NFL Draft 2018: Top 10 Linebackers

A closer look in more detail at the some of the best linebacker prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft. See our scouting notes and gradings here!

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We continue our Top 10 series with the linebacker prospects at the top of the RealSport NFL Draft board. For the rest of the series of articles to this point, click here!

TFL = Tackles for Loss, QBH = Quarterback Hurries, PBU = Pass Break Ups, INT = Interceptions, FF = Forced Fumbles, KB = Kicks Blocked (on special teams).

1. Roquan Smith, Georgia. Grade: 1st Round

6’1”, 236lbs. Junior. 2017: 137 tackles (85 solo), 14 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, 8 QBHs, 2 PBUs, 1 FF.

Size will likely be his biggest knock that will keep him significantly lower on many draft boards than he is here, and while he’s had two straight standout seasons, he had his quieter moments in some big games versus Notre Dame and Oklahoma. However, Smith is one of the most instinctive football players of the last several draft classes. He helped himself at the Combine by measuring in with more bulk on his frame that is more that sufficient for the NFL level.

Smith is as good a tackler as I’ve seen out of college with impeccable technique and physicality in the tackle, almost never failing to bring a ball carrier down when in position. Where he absolutely excels is in his play reading, instincts, run defense, pursuit, and closing speed. He’s an excellent athlete with quickness and burst, backed up by his fast process and decisiveness that results in him being highly active around the ball. 

As adept moving backward as he is forward and laterally, Smith has true sideline to sideline ability as a three-down linebacker who can make plays in space and coverage. He can threaten with late blitzes through the middle and off the edge as well as he can backpedal and mirror passing targets. 

He does show occasional issues with traffic and dealing with contact, in getting off blocks at times, not overly surprising given his slighter build. There are examples of Smith getting overpowered by offensive linemen, controlled on blocks and taken out of some plays. Still, he has the game at his build that ought to see comparisons to the likes of Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones. His instincts invoke memories of watching Eric Kendricks’ college film.

2. Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech. Grade: 1st Round

6’4”, 253lbs. Junior. 2017: 109 tackles (60 solo), 14 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, 4 QBHs, 2 PBUs, 3 FFs.

With outstanding length and athleticism, Edmunds has ideal NFL measurables. Very fast around the field with elite range and can run in coverage, including with fast receivers that has seen him ranked more highly than this and as the top linebacker for many.

What often lets him down though, is some inconsistency, proving to be rather hit or miss in his positioning, decision making, vision, and reactions. He continues to make mistakes and disappointing reads, some wasted steps or taking himself completely out of the play. Edmunds has busted a number of big plays, particularly in coverage, including costing the Hokies a long touchdown conceded against Clemson this year.

That said, the production over the last two seasons has been huge and he impacts the game in a variety of ways. The upside potential is undeniable with rare physical traits. He is highly active, around the ball plenty and can close in a fraction that has seen him excel against the run. With his long arms, Edmunds can wrap up well against heavier, physical runners and tight ends. He’s an impressive open-field tackler who breaks down well in space.

He uses his length well and hands in general to control at the point of attack and to disengage from blocks while working through traffic en route to the ball carrier. Impresses working forward, and can be dangerous on the blitz and causing general backfield disruption.

He has the traits to be a threat rushing the passer off the edge, and the versatility to be deployed in multiple ways on the defense that makes accounting for him difficult and allows him to be a factor in all down and distance situations. The big-bodied linebacker has the skills and measurables to fit any scheme at the next level.

3. Rashaan Evans, Alabama. Grade: 1st Round

6’2, 232lbs. Senior. 2017: 74 tackles (35 solo), 13 TFLs, 6 sacks, 7 QBHs, 3 PBUs, 1 FF.

Great measurables with size, long arms, outstanding burst and movement around the field. Evans is a fantastic athlete and a devastating hitter in the tackle. An enthusiastic, high-energy, hard-working player, even if there is a little bit of rawness in his reads and efficiency of movement.

That only further highlights the upside potential though, if he can continue to develop. The playmaking ability is clearly evident already, to go with his next-level frame and movement at that size. Having previously played as an edge rusher before shifting to play more inside and off-ball, Evans is still learning the position, and has experience playing multiple spots in the front seven.

There’s are moments where he can take himself a little out of position and have to recover and backtrack, with some false steps early off the snap. The instincts and positional discipline in some of his early 2017 film showed the rawness, but he improved as the year progressed.

What he undoubtedly has is exceptional closing speed and hits hard when finishing, all backed up by a fantastic motor. Evans has a versatile three-down linebacker skill set with good range and moves well in space, able to run with TE's and RB's out the backfield. He offers a legit pass rush threat, is dangerous on the blitz and completely leveled several quarterbacks this year; their games are a bit different, but he punishes much like his Crimson Tide predecessor in Reuben Foster.

4. Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State. Grade: 2nd Round

6’4”, 256 lbs. Redshirt Junior. 2017: 141 tackles (91 solo), 8.5 TFLs, 4 sacks, 1 QBH, 4 PBUs, 3 INTs, 4 FFs.

Vander Esch has all the physical measurables wanted in a top off-ball linebacker prospect with size, length, outstanding athletic ability and range to cover sideline to sideline, drop back into coverage and attack downhill in the run game. His combination of build and the closing speed which just leaps out on film is highly reminiscent of last year’s Saints third rounder Alex Anzalone, who would have gone much higher in the draft were it not for medical concerns.

Reported to be a workout warrior and great athlete, he lived up to that for the most part at the Combine, especially considering his larger frame compared to many of his peers. A high school basketball player and track athlete in high school in addition to football, he walked on at Boise State and took a while to establish himself, not helped by injuries, particularly in 2016.

His 2017 junior season was an exceptional breakout year though, and while his only significant season of contribution, he can cite massive production in that limited time, making an impact on every level of the defense and against both the run and pass games.

Vander Esch is around the ball constantly with his non-stop motor and energy, and moves smoothly while working in space. His impressive speed shows up when blitzing and in his closing speed on ball carriers and in pursuit. He puts himself in the right positions to make plays.

That said, the biggest knock on the former Bronco is in his tackling, with surprisingly poor wrap up technique despite the huge numbers that results in allowing ball carriers to slip through his grasp more often than expected. He’ll potentially miss more tackles at the next level without a drastic step up in his tackling form, despite the production this past college season.

He has the quickness to compensate and make up for it, but does have the occasional moment of wasted motion away from the flow of the play, and in spite of the size, can have issues shedding blocks, where his upper body work fails to do the trick in disengaging. While it’s a minor complaint, his enthusiasm can get the better of him at times, abandoning assignments and over-running some plays.

While he has limited play experience, Vander Esch flashes impressive eyes and play reading, that led to high-impact plays and turnovers. He can effectively challenge O-linemen on the blitz with his burst, power and length; he attacks and shoots the gaps to get penetration. He can come off the edge occasionally, but not the most natural of pass rushers, though can get the occasional result through his quickness and hustle. The upside and measurables could see him off the board during day one, if not, then early on day two.

5. Malik Jefferson, Texas. Grade: 2nd Round

6’2”, 236lbs. Junior. 2017: 110 tackles (79 solo), 10 TFLs, 4 sacks, 5 QBHs.

His rare athleticism and size combination resulted in being one of the most prized recruits in the country out of high school, also having competed in baseball and track & field at that level. He’s had his ups and downs with the Longhorns but was an early contributor and regular playmaker. His development has been slow-going but concluded his college career with his most productive season, including hitting triple-digit tackles for the first time.

While it goes for all prospects entering the pro game, Jefferson’s landing spot will be particularly intriguing as to how successful he might ultimately prove to be. He has the speed, range and build to play multiple spots in the front seven, and offers both versatility and an every-down linebacker skill set. He’s moved from inside to outside linebacker for Texas, and might even be at his best using his explosiveness off the edge as a pass rusher which resulted in some success when deployed in that role.

When lining up at inside linebacker, it exposed some issues in Jefferson’s game, at least currently. He showed flaws and late reads and reactions when playing in the middle, proving not the most instinctive or quickest at processing that led to being a step late to the action.

In addition, he saw some issues working through traffic and getting stuck on blocks en route to the ball. The tendency to play upright with poor pad level also affected his ability to work in congested areas. His struggles even led to being benched for a time during the 2016 season, a relatively disappointing year all round in that he didn’t make the hoped-for steps in his development.

The talented athlete regularly makes plays however, utilizing his athletic traits, including his superb closing speed to blow up plays and occasional flatten scrambling quarterbacks outside the pocket. While quite raw as a pass rusher, he finds success often in secondary phase rushes, hustling to QB’s and ball carriers late as space opens up.

His explosive first step can give him early wins off the edge and leave offensive tackles working from behind early off the snap, and the potential to continue doing as such in a situational pass rushing role is intriguing. He has the fluidity and bend to turn the corner successfully and angle towards the passer.

6. Darius Leonard, South Carolina State. Grade: 3rd Round

6’2”, 234lbs. Redshirt Senior. 2017: 114 tackles (73 solo), 12 TFLs, 8.5 sacks, 10 QBHs, 1 PBU, 2 INTs, 1 FF.

Few have benefited more from the pre-draft process than Leonard, who has earned his status as one of the better off-ball linebacker prospects in this 2018 class. As with most small school prospects, the question of stepping up against top opposition is generally among the bigger unknowns.

In fairness to Leonard, his 19 tackles in a 2016 matchup with Clemson showed that he would not be out of his depth. Even so, his Senior Bowl week was a significant boost for his stock as one of the standouts in Mobile regardless of position. Leonard got better as each practice day passed, finished strong, and ended the week with an excellent performance in the game itself.

The former Bulldog fits the current trend of relatively smaller but athletic rangy linebackers. While maybe not featuring the most imposing of frames, he has enough of a build on his well-proportioned frame, and disproportionately long arms that aids him at the point of attack and when wrapping up. Leonard has legit sideline to sideline range and a nose for the football that results in a highly active game to pile up stops.

He’s a heat-seeking missile to the football with not just impressive closing speed but is quick to process mentally, and to read and react that aids his quick arrival to the action. He has the quickness and movement to roam in space and impact the game on every level, working well forward, backward and laterally. In addition to impacting the run game, he shows coverage ability, and the skills to keep with tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. He has a three-down linebacker skill set. 

There are some occasions when he can get stuck in traffic and his smaller build is to his detriment, but generally is able to find a way to work to the ball carrier, helped by his quick reads and initial burst. While doing so at a lower competition level, he’s put together a highly productive career in college, and ought to be a relatively safe bet to continue those contributions in the pros.

7. Dorian O'Daniel, Clemson. Grade: 3rd Round

6’1”, 223lbs. Redshirt Senior. 2017: 88 tackles (51 solo), 11.5 TFLs, 5 sacks, 4 QBHs, 2 INTs (both for TDs).

Much in the way that he didn’t receive the same attention as many on his own star-studded team, with particular focus on the front four defensive lineman at Clemson, O’Daniel feels a little bit under-discussed in his position group for the 2018 draft as well. He may have helped his cause at the recent Tigers pro day however, where he stood on his Combine testing numbers, but reportedly stood out for his phenomenal work through drills, backing up the primary basis of evaluation, in his outstanding game film.

O’Daniel may not be the biggest for the position, with closer to a safety build, but is physical in the tackle and generally wraps up well. An all-action playmaker, he shows up everywhere on the field, impacting the backfield, making interceptions and taking them to the house, working between the tackles and taking down ball carriers. The eyes are always active and alert, with fast reactions, quick decision making, followed by the burst of acceleration to spring toward the action.

A high school running back, he plays with impressive short area quickness, breaks down well in space and can take down shifty ball carriers in the open field. He has a good vertical that reflects his lower body explosion, and aids his ability to play coverage. The reactions, burst and closing speed allow him to shoot into the backfield to disrupt plays early and for a loss, attacking quick sideline passes and edge runs.

O’Daniel is an aggressive tackler that makes him more effective than might be expected when taking down physical bigger ball carriers. He does have his moments of getting bullied out of the play, controlled on a block or forced away from the action, working through traffic. There’s no lack of fight or physicality in such situations, but size will occasionally just dictate.

8. Shaquem Griffin, UCF. Grade: 3rd-4th Round

6’0”, 227lbs. Redshirt Senior. 2017: 74 tackles (44 solo), 13.5 TFLs, 7 sacks, 9 QBHs, 3 PBUs, 1 INT, 2 FFs, 1 fumble return TD.

Griffin’s story by this point is a well-known one, but it certainly doesn’t get old. However, moving beyond the inspiring motivational story regarding his lost left hand and achievements despite doubts at every stage to this point, Griffin’s Combine performance proved him to be one of the more gifted athletes in this entire draft class. Those skills absolutely translate to the field where his play over the last two seasons for the Knights has reflected that of one of the most dynamic defenders in college football.

A versatile playmaker on every level as a pass rusher, run defender and in coverage, with a background in track and field, Griffin is built more like a safety but has an explosive pass rush with his combination of first step and burst, great technique and well-developed rush moves, and a relentless motor. Noted for his community work off the field, his high character and work ethic adds off-the-charts intangibles to the talent that gives him a chance of hearing his name called during the second day of the draft.

Struggling to break through the first couple years for UCF, it took the coaching change to the excellent Scott Frost and his staff to take the backup safety and let him loose as a linebacker and edge rusher as a junior, that paid off big time with 20 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks, earning AAC defensive player of the year honors. The numbers as a senior weren’t quite at that level on the stat sheet, but his impact was just as great, and finished with an MVP performance in the major bowl win over Auburn in his final game for the Knights.

As a pass rusher, Griffin lines up off either edge from a two-point stance, and uses an electric first step, active hands in the form of swipe and swim moves, and can generate early pressure turning the corner. He keeps working post-contact to disengage from blocks, and while not always succeeding, frequently hustles his way into additional plays. He has the play speed to be effective in pursuit, and to turn and run deep down the field to track receivers in coverage. Expect him to contribute in a variety of ways, including as a special teams demon early on.

9. Chris Worley, Ohio State. Grade: 3rd-4th Round

6’1”, 238lbs. Redshirt Senior. 2017: 56 tackles (35 solo), 5 TFLs, 1 sack, 4 QBHs, 2 PBUs, 1 FF.

Originally joining OSU as a safety, Worley has made a successful conversion to linebacker. After a couple of seasons contributing to the rotation, including for the national championship winning team in 2015, he excelled in a breakout season as a full-time starter in 2016. Unfortunately, his senior season was disrupted by a foot injury that limited the early part of his season, and overall resulted in a relative drop off in production. The traits are there though to be a potential future starter and could prove a day three steal for someone.

Worley retains good quickness and general movement around the field from his background as a defensive back. He plays a patient game versus the run, with eyes up, tracks the football and takes off quickly and decisively toward the action. He closes effectively on ball carriers, chases well to the sidelines, and overall shows nice reactions and adjustments as the play develops as well as the ability to break down in space and redirect to the ball as the play shifts.

Solid working through traffic, Worley’s smart play assists his flow to the football, and shows nice timing when working off blocks. He may not be the biggest linebacker but plays a tough game with good commitment in the tackle, ideal form as a tackler, hits the ideal strike zone and shows a nice combination of technique and physicality.

While not a true all-action type at the position, he does flash the ability to cause some problems on the blitz and delayed second efforts into the backfield, closing in on a scrambling QB, with the ability to exploit gaps that open up during extended plays. He has three-down potential to contribute against the pass, understanding coverage assignments as a former defensive back, moving well laterally and backward and covers enough range.

Worley is noted as being a locker room leader and positive presence with intangibles and ideal work practices. There’s a limit to his ceiling, but has an over-achiever mentality who can maximize his abilities. It wouldn’t surprise if he begins as a backup and special teams guy, but could work his way into the rotations relatively early and eventually as a capable starter.

10. Micah Kiser, Virginia. Grade: 4th Round

6’0”, 238lbs. Redshirt Senior. 2017: 145 tackles (50 solo), 9.5 TFLs, 5 sacks, 2 QBHs, 4 PBUs.

A tackling machine with instincts, toughness and work ethic, even if there are some athletic limitations. He’ll make his money defending the run between the tackles, and while his range and speed to the sidelines isn’t ideal, his instincts, decision making and reactions aid his path to the football.

Kiser stands out immediately on film for his outstanding energy and hustle. There’s a directness and ruthlessness with his play against the run and generally finishes well with an imposing hit delivered on contact. When his path to the ball carrier is impeded, Kiser impresses with his ability to use heavy hands and good technique to shed blocks and create his own route through traffic. Despite his statistics and physical style, there’s a few disappointing missed tackles that occasionally appear on film.

While his play speed and ability to contribute to coverage remain a legitimate question, Kiser tested fairly well at the Combine, and may have satisfied some evaluators in that respect. There are examples of some struggles breaking down in space and changing direction, but his awareness and play reading compensate.

In addition to moving downhill to defend the run, Kiser is hugely impressive blitzing into the backfield. While there’s more explosive linebackers, Kiser’s superb timing results in regular pressure, sacks and forcing of bad throws.

He has stepped up as a leader on the Virginia defense and team as a whole. He’ll receive check marks in every off-field and intangible box in the scouting report as an intelligent, high-character person and an unquestioned leader and community presence.

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