- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Only five linebackers have been drafted in the first round of the past three drafts. In free agency this year, a dozen cornerbacks received contracts in excess of $2.666 million a year. Only five linebackers received similar contracts. And it's not as though the position is being phased out. The Chargers, 49ers and Raiders are switching from 4-3 schemes to linebacker friendly 3-4s.
"Linebackers tend to slip because many don't play every down," former Cowboys general manager Gil Brandt said. "Teams tend to take players who are specialists and put them in there. The two positions that tend to get less playing time these days are linebacker and fullback. With that Tampa Bay Cover 2, the middle linebacker is dropping deep into coverage, so that guy needs the ability to cover. That opens up the middle seam for the tight end, so you see a little less of the fullback."
Thank heavens for the University of Miami, which has replaced Penn State as Linebacker University. The Hurricanes have a long list of successful NFL linebackers from Lewis to Michael Barrow to Dan Morgan and it's no different this year with the two best linebackers -- Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams -- being from Miami.
Vilma is the inside linebacker, Williams plays the outside. They've been together for four seasons. They currently share an apartment as they prepare for the draft. They have the same agent, Mitch Frankel. From the looks of the draft, they could be selected back-to-back toward the middle of the first round.
The Saints have the 18th pick in the first round and like both linebackers although Vilma probably has the edge. The Vikings pick next. While they lean toward selecting Vilma, they'd be happy to get Williams. They currently have seven linebackers under contract including middle linebacker Greg Biekert, who is expected to retire. The Vikings are scrambling to sign a restricted free agent linebacker to add the numbers at the position.
Either one would work in the Vikings defense coordinated by Ted Cottrell.
Personally, these two linebackers couldn't be any more different. Williams is the quiet one, a leader by example and a player of few words. He prefers talking to his teammates one-on-one instead of shouting to a group.
Part of those traits comes from his background. He grew up in a single-family home in Pittsburg, Calif. His mother worked extra jobs to ensure her son got a good education, but she really didn't have to worry. Williams was USA Today's Defensive High School Player of the Year.
ABC's John Madden spoke at his high school prep banquet and said Williams was the only player he ever saw who was physically ready to go pro coming out of high school. He was 6-foot-2, 247 pounds.
"I took it as a great compliment, but never in my dreams did I think I could skip college and go to the pros," Williams said. "The size of these guys at the next level is a lot bigger. It's a lot more than high school. When he said that, he was speaking at a banquet."
Even now, as the NFL awaits an appeals court decision involving Maurice Clarett, Williams doesn't look back and wish he turned pro coming out of high school and he doesn't believe many high-schoolers could turn pro.
"The only way I think you could do it is as a punter," Williams said. "There is so much you need to know and then there is the speed and size of the guys. You're talking about boy going against men. You're talking about guys 30 years old and 25 years old."
After four years of college football though, Williams is indeed ready for the challenge.
"D.J. is a prototype University of Miami linebacker that you have seen over the years who can strike you," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said. "He played fullback as a freshman and he is just an outstanding athlete. In my opinion he will play in this league for a long time."
Unlike the quiet Williams, Vilma is a Ray Lewis type leader. Fittingly, he plays the middle even though he's considered a little small for the position -- 6-0, 233. The scouts, coaches and general managers who attended the school's workouts couldn't help but notice that Vilma ran the sessions as if he was a coach. He pointed players to get to the right spot. He encouraged them. He gave them pointers.
Vilma is a leader. He didn't come to Miami with the same accolades as Williams. He grew up in Coral Gables. His mother and father grew up in Haiti. In Haiti, it's unlikely a child would get the opportunity to earn a living in sports, so education is important and his parents wouldn't let him play football until high school.
Though Vilma may be perceived to be undersized on the scales, he is a heavyweight in the classroom. He was a finance major with a 3.5 grade average and was an Academic All-American in 2003.
"The kid is just so smart," Vikings coach Mike Tice said. "He puts up big numbers in games because he knows where to go. He can run and he can make plays. People talk about his size, but if you look back, Ray Lewis was exactly the same size as Jonathan coming out of college."
"I'm not concerned," Vilma said about his height and weight. "I've been playing middle linebacker since high school. They always said I was too small in high school, too small in college. So it's no different."
Williams has watched Vilma develop with amazement through their years together.
"He has great instincts," Williams said. "The coach will put something on the board and by the time we get out there, he'll never make a mistake. So I just watch him work, how he studies film, the mental reps. After a coach says it to him, he'll say it over and over and over again until it sticks in his head."
Williams and Vilma will live together for another week. After that, they will separate on draft day to be impact linebackers in the NFL.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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