After publishing my top 10 running backs in the 2016 NFL Draft, I did an edition on the best guys matching them – the linebackers. For this segment I left out edge rushers, which I will talk about soon as well. As the game and offensive approaches change constantly so do the qualities linebackers have to show. Therefore the players listed all have very different skillsets.
1. Myles Jack, UCLA
Jack is a pure athlete. He can run sideline to sideline, change directions quickly and then come up to hit. As the league gets more and more pass-heavy, having a linebacker who can really take away tight-ends and routes over the middle as well as being able to go out in the flats becomes all that more important. He is a very effective and sure tackler, who always wraps, even though he might not come with the same pop as some of those big hitters do. There are some injury concerns with him, but I’m fine with his size and I love how he sees the field and the fact he could still play running back, because a lot of great linebackers profit from knowing the other side of that scrum in the middle. And he also has a lot of value as a pass rusher, especially off the edge.
2. Reggie Ragland, Alabama
Big inside thumper. His combination of instincts, sure tackling and dominance over middle are the traits those special guys at linebacker have. He might keep his eyes in the backfield too long at times, but I love the aggression and violence he plays with. I think he’d fit in any front if you let him do the things he does best – which is staying in the middle and reading offenses, rather than letting him sink deep or run to the outside in coverage. I also think he’s an effective blitzer and he decided to show his ability to rush from the edge since the Senior Bowl. So what you get with him is an oldschool mike linebacker, who can stay on the field on third downs as long as you don’t ask him to cover quick slot receivers man-to-man all over the field.
3. Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame
I feel so bad for this guy. No question in my mind he would be a top-5 pick in this year’s draft if he didn’t injure his knee badly in the last game of the year (Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State), but this is the kind of player you want to lead your team. There’s no area he lacks in athletically and there are not a lot of guys out there who have the type of play speed he displays. In pass defense he was asked to do a lot of different and demanding things, especially in man-coverage, and he responded brilliantly. I think he’ll have to learn to play more aggressive when it comes to believing in the things he sees, like attacking the backfield more often on run plays, but he understands how to take on blockers and extend his arms and he catches a lot of fast players from behind. I also think he could become a more productive blitzer. Without more insight on his medical I can’t put him on top.
4. Darron Lee, Ohio State
This Buckeye has a lot of versatility and therefore his coaches asked him to do play different positions one-on-one, blitz or play in space, where I think he is at his best. He has the range to cover the whole field, but can also get skinny and run through small gaps. He’ll have to work on shedding blockers, as he tends to get caught up if he gets sloppy with taking them on. This might not be strongest guy at the point of attack against run-blockers, but he can explode through ball-carriers. I think he can do a lot of different things because is a true football player, as he played quarterback in high school, and he has the competitiveness and attitude to play with the big boys. And he is still learning the nuances of the position.
5. Su’a Cravens, USC
I don’t care if you want to label Cravens as a linebacker, safety or whatever. All I know is he can play. He recognizes plays very quickly and gets to the right spot. In coverage he anticipates routes, stays engaged with his man and has natural hands to pick off passes. His best attribute is his aggressiveness against the run though. He trusts his eyes, attacks the play and has the closing speed to catch ball-carriers from behind. His style of play shows he’s willing to give up his body and he doesn’t mind taking out blockers’ legs or diving to get players on the ground. But he’ll have to learn to tackle with good technique all the time and adjust to the way he makes contact with NFL receivers. At the end of the day, with Cravens you get a hybrid, who can be very disruptive against the run and do a lot of different things on passing downs.
6. Kentrell Brothers, Missouri
This is a very instinctive player. He reads formations and calls out plays pre-snap and then trusts what he sees and make plays. I don’t think he’s too aggressive as some scouts say, but rather that he knows when to attack and when to be patient. He might lack ideal size and range in coverage, but makes up for it with his football smarts and competitiveness. In my opinion he is a tough and reliable linebacker, who needs to become a more consistent tackler to eliminate shortages of size, but also has a track record of blocking kicks.
7. Deion Jones, LSU:
This kid I thought really started his rise in the draft in one-on-one coverage drills at the Senior Bowl when scouts saw how fast he could run and change directions. He then had some of the best shuffle and movement drills at the combine you’ll ever see. He has a team-first attitude and doesn’t mind hitting bigger guys up front. What you get with him is a fluid athlete, who runs sideline to sideline and pops ball carriers in the open field and a fierce special teams coverage player. I’m not sure if he can put on much more weight to his slim frame and I don’t think he has the instincts some of those other linebackers have.
8. Joshua Perry, Ohio State
You’re talking about a guy who doesn’t take any plays off and always is aggressive. Perry moves very well in coverage with fluid hips and redirection skills. Against the run he hits the point of attack hard. Versus the pass he can anticipate routes in man-coverage and finds the ball in zone. Although he does not possess great top-end speed or any other elite traits, he has a well-rounded game, leadership qualities and the mentality to be a great player for a long period of time.
9. Tyler Matakevich, Temple
The Owls’ unquestioned leader over the last couple of years is a much better football player than athlete. You never saw him confronting his teammates, he just lets his play speak. Matakevich has a great first step, quickly reads plays and doesn’t waste any time to get involved. He has brute strength, but uses it in a controlled manner. His athletic limitations make scouts question his abilities in coverage, but he does a nice job flowing around in zone, is outstanding at timing blitzes and compensates with football smarts.
T.-10. Dominique Alexander, Oklahoma
Twenty or thirty years ago Alexander might not have been a good prospect for the linebacker position in the NFL because of his size, but in today’s pass-happy league he could shine with his fluid movement skills, agility and speed to make an impact in coverage. He has the athleticism to run with tight-ends and backs, but also recognizes routes well enough to get to the spot where the ball is going. He might not be your big inside thumper, who can smash fullbacks in the hole and just run over backs, but he is a reliable tackler, who catches ball-carriers at their feet and doesn’t let them go away. The things I’m worried about are the ability to shed blockers and that I think he guesses too much.
T.-10. Kyler Fackrell, Utah State
At 6’5’’ Fackrell has the height to fit in a both a 3-4 and 4-3 as an outside linebacker. He uses his lateral quickness very well as he knows how to win against blocks with positioning, even though he’ll have to work on his ability to shed blockers. A lot of that will have to do with not exposing his tall frame and getting caught up in traffic. He has shown the versatility to rush the passer and drop back into coverage and doesn’t mind doing the dirty things. His most important assets are his hard work and leadership qualities. With a torn ACL sidelining him for the entire 2014 season he may have some injuries concerns, but the way he came back also tells me what kind of competitor he is.
Two more names: Blake Martinez (Stanford), Jatavis Brown (Akron)
Martinez was ultra-productive at Stanford, but will have to prove he can eliminate shortages of quickness with his aggressiveness in the NFL as well as in college.
Brown is an interesting prospect, because much like LSU’s Deion Jones he has the athleticism and movement abilities coaches look for to match pass-heavy offensive personnel. He’s not even six feet tall, but the violence he plays with make him intriguing as a nickel and dime-linebacker, as well as key special teams contributor.