2015 NFL Draft Position Review: Inside Linebackers

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2015 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2015 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
Send Charlie an e-mail here: [email protected]
Follow Charlie on Twitter @draftcampbell for updates.

This page was last updated March 12, 2015. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Position Review: Inside Linebacker

Inside Linebacker Class
Early-round talent: B+
Mid-round: C
Late-round: C
Overall grade: B

2015 prospects vs 2014
Denzel Perryman < C.J. Mosley
Bernardrick McKinney > Christian Kirksey
Stephone Anthony > Preston Brown
Paul Dawson = Chris Borland
Hayes Pullard > Anthony Hitchens
Mike Hull < Carl Bradford
Jake Ryan > Khairi Fortt
Ramik Wilson > Kevin Pierre-Louis

The 2014 NFL Draft featured the best inside linebacker prospect over the past two years in C.J. Mosley. He backed up his first-round grade with a strong rookie year. The group for the 2015 NFL Draft doesn’t have a player as good as Mosley, but this class has more talent and depth through the top half of the NFL draft and into Day 3.

Looking at the two classes together, Mosley would be the highest-rated prospect. Perryman, McKinney and Anthony would go ahead of Kirksey. Dawson is a love/hate prospect with NFL teams, so he is hard to merge. Some teams would rate him ahead of Kirksey, while other teams have graded Dawson as a sixth- or seventh-round pick. Pullard and Hull would go behind Bradford. Ryan and Wilson are about equal to Fortt and Pierre-Louis.



Safest Pick: Denzel Perryman, Miami
Some question Perryman’s pass-coverage skills for the next level. He does well in zone, but may not be an isolation man-coverage linebacker. Still, Perryman is a tremendous run-defender. He is a physical tackler who is an enforcer in the tackle box. His instincts are very impressive and put him in position to make tackles or disrupt plays. Perryman also is a leader and hard worker who should be an inspirational presence for his defense. While Perryman may not turn into one of the elite linebackers in the NFL like a Luke Kuechly, Perryman looks safe to turn into a serviceable and good pro linebacker.

Previous Picks:
2014: C.J. Mosley
2013: Kevin Minter

Biggest Bust Potential: Bernardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
Last year, I was wrong in my projection of Borland, who had a quality rookie year. It will be interesting to see how Borland will pan out now that Patrick Willis has retired. This year was a tough decision between McKinney and Dawson. Both of them have the off-the-field concerns. McKinney was a good player in college, but never had huge production. Thus, he’s my pick. Dawson also could end up being a third-day pick, and you can’t really call a pick after the third round a bust since the majority of Day 3 picks don’t last in the NFL.

Previous Picks:
2014: Chris Borland
2013: Kevin Reddick



Inside Linebacker Rankings by Attributes


Pass Coverage:
NFL prototype: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
  1. Bernardrick McKinney
  2. Paul Dawson
  3. Hayes Pullard
  4. Stephone Anthony
  5. Mike Hull
  6. Denzel Perryman
  7. Ramik Wilson
  8. Jake Ryan


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.

In terms of production, Dawson (6-0, 235) would be rated first as he had five passes broken up and four interceptions in 2014. Those are quality numbers for a defensive back, so obviously they’re great for a linebacker. However in terms of projecting for the NFL, McKinney (6-4, 246) has the skill set that teams want with the height, speed and athletic ability to match up in man coverage against receiving tight ends. Sources say they love what McKinney could bring in pass coverage in the NFL. That really helps his draft stock.

Pullard and Anthony are both quality linebackers in pass coverage. That could be seen at the Senior Bowl, especially for Anthony. Pullard had eight passes broken up and an interceptions during 2014. He covers a lot of ground in zone and has good instincts. Both of Anthony and Pullard look likely to be on the field as middle linebackers in the nickel.

Hull has more quickness and athleticism than one would think. He covers ground and could develop into a quality pass-defender. Perryman had five passes broken up and one interception in 2014. He does well in zone, but is short and may not be able to called upon to cover in man.

Wilson and Ryan need work in their pass coverage for the NFL. Wilson is further along and could have some three-down ability.

Run Defense:
NFL prototype: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
  1. Denzel Perryman
  2. Paul Dawson
  3. Stephone Anthony
  4. Jake Ryan
  5. Ramik Wilson
  6. Bernardrick McKinney
  7. Mike Hull
  8. Hayes Pullard


Recap: As multiple scouts told WalterFootball.com at the college All-Star games, the thumper inside linebacker is a dying breed in the NFL. Still, teams have to have middle linebackers who can be tough run-defenders. Inside linebackers especially need pursuit skills with the rash of mobile quarterbacks and the success of the read option.

Perryman is an awesome run-defender. He sheds blocks, tackles hard, reads his keys quickly and has a nose for the football. Even though Perryman doesn’t have elite speed, he can still make some plays on perimeter runs. Perryman is superb against the run, and his best fit in the NFL may come on the inside of a 3-4 defense where he comes off the field in the nickel.

Based off 2014, you have to have Dawson high as he produced the highest tackle total with 128 stops on the season. Dawson played quick and showed some instincts. He isn’t quite as good as Perryman in terms taking on and shedding blocks. In the NFL, that could be more pronounced as Dawson is a tad undersized for an inside backer.

Anthony had only 69 tackles in 2014, but he showed that he can be a downhill thumper who makes a big impact when he gets there. Anthony should be a good run-defender in the NFL.

Ryan and Wilson were tough run-defenders in college who had multiple seasons of big tackle totals. Both players are quick to read their keys and get in position to make tackles.

Hull and Pullard are similar, but they’ll need to improve their ability to take on and shed blocks.



Read-and-React:
NFL prototype: Jerod Mayo, Patriots
  1. Denzel Perryman
  2. Paul Dawson
  3. Mike Hull
  4. Jake Ryan
  5. Bernardrick McKinney
  6. Stephone Anthony
  7. Hayes Pullard
  8. Ramik Wilson


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 that I would say is bad at it.

Perryman is the best read-and-react linebacker available. He used those skills to not only make a lot of tackles, but he also does well when deciding to break on a receiver or quarterback in.

Dawson, Hull and Ryan were all impressive read-and-reaction 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.

McKinney is more impressive in his read-and-react in the passing game than his run defense. Thus he’s in the middle of the pack. Anthony is strong in read-and-react for the ground game and showed improved skills in pass coverage at the Senior Bowl.

Pullard could stand to get a little quicker. Wilson will need to get faster at reading his keys for the NFL.

Tackling:
NFL prototype: DeAndre Levy, Lions
  1. Denzel Perryman
  2. Paul Dawson
  3. Bernardrick McKinney
  4. Stephone Anthony
  5. Mike Hull
  6. Jake Ryan
  7. Ramik Wilson
  8. Hayes Pullard


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.

Perryman is an excellent tackler. He hits with authority while also doing a good job of wrapping up ball-carriers. When Perryman got to the runner in 2014, they were going down. Perryman could have some issues in the open field with faster and more athletic ball-carriers, but his tackling form looks NFL ready.

Dawson, McKinney and Anthony are good tacklers. Anthony and McKinney are strong, and backs are generally unable to break out of their respective grasp.

At times, Hull and Ryan were more of drag-down tacklers. Wilson is a good tackler and was reliable for Georgia. Pullard tackled well for USC, but he is a drag-down tackler a lot of the time.



Instincts:
NFL prototype: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
  1. Denzel Perryman
  2. Paul Dawson
  3. Bernardrick McKinney
  4. Stephone Anthony
  5. Jake Ryan
  6. Mike Hull
  7. Hayes Pullard
  8. Ramik Wilson


Recap: Instincts are what separate good linebackers from great ones. Having the innate feeling of what an 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.

I have Perryman as the most instinctive linebacker in this draft class – but that isn’t by a huge amount. Dawson and McKinney also possess good instincts. Those three players have all 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. McKinney just has the edge in pass coverage, but Perryman does in the ground game.

Anthony looked more instinctive at the Senior Bowl. He’s strong against the run and showed improved ability in pass defense. Anthony could end up being a steal on the second-day of the 2015 NFL Draft.

The bottom four linebackers here are pretty equal. They all flashed good instincts for the college game and other times seem to bite on misdirection. With some development in the NFL, their instincts could become a strength.

Pass Rush:
NFL prototype: Daryl Washington, Cardinals
  1. Bernardrick McKinney
  2. Jake Ryan
  3. Paul Dawson
  4. Stephone Anthony
  5. Denzel Perryman
  6. Ramik Wilson
  7. Mike Hull
  8. Hayes Pullard


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 linebackers who can blitz up the middle after the quarterback.

McKinney is definitely the best pass-rusher in this group. He did some edge rushing for Mississippi State, and some thought he might grow into a defensive end early in his career as a Bulldog. McKinney also can move around and blitz from the inside. He is fast and agile to chase down the quarterback. For the NFL, his blitzing ability is an added bonus to his pass defense. McKinney has nice pass-rushing potential and would be a nice fit in a 3-4 defense where he could rush up the middle or off the edge on occasion.

Ryan had 4.5 sacks in 2012 and was a good blitzer for the Wolverines. 2014 saw him pick up a couple of sacks. He is better rushing the passer than dropping into coverage. Dawson also showed an ability to fire his gun and dart into the backfield to make a play. He had five sacks in 2014.

Anthony and Perryman also flashed some blitzing skills. Perryman did more of that as a junior with rushing off the edge. He could make some plays blitzing down the middle in the NFL.

Wilson, Hull and Pullard weren’t really used as pass-rushers very much.

Shedding Blocks:
NFL prototype: Lawrence Timmons, Steelers
  1. Denzel Perryman
  2. Bernardrick McKinney
  3. Stephone Anthony
  4. Paul Dawson
  5. Jake Ryan
  6. Mike Hull
  7. Hayes Pullard
  8. Ramik Wilson


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 running 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.

Perryman 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, Perryman would fire into the scrum, get off linemen and get to the ball-carrier.

McKinney and Anthony also flash that skill. They don’t run around blockers and are good about taking. Dawson does a pretty nice job of getting off blocks. However, his lack of length could hurt him in this regard in the NFL.

Ryan has some natural strength and athletic ability to defeat blocks in the NFL, but he will need coaching to develop the skill. Hull, Pullard and Wilson all improved in this skill but will need to continue to grow in the NFL.

Awareness:
NFL prototype: Daryl Smith, Ravens
  1. Bernardrick McKinney
  2. Denzel Perryman
  3. Paul Dawson
  4. Stephone Anthony
  5. Mike Hull
  6. Hayes Pullard
  7. Ramik Wilson
  8. Jake Ryan


Recap: Awareness is an increasingly important trait for linebackers given the read options and misdirection plays that are currently challenging defenses in the NFL.

McKinney could have the best awareness of any linebacker in the draft class. He does a superb job of knowing what is going around in his surroundings. Perryman is also intelligent on the field. He doesn’t get caught out of position and stays around the ball.

Dawson and Anthony have very good awareness and typically do not get caught out of position. Hull has awareness, but there were plays on which he bit on some fakes by the offense. Hull should get better with more experience against a variety of offenses.

Pullard, Wilson and Ryan have room to improve their respective awareness.




NFL Power Rankings - Feb. 22


2024 NFL Mock Draft - Feb. 21


Fantasy Football Rankings - Feb. 19


NFL Picks - Feb. 12