In Part 12 of our Green Bay Packers draft preview, we examine the inside linebackers.
PACKERS AREA OF NEED (1 TO 10)
10: Obviously, this is the overwhelming need entering the draft. A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones were the Week 1 starters, with Jamari Lattimore joining Hawk for the next five games. None of those three remain on the roster. If you take Clay Matthews out of the equation, not only is Sam Barrington the only player on the depth chart to have started a game at inside linebacker, but he’s the only player on the depth chart to have even played in a game.
“I think the inside linebacker position could probably be compared to where we were last year at the safety position,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “Obviously, we had a number of moving parts there. So, we’ll see what this process that we go through as far as player acquisition, how that affects it. I like the step Sam Barrington made. I thought he made a huge step and that’s what you look for. He’s a second-year player who needed to take a big step and Sam did that.”
IT’S WORTH NOTING
General manager Ted Thompson has drafted six inside linebackers: A.J. Hawk (6-foot-1), Abdul Hodge (6-foot 3/8), Desmond Bishop (6-foot-1 7/8), D.J. Smith (5-foot-10 5/8), Terrell Manning (6-foot-2 1/8) and Sam Barrington (6-foot 7/8).
Because so many of the top prospects are height-impaired, the key question is how Smith fits in the equation. Did Thompson take Smith because of his prolific production at Appalachian State and it was the middle of the sixth round? Or does Thompson’s linebacker board always include short linebackers and it’s “just the way it’s worked out” (to borrow a Thompson phrase) that he’s only drafted one shorter linebacker during his tenure?
That’s a critical question when considering this draft class. Just look at the rankings provided to Packer Report by the league’s head scout, Dave-Te’ Thomas. Second-ranked Eric Kendricks of UCLA is 6-foot 1/4, third-ranked P.J. Dawson of TCU is 6-foot 1/8, fourth-ranked Denzel Perryman of Miami is 5-foot-10 3/4, seventh-ranked Mike Hull of Penn State is 5-foot-11 7/8 and eighth-ranked Ben Heeney of Kansas is 6-foot 1/4. Taking Smith out of the picture, that quintet is shorter than any of the other inside linebackers taken by Thompson. So, would Thompson pull the trigger on Kendricks in the first or Dawson or Perryman in the second or Hull or Heeney in the fourth?
Beyond the height issues, this draft class isn’t exactly overflowing with top-end talent. Turning back the clock one year, Green Bay needed an inside linebacker but was out of luck when C.J. Mosley and Ryan Shazier were selected by Baltimore and Pittsburgh, respectively, ahead of the Packers in the first round. They wound up not taking any. This year’s class has even less top-end talent — there’s a chance no inside linebacker will go in the first round. The Day 3 depth is impressive, at least. Look for the Packers to take a couple.
THOMPSON’S SUCCESS RATE
Of the six inside linebackers selected by Thompson, only one remains on the roster.
Stephone Anthony, Clemson (6-3, 243; 4.56 40-yard time): We have Anthony atop our draft class because of his height. Officially, he measured in at 6-foot-2 5/8 at the Combine. Whether it was phone, e-mail or text, we talked to scouts from eight teams about the inside linebacker class. Two of those teams said Anthony was worthy of a late first-round pick. So, if Anthony is the Packers’ man, they might have to strike at No. 30 because he probably won’t be available at No. 62.
“Against the outside run, few linebackers in college excel in this area like Anthony,” reads his official NFL scouting report, provided to Packer Report by scout Dave-Te’ Thomas. “He has the speed and burst to head off ball carriers along the corners. He is a smart player who stays in control, but also shows urgency in making the play. He has the range to make plays sideline to sideline. His change of direction skills lets him cover large portions of the field. He runs to the ball well and has the hand usage to slip off passive blocks.”
Anthony had been lost in the media shuffle behind edge-rushing teammate Vic Beasley. However, Anthony emerged from the background by running a 4.56 in the 40-yard dash and a 20-yard shuttle time of 4.03 seconds. Those were the top marks among this year’s inside linebacker candidates at the Combine.
Anthony, a three-year starter who set the defense as the voice of the unit, recorded 330 tackles for his career. That includes 9.5 sacks and 34.5 tackles for losses. As a senior, he had 75 tackles (45 solo), 2.5 sacks, 10.5 TFLs, two forced fumbles and one interception.
“This first team All-ACC honoree showed that he can be a definite ‘run-and-hit’ playmaker at the next level,” Phil Savage, the former NFL general manager who is the executive director of the Senior Bowl, said on SeniorBowl.com. “Stephone can diagnose and then get to the football in a hurry and with explosiveness. He appears to have the skill-set needed to stay on the field as a three-down Mike and will also help on special teams as a rookie.”
Eric Kendricks, UCLA (6-0, 232; 4.61): Kendricks won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker to cap a magnificent career. The All-American is UCLA’s first Butkus winner and its first defender to top 100 tackles in three consecutive seasons. Of his 149 tackles a senior, no player in the nation had more than his 101 solo stops. He added 11.5 tackles for losses, four sacks, three interceptions and one forced fumble. For his career, he tallied a school-record 481 tackles.
Kendricks collects tackles like most kids collect baseball cards. With 150 tackles as a sophomore, 106 during an injury-shortened 2013 campaign and 149 hits last season. Many teams considered his brother, Mychal, undersized when he was available in the 2012 draft, but since the Eagles selected him, he has started 40 games and recorded 333 tackles in three seasons.
“Kendricks lacks height, but is a thick, shorter compact backer who explodes through contact and is a real violent striker,” reads his scouting report. “He finds the ball quickly vs. the run and has the range to make plays in pursuit. Size issues occur when he tries to stack and shed and he is still just a two-down performer, as he lacks a great feel in zone. However, as a thumper inside with the potential to get into the backfield as a blitzer, he should get plenty of looks from 3-4 teams in need of a versatile, high motor weak-side inside ‘backer.”
CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL SCOUTING REPORTS from the NFL’s head scout, Dave-Te’ Thomas.
Paul Dawson, TCU (6-0, 235; 4.93): Dawson led the Horned Frogs in tackles in each of his final two seasons, including big-time senior production of 136 tackles, six sacks, 20 tackles for losses, four interceptions and two forced fumbles. He earned some first-team All-American accolades and was selected the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year.
“I frickin’ love Dawson,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “The tape doesn’t lie. That kid is as instinctive, quick and as downhill a linebacker as I’ve seen in years. His tape against Minnesota was so much fun to watch. Three-down linebacker. Can get overwhelmed at times but he reacts so quickly that he’s able to get under or over the top and still make a play. He’s great in pass coverage. Somebody’s going to be real happy with him as a 4-3 Will linebacker or perhaps even an inside guy (in a 3-4).”
He was viewed as a potential first-round pick until a horrible Scouting Combine; not just the 40 — where he ran about two-tenths slower than scouts expected — but a 28-inch vertical. That led to this favorite scouting joke: “In a race with a pregnant woman, he’d finish third.” He plays faster than he’s timed, though, against the run and pass.
“Even at that timed speed, his fluid hips gives him lots of chances to generate a sudden burst needed to head off the ball-carriers near the sidelines,” reads his scouting report. “In the last two years, he has gotten much smarter and plays under control. He is a good trailer type than can not only run down plays from the back side, but he also showed that he has valid straight-line quickness to combine with his lateral agility to negate anything the stopwatch says about his speed.”
Denzel Perryman, Miami (5-11, 236; 4.78): A beefed-up Perryman was a third-team All-American, first-team all-ACC and a finalist for the Butkus Award as a senior, when he rang up 110 tackles, 9.5 tackles for losses, three forced fumbles and one interception. Perryman started 37 games during his four seasons and finished with 351 tackles. He was given Ray Lewis’ No. 52, which speaks to his talent. He didn’t run well at the Combine but his 27 reps on the bench were by far the best at the position. He didn’t always play on third down for the Hurricanes.
“Scouts compare Perryman’s versatility to that of former Hurricanes standout, Jon Beason. He might be ‘height challenged,’ but is stout at the point of attack, possessing an athletic physique, good straight-line closing speed and valid lateral agility to work down the line. He has the strong legs to hold position firmly vs. the inside run and was recognized as the ACC’s hardest hitting tackler. He is a football-smart athlete who gets his teammates lined up and shows good awareness to plays in front of him.”
Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State (6-4, 246; 4.66): Maybe McKinney isn’t head and shoulders better than everybody else in this year’s class of inside linebackers. But he's about a head taller than most of them.
“Being tough, my length, being big, knowing the game and knowing my assignments and keys. Just knowing the game of football,” McKinney said when asked about his strengths at the Scouting Combine.
After redshirting in 2011, he finished second nationally among all freshmen with 102 tackles in 2012 to garner first-team Freshman All-American honors from several outlets. He led the Bulldogs in tackles in 2013 and 2014, as well. An early entrant into this year’s draft, he has imposing size and explosive athleticism. Some scouts like him better as an edge-rushing outside linebacker.
“He has a keen sense for the ball and on plays in front of him, especially playing vs. the run. He is alert dropping back in zone coverage, but lacks the hip snap to come out of his breaks without taking extra steps. He shows awareness sifting through trash and his anticipation skills will generally see him get to the ball, but with his tight hips, he does struggle to recover when he over-pursues.”
CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL SCOUTING REPORTS from the NFL’s head scout, Dave-Te’ Thomas.
Jordan Hicks, Texas (6-1, 236; 4.68): Hicks missed most of his sophomore season with a hip injury and most of his junior season with an Achilles injury before bouncing back as a senior. He was a second-team all-Big 12 selection who earned some All-American accolades by posting 147 tackles, 13 tackles for losses and two interceptions. He also was an Academic All-American.
“Maybe the most athletic linebacker in the (Senior Bowl) game, Jordan looks and plays like a Will,” Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said at SeniorBowl.com. “He is quick to read from the backside, can chase with speed and has a good feel for playing pass defense in zones. In addition, he will be a four-phase special teamer in 2015.”
His tackle total ranked seventh nationally and was the highest by a Texas defender since 1992.
“Hicks might be a better fit as an inside linebacker, as he is an instinctive player who reads the play quickly and has the hand usage needed to beat blockers to the point of attack, whether by utilizing his speed or generating the power to blow up the cutoff in the short-area. He demonstrates good urgency to fill downhill and in plays vs. the run, he is very effective at mirroring ball-carriers well between the tackles and is very difficult to outrun with his long wingspan and great chase speed.”
Mike Hull, Penn State (6-0, 237; 4.68): Hull was voted the Big Ten’s best linebacker during a standout senior season that included 140 tackles — 65 more than any other Nittany Lions defender. He added two sacks, 10.5 tackles for losses, one forced fumble and one interception. He tied for ninth in the nation with an average of 10.77 tackles per game in 2014. His 140 total tackles tied Greg Buttle (1975) for fourth on the school season-record list. His father, Tom Hull, played for Penn State, was drafted by San Francisco and played for the 49ers and Packers. He was all-Big Ten in academics all four seasons.
“Hull seems to always be around the ball and has a hunger for making every play. His high motor allows him to get off blocks quickly and he is the type that will simply refuse to back down from combat. He has a very nice feel for blocking schemes, as he attacks the line with shoulders squared, using his lower body strength to hold ground at the point of attack. He moves quickly and decisively and even when he overruns some plays, he has the body control, balance and sense of urgency to recover.”
Ben Heeney, Kansas (6-0, 231; 4.59): The two-year team captain started all 12 games as a senior and finished the season with 127 tackles, one shy of the conference lead. He led the NCAA and Big 12 in solo tackles with 7.3 per outing. Against Texas Tech, he piled up 21 tackles; his 17 solo stops were the second-most in conference history. Heeney was first-team all-conference as a senior and a second-teamer as a sophomore and junior. He finished his career with 335 tackles (eighth-best in KU history) and 35.5 tackles for losses (fourth-best). He was recruited to Kansas to play receiver.
“Heeney has a decent blend of speed, quickness, change-of-direction agility and flexibility. He is a normal strider who flashes a good closing burst on the ball and has the agility to pursue on the outside and the hip flexibility to drop off in pass coverage. He is good when trying to read and react to keys, as he seems to “see the big picture” and gets around the ball. When he locates the pigskin, he shows no hesitation to attack the ball, but there is some wasted motion when he has to drop off in pass coverage.”
Ramik Wilson, Georgia (6-2, 237; 4.77): Wilson was second on the team with 110 tackles, including two sacks and seven for losses, and forced one fumble to earn a spot on the all-SEC second team. Due to a change from a 3-4 to a 4-3, that was down from his junior-year production of an SEC-leading 133 tackles, four sacks and 11 for losses, which earned him a spot on the SEC first team. Thomas compared him to Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict, minus all the baggage.
“Wilson’s best asset is his ability to sift through traffic and flow to the ball with suddenness. He has valid run defense instincts and keeps the plays in front of him, but does struggle recognizing the pass plays. He has the speed to make plays along the sidelines and is an effective wrap-up tackler.”
Bryce Hager, Baylor (6-1, 234; 4.60): Hager led the team with 114 tackles, including 12 tackles for losses and two sacks, plus added one interception and two forced fumbles. The senior earned second-team All-American and second-team all-Big 12 accolades. His 322 career tackles rank sixth in school history. His father, Britt, starred at Texas, was a third-round pick by the Eagles in 1989 and played nine seasons in the NFL.
“Hager reacts instantly once he locates the ball and is quick to fill the inside rush lanes. You wish he would be stouter vs. the bigger isolated blockers, but he has the hand usage to defeat high and low blocks when working in space. He reacts and pursues with great effort, showing the ability to break down and contain inside run plays. He is also a hard face-up tackler who can stuff fullbacks in the rush lanes.”
Jake Ryan, Michigan (6-2, 240; 4.65): Ryan, a fifth-year senior, was selected first-team all-Big Ten and a finalist for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s best linebacker, with his 112 tackles including two sacks and 14 for losses. He also forced two fumbles and picked off one pass. As a junior, he tore his ACL in spring practice but was back in the lineup in late October. For his career, he started 41 games and is second in school history with seven forced fumbles and seventh with 44.5 tackles for losses. His grandfather played in the CFL, his father played for Wake Forest and two brothers play for Ball State.
“Ryan is more quick than fast, but shows good closing speed vs. plays in front of him. He builds his acceleration steadily and stays low in his pads to slip under blocks and make plays in pursuit. He is much more active with his hands as a senior than in the past. He has a good array of counter moves and can surprise a lethargic blocker with his rip-and-swim maneuvers. He demonstrates very good ability and strength taking on blocks, as he refined his hand placement and improved his hand technique to prevent the lineman from gaining leverage.”
Edmond Robinson, Newberry (6-3, 245; 4.61): Robinson, an all-South Atlantic Conference first-team selection for each of his final two seasons, was Division II Newberry's leading tackler as a senior with 68 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, five pass breakups and two fumble recoveries. His 52 solo stops ranked second in the conference. He had 12 TFLs as a junior. His 34-inch arms help him combat blockers.
“His ability to cover the speedier receivers saw him drop back and play safety in obvious deep passing situations. He has good vision and ball anticipation skills, as he is generally in position to make the play. He is quick top react to keys and is the type that will patiently wait on misdirection rather than overcommit. Robinson is a good finesse-type of tackler, but must get more physical in his play to compete at the next level.”
Taiwan Jones, Michigan State (6-3, 245; 4.95): Jones was a two-year starter. As a senior, he moved to middle linebacker and was second-team all-conference with his 60 tackles, four sacks, 12.5 tackles for losses and one interception.
“Jones is a physical tackler who might not have the quickness needed to run and get to the perimeter. He is best working inside the box, as he will miss some tackles when he works in space. He lacks ideal athletic agility (stiff in his hips and lacks good change of direction skills) but he has good size and instincts.”
Martrell Spaight, Arkansas (6-0, 236; 4.88): The junior-college transfer was first-team all-SEC as a senior with his 128 tackles — the most by a Razorback since 2003 — and 10.5 tackles for losses. Since Arkansas moved to the SEC, he’s the first player to lead the conference in tackles.
“Spaight is a good athlete with adequate hip snap, but he is capable of playing at a low pad level. He lacks great timed speed, but shows a sudden burst to explode past blockers coming off the edge. He has the valid strength to gain leverage and shed. His size might dictate a move to middle linebacker. It could be his ideal spot, as he showed last season that he has the instincts and vision to read and react in the box.”
Zach Vigil, Utah State (6-2, 236; 4.68): Unbelievably, Vigil was not selected for the Scouting Combine. Check out this stat line from the Mountain West’s Defensive Player of the Year: 156 tackles, nine sacks, 20.5 tackles for losses. His TFL count tied the conference record. He finished his career with 389 tackles and a school-record 43 for losses. At pro day, he ran in 4.68 and showed his strength (26 reps) but his shuttles weren’t up to par with most of the other prospects in this class. He’s got a chance to be a three-down player because of his size, ability to get depth in coverage and blitzing skills. In fact, Thomas called Vigil the best pass-rusher at the position.
Hayes Pullard, USC (6-1, 240; 4.78): The four-year starter turned in a senior season of a team-leading 95 tackles to earn an honorable mention on the all-conference team. That gave him a career total of 377 tackles. Despite missing 2010 with a knee injury and playing under three defensive coordinators and four position coaches, Pullard was the first player in almost 40 years to lead the school in tackles for three consecutive seasons. While slower than Vigil and Luc, he was much better in the shuttles.
“Even with average foot speed, he has the change-of-direction skills, along with good depth on his pass drops to take a good angle closing on the thrown ball. He is quick to transition from the draw read and gets good depth when handling play action. In short-area man coverage, he has the quickness to stay with tight ends and slot receivers. Against the run, he will get tied up some vs. double team activity, and he has just adequate strength to fight when trapped in a phone booth.”
Jeff Luc, Cincinnati (6-0, 251; 4.60): Luc, who opened his career at Florida State, was another inexplicable Combine snub. He led the AAC with 134 tackles, a total that included 6.5 sacks and 10 TFLs. He tied for the national lead with six forced fumbles. He’s a straight-line, downhill performer, as his shuttle times rank near the bottom of this year’s class. If this were 20 years ago, he might be a first- or second-round draft pick. He’s old-school all the way. He might be worthy of a look at fullback if he can’t break into a rotation on defense.
THREE WILD CARDS
Kyle Emanuel, North Dakota State (6-3, 255; 4.77): Emanuel won the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the top defender in the FCS ranks. He led the FCS with 19.5 sacks and 32.5 tackles for losses, finished third on the team with 97 tackles and added three forced fumbles. Against Iowa State, he tallied two sacks and four TFLs. He tied the school record with 41.5 sacks to help the Bison go 58-3 with four national championships during his career. He was also a first-team Academic All-American. All of that screams outside linebacker, so why is he listed here? Consider it a lesson from last year, when productive Arizona State defensive end Carl Bradford bombed because of his too-short arms. Emanuel’s arm length is just 31 inches.
“Emanuel emerged as a relentless rusher able to pressure the quarterback lining up on the strong or weak side last season. He even lined up at five-technique in some passing situations. Despite his stout build, he appears to have the balance and range to drop into zone coverage easily and shows some fluidity in space (4.24 in the 20-yard shuttle and 7.10 in the three-cone drill).”
Curtis Grant, Ohio State (6-3, 238; 4.65): Grant was a two-year starter who finished fifth on the team with 69 tackles. He had one sack, five tackles for losses, one interception and two passes defensed. It’s ho-hum production for a player with his size and athletic ability, which is why he probably won’t get drafted but why he’s worthy of a look.
“Mayo is an above-average tackler working in space than behind the line of scrimmage, as he takes good angles to close. He showed in 2014 that he can explode through his tackles and has the ability to break down and make plays in front of him. He will hit and wrap with good pop, showing good form when tackling, but with more bulk, he could be even more effective tackling in-line and hitting through the holes (only 4.5 stops-for-loss in each of his last two years).”firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.