2016 NFL Draft Position Review: Inside 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 8, 2016. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Position Review: Inside Linebacker

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

2016 prospects vs 2015
Jaylon Smith
Reggie Ragland
Stephone Anthony
Bernardrick McKinney
Erik Kendricks
Denzel Perryman
Jordan Hicks
Paul Dawson
Beniquez Brown
Scooby Wright
Ramik Wilson
Kwon Alexander
Kentrell Brothers
Blake Martinez
Antonio Morrison
Tyler Matakevich

The 2015 NFL Draft had a quality class of inside linebackers and this year’s is pretty comparable. The 2016 class could be excellent at inside linebacker if you were to include UCLA’s Myles Jack and Ohio State’s Darron Lee. Jack is a top-of-the-draft talent, and Lee is a first-rounder. If Jaylon Smith gets a positive report from his medical re-check, there could be four inside linebackers taken in Round 1 if you include Jack and Lee. That is tremendous number for a position that has been downgraded as it relates first-round picks. Thus, I have the early round talent with an A grade. Jack and Lee mainly played outside linebacker in college, so I’ll have them in that position review.

Looking at the two classes together, Smith would be the highest-rated prospect if he were healthy. Ragland also is a better prospect than Anthony, who was the first inside linebacker drafted last year and very late in the first round. After that, the 2015 class had more talent on Days 2 and 3.

After those Smith and Ragland, there is a big drop-off as Brown, Wright would be third-round prospects similar to Hicks and Dawson. Brothers, Martinez, Kwiatkoski and Matakevich would go after Wilson and Alexander as fourth-round picks.

Safest Pick: Reggie Ragland, Alabama
This would be Jaylon Smith if it weren’t for his knee injury, but Ragland is a very safe pick in his own right. He spent the past two seasons as a thumper run-stuffing inside linebacker for Alabama. He really made strides in pass coverage as senior and showed that he is more than a two-down defender. The instincts that Ragland displayed at Alabama were excellent, and he looks ready to start immediately in the NFL. Ragland is a leader, hard worker, good teammate and has good character. As a middle linebacker, he has a real physical presence. Ragland should be very good to control the huddle and make the calls. He may not have a lot of athletic upside from what he is right now, but he should be an effective starting inside linebacker for the next decade.

2015 Pick: Denzel Perryman
2014 Pick: C.J. Mosley
2013 Pick: Kevin Minter

Biggest Bust Potential: Tyler Matakevich, Temple
Some project Matakevich to go on the second day of the 2016 NFL Draft, but I think that would be a reach. Matakevich (6-1, 230) is undersized for middle linebacker in the NFL. He also is slow and not particularly athletic. It doesn’t look like he could develop into a three-down starter. Matakevich was an excellent college linebacker for Temple, but I think he is limited to being a good college player and doesn’t translate to the NFL.

Last year, I was wrong in my projection of McKinney as he had a quality rookie year for the Texans. Reddick hasn’t panned out and is on his fourth team in three seasons. Borland retired after a strong rookie year, so that’s more of a draw.

2015 Pick: Bernardrick McKinney
2014 Pick: Chris Borland
2013 Pick: Kevin Reddick

Inside Linebacker Rankings by Attributes

Pass Coverage:
NFL prototype: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
  1. Jaylon Smith
  2. Blake Martinez
  3. Beniquez Brown
  4. Reggie Ragland
  5. Kentrell Brothers
  6. Tyler Matakevich
  7. Antonio Morrison
  8. Scooby Wright

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 matchup against the versatile pass-receiving tight ends and running backs out of the backfield are difficult to find.

Smith was excellent in pass coverage for Notre Dame. He showed some man-cover skills in the middle of the field, covered a lot of ground in zone, and his instincts put him in good position. He is a dynamic pass-coverage linebacker.

Martinez showed nice pass-coverage skills as a senior and at the Senior Bowl. He isn’t big, but he had nice ball skills in 2015 with six passes broken up and an interception. Martinez also has some speed and athleticism, which was evident at the combine. Early on in his NFL career, he could be a nickel linebacker while he works on getting bigger for run defense.

Brown showed three-down ability last year for Mississippi State. He is a quick, smooth athlete who can cover a lot of ground. Ragland totaled seven passes broken up in 2015 and performed well against good receiving tight ends from Ole Miss (Evan Engram) and Arkansas (Hunter Henry). He made also good open-field tackles and picked up receivers well in zone coverage. Because of his size and physicality, Ragland’s skills in pass coverage are being underrated and many observers are incorrect in saying he’s only a two-down defender.

Brothers had quality pass-coverage production last year, but he didn’t look quick or athletic enough to cover at the Senior Bowl and combine.

In terms of production, Matakvich (6-1, 230) would be rated first as he had five passes broken up and five interceptions last year. Those are good numbers for a defensive back, so obviously they’re great for a linebacker. However in terms of projecting for the NFL, Matakevich is undersized, slow and not athletic. That could be seen at the Senior Bowl. Thus, I have him behind players who weren’t as productive in college.

Morrison didn’t impress in coverage at Florida. Wright was used mostly as a pass-rusher for Arizona, so he will need some development in coverage for the NFL.

Run Defense:
NFL prototype: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
  1. Jaylon Smith
  2. Reggie Ragland
  3. Kentrell Brothers
  4. Beniquez Brown
  5. Scooby Wright
  6. Tyler Matakevich
  7. Blake Martinez
  8. Antonio Morrison

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 against the run. They especially need pursuit skills with the rash of mobile quarterbacks and the success of the read option. This was really tough to rank because honestly, there isn’t a bad run defender in this group.

Smith is an awesome run defender. He sheds blocks, tackles hard, reads his keys quickly and has a nose for the football. Smith has elite speed to make plays on perimeter runs. He is truly superb against the run.

Some of the other players had bigger tackle totals, but Ragland is a tremendous run stuffer for the NFL. He attacks the line of scrimmage and is superb at taking on and shedding blocks. Ragland gets to runs outside of the box and is physical presence to shut down the ground game.

Based off 2015, you have to have Brothers high as he produced the largest tackle total in college football with 152 stops on the season. He played quick and showed some instincts as well. Brothers isn’t quite as good as Ragland in terms of taking on and shedding blocks, and he isn’t as fast as Smith. In the NFL, that could be more pronounced, so I have Brothers third.

Brown recorded 99 tackles last year, but he showed that he can be a downhill defender and go to the sideline. Wright is a hard one to peg. He had 163 tackles in his tremendous 2014 season, but he looked slower and less athletic as a junior while dealing with an assortment of injuries. The 2014 Scooby Wright, would have been up there with Smith and Ragland. The 2015 Wright would be last.

Martinez, Matakevich and Morrison were tough run defenders in college who had multiple seasons of quality tackle totals. All of them are quick to read their keys and get in position to make tackles. They’re just on the smaller side for the NFL, and I think they could have issues with runs coming straight at them and shedding blocks.

NFL prototype: NaVorro Bowman, 49ers
  1. Jaylon Smith
  2. Reggie Ragland
  3. Blake Martinez
  4. Kentrell Brothers
  5. Beniquez Brown
  6. Scooby Wright
  7. Tyler Matakevich
  8. Antonio Morrison

Recap: The ability to read 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.

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

Ragland also is very good in his recognition skills. He determines what the offense is trying to do and gets in position to make plays or disrupt. You almost never saw Ragland take a false step or not be in the right position.

Martinez is strong in read-and-react for the ground game and showed impressive skills in pass coverage at the Senior Bowl.

Wright, Brothers and Brown 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 Wright.

Matakevich had nice recognition skills for the college game, but in the NFL, his lack of speed is going to hurt him with trying to get in good position. Morrison will need to improve his read-and-react skills for pass coverage.

NFL prototype: DeAndre Levy, Lions
  1. Reggie Ragland
  2. Jaylon Smith
  3. Kentrell Brothers
  4. Scooby Wright
  5. Blake Martinez
  6. Tyler Matakevich
  7. Beniquez Brown
  8. Antonio Morrison

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.

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

Smith also is a rock-solid tackler. You don’t see him miss tackles, and he does a nice job of tackling ball-carriers who other linebackers are incapable of getting to. His weight declined prior to the combine, and that was concerning, but supposedly is back up to around 240 pounds. He’ll need that strength for tackling NFL running backs.

Brothers, Wright, Martinez and Matakevich are good tacklers. They were very reliable to finish the tackle when they got there.

In the NFL, Brown could be more of a drag-down tackler given his size, so he should get bigger. Morrison was generally a good tackler for Florida, but sometimes being overaggressive came back to bite him and caused him to miss a ball-carrier.

NFL prototype: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
  1. Jaylon Smith
  2. Reggie Ragland
  3. Scooby Wright
  4. Blake Martinez
  5. Tyler Matakevich
  6. Kentrell Brothers
  7. Beniquez Brown
  8. Antonio Morrison

Recap: Instincts are what separate 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.

I have Smith as the most instinctive linebacker in this draft class – but that isn’t by a huge amount over Ragland. They both possess good instincts. Those two play-makers 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. Smith just has the edge in pass coverage.

Wright had excellent instincts in 2014. He was all over the field for Arizona and seemed to know what was coming.

The bottom five linebackers here are pretty equal. They all flashed good instincts for the college game, especially in the ground game. Other times Brown and Morrison seemed to bite on misdirection.

Pass Rush:
NFL prototype: Lawrence Timmons, Steelers
  1. Scooby Wright
  2. Reggie Ragland
  3. Jaylon Smith
  4. Tyler Matakevich
  5. Beniquez Brown
  6. Antonio Morrison
  7. Kentrell Brothers
  8. Blake Martinez

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.

Wright is definitely the best pass-rusher in this group. He was a dynamite edge rusher and blitzer for Arizona in 2014 with 14 sacks. Wright is quick going against tackles and uses his size to dip and dodge blockers to chase down quarterbacks. He was superb at getting after the quarterback as a sophomore.

Ragland and Smith were dangerous blitzers in college. Even though they didn’t put up big sack numbers, each one is adept at getting pressure on the quarterback when blitzing off the edge.

Matakevich had 4.5 sacks in 2015 and was a good blitzer for Temple. Brown also flashed some nice rush skills with four sacks.

Morrison, Brothers and Martinez weren’t really used as pass-rushers very much.

Shedding Blocks:
NFL prototype: Lawrence Timmons, Steelers
  1. Reggie Ragland
  2. Jaylon Smith
  3. Scooby Wright
  4. Kentrell Brothers
  5. Blake Martinez
  6. Tyler Matakevich
  7. Antonio Morrison
  8. Beniquez Brown

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.

Ragland is very skilled at shedding blocks. He has the strength to take on offensive linemen, shed the block, and make the tackle. Throughout his senior year, Ragland would fire into the scrum, get off linemen, and get to the ball-carrier. Smith also is very good at getting off blocks. With his quickness and athleticism, he is tough for blockers to get a hold of.

Brothers has some natural strength and athletic ability to defeat blocks in the NFL.

Wright and Martinez also flash that skill. They don’t run around blockers and are good about shedding. Matakevich did a pretty nice job of getting off blocks in college. However, his lack of size is going to hurt him in this regard in the NFL.

Morrison and Brown improved in this skill, but will need to continue to grow in the NFL.

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