After looking at the best defensive ends and pass rushing 3-4 OLBs last week (edge defenders), it’s the turn of the off-ball linebacker prospects. These include those who project as outside linebackers in a 4-3 formation, and inside linebackers for both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts. The linebacker prospects are another position group that has a lot of talent at the top and several potential first rounders. The official list confirming which underclassmen will be entering the draft will not be released until Friday 22nd January, but all those who are part of this Top 10 have said they will be doing so. LSU’s Kendell Beckwith, who would have been high on this list, has announced that he’ll be returning to school for his senior season. Sr = Senior, Jr = Junior, So = Sophomore. An “r” prefix indicates a redshirt year (sat out for a year without playing, usually their first year of college).
1) Myles Jack, UCLA, Jr. 6ft 1, 245 lbs
2015/16 Bowl: Foster Farms Bowl Grade: 1st Round
Unfortunately the two best linebacker prospects in the country both suffered season ending knee injuries this year. Jack was in a way relatively fortunate that his occurred early, as though his surgically repaired ACL will still be heavily scrutinised in medical checks, he is expecting to be healed by the combine. Provided he passes those tests, Jack doesn’t have to worry too much about the lost year playing. His superb film and obvious talents are on full display over the course of two outstanding seasons of play for the Bruins, with the star defender making an immediate impact as a true freshman. A lot of the early attention came from the fact that Jack was proving an effective and exciting playmaker on both sides of the ball, seeing significant time at running back in particularly in that first season, on top of his starting linebacker role. Jack ended up winning both the PAC-12 offensive and defensive freshman of the year awards, a first ever in the history of the conference. While he showed enough ability as a runner to lead some scouts to say he could have been a fairly high draft pick solely as an RB, there’s no doubt that his true calling lies at linebacker. Jack has sensational instincts, and is one of the rare and elite modern-style LB’s who really excel in space and coverage, a true three down linebacker who can not only stay on the field, but make big impact plays against the passing game. At times, Jack even lined up essentially as a cornerback on some plays, a real testament to his athleticism, versatility and playmaking skills. Those talents were fully reflected in his production on the stat sheet. His freshman season of 76 tackles, 11 tackles for loss (TFLs), 11 pass break ups and 2 interceptions was followed by 87 tackles, 8 TFLs, 7 PBUs and 1 interception his sophomore season. Not to mention his 5.7 yard per carry career average on 68 touches as a running back too!
2) Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame, Jr. 6ft 3, 240 lbs
2015/16 Bowl: BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl Grade: 1st Round
Jack and Smith are two elite talents at the linebacker position, and the debate for top spot at the position over the pre-draft months was set to be a fun one. Smith was going to be the one graded higher by us here, but unfortunately his own ACL injury occurred right at the end of the season on New Year’s Day vs Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. It was gutting to see a great talent who was supposed to be enjoying his final college game go down like that, and unlike Jack, the injury occurred so late that he could have a much less clear picture medical-wise on his recovery when the time comes to draft at the end of April. As a result, his grade takes a small knock. However, despite some suggesting that he falls completely out of the first round now, that would be unlikely barring any unexpected complications or setbacks (of which early signs are there won’t be). A team who is willing to be patient while Smith recovers will get a bargain if he starts to drop much, and still should be a top 15 player. This is someone who was realistically in contention for the number one overall selection prior to the injury. As a high profile recruit to the Irish, Smith delivered on expectations and then some, including early on in his career. He is highly active and around the ball all game, every game. What leaps off the game film is the incredible explosiveness and speed that he has as a natural athlete, especially at his very good NFL-level size. When combined with his boundless energy when flying around the field, Smith is breath-taking to watch. The enthusiastic, non-stop style of play, as well as being highly effective, clearly inspires his teammates and lifts their game as well. What is great about his game as well though, from a more mental side is how decisive he is. Smith not only recognises plays early, but importantly he trusts his reads, is very decisive, never second guessing himself. That in tandem with the explosion and speed makes him deadly in pursuit and in impacting the backfield too. While a very forceful hitter that ball carriers won’t forget, an area of relative weakness right now is that Smith is not always the best at stacking and shedding off of blocks, he can tend to get stuck on blocks, as well as struggling to fight through traffic on some plays. He has the size and power to overcome any issues there with a bit of work though. Before his injury, the junior linebacker, who chose to still enter the draft, was completing a superb year where he had 114 tackles, 9 TFLs and 5 pass break ups. When and where he ends up will likely be one of the bigger storylines of the opening round this year.
3) Reggie Ragland, Alabama, Sr. 6ft 2, 252 lbs
2015/16 Bowl: Goodyear Cotton Bowl/National Championship Game Grade: 1st Round
Once again it will be another year with a draft packed full of underclassmen who have chosen to leave school early. For many though, the decision to stay can be a highly profitable one, as is the case for the Crimson Tide’s big-hitting middle linebacker Reggie Ragland. Most likely a Day 2 selection had he taken the leap in the 2015 draft, his outstanding senior season, in which he took his game to a whole new level, ought to see him go at least somewhere in the middle of the first round. I don’t consider him to be as good as C.J. Mosley before him, whose instincts were off the charts, but his understanding and awareness have certainly improved greatly with another year of experience. Though he featured in all 13 games during his sophomore season, he wasn’t a full time starter until his junior campaign in 2014, and now has completed his second year starting as a national champion and a high impact player on one of the best defences of recent years. The fact that he has shown such steady progress over the past three seasons is something that will be highly encouraging to scouts, that the progression can continue over time at the next level as well. There’s no doubt that he has everything looked for from a physical perspective. Ragland not only is one of the heavier linebackers in this class, he also brings power and strength, and though he is better moving downhill, can cover laterally to the sidelines too. He’s not going to ever be elite in coverage, but he can still impact the play on obvious passing downs as well, where he moved down to the line as an additional pass rusher, bringing the same overpowering physicality and motor channelled into a bull rush. A little bit of additional versatility is never a bad thing. Another trait for the pro column with Ragland is toughness. In one of the key games of the season against then-ranked #2 LSU, Ragland played and helped secure the win despite only days earlier having surgery on a broken bone in his left hand. After 93 tackles in his breakout junior season, Ragland hit triple digits his final year with the team, totalling 102 tackles along with 6.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks and 7 pass breakups. His consistent performance over the season for the national champs earned him SEC defensive player of the year and a unanimous first team All-American selection.
4) Darron Lee, Ohio State, rSo. 6ft 1, 235 lbs
2015/16 Bowl: BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl Grade: 1st Round
In addition to the continuing trend for high numbers of underclassmen to enter each draft, it seems that the presence of redshirt sophomores on that list is on the up, with quite a number choosing to make themselves a part of the 2016 draft, and three from the Ohio State Buckeyes alone. Lee can back it up though, with two years of strong play and a prominent role on one of the best teams in the country over that period. His play in 2015 wasn’t quite as impressive as his spectacular redshirt freshman season for the 2014 national title winners, but that was a hard act to live up to. Lee isn’t ideally sized, but is another who fits the skill set looked for by NFL teams to make plays in space, drop in to coverage, cover a large area of the field and impact the pass game as much as the run game. Lee is smaller than the former Buckeye linebacker, but has received plenty comparisons in certain aspects to the man he replaced and now-Steeler Ryan Shazier, with Lee also a fantastic athlete who can make highlight plays all over the field. Lee’s role is varied, being asked to do a lot of work in coverage where he looks natural and fluid, but also frequently deployed as a blitzer to great effect, particularly in his 2014 season where he totalled 16.5 TFLs and 7.5 sacks. However, he does tend to get too enthusiastic, leading to missed tackles that could have been losses. Though he is a superb athlete, and doesn’t shy away from contact, his determination often only gets him so far, getting stuck on blocks and overpowered by bigger stronger players. There’s no questioning his instincts and field awareness though, along with a knack for making critical plays at big moments. Having a less than ideal body type isn’t going to keep him out of the first round.
5) Kentrell Brothers, Missouri, rSr. 6ft 0, 238 lbs
2015/16 Bowl: N/A Grade: 2nd Round
After two superb seasons that saw the Tigers reach the SEC title game in consecutive years, it was a down season in 2015 for Missouri. National attention drifted away fairly early, due to an ineffective offense that couldn’t score and a strong defence who wouldn’t let opponents score either. That resulted in the fantastic season by senior Brothers not getting as much attention as it deserved. Brothers was consistently brilliant from start to finish in his final collegiate year, leading the entire nation in tackles with 152 (that’s 12.7 a game on average!). He was more than just a tackle machine on the second level, chipping in with 12 TFLs, a forced fumble, 2 interceptions and another 3 passes broken up. The defensive leader for Missouri, Brothers is a fiery, emotional character on the field, who plays aggressive every snap. He seems like the type of guy who plays with a chip on his shoulder and highly motivated. If that’s the case, it might be based around his height which is shorter than ideal for the position, barely checking in at six feet flat, but while he probably doesn’t have room to add any additional weight, has a sturdy filled out frame that is more that capable of holding up at the next level. It’s no surprise given the stats he piles up, but Brothers has excellent instincts that sees him in position constantly to make plays on the ball carrier, and make game changing plays. While there are other linebackers with better speed and range, he has enough to cover to the sidelines, which is helped by his quick reactions and motor in pursuit. Though again not one who’s going to blow anyone away with his combine numbers, he none-the-less reminds of a more athletic version of Paul Dawson out of TCU who went to the Bengals in round 3 last year.
6) Su’a Cravens, Southern California Jr. 6ft 1, 225 lbs
2015/16 Bowl: Holiday Bowl Grade: 2nd Round While a superb playmaker throughout his three seasons with USC, Cravens is a tricky fit for the NFL. He has the build of a safety, and earned a starting spot there his freshman year, but has played as a linebacker and pass rusher off the edge the past two years. Whoever ends up taking him will find a role for him though, as he has been so productive in exploiting his excellent football instincts, versatility and athleticism during his college career. Cravens has the skills to make plays in the backfield, not just as a pass rusher, but also in spotting quick tosses and out routes, flying to the ball carrier and taking him down for a loss before he even has a chance to plot a first move. He can also be so dangerous in space and in coverage, recognising route concepts to jump them for interceptions and break ups. He may have been playing in the box as a linebacker for the most part, but he has 9 career interceptions and 16 pass breakups for a reason: Cravens shows the excellent ball skills of a DB. That, along with his 32 TFLs in just the past two seasons highlights the impact that Cravens can make on multiple levels of the field. Safety? Linebacker? Call him what you will, he simply makes plays. The energy and aggression he shows is infectious. There’s a good chance that the Trojans star will still be on the board early on Day 2, and there aren’t that many players who can impact a game the way he can that will be on offer in that second round, and ought to be snapped up fairly quickly.
7) Tyler Matakevich, Temple, Sr. 6ft 0, 232 lbs
2015/16 Bowl Game: Marmot Boca Raton Bowl Grade: 3rd Round
Speaking of players who just make plays, what a four years it has been for the Owls defensive leader. Matakevich became just the seventh player in NCAA history to reach at least 100 tackles in each of his four seasons playing in college. That’s 101 as a true freshman, followed by 137, 117 and 138 this year. It was a historic season for the team as a whole, getting off to an undefeated start to earn them a game of the week billing against the mighty Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, and pushed them deep in the 4th quarter before eventually losing. Much of the success was due to an outstanding defence all round, but led by Matakevich who was omnipresent in space, off the edge, versus the run, versus the pass, it didn’t matter. Along with his standard tackle-machine antics each week, he padded out the rest of the stat sheet this season with 15 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, 5 interceptions and 5 more pass breakups. The senior’s instincts are sensational, and can translate well to the next level. However, it is absolutely clear the difference in his game this season compared to his previous years. He admitted himself that he let himself get by on those instincts in years past, but really changed his preparation in 2015, with so much more film study off the field, and it showed up with much more consistent play. That sounds strange referring to the consistency given his stats above, but there were times each of the previous two years where he had a tendency to get out of position and leave some big gaps that offenses exploited. The discipline as well as understanding of the opposing offense made that less of an issue this time around. Tyler is another whose frame isn’t quite what scouts are ideally wanting, but you can balance that out somewhat when as talented at what you do as Matakevich is.
8) Deion Jones, LSU, Sr. 6ft 1, 228 lbs
2015/16 Bowl: AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl Grade: 3rd Round Last year, a player I under-estimated for the 2015 draft was LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander. As a Buccaneers fan I’m pleased that NFL teams did the same in letting him be available in what looks to be turning into a 4th round bargain. Teams will want to avoid doing the same thing this time around with the man who replaced him in the Tigers line-up, who like Alexander is also a little undersized but highly athletic. Jones stood out early and often this season, looking like a veteran with thirty or forty starts under his belt. The Mississippi game in the SEC opener for LSU was a real standout performance early. The range he displays is as good as anyone in this class, as is his closing speed in pursuit. Like Cravens and Lee, Jones frequently ends plays before they start in the backfield, sniffing out sweeps and bubble screens early, then flying in to make the tackle. His physical style and the momentum he builds up as he charges toward the ball carrier helps him to play bigger than he actually is. Obviously, LSU are always very deep with talent, but it is still a shock how Jones could have been stuck as a backup for the first three seasons of his career. Scouts need to avoid marking him down too much for his lack of size, because outside of that there isn’t one flaw or weakness in his game.
9) Scooby Wright III, Arizona, Jr. 6ft 0, 246lbs
2015/16 Bowl: Gildan New Mexico Bowl Grade: 4th Round It was a rough year for big name linebackers this season, and Wright was another who like Jack went down early, suiting up for just two games before suffering a knee injury as well. Unlike the Bruins LB, Wright was able to return in time for the Wildcats’ bowl game versus New Mexico, to give the Arizona fans one last reminder of the type of performance that saw him snap up just about every defensive award available in 2014. He announced his intention to enter the draft shortly after the Bowl win, choosing not the return to play a full season again in 2016. He’s no doubt satisfied by the film scouts can look at from his sophomore season in which he totalled 163 tackles, 29 TFLs, 14 sacks and 6 forced fumbles – crazy numbers. However, as mentioned in the stock report a few weeks back after said Bowl game, there’s plenty questions on how he projects to the next level: Wright weighs in at a solid 246 lbs, but comes with a lot of upper body build. He is lacking a bit in ideal strength in his lower body and legs which causes notable issues at times with leverage and anchoring, which will lead him to being outmuscled and pushed around quite a bit. He also lacks the athleticism ideal to cover to the sidelines. Crazy as it is given his huge production, but digging into his game film frequently draws attention to rather a lot of missed tackles on plays that should be routine to make. There’s no questioning the instincts though, along with excellent intangibles and toughness, with a very real chip on his shoulder from being called just a two-star prospect coming out of high school. He can be a good player as a pro, but despite being one of the more well-known names in this class, I’m not sold on him going before day 3 of the draft.
10) Joshua Perry, Ohio State, Sr. 6ft 4, 246 lbs
2015/16 Bowl: BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl Grade: 4th Round
The Buckeyes might set some records for players selected within the opening rounds of an NFL draft year. On such a stacked team on both sides of the ball, it’s easy for some talent to go relatively unnoticed. Perry is far from the first name that comes to mind when thinking of Ohio State stars, yet Perry led the entire defence in tackles with 124 in 2014 en route to a title, and was second only to sophomore phenom Raekwon McMillan in 2015, but still with 105 in another big year. Perry has a big body for the position, and certainly isn’t the most electrifying athlete, but he is all-go every snap, his effort getting him in on additional plays. He plays steady, consistent and reliably, but not one who will necessarily make the flashy, highlight plays. That does limit his upside somewhat, in addition to him being unlikely to make waves with his numbers at the combine, but Perry has next-level size, a great work ethic and attitude, and gets the most out of his abilities each and every game. In addition to his tackles and primary job on the 2nd level, Perry broke up 4 passes, as well as making a solid impact in the backfield with 7.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, and 4 quarterback pressures. He should be a solid roster addition in the middle rounds of the draft.