2019 NFL Draft Position Review: Inside Linebackers

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2019 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2019 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
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This page was last updated March 29, 2019. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

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

2019 prospects vs 2018
Devin White
Roquan Smith
Tremaine Edmunds
Devin Bush
Rashaan Evans
Leighton Vander Esch
Darius Leonard
Mack Wilson
Tre Lamar
Germaine Pratt
Fred Warner
Jerome Baker
Malik Jefferson
T.J. Edwards
Te’Von Coney
Cameron Smith

Last year had a solid group of inside linebackers, and this year has a comparable group. Devin White and Roquan Smith are about equal as prospects entering the NFL. Both are definitely better prospects entering the next level than Haason Reddick or Jarrad Davis in 2017. Devin Bush is not as good of a prospect as Tremaine Edmunds, but he is a better prospect than Rashaan Evans. Darius Leonard should have gone higher than he did and was a better player coming out last year than Mack Wilson is this year. Tre Lamar and Germaine Pratt are better than Fred Warner, a third-round pick last year. T.J. Edwards, Te’Von Coney and Cameron Smith would all go behind Malik Jefferson from last year’s draft.

Safest Pick: Devin White, LSU
Previous Picks:
2018: Roquan Smith
2017: Jarrad Davis
2016: Reggie Ragland
2015: Denzel Perryman
2014: C.J. Mosley
2013: Kevin Minter

My track record here is pretty good. Smith was very good for Chicago as a rookie. Davis has been okay and is on his way to being a quality pro. Ragland has had a slow start to his career, losing his rookie year to injury, but he started to play decently for Kansas City last year. It is still a bit too early to make any judgements on him. Perryman and Mosley have both turned into good pro linebackers, so I was correct on them. Minter has been a starter, although not as good as he was expected to be, so that is the one blemish on this prediction list.

This was an easy choice: I think White is one of the safer players in the 2019 NFL Draft at any position. As a linebacker, White is the complete package. He is a tackling machine against the run, producing good down-and-distance situations for his defense, yet is also functional in pass coverage. He has excellent instincts, which is the most important attribute to be a successful linebacker in the NFL. If White stays healthy, I think he is going to have an excellent NFL career with a lot of Pro Bowl appearances.

Biggest Bust Potential: Cameron Smith, USC
Previous Picks:
2018: Malik Jefferson
2017: Raekwon McMillan
2016: Tyler Matakevich
2015: Benardrick McKinney
2014: Chris Borland
2013: Kevin Reddick

My track record her is pretty good. Jefferson did next to nothing as a rookie, but it is far too early to pass judgement on him. McMillan missed his rookie year with an injury, and he did not do much for Miami in 2018, but it is too early to make any judgements on his NFL career. I blew it with my selection of McKinney, who has emerged as one of the top inside linebackers in the NFL for the Texans. Reddick didn’t pan out, so I was correct there. Borland retired after an impressive rookie year, so that’s more of a draw. Matakevich slid deep into the draft, so you can’t really consider him a bust for the Steelers.

This was a tough call as no early-round linebacker is screaming bust potential to me. I chose Smith because he was considered to have early-round potential earlier in the process and perhaps he could sneak into the second day of the 2019 NFL Draft. I’m skeptical that he has the pass-coverage skills, speed and athleticism to be an effective three-down starter in the NFL. Smith is a good college player, but I think he could end up being a heavy-legged backup linebacker at the next level.

Inside Linebacker Rankings by Attributes

Pass Coverage:
NFL prototype: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
  1. Mack Wilson
  2. Devin White
  3. Devin Bush
  4. T.J. Edwards
  5. Germaine Pratt
  6. Te’Von Coney
  7. Tre Lamar
  8. Cameron Smith

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.

Wilson is the best pass-coverage linebacker in the 2019 NFL Draft. He is a quick linebacker who covers a lot of ground in zone coverage while also showing the ability to run down the middle seam. Wilson should be a nice asset to cover tight ends running vertically down the middle of the field, and he also should be a good defender to help with receivers crossing the middle of the field. Wilson’s pass coverage is his best trait, and he should be an asset in coverage quickly in his NFL career.

White is skilled in pass coverage. He reads plays quickly and covers a lot of ground in zone. White has the speed to run down the middle seam. On dump-off passes to the flat, White explodes into the ball-carrier and is very good at making tackles in space. His size and athleticism allow him to have the potential to play some man coverage on tight ends and backs out of the backfield.

In pass coverage, Bush has the speed and athletic ability to be a real asset. He is fast to run with running backs, tight ends and wide receivers. However, Bush needs to improve his recognition, as he will take false steps in coverage that put him in a tough spot of having to close on separation. Bush covers a lot of ground in zone coverage in the middle of the field with the ability to limit gains downfield.

Edwards did a good job in pass coverage for Wisconsin, totaling 10 interceptions over the past three seasons. His skill set may not allow him to be as good in coverage in the NFL, but he is smart and gets in position to contribute.

Pratt and Coney should have some ability to contribute in pass coverage after some further development. They are solid at playing zone coverage in the middle of the field and have enough of a skill set to contribute running with tight ends or getting to backs out of the backfield. Both prospectes need to improve their coverage skills to become NFL starters.

Lamar has the skill set to be a pass-coverage linebacker, as he is a good athlete with speed. Clemson kept him in the short part of the field mostly and had him do a good amount of rushing, so he could use more pass-coverage development. Smith struggles in coverage and needs a lot of work there for the NFL.

Run Defense:
NFL prototype: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
  1. Devin White
  2. Tre Lamar
  3. Te’Von Coney
  4. T.J. Edwards
  5. Germaine Pratt
  6. Devin Bush
  7. Cameron Smith
  8. Mack Wilson

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. Defenders especially need pursuit skills with the rash of mobile quarterbacks and the mixing in of read-option plays. This was really tough to rank because honestly; there isn’t a bad run defender in the group.

In the ground game, White is phenomenal. He is a very good tackler who wraps up ball-carriers and puts them into the turf with force. White has the size and mentality to take on blocks, hold his ground, shed the block, and get in on tackles. With his excellent instincts, White is very fast to read his keys to get in position to make plays. He is a superb run defender and projects to be a force to shut down and limit an offense’s ground game.

Lamar did not have big tackle totals in college, but that was more related to all the talent around him splitting up the tackles, and Clemson blowing so many opponents out that they were forced to pass quickly and playing time being lost to backups. Despite that, Lamar showed that he is a tough in-the-box run defender. He is physical with the ability to take on blocks, shed them, and make the tackle. Lamar is quick to read his keys and has the quickness to get to the perimeter. In the NFL, he is going to be an asset in run defense.

Coney was a superb run defender for Notre Dame. He is quick to meet running backs in the hole and shows the ability to work off of blocks. His tackle totals of 123 and 116 were no accident, as he has good technique to wrap up and get backs to the ground.

Edwards and Pratt were steady ground contributors the past few seasons. Edwards was a tough run defender for Wisconsin. He recorded 113 tackles in 2018 and did a good job of shutting down the interior. Edwards is a reliable tackler and has quality instincts. Pratt was a solid run defender for N.C. State, making clutch tackles for his defense. He is strong and built well for the NFL ground game.

As a run defender, Bush is at his best using speed to chase down ball-carriers. He has issues with holding his ground and taking on blocks, so he is not a skilled in-the-box run defender. That is one reason why his tackle total is depressed despite having played in a running conference. Offensive linemen are able to get a push on Bush and knock him back. Bush will sometimes try to run around blocks, but generally he is pretty good at holding his gap. Bush does very well at defending perimeter runs and is quick to blast into the backfield when he sees a stretch play developing. He is aggressive, so he can be susceptible to overpursue. Bush has average instincts that are moderately disappointing.

Smith’s run defense is his biggest strength, and he does well defending the ground game in the tackle box. He is a quality tackler and takes on blocks. He could have some athletic limitations to be as good of a run defender in the NFL.

Wilson had 71 tackles in 2018 and 40 tackles in 2017. He is better in run defense than those totals illustrate. Wilson could stand to get better at taking on and shedding blocks when runs come downhill straight at him.

NFL prototype: Ryan Shazier, Steelers
  1. Devin White
  2. Tre Lamar
  3. T.J. Edwards
  4. Te’Von Coney
  5. Devin Bush
  6. Cameron Smith
  7. Germaine Pratt
  8. Mack Wilson

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 really negative manner.

White and Lamar are excellent tacklers. Consistently, they do a good job of wrapping up ball-carriers with solid tackling technique. Edwards and Coney are rock-solid tacklers. You rarely see them miss tackles, and they do a nice job of tackling ball-carriers who other linebackers struggle to get on the ground.

Bush, Smith and Pratt are good tacklers. They are very reliable to finish the tackle when they get there. Bush Evans has a tendency to tackle too high sometimes, but you do see him throw ball-carriers into the ground with some impressive violence. Wilson was generally a solid tackler for Alabama, but not quite as impressive as the players above.

NFL prototype: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
  1. Devin White
  2. Mack Wilson
  3. Te’Von Coney
  4. T.J. Edwards
  5. Tre Lamar
  6. Cameron Smith
  7. Devin Bush
  8. Germaine Pratt

Recap: Instincts are what separates 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.

In this group, there isn’t a linebacker who I would say has bad instincts. I have White as the most instinctive linebacker in this draft class, and that was not a difficult choice. His instincts are superb, and he seems to be a step ahead of everyone else on the field.

Wilson and Coney both possess impressive instincts. Those two defenders 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.

Edwards, Lamar and Smith were all instinctive linebackers in college, and they used that ability to be steady for their defenses. Bush’s instincts are rather average and can be streaky. Pratt also has issues with consistency.

Shedding Blocks:
NFL prototype: Alec Ogletree, Giants
  1. Devin White
  2. Tre Lamar
  3. Germaine Pratt
  4. T.J. Edwards
  5. Te’Von Coney
  6. Cameron Smith
  7. Devin Bush
  8. Mack 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 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.

This was not a tough choice, but the top two are exceptional and definitely above the rest. White is the best at it, as he can take the contact, hold his ground, shed the block, and make the tackle. Lamar is similar, showing a lot of strength and physicality to do the same.

Pratt, Edwards and Coney were skilled at getting off blocks in college. They displayed the strength to take on offensive linemen, shed the block, and make the tackle.

Smith was decent at taking on blocks and shedding them in college, but he has limitations for the NFL.

Bush has problems taking on blocks. Offensive linemen are able to get a push on him and knock him back. Bush will sometimes try to run around blocks, but generally he is pretty good at holding his gap. Wilson is similar with room for improvement in taking on and shedding blocks.

Pass Rush:
NFL prototype: Benardrick McKinney, Texans
  1. Devin Bush
  2. Devin White
  3. Tre Lamar
  4. Germaine Pratt
  5. T.J. Edwards
  6. Te’Von Coney
  7. Mack Wilson
  8. Cameron Smith

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. This group has a lot of linebackers who are very good blitzers.

Bush is the best blitzer of this group and is very adept at harassing the quarterback. With his great speed, he is a blur when running around or by blockers to put heat on the quarterback. Bush is a very good blitzer and totaled 10 sacks over the past two seasons.

White isn’t far behind, collecting 7.5 sacks over the past two years. He is very fast as a blitzer,s displaying excellent diagnosis skills. He also has the size to battle blockers in the NFL. As a pro, White should be a dangerous blitzing linebacker.

Lamar is a very good pass-rusher and was an effective blitzer for Clemson last year. I know some NFL scouts who think that Lamar has edge-rush potential for the NFL with his speed, size and athleticism. They think he could be a dangerous outside linebacker in a 3-4 during obvious passing situations.

Pratt was a really good blitzer last year with six sacks for the Wolfpack. He is quick and physical. Edwards and Coney showed some ability to contribute in the pass rush, doing a decent job of blitzing for their teams.

Smith did not produce much in the way of pass rush over the last few seasons. He won’t be used for that in the NFL. Wilson is ranked last, but that isn’t necessarily his fault. He was so good in pass coverage that Alabama had him dropping into coverage constantly.

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