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Position Review: Inside Linebacker
Inside Linebacker Class
Early-round talent: A-
Overall grade: B
2017 prospects vs 2016 Reuben Foster
Myles Jack Jarrad Davis Zach Cunningham
Reggie Ragland Raekwon McMillan
Nick Vigil Kendell Beckwith Alex Anzalone Duke Riley
Nick Kwiatkoski Anthony Walker
Last year could have been an excellent draft, but the knee injuries to Jaylon Smith and Myles Jack caused those top-10 talents to slide to early in the second round. Prior to the injuries, Smith and Jack would be higher-rated prospects than Reuben Foster. However when it comes to where they go off the board, Foster will go higher than they did. Jarrad Davis and Zach Cunningham are on the bubble of the first round this year. They could sneak into Thursday night or go early in Round 2 like Smith and Jack. Ragland was a mid-second-round pick last year, so Cunningham and Davis would be rated slightly higher.
Raekwon McMillan is a second-day prospect who will probably go higher than 2016 late third-rounders Jordan Jenkins and Nick Vigil. Kendell Beckwith would be rated higher if it weren't for an injury. He's on the bubble between Day 2 and Day 3. Alex Anzalone is in the same range because of repeated injuries in his career. Duke Riley could sneak into Day 2 as well. That trio is better than Joshua Perry, B.J. Goodson and Nick Kwiatkoski. Anthony Walker would have been higher a year ago, but he had a disappointing junior season. Unfortunately, this draft class doesn't have good linebacker values for the late rounds.
Safest Pick: Jarrad Davis, Florida
This wasn't an easy pick because I think Jarrad Davis and Zach Cunningham will pan out in the NFL. Ultimately, Davis could be the most well-rounded. He has the best instincts of the top trio of linebackers this year. On top of that, Davis is extremely fast, has the strength to get off blocks, is explosive, violent, and can cover in the passing game. Davis has the potential to be a linebacker who goes one-on-one with tight ends, running backs, and even help on slot receivers. Davis is a tough run defender who can shed and make the tackle. The only concern with Davis is durability, but he did show that he will play hurt and battle. Having the better instincts makes me go with Davis over Foster.
My track record here is mixed. The Bills were excited about Ragland being an instant quality starter before an injury robbed him of his rookie year, so the jury is still out on him. Perryman and Mosley have both turned into good pro linebackers. Minter has been a starter, althout not as good as the expectations were.
Biggest Bust Potential: Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
A team could reach on McMillan in the 2017 NFL Draft as some draft analysts have projected him to go fairly high in the top-50-or-so picks. McMillan was well-suited for the Big Ten as he is a tough run defender at the point of attack, is a good tackler, and is a physical presence in the tackle box. He has limitations in pass coverage, however, and never looked natural dropping. In the passing-driven NFL, McMillan could be targeted for mismatches against running backs and tight ends in space. McMillan ran well at the combine with speed and has good size, so he could develop pass-coverage skills in time. Of the early round picks, I think he has the highest bust potential because of his pass-coverage issues.
I was way off in my projection of McKinney as he emerged as one of the best young inside linebackers in the NFL last year for the Texans. Reddick didn't pan out, so I was correct there. Borland retired after an impressive rookie year, so that's more of a draw. Matakevich slid deep into the 2016 NFL Draft, so you can't really consider him a bust for the Steelers if he doesn't pan out. At the time of writing this article a year ago, there was thought that Matakevich could be a second-day pick.
Previous Picks: 2016: Tyler Matakevich 2015: Bernardrick McKinney 2014: Chris Borland 2013: Kevin Reddick
Inside Linebacker Rankings by Attributes
Pass Coverage: NFL prototype: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
Recap: The ability for a linebacker to be effective in pass coverage is mandatory in the passing-driven NFL. Defensive coordinators need linebackers who cover a lot of ground and can drop quickly downfield. Along with playing zone, linebackers who can effectively match up against the versatile pass-receiving tight ends and running backs out of the backfield are difficult to find.
Davis showed three-down ability at Florida. He is a fast, agile athlete who can cover a lot of ground with the skills to run in man coverage. With his overall speed and range, Davis is excellent at carrying routes. He is a twitchy and fast defender. Davis can run with tight ends and running backs while also playing some corner against slot receivers in practice. Davis could be a special pass-coverage linebacker.
Foster was very good in pass coverage for Alabama. As a junior, he showed some man-cover skills in the middle of the field and running down the seam. The senior covered a lot of ground in zone during 2016, and his instincts put him in good position. He is an above-average prospect as a pass-coverage linebacker.
Cunningham is very well-suited to pass coverage in today's NFL. As a professional, he could be an asset as a linebacker weapon to neutralize receiving threat tight ends in man to man coverage. Cunningham has good height and length to match up on tight ends with the speed to get down the seam. He was very good in coverage for Vanderbilt last season. For running backs out of the backfield, Cunningham is also able to blanket them. In zone coverage, Cunningham is skilled to pick up receivers coming into his area and keeping them from getting open.
At the Senior Bowl and during his senior year, Anzalone showed good speed and athleticism to run with receivers down the field. He is a good pass-coverage linebacker who can get down the seam and cover up backs out of the backfield.
Riley was a solid pass-coverage linebacker as a senior and should be able to do it in the NFL. Walker is a mixed story as he was good in pass coverage as a sophomore, but regressed after becoming too heavy prior to his junior year. If he trims down, he could be good in pass coverage.
McMillan and Beckwith both are stout linebackers, but not natural in pass coverage. Each one will need to work on their cover skills for the NFL.
Run Defense: NFL prototype: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
Recap: As multiple scouts told WalterFootball.com at the college all-star games, a thumper inside linebacker is a dying breed in the NFL. Still, teams have to have middle linebackers who can be tough run defenders. Linebackers especially need pursuit skills with the rash of mobile quarterbacks and the mixing in of read-option plays. This was really tough to rank because honestly, there wasn't a bad run defender in the group.
Most probably wouldn't rank Cunningham first ahead of Foster, but to me, Cunningham was the more instinctive of the two. Cunningham defends sideline-to-sideline with his quickness to track down ball-carriers. He has very good instincts and is very good at reading his keys before exploding through the scrum to take down backs. Cunningham is inconsistent about taking on blocks, but has shown the ability to take on, shed, and make the tackle. I think Cunningham's total of 228 tackles over the past two seasons is no fluke. He was more productive than Foster or Davis.
That being said, Foster and Davis are tough run defenders who are excellent coming down hill. They both can be violent hitters and explode through contact. They can shed blocks, and read keys quickly to have a nose for the football. Foster and Davis have elite speed to make plays on perimeter runs. In the NFL, their run defense will be an asset.
McMillan and Beckwith are thumpers in the tackle box. They are strong and tough at the point of attack. Both will be good run defenders for the NFL.
Anzalone is a good run defender. He is strong in the tackle box and a sure tackler. Walker was tougher and stronger in 2016, but he was a better run defender in 2015 when he was faster and could get to the ball. Riley is a bit undersized and could have issues getting off blocks in the NFL. He also was only a 1-year starter. Riley might be better off being on the outside and protected from taking on blocks.
Recap: The ability to read his keys and instantly react to the play is a critical attribute for any inside linebacker in the NFL. The ones who do that well put themselves in position to make more tackles and produce more splash plays. This year's group of linebackers does a solid job of this and there isn't one who I would say is bad at it.
The top three are virtually tied. Cunningham is a superb read-and-react linebacker. He used those skills to not only make a lot of tackles. Davis and Foster are also very good in their recognition skills. They determine what the offense is trying to do and get in position to make plays or disrupt. You almost never see them take a false step or not be in the right position. Davis seems to react the faster, while Foster is slightly slower than him or Cunningham.
Riley is strong in read-and-react for the ground game and showed impressive skills as a senior.
McMillan, Beckwith and Anzalone were all impressive read-and-react linebackers in the ground game. They do a nice job of seeing what the offensive line is setting up and running to the right spot. All three will need to continue to improve on their read-and-react skills in pass coverage, especially Beckwith and McMillan.
Walker had nice recognition skills for the college game, but will need to improve his read-and-react skills in the NFL.
Tackling: NFL prototype: Ryan Shazier, Steelers
Recap: With each passing year, I think tackling is becoming a lost art in the NFL. Missed tackles are a plague on defenses that seems to get progressively worse every season. One of the primary reasons for this epidemic is the decreased training camp practices with less padded work and live hitting. Rule changes have also made tackling more difficult as players must avoid contact in certain locations and methods of taking down a ball-carrier. The end result is seeing a plethora of missed tackles on a down-by-down basis. This group is pretty solid and no player stands out in a negative manner.
Foster is an excellent tackler. He hits with authority while also doing a good job of wrapping up ball-carriers. When Foster got to the runner, they were going down hard.
Cunningham also is a rock-solid tackler. You don't see him miss tackles, and he does a nice job of tackling ball carriers that other linebackers are incapable of getting to. His weight was lower than expected at the combine, and he should add more to his frame. Cunningham could use more strength for tackling NFL running backs.
McMillan, Beckwith and Anzalone are good tacklers. They were very reliable to finish the tackle when they got there. McMillan and Beckwith are especially good form tacklers.
Davis is a really good tackler a lot of the time, but he can miss some by going for a knockout blow and being too aggressive. Walker was generally a good tackler for Northwestern, but if he drops weight to get faster, that could hurt him in terms of bringing down bigger backs. In the NFL, Riley could be more of a drag-down tackler given his size, so he should get bigger.
Instincts: NFL prototype: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
Recap: Instincts are what separates good linebackers from great ones. Having the innate feeling of what the offense is going to do is a huge factor for linebackers who can take the ball away, make a critical stop on a third down or consistently set up good down-and-distance situations for the defense. All great players are instinctive.
In this group, there wasn't a linebacker who I would say has bad instincts. I have Davis as the most-instinctive linebacker in this draft class - but that isn't by a huge amount over Cunningham. They both possess excellent instincts. Those two defenders have shown the ability to anticipate what is coming and get in position to make plays or be disruptive. Each should continue to have good instincts in the NFL after getting tuned into the pro game.
Foster displayed improved instincts in 2016 over his junior year. His instincts, however, can still be streaky. Scouts have told me that Foster really struggled with the mental part of the game prior to his senior year. He isn't as naturally instinctive as Davis or Cunningham. Anzalone flashed good instincts last year before injuries shortened another season for him.
The bottom four linebackers here are pretty equal. They all flashed plus instincts for the college game, especially in the ground game.
Pass Rush: NFL prototype: Lawrence Timmons, Dolphins
Recap: There aren't too many inside linebackers in the NFL who consistently rush the passer, but 3-4 defenses especially like to have interior backers who can blitz up the middle after the quarterback.
Foster is the best pass-rusher in this group. He was a dynamite blitzer for Alabama last year with five sacks. Foster is quick going against tackles and uses his size to dip and dodge blockers to chase down quarterbacks. Cunningham was superb at getting after the quarterback as a sophomore with 4.5 sacks.
Anzalone, Davis and Walker were dangerous blitzers in college. Even though they didn't have huge sack numbers, each one is adept at getting pressure on the quarterback when they blitz off the edge. Anzalone flashes some special rush ability.
McMillan, Riley and Beckwith weren't really used as pass-rushers very much.
Recap: Getting off blocks is a critical attribute for any linebacker in the NFL. Running around blockers results in busted gap integrity and can spring backs for big runs. Shedding blocks is one of the hardest aspects for a college player going to the the next level. A lot of the top linebackers in the NFL struggled with it early on.
Davis also is very good at getting off blocks. With his quickness and athleticism, Davis is tough for blockers to get a hold of. He also is violent to explode into blockers, shed them and make the stop.
Foster is skilled at shedding blocks. He has the strength to take on offensive linemen, shed the block, and make the tackle. Throughout his senior year, Foster would fire into the scrum, get off linemen, and get to the ball-carrier. There were plays, however, when Foster crashed into a blocker and then got whipped out.
McMillan and Beckwith have some natural strength and athletic ability to defeat blocks in the NFL.
Anzalone and Cunningham also flash that skill. Cunningham looks great at times to take on and shed blocks, but sometimes will try to run around blocks.
Riley and Walker improved in this skill, but both will need to continue to grow in the NFL.