2017 NFL Draft – Top 10 Series: Linebacker

This article covers the off-line linebackers – any 3-4 OLBs are in the edge rusher group.

Overall Class Strength

This is an excellent group, with real star power, lots of different styles and also depth.  The small school class is also good.

Top 10 Linebackers

  1. Reuben Foster – Alabama. It was clear from snap one of the new season that Foster looked more explosive. Nick Saban wanted his defense to be faster and so Foster dropped a little weight.  Foster plays the game with an edge, which was particularly evident in the National Championship game against Clemson.  He can move, he can cover, he reads the game well and his leadership is evident even from afar.  He’s a top prospect – and if he didn’t play this position, he would be in play as a top three pick in this class.
  1. Jarrad Davis – Florida. Davis dealt with one of those dreaded high ankle sprains in 2016, which slowed him – but he’s actually pretty close to Foster – he’s that good. Davis is an explosive athlete and that was confirmed at his pro day with excellent 40 (high 4.5s), vertical and broad jumps.  His closing burst to the ball is most definitely “plus”.  He looks comfortable in coverage, although I felt change of direction was a concern, even before the ankle injury (and confirmed at his pro day with a weak cone drill time).  His stock has been lowered in the wider media because of his injury, but it’s not one that will cause him a long-term problem, so I would expect him to be a high pick and a top NFL player.
  1. Haason Reddick – Temple. As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, perception is a constant battle. When I first watched Reddick, no one had him as a top 100 level talent – let alone first round.  Although I try to operate in a bubble, it’s hard to write that a prospect everyone is saying “day three” will be a first rounder.  Fortunately, I did like him and put him in my top 100 earlier than most.  Obviously, that changed in the wider media as the season progressed – and then again post-Senior Bowl and Combine.  He’s risen in the media more than any prospect – but NFL teams knew a lot sooner, of course.  Anyway, Reddick could have been placed in the edge rusher group, but I’ve put him here because of his lack of length (6’1” with 32 ¾” arms).  He was an excellent college pass rusher – and while he can still win in this area with his explosiveness, his lack of length will not appeal to all teams.  However, as an off the line linebacker, he has skill also.  He did do this a little in college – plus at the Senior Bowl and looked good.  I would see him in an attacking and multiple defense – he can play in space or attack from deep, or off the edge – so he should fit most teams in at least one, and possibly more, roles.
  1. Zach Cunningham – Vanderbilt. Cunningham has the frame to be an edge player – and there’s a chance a team or two might see that also (6’3” with 34 3/8” arms and “plus” broad and vertical jumps at the Combine). In truth, playing an edge role might help – as when he’s off the line his main weakness is taking false steps.  If he can just attack, I think he’ll be a better player, which could be in an off the line role just as easily.  Cunningham’s range is plus and he also looks pretty natural in zone and man coverage.  When he sees it, then look out as he’s going to make a big play.  He’s not afraid to fill and you’ll see some big collisions when he does.  In flashes, he looks like a top 10 talent, but the entire package isn’t quite that good.
  1. Ryan Anderson – Alabama. As with Reddick, Anderson could be viewed as an edge player, but at 6’2” with 31 ½” arms, most teams will see him as an off line player. At the Combine, Anderson ran the 40 slowly (high 4.7s) and only managed to jump 28.5” (lower than many 300+ lb offensive lineman) – the only two tests he took.  From that, I would worry about his athletic ability for the NFL.  However, from tape, I am putting him here.  He reads the game extremely well – you can’t fool him on screen passes etc.  Some players don’t like being moved around – but I see Anderson as smart enough to handle a chess piece role – and indeed with his lack of size, it might be needed to keep him clean.  I’m not sure if he’ll do the rest of the Combine tests at Alabama’s second pro day – there is a chance if they are poor, he’ll fall – but I do think he will have NFL success.
  1. Anthony Walker Jr. – Northwestern. Zone heavy teams are going to fall in love with Walker, as he is outstanding in zone coverage. He has a natural feel for the role and I think he could be a nickel LB from day one.  However, against the run, he’s not as good unfortunately.  His read and react is slow – and his feet tend to get choppy as he’s trying to figure out what’s happening.  I thought he improved getting off blocks in 2016, but with short arms, that will likely be an issue for him as a pro.  When he sees a play, then he will make highlight plays – so if you watched a highlight tape, you would think this ranking too low.  He’s a difficult one to rank on a general board as I’m certain some teams will like him a lot more than others.
  2. Vince Biegel – Wisconsin. Biegel was a 3-4 OLB in college, but not one who always rushed. His Combine numbers were better than I thought they would be, but even so, I think he’s better suited in an off the line role.  Biegel is a little like Boise State LB Kamalei Correa from last year – he has a high motor and you can see his toughness when you watch him play.  He doesn’t look particularly explosive on tape, but he can drop his hips to get off blocks.  His ability to read the game is also good.  All signs point to him being a day three pick, but I like him to not only make a roster, but be a starter.
  3. T.J. Watt – Wisconsin. Watt was a prospect who declared early and despite the bloodlines (J.J.’s brother) the media didn’t predict would. That tells a story.  However, he declared and then put up Combine numbers that have seen his stock rise.  On tape he doesn’t look as explosive as his athletic numbers.  Thus, I have put him in this class rather than the edge rushers.  When he had reps against Taylor Moton in the Bowl game he got nothing – but he had success in that game against the left tackle, or rushing from inside.  He needs to use his hands better, for me – even from an off line slot.  If he’s like his brother, he’ll have “plus” character – and that carries weight with teams, but just as with the character “red flags”, I don’t include that into the equation.  So, from tape only, which is what I do, he’s got athletic upside, but that doesn’t show up on the field, so I have concerns.
  4. Raekwon McMillan – Ohio State. I held back pushing McMillan too high up my top 100 (which is a prediction of where prospects will be taken) as I didn’t think he would test well at the Combine. While he ran well in the 40, his shuttle and cone times were poor – which is what I saw on tape.  Having said that, I thought late in the season he played well.  He stood up and played his best football when the lights were shining brightest – and that’s most definitely needed at the next level.  The reason for having him at this spot and not higher, is that he takes false steps far too often.  When he does that, he can’t re-direct quickly enough and is out of plays (confirmed with the weak shuttle and cone times).  I do also worry about him in coverage against quicker tight ends or backs.  He might need the right system to flourish – it’s not that he’s minus talent, but he does have limitations.
  5. Tau Lotulelei – UNLV.  Lotulelei is the cousin of Star, but is a good player in his own right.  He’s not an elite athlete, but his pro day numbers were solid enough.  The way he reads the game makes up for running a 40 in the high 4.7’s at his pro day (but bench, vertical and cone were all “plus”). At times, he will gamble and come under blocks – and I think he’ll have to get that out of his game as he doesn’t have the speed to do it in the NFL.  He gets throught traffic well, is tough and will make the big play when his team needs it.  A tackling machine, I think he’s draftable – and I think he can make it in the NFL.

What?!  Where is…?

I’ve left out a couple of LSU LBs – Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley.  Beckwith I liked, other than way too many missed tackles – and in a deep group it has cost him.  Riley has ability in coverage, but I thought struggled to find the ball against the run.  Alex Anzalone’s (Florida) injury history isn’t taken into account in these rankings, but his style of play is very much reckless abandon, so I can see why he’s struggled health wise.  However, while there are some old school take on collisions in the hole, I didn’t see much craft if that pop didn’t help him win.  I also was unsure about his speed on tape – although at the Combine it was good.

Sleepers

I really enjoyed watching Steven Taylor (Houston) and on pure tape I would say he deserves to be in the top 10.  However, he’s undersized and his pro day numbers weren’t good – so unfortunately he misses out.  He’s got a great feel for timing blitzes, so hopefully he can find a home in the right system.  Calvin Munson (San Diego State) is another prospect who I enjoyed watching.  He played in a 3-3-5 defense, so he wasn’t always kept clean, but he still made plays.  He fills and hits with real force – and he’s also an excellent blitzer, so would suit an attacking scheme.  Tennessee’s Jalen Reeves-Maybin didn’t play much this year (shoulder injury), so is a bit out of sight/out of mind, but he has talent.  When he sees it, he has the athletic ability to close and will make some highlight reel plays.  The problem is that he doesn’t see things quickly enough – and it takes away from his obvious athletic ability.  In a simple, aggressive system that allows him to attack, he should find success.

Top Small Schoolers

Please note Connor Harris (Lindenwood), who was at the Senior Bowl, is not ranked as there’s no available tape.

  1. Dylan Cole – Missouri State. Small school pro day results don’t always make it out there, but Missouri State’s did. Cole put in a fine workout, which on my scale was higher than any LB at the Combine (40 in the high 4.4’s, 32 bench press reps, 39” vertical, 10’ 05” broad, 4.02 shuttle and 6.82 cone).  Cole’s tape wasn’t all outstanding – but some was.  I thought against Youngstown State he was trying to do too much and didn’t play well.  However, I still watched three other games where he was impressive.  He’s comfortable in man and zone coverage, which will help his pro chances.  He’s not a take on LB – but he reads the game well and still makes plays.  He will gamble and come under blockers – and with his speed, it might even still work in the league.  He’s a sure fire draft pick after those athletic numbers and I like him to do well in the league.
  1. Dylan Donahue – West Georgia. Donahue played DE in college, but lacks ideal arm length (30 ¼”), so is most likely an off the line LB. He doesn’t have a great deal of experience in space, but I think his high motor and flexibility means he has a shot in the NFL.  He does have pass rush ability – but is limited at the line with his short arms in take on terms.  Perhaps he could find a niche role as a pass rusher, but not with every team (some are stricter with thresholds than others).  From day one, I think he’ll have to help on special teams and develop his comfort in space.
  1. Tre’von Johnson – Weber State. Johnson was listed by Weber State at 6’0”, so is likely shorter – and that height likely means he’ll go undrafted. However, he can play.  He has a good motor and range – not over pursuing or getting out of position.  I would say he might be best as a weakside run and chase type – as when plays come right at him, he struggles more.  A lot of small school prospects over the years who I’ve liked haven’t even got camp looks because of size/thresholds, but hopefully he will.
  1. Javancy Jones – Jackson State. Jones played an attacking role in college, often used as an edge rusher – but at 6’2” 230 lbs, I think he’s more of an off the line prospect. Jones has quick feet and also shows flashes of explosion.  His motor is always set to high – and I think a weakside run and chase role might suit him perfectly, perhaps in an attacking scheme where he’s given the green light to blitz.
  1. Christian Kuntz – Duquesne. Kuntz is another college edge rusher who lacks the size for that role as a pro (6’1” 225 lbs). It’s difficult to judge him in space, as he wasn’t asked to drop much.  However, his motor translates well to special teams coverage units, so he has a roster spot shot.
Updated: April 11, 2017 — 9:55 am

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