Now that the 2017 NFL Draft has concluded, the analysis continues in projecting these prospects to the next level, especially during their rookie years. I’m building a series looking at the five biggest early impact contributors among each position group, including today’s focus on five off-ball linebackers that should be rookie starters or at least situational studs right away in their careers.
The players are listed in order from the most to least impactful rookies among each position group. It’s splitting hairs in some cases, but I figured it will give us another fun element to look back on when the season ends.
Reuben Foster, LB, San Francisco 49ers*
Foster was the best linebacker in the 2017 NFL Draft, and he’ll be one of the best in the league if he’s able to stay healthy and out of trouble. Not many can read-and-react, tackle, blitz and cover like Foster, who sports some of the best range and finishing ability that I’ve seen in a prospect. He’ll immediately start at WILL linebacker in the 49ers new 4-3 defense, and remain on the field for all three downs given his man and zone coverage skills. The only reason Foster has an asterisk is that a shoulder injury could derail his start to the 2017 season, something I’m unable to account for right now.
Ryan Anderson gets held a bit and loses the edge, but Reuben Foster is a freak: pic.twitter.com/ehEFAarsbc
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) December 18, 2016
Jarrad Davis, LB, Detroit Lions
I wasn’t Davis’ biggest fan pre-draft, but he’s gonna play a lot of football as a rookie given Detroit’s current linebacker group. Paul Worrilow is well-suited for coverage downs, and Tahir Whitehead and Nick Bellore struggled massively last season, putting a lot of pressure on Davis to carry a subpar unit. He’s inconsistent with his gap assignments and needs to take better paths to the ball, but the more Detroit lets Davis play aggressive, the better he can be. I think he’ll be victimized in man coverage due to his stiff hips and upright playing style, but he can carry the seam and impress in zone, so Detroit will need to deploy him wisely on passing downs.
He trips on OJ Howard's leg, but watch Jarrad Davis bring the fight to Cam Robinson pic.twitter.com/9FWVBM1W0b
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) March 28, 2017
Raekwon McMillan, LB, Miami Dolphins
Lawrence Timmons and Kiko Alonso lead the way for a rebuilt Miami linebacking corps, but McMillan will at least be a two-down player in base packages, either at SAM or MIKE linebacker. He’s decent in coverage and has adequate range, but McMillan is excellent between the tackles, sifting through trash and keying on blocks quickly to make stops in the box.
He needs to wrap up better, especially against bigger runners, but McMillan’s cerebral nature and leadership ability will impress coaches during camp. It might only be in a two-down role early on, but McMillan could put up impressive tackle numbers with his propensity to always be around the ball.
Duke Riley, LB, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons are all about getting athletes on the field, which is why I think Takk McKinley and Duke Riley will see plenty of action as rookies despite not being finished products. In Riley’s one year as a starter at LSU he was highly impressive, outplaying teammate Kendall Beckwith and showing off impressive sideline-to-sideline range and coverage ability.
Riley needs to finish more consistently as a tackler in 1v1 situations, but I was impressed with his mental makeup and decisive reads for a first-year starter. I think he’ll join former teammate Deion Jones as high-caliber starters in Atlanta in 2017.
Love me some Duke Riley man pic.twitter.com/sbJzia9viM
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) April 21, 2017
Haason Reddick, LB, Arizona
Reddick will probably play a versatile role for Arizona in 2017, and while I think he could have an up-and-down year as he acclimates to the mental processing required to play off the ball, he’s talented enough to make big plays to compensate for his other struggles.
The ability to match up in coverage with tight ends while also providing pressure as an interior or edge blitzer make Reddick an enticing defensive chess piece, and his work ethic and football smarts should help him pick up the defense quickly. He’ll be high variance to begin his career, but it’s difficult to doubt that Reddick’s intangibles and rare traits will make him a high-level starter in time.