We started our positional rankings on Tuesday with the running backs and the way we are going to do this is alternate between offense and defense with kind of the direct matchups in one week (so tackles vs. edge rushers, wide receivers vs. cornerbacks, etc.). So that leads us to the linebackers in this edition and the opinions about this group seem to be all over the place.
While I do believe there is a clear order of one, two and three, after that there is a lot of disagreement. I think there are two clear first-rounders and another guy, who should go somewhere early on day two, but from my number five prospect on these guys might not even hear their names called before day three when I look at many of these rankings out there. Two that are frequently among the top five or so didn’t even make my list at all. I am looking for fast, athletic linebackers who fit the modern game, while also being able to defend the downhill run game, as I could see a trend of more power football being played in the near future.
1. Devin White, LB, LSU
A former four-star running back out of high-school, Devin White saw early playing time at LSU and became a full-time starter as a sophomore. He was a first team All-SEC and second team All-American selection in his second year, recording 133 total tackles, with 13.5 going for a loss. White put up almost identical numbers last year while making more plays on the ball, breaking up six passes, forcing three fumbles and recovering another two on his way of improving to first-team All-American and earning the Butkus award for the nation’s best linebacker.
White has been the catalyst for the Tiger defense these last two years. He plays with an attitude and swagger, gets downhill and moves people backwards in the run game, while being feather-light on his feet and having a jump to his step. He displays tremendous pursuit and has the speed to show up anywhere on the field. On some snaps he even goes underneath the block, redirects to run down the line and stops the ball-carrier for no gain, while also simply being too fast for most guards and centers to climb up to on zone running plays and just shooting gaps before the O-line is ready to come off their combo-blocks. White displays elite closing burst and is an explosive hitter, who drives his legs through tackles and twists ball-carriers to the ground. You can not let this man run free or he will track down the ball from sideline to sideline. The LSU star backer is not afraid to bump heads with those big offensive linemen, packing a strong punch and understanding how to disengage.
At 240 pounds, White has no troubles getting depth after stepping up against run-fakes. He is comfortable picking up RBs out of the backfield and running with them on wheel routes, while also lining up with tight-ends in the slot and displaying the fluid hips to react to secondary routes once the scramble drill is happening. While you like him operating in space, he is even more dangerous lurking around the line of scrimmage in the passing game. White is an outstanding and instinctive blitzer, who has a feel for where the open lane is and puts the heat on opposing QBs. The All-American is pretty slippery through traffic in general and he can not only go through backs in protection – he also uses his hands to get around them. Having the O-line open up any lane to get through against White can prove to be deadly, because he doesn’t mind just taking off and arrives at the passer in a heartbeat. His explosiveness showed up when he notched 31 pressures as a blitzer last season.
Even though he has enough size to take on blockers. White is very dependent on his speed and is just way too inconsistent with his reads at this point. He gets caught peaking in the backfield instead of reading the offensive line and loses time with blockers in his face, which just allows the ball-carrier to get past him. As a former running back recruit, White often times reads run plays like a former ball-carrier and guisses on cutbacks due to the leverage of his own D-line as the backside linebacker, opening up space on the actual play-side. He was put in several bad spots on draw plays against Georgia last year and could not really affect the plays. White can be manipulated by the QB’s eyes and pump fakes as well. However, his biggest technical flaw at this point is that he wraps up too high and thinks he can make tackles with his arms instead of driving through contact if he doesn’t get a straight shot at the ball-carrier. It may lead to flashy lasso tackles, but also quite a few misses.
This guy simply is a very fluid and explosive athlete whose instincts for the linebacker position have improved a lot during his time with the Tigers, but still aren’t where they need to be. Due to his ability to run, hit and cover he is a fit for multiple defensive scheme and at different spots. I think White can play any of the three linebacker roles in a 4-3 and he can line up inside in a 3-4 while bringing upside in any sub packages either blitzing, spying the quarterback, covering in man or dropping out.
2. Devin Bush, LB, Michigan
This son of a former NFL defensive back with the same name was a two-time All-Florida pick and four-star recruit coming out of high school. After being a special teams demon for the Wolverines as a freshman, Bush stepped into the starting lineup on defense in 2017 and was a game-wrecker for the Maze and Blue off the get-go, as he recorded seven tackles and two sacks versus Florida in the season-opener. Overall he recorded more than 160 tackles, with 18.5 of them for loss, ten sacks and eleven pass-deflections over the last two years.
Bush is an aggressive, downhill thumper, who can play in space. He displays tenacious pursuit and loves to lay some wood. Yet, he’s not a guy who just buries his shoulder into the opponent, but rather actually runs through his tackles, as he missed only three of them in 2017. Bush has a feel for where things will open up and goes in an instant. He was one of the best in the country at creating negative plays and did so all the time these last two years. The pulse of that Michigan defense has excellent short-area explosiveness to shoot through traffic and incredible closing burst to stop plays on the edges that would have the potential to go a long way otherwise.
This kid makes plays all over the field and knocks the ball out of the hands of a few receivers underneath. He can just flat out track people down towards the sideline and coming from behind. Overall in pass coverage, he can run with pretty much anybody in-between the hashes as well as make up ground on people going into the flats and was even tasked with covering slot receivers one-on-one in spots. Ohio State tried to hit their backs against the Wolverine linebackers on swing screens and wheel routes on plenty of occasions, but Bush only allowed one catch when he was matched up with them and had to work hard for a couple of those tackles in space, as he displayed the ability to fight over the top on some of those rub concepts. He also had an incredible interception versus Wisconsin in 2017, when he fell for the run-fake and then quickly got depth to knock the ball up in the air and still catch it himself while falling backwards.
Even though he has put together plenty of ball-production, Bush might have been even more dangerous at coming on those delayed blitzes or rushing off the edge for the Wolverines, where he displayed the ability to dip that inside shoulder and get underneath the blocker. That also comes in handy when trying to defend the run. While Bush’s ability to go East and West is what intrigues scouts, he was actually most productive coming straight downhill as a blitzer in 2018, amassing 20 total pressure, including five sacks and five more hits, on just 71 snaps rushing the passer.
You like the decisiveness and burst, but Bush gets drawn by what happens in the backfield and runs himself into trouble due to a faked jet sweeps or tosses a lot. He has benefited from some outstanding Michigan defensive lines and was allowed to run around free for the most part. Bush simply doesn’t have the length or strength to stack up offensive linemen and react to where the ball-carrier is going. Therefore I think he is limited to a WILL linebacker role in a base defense.
With that being said, when you look at what the Bears allowed Roquan Smith to do as a rookie last season, I can envision Bush doing something similar. He can play in any sub-packages with his ability to operate in space and get home as a blitzer. Outside of a sideline-to-sideline menace, you get a pissed off competitor with this guy. Bush showcased his feistiness when he came out onto the field of rival Michigan State and tried to mess up the Spartans’ midfield logo before the game started last season.
3. Mack Wilson, Alabama
In a weird way all those great linebackers for Alabama in recent years first put their name on the radar with a big hit on special teams and after Reuben Foster and Rashaan Evans, Wilson delivered a monster hit on kickoff coverage against Texas A&M as a freshman in 2016. The former five-star recruit was sought after by multiple SEC schools, but decided to stay in his home state Alabama. He saw some action as a freshman on defense, special teams and even offense, but it was his sophomore year that he started making a name for himself. When Wilson finally looked healthy during the CFP in 2017 he made his mark on them, recording 18 combined tackles, two sacks and a pick-six.
At 6’2”, 240 pounds, Wilson has the ability to read the play flat-footed and then shoot out of his stance like a missile. He has a way of getting through traffic and like those other great Tide linebackers, he arrives at the target with some thump. Wilson has no problem going through the chest of a guard on his way to the guy with the ball and his tackling numbers only aren’t higher because he let his teammate clean up once he has made the play. His game revolves largely around speed to scrape over the top on run plays the opposite way or take away angles to bounce it to the outside.
Wilson brings the short-area burst to the table that enables him to undercut hook routes and he has the speed to carry tight-ends down the seams even when lining up at the line of scrimmage. He takes away a bunch of dig and deep crossing routes with the depth he gets on some of his drops if he feels or sees someone come in behind him and he sealed the shutdown win over LSU last year with a pick on an inside post route in the end-zone that way. The Bama backer has rare ball-skills for the position, making several impressive catches for turnovers. Wilson is fluid and athletic enough to work over the top of picks and take away easy yardage to the intended receiver. That also enables him to take away multiple receivers in one play. Despite fighting through a banged up foot in ‘17, Wilson recorded six INTs and seven more passes defensed since the start of that season.
The soft-handed hard hitter does a good job recognizing where there’s space in the protection for him to come through on a delayed blitz, as he reads the protection and influences the throw as the quarterback can’t step into it or gets hit while releasing the ball, even if Wilson can’t finish it for a sack. Even when he is accounted for the dynamic linebacker has a nice spin move to get past centers and guards and while he didn’t blitz as much as the first two guys, he has been very effective rushing the passer.
Wilson had a phenomenal run in the 2017 playoff, but he didn’t build on that success quite the way I would have liked him to last season. The area of his game that really needs improvement is the quickness he recognizes plays, as he allows blockers to put hands on him at times before he really knows where he wants to go and right now his speed bails him out a lot. When he does see an opening to run through and blow things up it he will do that, but to me it feels like his eyes are more in the backfield instead of on the offensive line and while this worked for him usually at Alabama, he won’t have a dominant defensive tackle like Quinnen Williams in front of him drawing double-teams going forward. While he can be a big hitter, Wilson doesn’t always stop forward momentum and drives ball-carriers backwards, but rather that guy can still gain a couple of yards churning his legs against him. He also shoots past some guys when he tries to blow somebody up in the backfield without breaking down.
Altogether I think Wilson can be an outstanding three-down player when you look at his speed, physicality and ball-skills, but his instincts have to lead him to pull the trigger more quickly at times. He will have to become a more sound tackler (having missed 11 of 59 attempts last season) and make more impact plays closer to the line of scrimmage, but he is someone you can develop.
4. Blake Cashman, Minnesota
Even though Cashman was a first-team all-state performer as a senior and helped Eden Prairie High win four straight state titles in Minnesota, he had to walk on for the Gophers and it took him two year to earn a scholarship. He contributed on special teams as a true freshman and played excellent in a reserve role the following year, which he ended with a Holiday Bowl MVP trophy. For some reason the Minnesota coaches asked him to come off the bench once again as a junior, despite valuable production, but he broke out last season. Cashman went for over 100 tackles, with 15 of them for loss, 2.5 sacks and a touchdown off a fumble recovery.
Man, I was upset about this. I was a good 30 names into my linebackers and had already moved onto different positions before Cashman had his tremendous combine performances, in which he ran a 4.5 flat, had top five numbers in both leaping events, a sub-seven second three-cone drill and one of the best 20-yard shuttles at the position. I’m really glad I still got into his tape – just in case you are wondering how he shot up my board – because holy cow, can that kid play. Cashman trusts what his eyes tell him and is quick to shoot the gap against a pulling guard. He has the lateral agility and quick recognition skills to counter running backs looking to juke or cross him up. Cashman has that sideline-to-sideline speed NFL teams are looking for, when you see him chase down toss plays from the backside for three or four yards. He has that kind of ability to go over the top of blocks and clean up for contain players messing up their responsibility, but also has the short-area quickness to side-step blockers and get the ball-carrier to the ground. The one-year starter uses his hands as weapons against blockers in the run-game and shows good balance into contact, rarely being moved off the spot, plus he takes wide receivers trying to put hands on him personal.
Cashman displays Fluid hips and sudden explosiveness in coverage, contesting catches at the last moment or shutting down YAC-opportunities. He is quick to race up against shallow crossers or swing routes to the running back and stop them for minimal gains with top-tier closing burst. Cashman also has experience lining up in the slot and covering receivers man-to-man. He was utilized plenty as a blitzer and running backs are no match for him, as he uses his hands exceptionally well but can also simply go through those guys. He completely ran over a 215-pound J.K. Dobbins on the first play of that Ohio State game last season, who is used to trucking defenders himself. Cashman was one of the most well-rounded linebackers in the nation, receiving a PFF grade of at least 80.0 in run-defense, coverage, pass-rush and tackling in 2018. He had huge games versus then-22nd-ranked Northwestern and made two outstanding fourth down stops plus several other nice plays against number three Ohio State last season-
With that being said, Cashman will overrun some plays or bite on eye-candy every once in a while and give up his responsibility, surrendering cutback lanes for the running back. He only has 30-inch arms and even though I think his take-on and disengaging techniques are very advanced for a college linebacker, he will struggle those big, long offensive linemen in the NFL getting into his face. Cashman doesn’t always deliver the pop as a tackler, rather attacking low and dragging guys down occasionally. You will also see him fall off the legs of ball-carriers with strong lower bodies, as he missed eight tackles overall last season.
Like I already said, I was uncommonly late to jump on the Blake Cashman hype train, but now I’m all on board. This kid a high energy player, who you see communicate constantly and he became a team captain after showing a lot of perseverance leading up to his senior year. He’s not the biggest hitter and there are some length concerns with him, but other than that he is everything you want athletically. I think Cashman would fit perfectly as a WILL linebacker in a system where he is kept clean to run around and make plays.
5. Germaine Pratt, N.C. State
This kid arrived at the N.C. State campus as a 200-pound All-State safety. Since then he has added 40 pounds of muscle and grown into a 6’3” body. After two years of rotational usage, Pratt already was an impact-player as a junior, but he really took his play to another level last season, when he recorded over 100 tackles, with ten for loss, six sacks, three PBUs and a couple of fumbles forced, as he earned first-team All-ACC honors. During that two-year stretch he also established himself as the clear leader of the Wolfpack defense after learning from Bradley Chubb, B.J. Hill and others,
Pratt is downhill linebacker, who has the power to not let blockers get in his grill and extend to keep vision on the backfield. He sorts his way through traffic, slipping off tacklers and swallowing running backs like a bear, not letting anybody go once he has them wrapped up and twisting opponents to the ground. He missed just four of his 92 tackling attempts in 2018. Pratt recognizes pulling guards and beats them to the spot, even though a couple of high IQ backs have seen that and found the cutback lane against him. When he can just attack downhill, he flashes a quick first step and good overall burst.
Similar to the way he shoots upfield in the run game, the N.C. State linebacker simply runs through running backs in pass protection and was an instrumental part of the defensive blitz packages, opening up lanes with good timing and looping around to get free. He also realizes when that guy is part of the protection scheme and he is free to rush, putting some monster hits on opposing quarterbacks. Pratt played SAM linebacker on over-fronts quite a bit as well. In passing situations he puts a good shove on backs and tight-ends off the line and when he does land his hands inside their chest he controls the release and pace of the route for the most part, especially when the receivers line up in a bunch set. In coverage he is at his best when dropping back and being able to react to what is happening underneath him and then shooting there to blow somebody up.
However, Pratt lacks some speed to run people down towards the sideline, plays a little too upright and when he does get stood up by a blocker, he just catches the ball-carrier and falls backwards with him for easy yards after contact. That lack of sink in hips also shows up when he struggles to change directions with receivers and he gets pretty handsy when asked to run with guys down the field. With just one full season of starting experience, Pratt is still learning the position and can mix up his keys when he reads blocking schemes, putting himself in some bad spots.
For such a big linebacker, Pratt put up an excellent 40 time at the combine with 4.57 and was solid during the on-field portion of the workout. There are some limitations as to how you can use him on third downs due to below-average flexibility of his lower body, but you can rush him off the edge and use him as part of your blitz packages after you have him standing up on base downs.
6. Terrill Hanks, New Mexico State
After going from a big high school program in Miami to a rather small school in New Mexico State, Hanks earned playing time right away and was a productive four-year starter for the Aggies. He recorded almost 400 tackles, with 43.5 of them for loss, 11 sacks, eight INTs, 14 pass-breakups and seven forced fumbles. He has gotten a lot bigger every year during his collegiate career and is now up to 235 pounds to fill his 6’3” frame.
Hanks is a strong run defender, who has the short-area burst to beat blockers to the spot and put himself into position to make plays. He flows with zone run and sweep plays while having his pads parallel to the line of scrimmage. However, he plays with a tenacious attitude and is not afraid to fill the gap and meet the ball-carrier head on either. Opposing teams tried to take him out of the play by holding him with bubble screens and other looks when he was split out, but he often times still did redirect and shoot upfield to make the tackle for loss. Hanks stays very balanced when breaking down on players in space and when he has a clear shot he is an explosive hitter. Once the opposing running back does break through the line and goes the distance, you can see that Hanks is making up ground on most of them as he chases from behind.
The four-year starter is comfortable playing in space, as he primarily played SAM backer and moved out to the slot receiver on the wide side of the field, especially in passing situations. He gets physical with opponents off the line and has the speed to run with receivers down the seams or backs on wheel routes, plus when he gets caught off balance for a second, he can still catch up. In zone coverage he swivels his head back and forth between the quarterback and the routes that are being run. Hanks trusts himself athletically to stay with plays, which enables him to find crossers and run underneath areas where the ball might go. He also displays active hands when trying to get around somebody on bubble and slip screens. Hanks rushed off the edge quite a bit as well and was even included in twists with defensive linemen, where he drew the tackle upfield and then looped back inside pretty much untouched to put some licks on the quarterback. You see some of the athleticism he has when he all of a sudden runs the arc like a defensive end.
With all that being said, Hanks lacks some feel for route patterns and missed out on an interception versus Utah State because he wanted to take one last glimpse at the wideout. In that game he also kind of overshot a screen pass, but still reached behind with one hand to knock the ball down. At times Hanks tries to get around blockers when he should simply go through them and allows running lanes behind that. He is just not really equipped to take on offensive linemen on every run play and would be best suited to play WILL where he can run around free. Hanks tends to overrun some plays where he should trust the contain players and just focus on his assignment.
Hanks showed a ton of speed, athleticism and instincts at Senior Bowl week, flying around sideline to sideline and showing up around the ball constantly. He is somebody who can be a TFL-specialist if he has a D-line that keeps him clean and he can take on some in-space responsibilities in the passing game the way he did in college. To me Hanks could have a Darius Leonard-like ascent in this process and while it is an incredibly tall task he could have a somewhat comparable rookie season if put into the right situation.
7. Josiah Tauaefa, UTSA
A former two-star recruit at defensive end, it didn’t take Tauaefa to make his mark on the Roadrunners, as he set the all-time school record with 115 tackles in year one and was the first member of the program to be named Freshman All-American after a redshirt year. He also recorded six sacks and an INT that year. Tauaefa saw his sophomore year cut short by an injury, but after putting up similar stats to his freshman campaign last season – including 62 solo tackles – he decided to skip his final season with UTSA.
Tauaefa is a very fluid, natural athlete at 6’2”, 240+ pounds, who uses quick, choppy steps in the run game. He is unbelievable at shooting through on an opening on run plays or stretching out wide to force a cut-back inside. The former teammate of last year’s first-round pick Marcus Davenport showcased very sudden movements to get around blockers at the second level and is active with his hands to avoid any contact. He can navigate in traffic and flatten underneath blocks before finishing with elite closing burst. Tauaefa is athletic enough to line up in the A-gap, scrape over the top to defend a speed option the opposite way and then still pivot back inside to bring down the tight-end on the shovel pass. His pursuit as a backside linebacker is off the chart and he leverages himself correctly to protect for cutbacks. Tauaefa does an excellent job mirroring the ball-carrier and is an explosive hitter, as you see and probably hear the pop when he collides with a ball-carrier, consistently moving forward once the contact is initiated.
The tackling machine looks very comfortable operating in space as well. He forces crossers to adjust the depths of their routes and can still shut down easy yardage on throws in the flats despite not opening his hips too soon. Tauaefa has the speed to flow with the zone-run fake and then still catch a receiver coming across the formation and he is quick to pull the trigger and race up on scrambling quarterbacks, The UTSA standout displays good timing of the snap count as a blitzer, can power through the running back in protection, but also has an excellent swim move to get past him, which he uses to beat centers off the snap at times as well. Tauaefa wins plenty of matchups with offensive linemen sliding his way and consistently beats backs when they are one-on-one with him in man-protection schemes. He is also excellent at disguising pressure, when he jumps up to the line and even takes a step into the gap before bailing back out.
On a negative note, this kid guisses on some plays and runs himself into trouble, such as keying the quarterback on zone-read plays despite being the linebacker on the actual zone side and not ever having that responsibility from there (although that might have to do with trying to make a play with his team down by multiple scores). Tauaefa gets lost too often when he has to turn and run with people downfield and can’t play the ball or the man properly anymore. And finally the level of competition is obviously a question mark, having had just two games against Power-Five competition in which the Roadrunners lost by less than two touchdowns these last three years.
What I love most about Tauaefa is how much he trusts his instincts and he has all the athletic tools and all-out effort to make impact players anywhere on the field. He might not be right every single time yet and coming to the pros will be a big jump for him, but I think he fits very well in today’s wide-open game. He has the potential to be another one of those diamonds in the rough.
8. Joe Giles-Harris, Duke
After redshirting his first year at campus, Joe Giles-Harris was named a Freshman All-American having recorded over 100 tackles, with ten of them going for loss, four sacks and a pick. He had an even better sophomore year when he was the highest-rated linebacker in the nation by Pro Football Focus and a pretty good nine-game stretch last year before missing the rest of the year due to an MCL sprain. The coaches still voted him first-team All-ACC for the second year because of the efforts he had shown.
With excellent size at 6’2”, almost 240 pounds, Giles-Harris primarily played WILL linebacker in the Blue Devils’ 4-2 scheme. He plays with great urgency and motor. Giles-Harris is very physical and a force against the run, who meets blockers trying to climb up to him half way and doesn’t allow them to get into his frame for the most part. The former Dukey continues to sort his way through chaos and bring the running back to the ground. He doesn’t buy eye-candy and stays true to his responsibility. Against lead-blockers he lowers his pads and stands his ground and he uses active hands against cut-block attempts. When meeting the ball-carrier in the hole, Giles-Harris stands that guy up and runs through the tackle, consistently landing on top of the opponent when they go to the ground and rarely failing to finish.
Giles-Harris has quality experience in man- and zone-coverage. He has good enough hips to transition from routes and speed to run stride for stride with crossers one-on-one. He can pass tight-ends on to the safety down the seams and still play his hook-to-curl zone, plus he is physical with receivers coming into his area, messing up the timing on mesh concepts and such as. Giles-Harris won’t allow easy underneath completions by immediately flipping his hips on wheel routes when there’s a crosser coming into his area. The three-year starter understands the internal clock of the quarterback and when it is time to pull the trigger, knocking the ball out of the hands of plenty of receivers. He is also quick to jump on screen passes underneath him and has the burst to go over the top against swing screens.
The former Blue Devil has experience rushing the passer from the interior and the edge. When doing so he attacks one half of the blocker and tries to run through the contact with good pad level or swim past the guy to put pressure on the quarterback. Giles-Harris has also been part of stunts, where he loops around from one B-gap to the opposite one with his D-tackles filling up inside, leading to a pressure on about every sixth pass-rush attempt last season.
When blockers do get hands in his chest, Giles-Harris often is content with just taking up space and doesn’t do enough to get rid of the contact. He gets pretty handsy with receivers he is tagged with once the routes are turned upfield. Even though it has been good enough at the collegiate level he is not quite sudden enough at opening up his hips to stay with NFL receivers. The Duke standout struggled mightily to find his footing in last year’s game versus Miami when the field was soaked with rain.
He might not have the some type of flashy athleticism the guys ahead of him have, but Giles-Harris provides high football IQ and instincts for the position. He was Duke’s team MVP in 2017 and a captain last year. While you probably don’t want to give him with the same type of coverage responsibilities he had in college, I think he can be a quality contributor on third downs as well.
9. Khalil Hodge, Buffalo
Another former two-star recruit, Hodge has been the heartbeat and an absolute tackling machine for the Bulls as a three-year starter. He amassed 419 total tackles during that stretch, while also collected 5.5 sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles. After a one-point loss to Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship game, Hodge has entered the draft as one of the most productive linebackers in college football during his collegiate career.
This guy is a smashmouth football player who brings a ton of energy to the field. He knifes through traffic to arrive at the guy with the ball and makes that collision count. At 6’1”, 235 pounds, Hodge is violent with his hands, stabbing and pulling cloth against blockers, while also having the quick motion to arm-over a blocker and completely avoid him or shoot through the opposite shoulder flowing with a zone play. He stands up running backs when he meets them head-on in the hole and stops any forward momentum. Hodge also has a good enough top gear to go scrape over the top or go underneath a blocker and chase a ball-carrier down towards the sideline. His best skill however is the way he finishes, barely missing any tackles even if he doesn’t have a clear shot at the opponent (five misses in 2018). It’s like he snatches running backs before they can even get going.
In the passing game Hodge jumps on hook or choice routes and puts his hand in front of the ball to knock it down by reaching around the body of the intended target. If he can’t quite get there he explodes through the contact and knocks it out that way. Hodge takes away a lot of easy seam routes against split-safety looks by sinking deep in that Tampa-2. He made a sweet leaping interception versus Western Michigan in 2017 and had another pick to seal a win over Ohio that year. He shows tremendous effort when he comes into the picture even though passes are completed 20+ yards downfield and surrendered the second-lowest passer rating of any linebacker in the country last season at an abysmal 39.4. As a blitzer Hodge lets the protection get set up for one beat and then initiates his rush to defeat it, as nobody can quite get him squared up anymore.
As good as Hodge is in tight spaces, he doesn’t look quite as comfortable in the open. At times he is content with ankle tackles when he has to bring somebody down in space when that guy can go any direction. I don’t think his coverage responsibilities would ever ask him to run with somebody more than ten yards downfield in man-coverage and I wouldn’t expect him to excel in that role either, seeing how grabby he can get when he can’t just drive on routes. It will be interesting to see if his style of play will leave him a step short versus NFL speed in general.
This dude simply has a nose for the ball with an intensity that is only matched by very few. I think he could fit at MIKE in a 4-3 as well as a 3-4 and has already proven himself as a quarterback of his defense. He might not be the most dynamic player in space, but he is easily good enough in all areas to be a three- or even four-down contributor.
10. Dakota Allen, Texas Tech
A former three-star recruit from a small Texas city, Allen looked like a future star as a freshman, when he put up 87 tackles, with six of them for loss and two interceptions. In the ensuing offseason he was dismissed from the program due to being arrested for burglary and stealing guns. After one year at community college where he was featured on the series “Last Chance U”, Allen got another chance in Lubbock, putting up even better numbers in 2017 and receiving first-team All-Big XII honors last season despite playing in just ten games. Overall in 34 games for the Red Raiders he combined for 249 tackles, with 17.5 for loss, four interceptions and seven PBUs.
Allen is a fantastic athlete with the speed and short-area quickness in the NFL is looking for. He trusts in what his eyes tell him and immediately shoots through the opening in the run game before a puller can even put hands on him. He dips his shoulder to avoid giving up any area to grab and goes underneath blockers when the ball-carrier is in range. Allen is not afraid of contact either though, blasting into lead-blockers and creating a pile by driving his legs at the point of attack. He can also run through one half of an offensive linemen to force the play back inside while having enough burst to make the tackle if the ball-carrier decides to bounce the run out wide. When teams run the ball his way, Allen usually plays with good knee-bend and forward lean to ready himself for contact. If he sees any type of counter of misdirection play, he is almost like a defensive linemen disrupting things in the backfield before the blocking can even get set up.
That flash of speed also shows up in coverage, where he mirrors the eyes of the quarterback and reacts to everything going underneath him, as well as having a feel for receivers coming in behind his zone. Allen has experience running down the seams with detached tight-ends and slot receivers, while showing the pursuit towards the sideline on slip screens and slant routes to be first defender to make contact. When he sees the quarterback check the ball down, hand it off on a draw play or the space clearing up to get to the passer, it’s like Allen flips a switch as he accelerates there in a heartbeat. He is also very dangerous on delayed blitzes, where he darts right through the open lane.
While he excels at avoiding blocks or beating guys to the spot, Allen struggles to disengage once blockers getting into his chest and he has to be more active with his hands overall. He shows a lack of discipline on the backside on running plays at times and surrenders cutback lanes as well as giving up room for quarterbacks when pulling the ball on option run plays, when he is tagged with contain responsibilities. Allen will get drawn in by play-action fakes and put himself into bad positions. As a tackler, he gets his arms a little wide and uses more of a hug-motion to chop the ball-carrier down instead of an upwards wrap to secure tackles. Some of the angles he takes towards the sideline are too aggressive and he can only try to leap at the legs of the ball-carrier at times.
While questions about his off-the-field behavior will surround him through the draft process, Allen has done everything possible to better himself. He was a captain in both years after returning to Texas Tech, coaches have raved about his team attitude and he has led by example. Even though coaches will have to reign him in a little and make him a more disciplined player within the structure of their defense, I really believe Allen’s upside is sky-high, He is far from a finished product, but he stands out to me in a very muddy linebacker class.
Just missed the cut:
Bobby Okereke, Stanford
Even before arriving at Stanford, Okereke received major honors as he won the prestigious Watkins award for the nation’s top African-American high school player in terms of academic and athletic excellence. During his collegiate career his numbers improved every year, starting his final 38 games and recording a total of 221 tackles, 20 of them for loss, 10.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, while being named an All-Pac-12 honorable mention these last two. Okereke Steps up and delivers the pop in the run game. Against zone schemes he does a good job flowing with the play from the backside and only opening his hips when it is time to flatten down the line to make the tackle. He has quick hands and pretty long arms to elude the initial blocker, especially when blitzing on run-downs and he doesn’t mind running right into a lead-blocker in the backfield to mess up the play. When he is the target on power runs, he meets the pulling guard in the offensive backfield. Okereke will also go underneath of a puller and either make the play or force the runner to find a cutback lane. I think he has excellent reactionary quickness and pursuit. The smart backer has good awareness for play-action and stays alert from crossers. He was asked to over backs and tight-ends in man-coverage and made it look easy to run with them on seam or crossing routes. He was also lined up over number three receivers in trips sets and has no problem getting off blocks by those smaller guys in space. In zone Okereke displays active feet, excellent range and he covers a lot of ground quickly when he sees the quarterback scramble. The three-year starter is a capable blitzer due to quickness and short-area burst to get offensive linemen to turn their bodies quickly, but also power when he builds up some momentum. Against Notre Dame in 2018 Oreke came up on a blitz near the goal-line and he smacked the running back so bad that I felt it from home. That’s what he does – he hits people in the mouth. Okereke deflected five passes last year, but had only one career INT. He was left standing on a few angle routes by quicker running backs, has tates, although most of his sack production came due to effort, Okereke deflected five passes last year, but only one career INT, was left standing on a few angle routes by quicker running backs. He has the burst to shoot through gaps and can make blockers miss in space, but once those big guys get in his frame he struggles to get off them. He is also doesn’t really find the ball in the air once turns his back to the quarterback, overshoots some targets as a tackler and slips off them. Okereke would be best in a role where he can around freely on base downs and then play in space in the passing game.
Ben Burr-Kirven, Washington
This young man already put up solid numbers his first three years, but exploded in 2018 as an absolute tackling-machine, recording 176 total tackles. He also forced four fumble fumbles and recovered another three. Burr-Kirven was just all over the field and earned Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors as well as first-team All-American recognition. The Washington coaches asked him to do a multitude of things. Burr-Kirven is a menace in the run game, but he can also blitz and tackle guys in space on passing downs. The Huskies used a five-man front in some games and basically had him cleaning up anything going past that initial line. He uses a good stop-and-go ratio when defending the run and has very unique ways to avoid blocks, like side-stepping through two offensive linemen to shut down a screen pass or nod one way and then go underneath an offensive lineman to get involved. Sometimes I feel like he kind of is like a running back pressing the gap and then cutting back where the space opens up behind that. While being that strong in the run game, Burr-Kirven had an excellent 2018 season in coverage as well, recording two interception, six pass-breakups and allowing just 7.4 yards per completion. He tracks the eyes of the quarterback and once he sees that guy get ready to release the ball he tries to meet the receiver at the spot. He doesn’t mind turning his head and running with a crosser when he feels it either. The four-year contributor for the Huskies does a nice job sitting on top of hook and stick routes and breaking them up. Once Burr-Kirven sees the quarterback can’t really find anybody around him while rolling out, the linebacker shoots upfield to take him away as a runner as well. It’s like he is shot out of a cannon when he blitzes and he will try to go right through a guard or center, although I would like to see him have a more of a plan and any type of pass-rush move when doing so. It’s undeniable that Burr-Kirven is undersized with short arms. Neither does he have the strength nor the length to take on blockers and keep vision on the ball-carrier. His steps are very choppy and he can also be guided away from the running back when he tries to shoot the gap for once. Several of his tackles come on clean-up work a few yards downfield or in an assisted matter. He is surprisingly sudden when he transitions from dropping into his zone and then coming uphill, he is tough to put hands on in space and he is a scrappy competitor. I thought draft analysts would kill Burr-Kirven for a lock of athleticism, but he had a really encouraging combine, running 4.56 in the 40, while putting up top three linebacker numbers in the 3-cone and short shuttle drill. I still see a somewhat limited athlete, but he can play.
T.J. Edwards, LB, Wisconsin
This former high-school quarterback (who doesn’t look a thing like it anymore) has turned himself into an outstanding all-around linebacker, who produced at a high level for four years in different roles. Edwards combined for 366 total tackles, with more than every tenth of them going for a loss. He has also added eight sacks, ten picks and 15 pass-deflections. While he was already named a freshman All-American and honorable mention for the All-Big Ten team as a sophomore, Edwards stepped up as the leader and communicator for the Badgers defense once Jack Cichy got hurt before the 2017 season even really started and he has been making plays constantly these last two seasons, while earning All-conference recognition. Edwards has the looks of a wild bear, but he is an assignment-based football player. At over 240 pounds he is a thumper inside against the run with an extremely powerful upper body that makes him one of the few linebackers in today’s space-oriented game that can still take on blockers with heavy hands and disengage when the ball-carrier is around. He has no problem smacking a pulling guard in the face either. Edwards stays disciplined on the back-side of running plays and rarely gets caught peaking in the backfield. When the offense runs a power or ISO play against him he can shoot through one half of the blocker and still make the tackle at times. The long-time contributor makes it almost impossible to get away from once he puts hands on the ball-carrier and he has strong arms to hold on to tackles from behind. While Edwards certainly lacks elite change-of-direction quickness, he makes up for it with getting himself into position before the play happens. He has a special talent to read the eyes of the quarterback while feeling what is happening around him in terms of receivers entering his area and he always seems to find himself around the football, while making impact plays in coverage with surprising ball-skills when he gets his hands on it. At his size Edwards is a dangerous blitzer in-between the tackles as well as looping around the edge. He blows up running backs in protection and can grab cloth to pull offensive linemen off himself after engaging contact. He is also very aware of when the running back is part of the protection schemes and there’s a lane to through as well as coming upfield to shut down scrambling quarterbacks. On 45 pass rush snaps Edwards recorded 17 QB pressures last season. The old-school linebacker simply doesn’t have any splashy athleticism that intrigues scouts. Edwards is a step late on the edges when he flows with the play and has to open up his hips laterally. His chase speed leaves something to be desired and when he is a split-second late he has to go back to making tackles at the sideline instead of in the backfield. That lack of twitchy explosiveness also makes him a target in man-coverage at the next level. He might be restricted to the role of a two-down run-plugger at the next level. Even though Edwards might not jump off the tape due to the way he moves, the reason he also shows up around the ball is the fact that he understands what he’s doing. He will be a high-quality backup inside linebacker for any team at the very least, but some athletic limitations might cost him a starting spot. If you can find a way to work around those, he is a plug-and-play guy.
Cameron Smith, LB, USC
Smith started building his reputation as a fourth-grader going up against guys from eight grade. After earning High School All-American honors, he became an impact player ever since he first suited up for the USC program, earning Freshman All-American honors and Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in ten games until he tore knee ligaments. Yet he was the heartbeat of the Trojans defense ever since, leading his team in tackles in each of the next three years. Smith wins with his ability to read and react quickly. He trusts his eyes and goes out with a purpose, shooting gaps and creating a bunch of negative plays, as he recorded 25.5 tackles for loss over the last three years. The four-year starter shows great pursuit. He will squeeze through gaps, change angles, run around people and through them just so he arrives at the guy with the ball eventually. He doesn’t get fooled easily, because he reads his keys and has excellent instincts. Smith gets into this ferocious zone, in which his eyes start getting bigger and he can intimidate opponents and has the mindset of – if there’s a loose ball it’s his and nobody else’s. While Smith isn’t the most dynamic player in space, he gets the job done with football IQ and feel. He was asked to cover backs and tight-ends in man and even followed them out wide. In zone he keeps his eyes glued on the quarterback and puts himself in position to make plays on the ball, leading to ten pass breakups in the last three years. On some plays you see Smith turn his back and trail somebody down the seams and a second later, he comes downhill and makes the tackle for minimum gain on the scrambling quarterback. He is an outstanding open-field tackler, who drives his legs through contact and has a strong grip to not let opponents get away. Smith completely took over the Utah game, collecting 16 tackles and a pick. He shows pressure quite a bit and drops out of it and when he comes from distance he can side-step running backs as a blitzer. The overall athleticism with this guy is not what excites scouts. His top-end speed leaves things to be desired and he doesn’t have the closing burst to finish some plays. Smith has a pretty good punch to take on blockers, but he isn’t sudden enough to disengage when the ball-carrier is running past them. He also displays some tightness in his hips, limiting his ability to change directions. He simply lacks the elite athletic traits you see from most NFL players, but Smith is one of those guys who makes up for that with heart and instincts. He is very intelligent player who will probably earn playing time over some better athletes, who don’t understand the game like him and aren’t as invested in the mental aspect of it.
Sleeper: Tre Watson, Maryland
The one linebacker that I think has really gone under the radar is Maryland’s Tre Watson. The former three-star recruit from Florida started his career with Illinois. In his three years with the Fighting Illini, Watson was an Academic Big-Ten selection in each of them while putting together almost 200 tackles. However it wasn’t until last season when he transferred to Maryland that he really put himself on the map, where he continued his academic excellence while leading the conference in tackles (114) and interceptions (5) on his way to being named first-team All-Big Ten. Despite his productivity he wasn’t invited to the Senior Bowl or the combine and he says that only lights the fire inside him even more. Watson is 6’2”, 238 pound seek-and-destroy linebacker. He keeps himself balanced and once he has checked his keys, he comes upfield. Watson gets physical with blockers coming at him, often times shocking much bigger offensive linemen with that initial punch and plays with good extension in the run game. He blasts offensive linemen pulling around on power plays and fullbacks leading on him. I remember him absolutely jacked up a pulling guard on a sweep-play versus Texas last season. Watson was brought off the edge quite a bit and produced some big stops chasing the running back down from behind like a flash. When it’s time to meet the ball-carrier, he arrives with some thump by shooting his hips into tackles. Watson shows excellent speed to run with guys on wheel routes out of the backfield. He was asked to show pressure in the B-gap and still cover the back in man, has quality experience running with slot receivers, shows good awareness for mesh concepts and quickly fights over the top when tagged with one of the crossers. I thought he showed the ability to flip his hips and trail guys running down the seams in zone coverage and gets plenty of depth when he feels dig routes coming in behind him, while sticking his hand in-between the ones of the receiver he is running with or shooting upfield when the quarterback checks the ball down. He had an outstanding pick-six versus Minnesota last season when the Golden Gophers tried an RPO and Watson jumped in front of the pass as he saw the QB pull the ball despite being on the opposite side of the receiver. In addition to his work in coverage. Watson is a powerful blitzer who can even go through offensive linemen even. To refer back to that Texas game – he put their center on his butt when that guy was sliding over his way. However, sometimes Watson seems more concerned with hitting people than actually stopping plays. He misjudges the ball in the air occasionally and two of his picks last season came on tipped passes. Watson was originally underrecruited due to a lack of elite athleticism and he was hampered by injuries during his three years with Illinois. Yet, he had an excellent East-West Shrine week, where he filled up lanes against the run and found crossers over the top of him in coverage. His intelligence and passion are off the charts and I think he is one of the most underdiscussed players in the entire draft.
Next guys up:
Vosean Joseph (Florida), Te’Von Coney & Drue Tranquill (Notre Dame), Dre Greenlaw (Arkansas) David Long (West Virginia), Tre Lamar (Clemson), Sione Takitaki (BYU), Emeke Egbule (Houston)