2016 NFL Draft Position Review: 3-4 Outside Linebackers

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2016 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2016 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
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This page was last updated April 20, 2016. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Position Review: 3-4 Outside Linebackers

3-4 Outside Linebacker Class
Early-round talent: A-
Mid-round: B
Late-round: B
Overall grade: B+

2016 prospects vs 2015
Joey Bosa
Dante Fowler
Vic Beasley
Leonard Floyd
Shaq Lawson
Bud Dupree
Shane Ray
Noah Spence
Hau’oli Kikaha
Kamalei Correa
Randy Gregory
Yannick Ngakoue
Shilique Calhoun
Eli Harold
Lorenzo Mauldin
Charles Tapper

For the second straight year, the college ranks have produced a quality class of 3-4 outside linebackers. This year’s group isn’t as good as the 2014 class that featured three rare top-10 talents in Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr. However, the 2016 group is on a par with 2015.

Last year’s draft featured four 3-4 outside linebacker candidates who went in the the top 25 and two more were selected in the second round. The 2016 class should have at least seven 3-4 outside linebackers as top-64 selections. Overall, these classes are pretty even.

If you were to merge the two classes together, Fowler and Bosa are similar caliber prospects with the edge to Bosa. Leonard Floyd and Vic Beasley are about equal. Lawson is slightly above Dupree and Ray. Spence is on the bubble of the first round and isn’t quite as good of a prospect as Ray. Kikaha and Correa are almost identical in the kinds of players they are. Ngakoue and Calhoun could go in the second round or early in Round 3 similar to Gregory and Harold. Tapper isn’t as good of a prospect as Harold or Mauldin.

Safest Pick: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
I would be extremely surprised if Bosa was a bust. I agree with teams around the league that Bosa was overrated and never was a “top of the draft” freak athlete. However, he is a good football player who has strength, quickness, instincts and grit. Off the field, Bosa isn’t great and needs to tone down his lifestyle, but that is the case for a lot of players entering the NFL. I think Bosa is a safe bet to turn into a quality pro and be a Ryan Kerrigan-type defender.

This group has been held back by injuries, although Jordan looks like a bust. Fowler missed his rookie year, and Clowney barely played in his. While Clowney was banged up last year, he really played well and had some phenomenal games late in the season. If he stays healthy, he could be a dominant player this fall. It will be interesting to see how Fowler plays in what is essentially his rookie season.

2015 Pick: Dante Fowler
2014 Pick: Jadeveon Clowney
2013 Pick: Dion Jordan

Biggest Bust Potential: Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky
Spence has off-the-field issues, and in speaking with teams, they aren’t convinced those issues are behind him. On the field, Spence (6-2, 254) is a dynamic edge rusher, but he is not truly explosive. He also is a bit undersized and can struggle to shed blocks when linemen get their hands on him. Spence has issues defending downhill runs coming straight at him. He could sneak into the first round and should go early in Round 2. I don’t think Spence will be a bust, but I think the possibility is there.

I’ve been pretty accurate with this group, although Ford is showing signs of panning out. Mingo has been a bust, while Gregory appears headed in that direction because of the off-the-field issues.

2015 Pick: Randy Gregory
2014 Pick: Dee Ford
2013 Pick: Barkevious Mingo

3-4 Outside Linebackers Rankings by Attributes

Pass Rush:
NFL prototype: Khalil Mack, Raiders
  1. Leonard Floyd
  2. Noah Spence
  3. Joey Bosa
  4. Shaq Lawson
  5. Yannick Ngakoue
  6. Kamalei Correa
  7. Shilique Calhoun
  8. Charles Tapper

Recap: The NFL is a passing-driven league, and 3-4 defenses need edge-rushers who can consistently get to the quarterback. Rushing the passer is the primary responsibility for a 3-4 outside linebacker. Some college defensive ends can struggle to make the transition to rushing off the edge as they move out wider from offensive tackles. Other players thrive with the change.

In my opinion, Floyd is the most natural pass-rusher in the draft. He is extremely fast off the edge with an ability to bend that is very rare for a 6-foot-6, 240-pounder. He has a quick first-step and can be a lightning bolt to get upfield. Floyd also has some variety in his pass-rushing moves and an excellent feel for putting heat on the quarterback. Over three seasons in the SEC, Floyd was consistent at generating pressure and created a lot of plays for teammates. In this draft class, I think Floyd is the best bet to emerge as a player who can produce sack totals in the teens.

As stated above, Spence is a natural pass-rusher. He has quickness off the edge and is very slippery to dodge blockers and get to the quarterback. He has double-digit sack potential in the NFL.

Bosa obviously was a very good pass-rusher in college with his hand in the ground as a defense end, but transitioning to a 3-4 stand-up linebacker will be different. He isn’t as explosive or super twitchy for a 3-4. Thus, I think he would be a pass-rusher more like Ryan Kerrigan than say a Von Miller or Khalil Mack.

Lawson was a good pass-rusher last year and effective at getting to the quarterback. He is a smooth defender who combines quickness and strength to fight off blocks. Lawson really was impressive going against Notre Dame left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Lawson (6-2, 269) doesn’t have an elite burst, so I think he could top out as more of a 8-11-type sack defender.

Ngakoue is underrated by the draft media. He had 13.5 sacks last year and also has got the better of Brandon Scherff, Jack Conklin and Taylor Decker in his head-to-head matchups against them. Ngakoue (6-2, 252) is raw, but he has speed-to-power with some variety in moves. Ngakoue could be a second-day steal.

Correa had seven sacks last year and is a dangerous edge rusher. However, the 6-foot-2, 243-pounder could use more strength to shed blocks in the NFL.

Calhoun is fast off the edge with the ability to close on the quarterback. He improved by adding more strength to battle offensive tackles and was a consistent rusher in college. Tapper flashed pass rush at Oklahoma but wasn’t consistent.

Run Defense:
NFL prototype: Ryan Kerrigan, Redskins
  1. Joey Bosa
  2. Shaq Lawson
  3. Shilique Calhoun
  4. Charles Tapper
  5. Leonard Floyd
  6. Noah Spence
  7. Yannick Ngakoue
  8. Kamalei Correa

Recap: Many 3-4 defenses typically don’t require their outside linebackers to be an asset against the run because they rely on their 3-4 defensive ends, nose tackle and inside linebackers to lead the way in run defense. However, the success of the read option is changing that as the edge linebackers play a critical role in defending against it. Being tough versus the run could become a more important attribute in the seasons to come.

Bosa is the best run-defender for the NFL in this class. He had quality tackle totals in his college even with extra blocking attention at times. Bosa is strong and tough at the point of attack. His run blocking should be an immediate asset.

Lawson is strong at the point of attack. He can hold his ground, disengage and make tackles in run support. As a 3-4 outside linebacker, Lawson should be able to play quickly in run defense situations.

Calhoun (6-4, 251) and Tapper (6-2, 271) were quality run defenders in college. They held up better than you would expect, and Calhoun gained strength for his final season. Neither is the biggest of defenders but both are strong for their respective sizes.

Floyd had a lot of problems as a run defender in his first two seasons, but was much improved last year. In fact, he had 74 tackles, which was far and way the highest tackle total of any of these defenders. Floyd got a lot better at defending the run as a junior, but still has room for improvement in the NFL. He needs to get stronger going against downhill runs.

Spence is kind of a mixed bag as a run defender. He can fire into the backfield and stop running backs. Spence also can chase them down from behind. However, he can struggle when downhill runs come straight at him.

Ngakoue and Correa both need to get better at defending the run. They can struggle to shed blocks. Correa needs to be more physical. He’s better in pursuit, but also is undersized for the NFL.

Dropping Into Coverage:
NFL prototype: Clay Matthews, Packers
  1. Kamalei Correa
  2. Leonard Floyd
  3. Joey Bosa
  4. Noah Spence
  5. Shilique Calhoun
  6. Shaq Lawson
  7. Yannick Ngakoue
  8. Charles Tapper

Recap: The NFL is a passing-driven league, and 3-4 defenses need linebackers who can function in space while dropping into pass coverage. The 3-4 defense is predicated on variety, so it requires linebackers to fall back into pass coverage to avoid predictability.

This group doesn’t have a lot of experience dropping into coverage. It isn’t surprising because they were the best pass-rushers on their teams, so having them drop into coverage didn’t make a lot of sense.

Even though Correa was mainly rushing the quarterback, he did well at dropping into coverage when asked to do it. Floyd was surprisingly good at dropping last year when he played inside linebacker for part of his final season. He is a natural athlete in space.

Bosa also did some dropping into pass coverage on some gimmick plays, and he didn’t look bad at it. That was reinforced at the combine and in other workouts where Bosa moved better than expected dropping.

The other five players didn’t do it enough to provide a real evaluation. However, I think they all have the athleticism to do it when given time to be developed.

NFL prototype: Von Miller, Broncos
  1. Leonard Floyd
  2. Kamalei Correa
  3. Noah Spence
  4. Joey Bosa
  5. Shaq Lawson
  6. Yannick Ngakoue
  7. Shilique Calhoun
  8. Charles Tapper

Recap: Speed is necessary to be an effective 3-4 outside linebacker. A quick first-step makes a big difference in applying pressure on the quarterback. The elite 3-4 edge rushers are explosive and are extremely fast flying into the backfield.

In terms of pure foot speed, Floyd is the faster rusher off the edge. He has a lightning first-step and closes on quarterbacks in a blur. Floyd presents a speed mismatch against offensive tackles.

Correa is fast as well. He gets off the line extremely well, and his speed had offensive tackles constantly reaching for him.

Spence, Bosa and Lawson all have quickness. They aren’t pure speed demons off the edge, but they have the speed to get after the quarterback in the NFL. Against a number of tackles, they’ll be able to win with speed, but they won’t be able to win with speed alone against a quality edge blocker.

Calhoun and Tapper were quick for college, but I’m not convinced their speed will translate to the NFL. Tapper didn’t play as fast as he timed at the combine, while Calhoun was startlingly slow.

NFL prototype: Tamba Hali, Chiefs
  1. Joey Bosa
  2. Shaq Lawson
  3. Charles Tapper
  4. Yannick Ngakoue
  5. Shilique Calhoun
  6. Noah Spence
  7. Leonard Floyd
  8. Kamalei Correa

Recap: 3-4 outside linebackers need the strength to fight off offensive linemen, especially when teams slide protections their direction with double teams. Having the power to shed blocks separates the effectiveness of a lot of players.

Bosa is the strongest of these prospects by far. He’s played heavier than any other player in the group. Bosa has the power to bench press blockers off of him to drive them backward or use his strength to toss them aside.

Lawson has natural strength, and he catches blockers by surprise with the power of his bull rush. His power will get him some wins in the NFL.

Tapper and Ngakoue have some strength to them. Ngakoue plays stronger in the pass rush than he does in the ground game though. Spence needs to get stronger to shed blocks in the NFL. He’s in serious trouble when linemen get a hold of him.

Correa and Floyd need to get stronger to be better run defenders. Floyd has the frame to get bigger, while Correa may not get much stronger than he is now, thus he’s last in this category.

NFL prototype: James Harrison, Steelers
  1. Kamalei Correa
  2. Shaq Lawson
  3. Joey Bosa
  4. Charles Tapper
  5. Noah Spence
  6. Leonard Floyd
  7. Yannick Ngakoue
  8. Shilique Calhoun

Recap: The majority of great pass-rushers have motors that don’t quit. Effort can make the difference between an edge-rusher having 12 sacks in a season versus eight.

Correa has a relentless style of play. Every snap, he’s looking to make a play and always gives good effort. Correa doesn’t quit on plays and keeps fighting. That led to him getting some effort and coverage sacks last season.

Lawson and Bosa definitely have good motors. Tapper fulfills his assignments at a high level, and you don’t see him loafing when a play goes away from him.

Spence and Floyd gave good efforts generally and have steady motors. Ngakoue generally was pretty good, but he seemed to take some plays off at times. Calhoun generally has a good motor, but there are some times where it looks like he cools down. Sources with teams said that as well. They believed it was because he was playing too many snaps and rotating enough.

Forced Fumbles:
NFL prototype: DeMarcus Ware, Broncos
  1. Charles Tapper
  2. Noah Spence
  3. Kamalei Correa
  4. Joey Bosa
  5. Shaq Lawson
  6. Shilique Calhoun
  7. Leonard Floyd
  8. Yannick Ngakoue

Recap: Defenses and teams thrive off turnovers, so a pass-rusher who has the skills to force fumbles are game-changers. Many players go for strip sacks, but some are more effective than others.

Tapper had four forced fumbles last year and showed nice instincts to get the ball loose. Last year, Spence and Correa were the best at the strip-sack. Each had three forced fumbles. Surprisingly, Bosa, Lawson, Calhoun and Ngakoue each only had one forced fumble last year. Floyd had five forced fumbles over two seasons before being shut out last year.

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