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Position Review: Outside Linebackers
Early-round talent: B+
Overall grade: B-
2017 prospects vs 2016
Leonard Floyd Reuben Foster
Darron Lee Haason Reddick Jarrad Davis T.J. Watt
Su'a Cravens Ryan Anderson
Shilique Calhoun Jordan Willis Carroll Phillips Duke Riley
These classes are a tough comparison because Jaylon Smith and Myles Jack were top-10 talents who slid to the second round because of injury issues. Last year's class probably had better depth on Day 2, while this year's class has more talent for the first round.
If you were to merge the players together, there is a fair amount of parity. Reuben Foster could go at the end of the top 10 like Leonard Floyd, but he also might go in the teens. Thus, Foster is slightly behind Floyd. Darron Lee was a better player coming out of college than Haason Reddick, but the converted defensive end Reddick is a wild card who could end up getting selected higher than Lee. Jarrad Davis and T.J. Watt have late first-round potential, thus they are rated higher than Smith and Jack.
Deion Jones and Su'a Cravens are better prospects than Ryan Anderson, but he could be a late second-rounder, which would put him ahead of a third-rounder in Calhoun. Many teams have Jordan Willis graded in the third round like Calhoun. Carroll Phillips and Duke Riley are better prospects than Jordan Jenkins.
Safest Pick: Jarrad Davis, Florida
This wasn't an easy pick because I think Jarrad Davis, T.J. Watt and Reuben Foster will all pan out in the NFL. Ultimately, Davis could be the most well-rounded. He also has the best instincts of the trio. 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. He 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 best instincts, makes me go with Davis over Foster.
My track record here is two good and two bad. Kendricks has been a solid player, and Mack is a star in Oakland. Those two I was correct about. Brown has been a huge disappointment and was a bust for Baltimore. The jury is still out on Jack, but sources with the Jaguars told me he was very disappointing last year and his instincts were poor.
Previous Picks: 2016: Myles Jack 2015: Eric Kendricks 2014: Khalil Mack 2013: Arthur Brown
Biggest Bust Potential: Haason Reddick, Temple
I think that Reuben Foster does have some bust potential, and I know some teams that feel that way. However, I think it is more likely that Foster finds a way to pan out in the NFL. I am a real skeptic on Reddick though. He played defensive end in college and is moving to outside/inside linebacker. He has a grand total of three practices and part of an exhibition game at his NFL position. To me, that is too little experience to be a first-round pick, but that is where it looks like Reddick will be drafted.
I know scouts from multiple teams that gave Reddick a mid-round grade, but knew a team would take him much higher. They say that Reddick has problems with big bodies and shedding blocks. They say he got destroyed on some run plays. Reddick is a little behind in X's and O's, too, but displayed a capacity to learn it. Most of all, they believe his instincts aren't there yet. He needs time to develop. As a first-round pick, I'm not confident that Reddick will have as much time and patience as he might require. Reddick will likely be rushed on to the field, and I could see him having real problems in run defense and pass coverage. In my opinion, Reddick is a very risky selection for the first round with serious boom-or-bust potential.
Ford showed progress in Year 2, but the jury is still out on him. With his off-the-field issues already landing him a suspension not even a year after being drafted, Gregory is on his way to being a bust.
Previous Picks: 2016: Kamalei Correa 2015: Randy Gregory 2014: Dee Ford 2013: Chase Thomas
Recap: The NFL is all about the passing offense, so linebackers must be an asset at defending the aerial attack. Defensive coordinators want linebackers who function well in space and cover a lot of ground. They have to have good instincts and anticipate the routes that are coming their direction.
Linebackers also need to function well in zone and have the ability to quickly get deep in their drops. Those who can play man coverage on running backs and tight ends are in serious demand.
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 who can run with tight ends and running backs, yet even played 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.
Riley was a solid pass-coverage linebacker as a senior, and he should be able to do it in the NFL. He is fast and has enough instincts. Riley should be dependable to cover backs out of the backfield.
Reddick is a wild card here. He looked better than expected at the Senior Bowl in dropping into coverage and looked surprisingly smooth in zone coverage. However, the NFL is a lot more difficult than the Senior Bowl. Reddick has the skill set to cover, but he is going to need time to learn, patience from his team, and good coaching.
Anderson was solid in zone coverage in college, but he could have issues with fast running backs and tight ends. He could be okay, but probably not a player his defense wants isolated in a one-on-one.
Phillips, Watt and Willis were all pass-rusherswho rarely dropped into coverage in college. Phillips and Watt did some dropping into coverage, and both were better than you would expect. They both seemed natural in space despite mostly being used as edge rushers. This trio will need development in this regard for the NFL, but their NFL teams are taking them mainly for their ability to rush the quarterback.
Pass Rush: NFL prototype: Von Miller, Broncos
Recap: This is a strong group of rushers off the edge. I think Watt could end up being a Pro Bowl edge rusher in a 3-4 defense. He has speed, active hands to fight off blocks, and functional strength. Watt has a great motor and is relentless. Sound familiar? Like his older brother J.J., T.J. looked like he was just scratching the surface of his potential at Wisconsin as he brings upside to the NFL. I think T.J. Watt could end up being the best pass-rusher in this group.
Phillis is an underrated pass-rusher. He had nine sacks last year and would have had more if he played on a better team. Phillips has dangerous speed off the edge, a serious ability to bend, and closing speed.
Willis (6-3, 255) was a demon last year for Kansas State as he racked up 11.5 sacks. He has quickness and surprising functional strength to get off blocks. Willis also gives a great effort. I'm not sure his skill set will quite translate to the NFL as well as Watt's and Phillips', thus I have Willis third.
Reddick was an impactful pass-rusher in college. He is a danger off the edge with explosive speed, a relentless nature, and has a nose for the quarterback. The reason I have him lower is because he weighs in the 230s and will be very undersized against NFL offensive tackles. He might be able to overcome it, but his position does a lot of dropping in coverage as well.
Anderson is a talented edge rusher who is a dangerous blitzer from there. He has a quick get-off and the ability to turn the corner. Anderson totaled nine sacks in 2016, but all of them came at clutch times. He is a blue-collar player who finds a way to get the job done.
Foster was a dangerous blitzer for Alabama last year with five sacks. He is quick going against tackles and uses his size to dip and dodge blockers to chase down quarterbacks. Davis flashed some serious blitzing ability as a junior. Riley wasn't really used as a pass-rusher that much in college.
Run Defense: NFL prototype: Lavonte David, Buccaneers
Recap: Foster and Davis are tough run defenders who are excellent at coming down hill. They both can be violent hitters and explode through contact. Foster and Davis can shed blocks and read keys quickly to have a nose for the football. They both have elite speed to make plays on perimeter runs. In the NFL, their run defense will be an asset.
Watt was really tough at setting the edge for Wisconsin last year. Often he was strong in the ground game to hold his ground and get off blocks. In the NFL, Watt should continue to get better, and I think he will be an asset as a run defender for his pro team.
Riley is a bit undersized and could have issues getting off blocks in the NFL. Thus, he is better off being on the outside and protected from taking on blocks rather than playing middle linebacker. As a run-chase linebacker, Riley could be a plus run defender.
Anderson is solid against the run, but he isn't as fast or athletic as the top four. Still, he was a good run defender in college and is a fighter at the point of attack.
If Willis moves to outside linebacker in the NFL, he could be a capable run defender, especially in a 3-4 defense where he has a five-technique defensive end to occupy the offensive tackle a lot of the time. Willis (6-3, 255) is a little short on length and weight, but he plays tough with functional strength.
In my opinion, Reddick and Phillips need work as run defenders for the NFL. They both had problems in the ground game, getting pushed around in college. In the pros, the linemen are bigger, stronger and more athletic. Reddick has potential with the size of an inside/outside linebacker, but this is part of the development that he will need at his new position. Defending downhill runs, getting off blocks, and maintaining gap integrity will be big challenges for Reddick.
Phillips (6-3, 242) will need to improve his run defense. He did have 20 tackles for a loss last year and is dangerous as a run-chase defender, but he needs to get tougher at defending downhill runs coming straight at him.
Read & React: NFL prototype: Sean Lee, Cowboys
Recap: Davis and Foster all did well with read-and-react. Both are 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 fastest, while Foster is slightly slower.
Watt has good awareness and anticipates what the offense is trying to do. Riley and Anderson both have quality read-and-react skills, too. There are plays where Watt and Anderson are very impressive with the way they explode into the backfield in pass defense and rush defense. Both defenders can blow up plays because they are quick to fire their gun with the correct reaction.
Willis (6-3, 255) did a nice job of read-and-react at Kansas State last year. He could be forced to stand up and move off the line scrimmage depending on the team that drafts him and its scheme. In a 4-3, he might be a hybrid outside linebacker and defensive end. In a 3-4, he would be an outside linebacker.
Reddick and Phillips are tough projections in this category. Both of them were predominantly defensive ends or standing up over a tackle. For the NFL, they will need more work to transition as outside linebackers who line up a few yards behind the line of scrimmage and not with their hand on the ground. Reddick and Phillips are works in progress on this front.
Tackling: NFL prototype: NaVarro Bowman, 49ers
Recap: Foster is the best tackler in the class, with Anderson as a close second. Foster is reliable in taking ball-carriers to the ground when he gets a hold of them. He handled fast runners and power backs with good technique. Foster also lays out some devastating hits and is a violent tackler. He has a real physical presence. Anderson also was very reliable, and you'd rarely see him ever miss a tackle.
Watt, Willis and Reddick were quality tacklers in college. Reddick will be in for an adjustment in his switch to linebacker.
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. Phillips can miss tackles some times by over-pursuing. He also could use more strength. In the NFL, Riley could be more of a drag-down tackler given his size, so he should get bigger. Riley needs more strength for the power backs of the NFL.
Recap: Davis also is very good at getting off blocks. With his quickness and athleticism, he is tough for blockers to get a hold of. Davis also is violent to explode into blockers, shed them and make the stop.
Watt did a nice job of getting off blocks in 2016. He had active hands with functional strength, and agility to get off blockers. Watt could get a lot better as he gains more experience.
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. However, there were plays where Foster crashed into a blocker and then was whipped out.
Reddick, Anderson, Willis and Phillips were good at getting off blocks when it came to rushing the passer. However, they all need to get better at shedding blocks in the ground game for the NFL. Riley will need to improve in getting off blockers as his size could hurt him.
Splash Plays: NFL prototype: Von Miller, Broncos
Recap: NFL coaches love players who can take the ball away. It is a great equalizer against high-powered offenses, and takeaways directly lead to victories.
Anderson was a clutch defender for Alabama. In crunch time, he always seemed to be at the right place at the right time to force a fumble, recover it, or land a key sack to keep points off the board. Anderson produced four turnovers last year, and that was the most of any of these defenders.
Reddick notched three forced fumbles last year. He could be a source of splash plays when he rushes off the edge. Willis and Watt could be similar as they produced some sack-fumbles last year. Phillips had one forced fumble and was close on other sacks.
Davis made more splash plays in 2015 when he was healthy. He had some impact plays for the Gators. Riley recorded zero forced fumbles in college. Surprisingly, Foster totaled zero interceptions and zero forced fumbles in his collegiate career.