I’m not going to say we were wrong about it being a great linebacker class, I’m just going to say the well dries up very quickly at the position. Much quicker than I originally anticipated to be honest, and the real draft could see them go just as fast, with three rumored to go in the top 20. After my top five things definitely drop off, but you can still find prospects worth investing in for certain roles later down the board.
Couple guys I didn’t get to but will watch after the draft depending on where they come off the board: Christian Sam, Matthew Thomas, Oren Burks, Joel Iyiegbunwie, Micah Kiser (wasn’t a fan of the couple games I watched pre-Combine) and Tegray Scales.
14. Darius Leonard, South Carolina State – Late Day 3
If you’re a raw, small school linebacker with questionable instincts and mental processing, you better test like a legend to have a shot at developing into a strong starter. Instead, Leonard ran an average 40 at the Combine and poor agilities at his pro day, raising questions about whether he has the upside many analysts thought he did.
On tape, Leonard is slow to diagnose and attack his keys, and struggles mightily getting off blocks. He plays a lot more timid than you’d like for a big, long linebacker, and doesn’t hit with authority as a tackler either. There is some potential in coverage if he can develop a better feel for routes in zone, but I do not see the promise in Leonard’s game that others do. He’s a big-time project with special teams ability.
Ideal Scheme Fit: Putting Leonard at weakside linebacker is his best bet, allowing him to play in a cleanup role where he will at least see less congestion.
13. Josey Jewell, Iowa – Mid Day 3
Jewell is going to get billed as your typical “technical, smart, tough, unathletic” white linebacker, but he’s more just the last two than the first two. His instincts didn’t impress me on tape, as Jewell constantly got pinned down on the second level and failed to work off contact. He also misses way too many tackles, which isn’t something I expected to see. Jewell has a good feel in zone coverage, and will work his tail off, but he has the look of a career backup and special teams contributor.
Ideal Scheme Fit: Jewell is a MIKE linebacker, just a super limited one.
12. Mike McCray, Michigan – Early-Mid Day 3
McCray played all over for Michigan, and nobody there will question his toughness, smarts or love for the game. His instincts are average and his athleticism is below-average, so there is very little upside in his game. McCray has the profile of a long time backup and special teams demon due to his strong tackling and football IQ, but there isn’t a lot of room in today’s NFL for backup linebackers who can’t at least provide coverage help on long and late downs.
Ideal Scheme Fit: McCray played all over for Michigan, but he’s probably best at SAM linebacker. I think he can keep up with some in-line tight ends in man coverage.
11. Shaun Dion Hamilton, Alabama – Early Day 3
I love some aspects of Hamilton’s tape, and I know he is well-respected amongst his Alabama peers, but the limitations could be overwhelming for him in the NFL. He gets engulfed by size and isn’t an elite athlete, which means he’s got to process and attack keys quicker than his opponents complete their assignments. There are flashes of that with SDH, but not enough for me to hang my hat on. Two season-ending injuries won’t help his stock in the eyes of NFL teams. Don’t be surprised if he goes undrafted.
Ideal Scheme Fit: WILL linebacker behind a front line that can keep him clean. More than likely Hamilton is a career special teamer.
10. Jerome Baker, Ohio State – Early Day 3
I will admit that Baker slightly improved as a mental processor this past season, but he’s still far more athlete than football player. That might be promising at some spots, but not at linebacker, where defensive players need to be the mental quarterbacks of the defense.
Baker is an outstanding athlete, although he rarely plays at top speed due to his slow trigger and lack of feel for the game. The underclassman just seems to lack awareness and intensity too often, letting blockers work down to him and cover him up with little resistance. If he ever develops fully, his range and coverage ability should make him an ideal WILL linebacker.
Ideal Scheme Fit: WILL linebacker.
9. Shaquem Griffin, UCF – Early Day 3
Griffin’s story is obviously unbelievable, but he really is an insane athlete with movement skills very much on Baker’s level. I wouldn’t take a chance on him before round 4, as Griffin was allowed to roam free in UCF’s offense, and often freelanced to an extent that will get him in trouble in the NFL. He’s extremely fast, explosive and gets off blocks better than you’d expect with one hand, but there are going to be limitations to his game as a tackler, cover man and block shedder that need to be vetted.
Ideal Scheme Fit: WILL linebacker who can rush off the edge situationally and play in the slot some.
8. Skai Moore, South Carolina – Early Day 3
Character and injury concerns could end up pushing Moore out of the draft entirely, but I like his tape more than most and would take a chance on him during day three. He’s extremely physical and tough, and shows a good feel for blockings schemes and attacking his keys. Moore plays super upright and takes on blocks while exposing a lot of surface area, but he uses his hands fairly well to disengage from contact too.
I think he’s limited in man coverage, but has outstanding feel in zone that helped him nab 14 collegiate interceptions. I like Moore as a spot starter or average starter who can also be a star on special teams. He rarely misses a tackle.
Ideal Scheme Fit: WILL linebacker, but Moore could be a versatile guy that plays all three spots. He brings it as a blitzer too.
7. Malik Jefferson, Texas – Late Day 2
Jefferson is a size/speed/athleticism freak playing a position that requires a strong football IQ and quick processing. He misses too many tackles, isn’t violent enough when taking on blocks and gets caught out of position too often, but the upside is through the roof, and he was definitely better in 2017.
The question teams have to answer is whether Jefferson loves the game enough to work his tail off to get better. If so, shoot your shot with him, because the flashes are pretty awesome when he puts it all together.
Ideal Scheme Fit: You’d love for Jefferson to step into a MIKE linebacker spot someday, but right now he’ll be at his best on the weakside where he can flow and react and not think quite as much.
6. Jack Cichy, Wisconsin – Late Day 2
I’m still riding with Cichy, who missed all of last season after suffering a knee injury before Week 1. He has a ways to go, but he made big strides at Wisconsin, plays extremely tough and physical and tested very well at his pro day despite coming off injury. Cichy has the size, movement skills and demeanor, he just needs coaching to put it all together.
Ideal Scheme Fit: Eventually I see Cichy as a MIKE linebacker in the NFL. He has a great feel in zone coverage in the middle of the field.
5. Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State – Mid Day 2
I think the hype on Vander Esch is out of control, but prospects with his size, speed and overall movement skills will always get teams excited. He is still raw and learning the mental aspects of the position, but his temperament is right and he comes off as a true student of the game in interviews. One other thing, he’s arguably the worst blitzer I’ve ever seen at the position.
Ideal Scheme Fit: Vander Esch’s versatility to play all three spots is very real, and there has even been some talk about putting him on the line of scrimmage situationally, although I would stay away from that. I want him at MIKE eventually.
4. Fred Warner, BYU – Early Day 2
Warner killed the Senior Bowl, showing he can make the transition off the ball after playing as a big slot and a non-pass rushing edge defender at BYU. I think he’s going to be an even better pro than he was in college, as his ball skills and range in coverage should get him on the field right away. He’s got to finish better as a tackler, but he gets off blocks better than any linebacker in this class not named Rashaan Evans.
Ideal Scheme Fit: WILL linebacker who can be versatile in coverage.
3. Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech – Early Day 2
Edmunds is the 26th overall player on my board, but I guess I don’t like him as much as my peers who have him top 10 or even five. He got a lot better as the season went on, playing faster and getting into attack mode earlier. Still, Edmunds is a work-in-progress who is going to have to think the game quickly due to his issues getting off blocks. His range and coverage upside at the position are tantalizing.
Ideal Scheme Fit: Edmunds can play WILL or MIKE, but this talk of putting him on the line of scrimmage needs to end yesterday.
2. Rashaan Evans, Alabama – Early Day 2
Question Evans’ overall athleticism in man coverage if you want, but he is on his way to being a complete stud in the run game, is fine in zone coverage and can get after the quarterback as a blitzer/edge rusher. Evans is quick to the trigger and explodes through blockers and ball carriers with reckless abandon. He cleaned up his tackling this past season and really developed mentally. Evans hasn’t reached his ceiling yet either, although his style of play should transition quickly to success in the NFL.
Ideal Scheme Fit: MIKE linebacker, which the ability to play SAM and rush off the edge as well.
1.Roquan Smith, Georgia – Early Round 1
Smith isn’t the best take-on linebacker in the class, but just about every other aspect of his game is gorgeous. He’s quick to get downhill and evade blockers, and he seldom misses a tackle despite always being around the ball. His range is otherworldly, and he’s so quick to diagnose anything outside of the box that it’s almost impossible to get a hat on him. Smith is the ideal modern day linebacker in every way. He’ll be a transformative piece for whatever defense he lands in.
Ideal Scheme Fit: MIKE or WILL linebacker, depending on what the rest of the linebacker room looks like.