2015 NFL Draft Position Review: Outside 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.
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This page was last updated April 5, 2015. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Position Review: Outside Linebackers

Center Class
Early-round talent: A
Mid-round: B
Late-round: B
Overall grade: B+

2015 prospects vs 2014
Dante Fowler < Khalil Mack
Vic Beasley < Anthony Barr
Shane Ray > Ryan Shazier
Randy Gregory > Dee Ford
Eric Kendricks > Marcus Smith
Eli Harold > Demarcus Lawrence
Shaq Thompson > Kyle Van Noy
Kwon Alexander < Trent Murphy

This year’s class of outside linebackers is similar in talent to the 2014 class. Nine outside linebackers went in the first two rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft, and seven could easily go in the first two rounds this year with six potential first-rounders.

If you were to merge the two classes together, we should eliminate Gregory from the comparison. As a player, he is on a par with the top players like Mack, Barr and Fowler, but Gregory is likely to slide in the draft because of off-the-field issues.

In merging them together, Mack and Barr would be the top two prospects. Fowler, Beasley and Ray would go ahead of Shazier. Kendricks is a better prospect than Smith, and should go in the same range. Harold is about equal to Smith. Smith, Lawrence and Van Noy would go ahead of Thompson but behind Harold. Alexander would go behind Murphy.



Safest Pick: Eric Kendricks, UCLA
While other outside linebackers will go ahead of Kendricks, I think he is the safest pick to turn into a good pro. Kendricks is a fast sideline-to-sideline tackling machine that also is versatile enough to make plays in pass coverage. He could fit as a 3-4 inside linebacker or a 4-3 Will (weakside) linebacker. Kendricks may not be the biggest or fastest, but he’s a pure football player with great instincts.

Previous Picks:
2014: Khalil Mack
2013: Arthur Brown

Biggest Bust Potential: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
If Gregory didn’t have off-the-field issues, he would be a high first-round pick, and athletically, he is safe to be a good pass-rusher. However, Gregory had a problem with marijuana in college and already failed one NFL drug test. He also has other off-the-field issues that have teams very concerned about his future as a pro. With that being the case, Gregory is a risky pick who has some bust potential because of things away from the game.

Previous Picks:
2014: Dee Ford
2013: Chase Thomas



Outside Linebacker Rankings by Attributes


Pass Coverage:
NFL prototype: Lance Briggs, Bears
  1. Eric Kendricks
  2. Shaq Thompson
  3. Kwon Alexander
  4. Dante Fowler Jr.
  5. Shane Ray
  6. Vic Beasley
  7. Randy Gregory
  8. Eli Harold


Recap: The NFL is all about the passing offense, so linebackers must be be an asset at defending the aerial attack. Defensive coordinators want linebackers who function well in space and cover a lot of ground. Those players need 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.

Kendricks looks the most natural in pass coverage of the 2014 linebackers. He is very good in zone coverage and picks up receivers well. Kendricks has some man-coverage ability as well on tight ends and running backs. He does a really nice job of tackling backs in the flat on check downs and not letting them break downfield. Kendricks had three passes broken up and two interceptions last year. His prowess in pass coverage should help place him as a top-32 pick.

Thompson had four passes broken up and an interception last year. He has the athletic skill set to get the job done in pass coverage, but he needs development. Some project moving him to safety.

Fowler dropped into pass coverage some and didn’t do poorly. He functioned well in zone, and that makes him a great fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Fowler didn’t do it a lot, but he has some experience.

Ray, Beasley, Gregory and Harold were all pass-rushers in college who rarely ever dropped into coverage. Each one will need a lot of development in this regard for the NFL, but a team that drafts one of them is doing with so with the plan of that prospect rushing the quarterback.

Pass Rush:
NFL prototype: Von Miller, Broncos
  1. Randy Gregory
  2. Dante Fowler Jr.
  3. Vic Beasley
  4. Shane Ray
  5. Eli Harold
  6. Eric Kendricks
  7. Kwon Alexander
  8. Shaq Thompson


Recap: All of the top five linebackers are dangerous pass-rushers off the edge who should be good rushers in the NFL. The bottom trio didn’t typically rush off the edge in passing situations. Kendricks flashed some blitzing ability with four sacks last year, while Alexander and Thomson each had one.

Gregory is the best pure pass-rusher in the 2015 NFL Draft, and that isn’t just my opinion; I’ve heard the same thing from scouts and general managers. He has dangerous speed off the edge, a repertoire of moves, good hands and functional strength to surprise tackles with a bull rush. Gregory is shark who smells blood in the water and can hunt the quarterback for four quarters. Over the past two years, he has shown serious pass-rush skills.

I have Fowler second because he really is developing and has a better physical skill set to translate to the NFL. The 6-foot-3, 260-pounder has more power and ability to fight off blockers than the next three. Fowler is fast and physical off the edge and should become an even better pass-rusher as he develops.

Beasley was a consistent pass-rusher in college. He is a bolt of lightning off the edge and has a nose for the quarterback. The reason I have Beasley lower is because he played in the 230s in college. He’s up to the 240s now, but can he keep it on, and how will it impact his game? Those answers are unknown, thus he’s ranked behind Fowler and Gregory.

Ray is a superb edge rusher. He has a very fast get-off and the ability to transition speed to power. Like Beasley, Ray (6-3, 245) is going to need to transition from defensive end to outside linebacker in the NFL. The same goes for Harold. He also is a fast edge rusher with the ability to beat tackles and hunt the quarterback.



Run Defense:
NFL prototype: Lavonte David, Buccaneers
  1. Eric Kendricks
  2. Kwon Alexander
  3. Shaq Thompson
  4. Dante Fowler Jr.
  5. Shane Ray
  6. Randy Gregory
  7. Eli Harold
  8. Vic Beasley


Recap: The best run-defender is Kendricks, and it’s not even close. Over the past three seasons, he was a tackling machine for the Bruins. Kendricks had 149 tackles in two of the past three years with over 100 in the other season. He is sideline-to-sideline with great instincts and is a sure tackler. Kendricks handles big backs and speed backs. He should be an asset quickly in run defense.

Alexander showed a poor man’s version of Kendricks’game last year. That’s a little harsh as Alexander had 90 tackles and used his speed to fly around the field, but he isn’t as instinctive as Kendricks. In the NFL though, Alexander should be a real help to defend against mobile quarterbacks.

Thompson is decent against the run, but he doesn’t play up to his athletic skill set. Thompson is not a tackling machine like Kendricks or Lavonte David was when he was at Nebraska. Thompson needs to improve his run defense for the NFL. He has to get better at reading his keys and shedding blocks.

Fowler can have issues when runs come straight at him, but he got better during his career. Fowler flashes the strength to shed blocks and make tackles. In the NFL, he’ll probably improve and become a well-rounded three-down defender. His run defense is the best among the speed rushers.

Ray isn’t a bad run-defender. He is downhill attacker who makes plays behind the line of scrimmage. Ray had 65 tackles last year and does well in pursuit. He needs to get better at holding his ground when runs come straight at him, but backing him off the line of scrimmage could help him.

Gregory and Harold weren’t terrible against the run and had decent tackle totals. Both have to get stronger for the next level though. Beasley’s run defense is a weakness. He notched just 33 tackles in 2014, 23 in 2013, and only 14 in 2012. His run defense made him a situational pass-rusher in the early going. Beasley needs to get better at holding his gap in the NFL.

Read & React:
NFL prototype: Sean Weatherspoon, Falcons
  1. Eric Kendricks
  2. Dante Fowler Jr.
  3. Kwon Alexander
  4. Shaq Thompson
  5. Randy Gregory
  6. Eli Harold
  7. Shane Ray
  8. Vic Beasley


Recap: Kendricks, Fowler and Alexander all did well with reading and reacting last year. The three of them have good awareness and anticipate what the offense is trying to do. Kendricks and Fowler are exceptional.

Thompson flashes read-and-react skills, but he isn’t consistent. Thompson needs to get better about it and not getting caught out of position. If he had played linebacker his entire career, that would have helped his development.

Gregory, Harold, Ray and Beasley are tough to project in this category. All of them were predominantly defensive ends in college, but they now have to back off the line of scrimmage and stand up as outside linebackers. Gregory, Harold, Ray and Beasley haven’t done it enough and will need time to develop this as pros.



Tackling:
NFL prototype: NaVarro Bowman, 49ers
  1. Eric Kendricks
  2. Kwon Alexander
  3. Shaq Thompson
  4. Dante Fowler Jr.
  5. Randy Gregory
  6. Shane Ray
  7. Eli Harold
  8. Vic Beasley


Recap: Kendricks is the best tackler in the class, and Alexander isn’t a close second. Kendricks is extremely reliable in taking ball-carriers to the ground when he gets a hold of them. Kendricks handled fast runners and power backs with good technique. With over 400 tackles in the past three years, obviously Kendricks is good at getting ball-carriers to the ground.

Alexander and Thompson were quality tacklers in college, but they could use more strength for the power backs of the NFL. Fowler has good strength and will wrap up, but sometimes he goes for the knockout blow and loses his fundamentals.

Gregory is similar to Fowler and was reliable for Nebraska. Gregory’s tackling looked better in 2014, but the junior also had more opportunities. Gregory, Ray, Harold and Beasley could all use more strength for tackling NFL running backs compared to what they were used to in college. Beasley had some ugly plays against South Carolina in his earlier years and really struggled with Todd Gurley.

Shedding Blocks:
NFL prototype: Chad Greenway, Vikings
  1. Dante Fowler Jr.
  2. Randy Gregory
  3. Eric Kendricks
  4. Shane Ray
  5. Vic Beasley
  6. Eli Harold
  7. Shaq Thompson
  8. Kwon Alexander


Recap: Fowler is skilled at shedding blocks. Even though offensive linemen have more size, his tenacity and hand usage get him free from blockers. Fowler has the strength to knock their hands off of him and uses his speed to bolt by them. He also has shown the ability to fight double-teams.

Gregory is skilled at getting free of blockers in the tackle box when he is in pursuit. He doesn’t shy away from taking on contact and has the ability to disengage, but he needs refinement and should get better when blockers come at him downhill. Ditto for Ray, Beasley and Harold in the ground game, but they’re not quite as good as Gregory. All of them are good at shedding blocks in the pass rush.

Thompson and Alexander were decent at shedding blocks in college, but will need to continue to work on this in the NFL. They need to add weight and get more consistent about taking on blockers and shedding rather than running around them.

Splash Plays:
NFL prototype: Von Miller, Broncos
  1. Eric Kendricks
  2. Shaq Thompson
  3. Shane Ray
  4. Vic Beasley
  5. Randy Gregory
  6. Dante Fowler Jr.
  7. Eli Harold
  8. Kwon Alexander


Recap: NFL coaches love players who can take the ball away. It is a great equalizer against high-powered offenses and leads directly to victories.

Kendricks is very instinctive about creating turnovers. He had four forced fumbles and three interceptions as a senior. Kendricks uses his instincts and is always looking to take the ball away from the opposition.

Thompson is similar. He had spells where he would create splash plays in bunches, and he probably would have produced more if his playing time hadn’t been reduced in order to help on offense.

2014 class memebers Anthony Barr and Khalil Mack were better at the strip-sack than this group of pass-rushers. Beasley and Ray were the best with three forced fumbles each last year. Gregory, Fowler and Harold only had one forced fumble each. They need to get better at the art of the sack-fumble as pros.

Alexander had two forced fumbles and zero interceptions in 2014. He could get better as he gains experience.

Intangibles:
NFL prototype: Sean Weatherspoon, Cardinals
  1. Dante Fowler Jr.
  2. Eric Kendricks
  3. Shane Ray
  4. Eli Harold
  5. Shaq Thompson
  6. Kwon Alexander
  7. Vic Beasley
  8. Randy Gregory


Recap: Fowler is known as a hard worker. He is considered a good locker-room presence and a team leader. Kendricks, Ray and Harold were all leaders on their defenses. Each was a tone-setter who is known to love football with the drive to be great. All four should develop leadership positions.

Thompson proved that he has a team-first attitude with his position change to running back. He looks like a good teammate who will work well with coaches.

There are some mixed reviews on Beasley. Some teams like him, and others have questions about him off the field. The team feedback from his Combine interviews was a mixed bag. As stated above, there are massive off-the-field concerns with Gregory that could submarine his talent to be a good NFL player.




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