And that swiftness is also likely to provide his NFL team with defensive options.
"My athleticism overall will just help me in a position to play both inside (and) outside," he said.
"Some people say inside, some say outside. Some ask me what position I'd like to play. ... I explain to them if I could play kind of similar to how I was playing at Illinois -- both inside, outside at times, even blitzing off the edge at times -- if I was able to do all that, that would be best."
Asked by reporters at the Combine about his expectations for himself, Wilson spoke with confidence.
"Even off of injury, I still showed passion for the game," he said. "What I want everyone to know is that this kid really loves the game and he plays with passion. And when you play the game with passion, you play harder, you practice harder, you do everything that much more. And I want everyone to take that into note."
One of Wilson's competitors for a high draft position is a player he competed with in the Big Ten. Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones considered declaring for the 2010 NFL Draft. He chose to return to the Spartans for his senior season and saw his tackles total drop to 106 from 154 the previous year.
Jones adamantly denies having second thoughts about his decision to stay in school, especially after Michigan State finished the regular season 11-1 and shared the Big Ten title.
"I don't regret anything," Jones said at the Combine. "I hold true to myself. I'm a Big Ten champion. There aren't too many people who can say that. I'm very happy and proud to be a part of that with my teammates. I'm more mature now than I was in 2009 as a junior. I feel very strongly about my decision."
BREAKING DOWN THE 2011 NFL DRAFT'S INSIDE LINEBACKERS
Few recent mock drafts have an inside linebacker going in the first round, although the speed and athletic ability of Illinois' Martez Wilson could elevate him to late first-round status. Quan Sturdivant of North Carolina appears to be the next-best player at inside linebacker, but he's not especially swift and likely will fall to the second round. Casey Matthews of Oregon has the right bloodlines -- his dad, uncle and brother (Packers linebacker Clay) all have NFL credentials -- and could go in the second or third round. Colin McCarthy of Miami (Fla.) and Kelvin Sheppard of LSU are likely third- or fourth-round picks and should make solid contributions for their NFL teams.
THE LAST FOUR
The last four inside linebackers drafted by the Colts ...
2010: Pat Angerer, second round, Iowa.
2005: Tyjuan Hagler, fifth round, Cincinnati.
2004: Gilbert Gardner, third round, Purdue.
Kendyll Pope, fourth round, Florida State.
THIS YEAR'S DRAFT
An alphabetical list of 10 inside linebackers expected to be selected in the 2011 NFL Draft ...
Nick Bellore, Central Michigan, 6-1, 250
Akeem Dent, Georgia, 6-2, 233
Nate Irving, North Carolina State, 6-1, 231
Greg Jones, Michigan State, 6-0, 242
Greg Lloyd, Connecticut, 6-2, 259
Casey Matthews, Oregon, 6-1, 231
Colin McCarthy, Miami (Fla.), 6-1, 238
Kelvin Sheppard, LSU, 6-2, 250
Quan Sturdivant, North Carolina, 6-1, 241
Martez Wilson, Illinois, 6-4, 250
Note: The content in this story and in the series of draft-eligible players that appears on Colts.com in no way reflects the position of the Indianapolis Colts.