This year’s linebacker class is pretty interesting. There’s the All-Conference players most college football viewers know, but there are a couple of guys who have helped there stock immensely in the pre-draft process. I include inside- and outside in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. Some of the players mentioned could have also been mentioned among the edge rushers, but I decided to list them here because I see the versatility to fit multiple schemes. I think my LBs froms one to ten are all top 100 prospects and there are a bunch of guys I really like, who will probably hear their names called on day three.
I mentioned a number of extra guys at the bottom. If you’re interested in a scouting report on one of them, just let me know. I didn’t want to make this article even longer.
1. Reuben Foster, Alabama:
With all the great linebackers coming out of Alabama like Dont’a Hightower, Reggie Ragland (who made Zach Brown expendable for Buffalo) and C.J. Mosley, this guy is the best to come out yet. Foster is super-active, intelligent and instinctive. He is an explosive hitter, who knows how to shed blocks and put his face into a ball-carrier’s chest. He is so much more than a run-destroyer from sideline to sideline, he adds a ton of value on passing downs. Foster can control the middle of the field, where he makes his present felt on receivers coming across, he can cover people out of the backfield and is a huge threat as a blitzer, simply shooting gaps and often coming late when a path opens up to run through. I’ve even seen him rush the passer from the outside with a surprising ability to run the edge. Another thing that comes to mind is his reputation as a screen killer, simply run through blockers and not even giving the man a chance. But not only did he show his qualities only Alabama’s great defense, he showed a team-first approach by doing the dirty work on special teams. I don’t know exactly what happened at the combine when he was asked to leave due to a confrontation with a member of the medicine staff, but following the Alabama program, I’ve never heard anything about him other than being an excellent leader for the organization. Still, Foster has had some lingering injuries he had to play through for the Tide. He is an intimidator who has the range on passing downs as well as chasing outside runs and the aggressiveness to stop plays in the backfield (13 TFLs and five sacks).
2. Haason Reddick, Temple:
I don’t think anybody has helped himself more in the whole draft-process than the Temple kid. Reddick dominated the Senior Bowl and continued impressing people at the combine, where he showed off his elite athleticism. He was a hand-in-the-dirt 4-3 defensive end for most of his time in college and could line up in various linebacker spots at the pro level. Obviously he has pass rush experience, but he possesses also premiere speed and explosiveness, with surprising coverage-skills, putting on a show in one-on-one coverage drills versus running backs in Mobile. The high-school safety has all the tools to be a modern-day linebacker with a lot of different qualities and flexibility. On passing downs he can move outside and rush the passer with natural bend and excellent hand usage. He put those abilities from the edge on paper with 10.5 sacks and a total of 22.5 tackles for loss, which ranked him third in the nation in 2016. I think he’s a linebacker you want to keep clean and have run around, which might limit him to a will-linebacker role, but he has immense talent and will only get better learning the position. The former walk-on defensive back has worked for everything in his career and earned one of the single-digit jersey numbers as one of the leaders in the Temple program.
3. Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt:
Cunningham is really long for an stand-up linebacker and has a surprisingly strong lower body to keep blockers away from his frame. He displays unbelievable short area quickness and instincts, which have led mind-boggling production with 125 tackles and 16.5 of them going for loss last season. The Vandy tackling-machine hustles all over the field and comes up with huge plays in the biggest moments, most memorable the ending to the Georgia game, where he was lined up between the guard and the center at the line of scrimmage and still managed to catch the running back from behind on a toss to the outside to deny the Bulldogs on a fourth-and-one attempt. That was an awesome overall performance with 18 tackles, but at Vandy he had some series where he made every single play to stop the offense. At 6’4’’, 230 lbs. he plays high-hipped, but is very physical with receivers coming his area and uses his length well to jam tight-ends and knock down passes. He didn’t record a single interception in 36 career games, but he shows good range and loose hips to make some impact plays in that part as well at the next level. Cunningham misses some tackles and will have to increase his upper body strength to finish some of those. While he doesn’t quite have elite speed, he certainly is fast enough to beat blockers to the point to not be bothered by them and sometimes literally steps around them. His draft stock has risen and fallen over the course of this draft season, but to me he’s clearly a first-rounder. He plays downhill, hungry and instinctive.
4. Jarrad Davis, Florida:
This dude is an oldschool player with the athletic abilities the modern NFL is looking for. He flies around in the open fields to get involved on every snap, but also jolts up offensive linemen in the run game. Davis does an excellent job running downfield with tight-ends and backs before finding the ball when it’s in the air, understanding when he can take his eyes off of them. His style of play is very aggressive, he always runs his feet through contact and often delivers the final blow on ball-carriers. Whoever picks him up will get a tone-setter and energizer for their defense. At times his aggressiveness hurt him when you look at some of the angles he took and the resulting missed tackles, but often times he could at least hold that guy up to give his teammates a shot at making the stop. He only knows one speed to play at and therefore saw some personal fouls called against him, but I love how he wants to intimidate the opposition. As a blitzer he excels at timing up the snap and get through the line almost clean. The only real concern with Davis to me is his health after missing most of 2014 to a torn meniscus and playing nicked up for some time as a senior.
5. Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State:
The All-Big Ten linebacker plays downhill with a minimum of wasted movement. McMillan consistently was one of the top LBs in college football over the last two seasons. He shows high football IQ and often seems to be one step ahead of the offense with a see-ball get-ball mentality. While he does a decent job taking on blockers, he takes too much time shedding them. The former Buckeyes often runs through the line of scrimmage, sometimes clean on blitzes, and shows a secondary burst to bring running backs down from behind, where his arm strength shows up, as he often trips up ball-carriers with his final effort. I feel like scouts don’t give him the credit he deserves. He is excellent at diagnosing plays and shows great intelligence overall. On tape I didn’t see elite fluidity in coverage, but at the combine he showed excellent sink in his hips and technique. I also was surprised with his 4.61 time in the 40 and if he continues to develop his coverage skills combined with ability to read offensive schemes he should be a more complete pro than college player.
6. Tyus Bowser, Houston:
As a pure edge rusher Bowser would still be drafted on Day 2, but I think with the other tools he has he could be top 50 pick. The Cougars standout displays fluid movement skills in coverage for a guy who mainly went forward as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. When his coaches decided to drop him into coverage he did an excellent job taking throws into the flats away and also covering hook-to-curl zones. What I love most about his game is the non-stop motor to chase people down from behind you simply didn’t think he would be able to catch. I think if NFL coaches take more advantage of his versatility he would be an excellent blitzer from different spots, even though he recorded twelve TFLs and 8.5 sacks anyway. Heck, I’ve seen that man cover slot receivers one-on-one. The reason he might not be considered an elite LB prospect is because he’s kind of a tweener without the size for the edge and not a lot of experience standing up off the line of scrimmage and stopping the run, but he is an explosive athlete who killed it so far this offseason in Mobile, Indianapolis and at his pro day.
7. Ryan Anderson, Alabama:
The Bama product definitely has some athletic limitations and isn’t very long, but be plays extremely hard and sets a very physical edge. Overall he stays true to his assignments and won’t upset his coaches in any way. Anderson really understands how to convert speed to power, but other than that I don’t see much of a plan in his pass-rush right now, as he gets caught straight up by offensive tackles at times and doesn’t really have a way to go but right through him. I’d like to see do a better job fighting his blocker’s hands off before they get a grab on him, because that’s when his rush gets stagnant. I’ve seen him be able to do that, but his speed around the corner and length doesn’t really catch opponents off guard. Nevertheless, he somehow always made big plays for Bama (19 TFLs, nine sacks, three PBUs, one INT for a touchdown in 2016) and he was a tone-setter for those championship teams. Anderson will improve a team’s run defense day one and with some work on his hand usage he has potential as a pass-rusher, especially if he can keep up some of those effort sacks. I think he can not only line up at outside LB in a 3-4 or 4-3 front, but he could even be an inside linebacker if he is paired with a more mobile running mate. Don’t get caught up in the numbers this guy, he wants to put pads on and hit people.
8. Duke Riley, LSU:
This dude shows up all over the place with outstanding acceleration and flick of the hips, but also the pure speed to track receivers down from behind. Riley has the ability to cover hook-to-curl zones and still get involved on throws in the flats. At the next level I could also definitely see him as a matchup player against tight-ends and some of the premiere pass-catching backs. He is dangerous as a blitzer when a path opens up late, because he’ll arrive at the passer in a heartbeat. My only real knocks on him are the fact he sometimes seems a little out of control, not breaking down properly and that he lacks take-on qualities, but he makes up for it with his speed to slip blocks and run people down. Riley was a star on special teams his first two years on campus before seeing playing time on defense with guys like Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones coming out of Louisiana. He might be a little undersized, but he possesses outstanding lateral agility and other qualities today’s NFL is looking for.
9. Anthony Walker, Northwestern:
Although built like a bear, Walker plays with the heart of a lion. He doesn’t allow blockers to get into his body, by bench-pressing them away and rarely losing track of the ball-carrier. He trusts what he sees at all times and keeps his feet moving through contact. Something he seems to struggle with is having to defeat a blocker who has an angle to take him away from the play though. Walker does a good reading the QB’s eyes in coverage and attacking underneath passes, but he plays pretty flat-footed in that aspect and lacks the quickness to get in between some of those throws. He might be a little tight in his hips and lacks elite acceleration, but he shows a ton of hustle and passion. I think by shedding a few pounds he would look much more comfortable in the open field and be more productive on passing downs. He’s a leader and a physical presence in the middle of the defense, who will give some team an attitude and hold things together.
10. Alex Anzalone, Florida:
This is another new-age linebacker, who diagnoses plays quickly and has the speed to make up for misreads on play-fakes. Anzalone looks like he’s running shuffle drills when defending running plays and rarely lets blockers get a straight shot at him, but rather finds himself right in front of the ball-carrier. He was asked to cover slots in man-to-man at times and did an excellent job doing so. The former Gator chases people all over the field like a mad man. He often sprints through a gap as a blitzer and creates havoc in the backfield, but he can be stonewalled by the strongest backs in protection. The big concern with him is that he had several injuries that held him back, but he possesses excellent athleticism and if he proves he can stay healthy (only ten career starts), he could become a star at the next level. I think he fits best as a Will in a 3-4 front where you allow him to run around free and make plays, but with his versatility he can fit various schemes.
Just missed the cut:
Ben Boulware, Clemson:
This guy is undersized and therefore plays with a chip on his shoulder. Boulware is a born leader, who will do anything to win and he embraces the role of being the bully on the field. What defines him are his high football IQ and the heart he plays with. The defensive captain for the Tigers finds the football and always is around it, as he prides himself on being the best prepared player on the field. He will thump people over the middle and is a nightmare on backs in protection, as he tries to simply run them over. He just lacks the size to consistently take on big offensive linemen and shed them, as well as the elite athleticism and transition from run defense to coverage NFL scouts look for in modern-day linebackers, but he is a dog on the field and I’ve been a big fan of him over the last couple of years. He kind of reminds me of Chris Borland coming out of Wisconsin, who people said doesn’t have NFL speed either, but would have probably been named Defensive Rookie of the Year had he played all of his one season in the league. You just have to love Boulware and he deserves respect.
Kendell Beckwith, LSU:
The second LSU linebacker plays downhill and drives his legs through tackles. Beckwith shoots gaps when uncovered and catches ball-carriers at their legs. What stands out about him is his secure open-field tackling. He doesn’t mind running into a wall of blockers just to slow plays down and give his teammates a shot at the guy with the ball, but also understands how to find his way through traffic. Something I saw on tape was the fact he has to get better at keeping blockers away from his legs. My problem with Beckwith is the lack of motor, as he sometimes jogs when the play is out of reach or doesn’t take his final shot at the ball-carrier if he’s still up. He’s not the same kind of speedy or rangy linebacker LSU brought out in recent years, but he will find a home as a Mike and take control of the middle of the field for somebody, even though he will drop a couple of rounds and have to earn his way back after a torn ACL in LSU’s bowl-game.
Vince Biegel, Wisconsin:
This former Badger prides himself on landing the first punch and operating from there. He makes plays slanting inside and destroying running plays from the get-go. When engaged with a blocker he shuffles sideways and uses is hands very well to disengage from that blocker. The best part about him as a player is his understanding of the game, combined with instincts to get into position. He feels comfortable playing in space and with his eyes on the QB, but also has taken on man-coverage responsibilities against tight-ends occasionally. Biegel shows size limitations at less than 250 pounds and might not be a special athlete, but he was voted team captain for his consistency and intensity. He got a bunch of sacks on secondary efforts during his time at Wisconsin and to me he is just a consistent player who is technically sound and plays with plus effort. He might have to work his way into the lineup through special teams, where he could excel early on, before earning a spot as a Sam either on a 4-3 or 3-4 team.
Jordan Evans, Oklahoma:
This guy shoots gaps in the run game to create negative plays. Evans has running back speed and is a secure tackler in the open field. He can drop deep in Tampa-2 schemes and make plays on post and deep-in routes. Although he lacks the strength and physicality to put charging runners on their back and stack up lead-blockers, he can contribute on passing downs because of how well he plays in space, as he picked off four passes as a senior, with two run in for touchdowns, and should have had some more, did he not drop them. The Oklahoma product stays focused throughout the play and rarely gets fooled, but he also has 4.51 speed to get to point B quickly.
Marquel Lee, Wake Forest:
Lee is a tackling-machine with an endless appetite, who always stays straight to what’s in front of him and gets in the runner’s way. He plays fast on every snap on keeps separation from the blocker with long arms, but he could be even more aggressive. The Wake Forest LB has a lot of experience and production as a blitzer (7.5 sacks and 19 TFLs in 2016 alone). He presents a pretty angular build and doesn’t really jack up blockers. Moreover, he gets himself in trouble sometimes because he’s too close to the line of scrimmage and runners cut to a gap away from him, but he was a great college player with two 100+ tackle seasons and three forced fumbles as a senior alone.
Right behind them:
Hardy Nickerson (Illinois), Riley Bullough (Michigan State), Elijah Lee (Kansas State), Connor Harris (Lindenwood), Jayon Brown (UCLA), Ben Gedeon (Michigan), Steven Taylor (Houston)