Green Bay Packers NFL Draft Preview: Elite Five Inside Linebackers

With Clay Matthews back at outside linebacker, the Green Bay Packers enter this draft with an obvious need for, at the very least, a linebacker to play coverage in the dime package.

The Green Bay Packers enter this draft with an obvious need at inside linebacker. With Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington, their starting tandem is pretty good, but they were so desperate for someone to fill the dime linebacker role last season that they turned to Dallas’ practice squad to grab Joe Thomas — who wasn’t good enough to make the final roster.

Our inside linebacker rankings go 27 deep and they are slanted toward coverage. Here are our top five, with more to come before the start of the first round on Thursday night. Scouting opinions are provided courtesy of longtime NFL scout and Packer Report contributor Dave-Te’ Thomas. You can read much more here and here.

MYLES JACK, UCLA

Position rank: 1

Height: 6-foot-1. Weight: 245. 20 shuttle: DNP. 3-cone: DNP. Broad jump: 10-4.

Notes: As a junior, Jack played in three games before he tore the anterior meniscus in a knee at practice. With that, he dropped out of school to focus on his rehab and the NFL. There have been reports that Jack’s injury could have long-term implications and could take him out of the top 10. A scout we talked to said his club wasn’t concerned. He was a partial participant at last month’s pro day and was dunking a basketball this week. Jack had an amazing true freshman season in 2013. As if his 75 tackles, two interceptions and team-high 11 passes defensed weren’t enough, he carried the ball 38 times for 267 yards and seven touchdowns. Jack was an honorable-mention All-American, a Freshman All-American, a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award (most versatile player) and the Pac-12’s Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year. As a sophomore, he was second-team all-Pac-12 for the second consecutive season with 88 tackles, including eight for losses, plus seven passes defensed. He added 113 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

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Scouting: Before the injury, Jack was primed for his best season, showing he had become an all-around package. “I saw a different guy this year than in past years, and by that I mean he was more physical,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “I think more confident in his physicality, able to come down and take on guards, tackles, fullbacks. So I saw a guy that was more of a finesse player early in his career turn into a true linebacker this year. I don't think he's going to have much of a problem transitioning.” A scout called Jack the best off-the-ball linebacker prospect he had seen since Panthers All-Pro Luke Kuechly. Health concerns, obviously, cloud that status.

“Much like when Pittsburgh converted Ryan Shazier to an inside position in a 3-4 alignment, our staff sees Jack in a similar role,” Thomas said. “First, it would allow his field intelligence to be involved in the play-calling, along with giving him less wear and tear on his knee constantly chasing ball carriers at the opposite end of the field. He plays with good suddenness and leverage, showing no issues when having to change direction, which are ideal traits to perform at any of the linebacker positions. He has that sudden burst to consistently give backside chase coming off the edge, as his above average balance will usually see him sift through trash. He generates a very good initial burst off the snap and is quick to build acceleration on the move. Jack needs to continue working on his hand usage at the point of attack, but he does a nice job of locking on and shedding the lead blockers when playing the ball in his area. He will get covered up and contained by the bigger blockers, when he runs right into the pile, but while he is still a work in progress as a stack-and-shed type, he does a very good job of stringing out plays and playing off blocks on the move. He makes quite a few plays in pursuit and shows the hand strength to shed and make plays while defending the tight end’s low blocks. Jack has the turning ability and hip swerve needed in order to drop off deep in the zone. He takes no wasted steps in transition and can move in an instant when trying to turn coming out of his backpedal. He flips his hips properly and plays at a good pad level, as his loose hips allow him to drop off quickly. He gets very good depth in his pass drops, doing a nice job in keeping his head on a swivel to locate the ball in flight. In man coverage, he has the quickness to stay on the tight ends and slot backs, using his hands effectively to reroute. He has the acceleration to maintain position on the receiver when working underneath. His quick feet allow him to shadow the speedier running backs on screens."

Personally: There’s no doubt Jack is the most versatile player in the draft. He’s won as an on-the-ball edge rusher and an off-the-ball linebacker. He said he’d embrace the challenge of playing safety, a la Kam Chancellor. And then there’s his two-way status. “That was kind of the benefit of playing them both in college,” he said. “I know what a linebacker is thinking, I know what a running back is thinking. A lot of teams will look at me as a Mike backer, so I’m more than able to do that.”

DARRON LEE, Ohio State

Position rank: 2

Height: 6-foot 3/4. Weight: 232. 20 shuttle: 4.20. 3-cone: 7.12. Broad jump: 11-1.

Notes: Lee played only two seasons, piling up 146 tackles, 11 sacks and three interceptions during that span. In 2014, he helped the Buckeyes win the national title with 81 tackles (54 solos), 7.5 sacks, 16.5 tackles for losses, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. In 2015, Lee recorded 66 tackles, 4.5 sacks, one interception and two forced fumbles. Of our top 27 inside linebacker prospects, he ranked fourth with 19 pressures. However, he tied for 17th with 22 run disruptions, tied for 20th with 6.5 stuffs (a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage vs. the run) and was 23rd with 5.5 tackles per missed tackle. He measures only slightly above average in coverage, giving up a 59.4 percent catch rate and 7.6 yards per target, though the coaches gave him tougher matchups than it would have had he not been so fast.

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Scouting: Who goes after Jack, the athletic Lee or the physical Reggie Ragland from Alabama? Chances are, the Packers won’t get a shot at either. But in a perfect world, the guess is they’d go with Lee because he’d provide the athletic inside linebacker they’ve lacked for years. “Lee can give you more athleticism, more speed,” said Daniel Jeremiah, the scout-turned-NFL Network analyst. “He's a dynamic blitzer. Somebody that can really, really run with the athletic tight ends and just the range that he has laterally is pretty much off the charts. He doesn't have the same take on ability that Ragland does. You'll see him flash on occasion, but he'll get completely swallowed up, and you don't see that happen to Reggie Ragland. Lee, you don't get quite that thump. You get a little more athleticism. And in today's league the way it is, I end up putting him a little bit above Ragland because of that athleticism and what he can give you in the passing game.” While their 20-yard shuttles were close, Lee ran his 40 in 4.47 seconds compared to Ragland’s 4.72 — a full one-quarter of a second faster. So, while Lee might not be the prototype inside linebacker, he is the type of linebacker needed in today’s spread-the-field NFL.

“Lee has a well-built, angular frame, with good chest thickness, broad shoulders, tight waist and hips, thick thighs and calves,” Thomas said. “He has added over 30 pounds of muscle since entering the program as a freshman safety. He still has room for additional upper-body growth and should max out at 245 pounds. He has excellent explosiveness coming off the snap. He shows fluid change-of-direction agility that is evident in his above-average range. He maintains balance working down the line and has the hip flexibility to come of his backpedal and drop back in the zone sharply. He has superb leaping ability and plays with good strength. He can chase the ball down from sideline to sideline and utilizes his leaping skills to be disruptive going up or knocking down the ball. His lateral range allows him to flow to the ball with great ease of movement. He stays on his feet working through trash and has the quickness to suddenly close on the ball. He has an outstanding closing burst and good suddenness closing on the ball, which makes him an ideal fit as a weak-side linebacker at the next level. Lee makes things happen on the field thanks to his range and wrap-up tackling ability. He knows how to shorten the field by taking proper angles and has the lateral agility to flow to the ball. When Lee is active with his hands, he has the moves to slip and avoid blockers to get through trash, but is best playing vs. the outside run than working in-line. When having to cover the inside rush, he does not have the bulk to prevent the offensive linemen from riding him out if they are able to lock on to him. He does have strength at the point of attack, but relies more on his quickness in order to step up and take on the lead blocks. Lee has the ability to drop off deep in the zone due to his hip swerve. He has the quickness to run with backs, tight ends and slot receivers in the short area and shows good vision, quickness and ball anticipation to be right in the receiver’s face in attempts to reroute. He uses his hands with force in press situations and shows the hip swerve to operate in trail coverage. He takes no wasted steps in transition and is quick to turn coming out of his backpedal. In man coverage, Lee has the quickness of a safety. He can turn and run with most tight ends and running backs.”

Personally: As a 4-year-old, Lee’s first foray into athletics came on the soccer field. It didn’t exactly go to plan, though. Lee’s mom Candice, a news anchor at NBC4 in Columbus, Ohio, said she learned that he was competitive, but she also learned that she needed to find a new sport to serve as an outlet for his energy. “I’ve seen that (competitiveness) in Darron since he played soccer at age 4. He didn’t like losing, he didn’t like the idea of not scoring and he was almost impossible to deal with when they lost,” she said. He’s found a home on the football field and appears to be in the right place at the right time as the game goes through major changes. “I feel linebackers are changing in the league, to be honest — a lot smaller,” he said at the Combine. “There aren’t really too many bigger guys. The game is getting faster and you need guys to cover. You’re starting to see that change a lot this year in the league.”

REGGIE RAGLAND, Alabama

Position rank: 3

Height: 6-foot-1 1/4. Weight: 247. 20 shuttle: 4.28. 3-cone: 7.55. Broad jump: 9-8.

Notes: As a senior, he was a first-team All-American and the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year. He was a finalist for the Butkus Award (nation’s top linebacker), Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year) and Nagurski Trophy (Defensive Player of the Year). After starting on the weak side as a junior, Ragland excelled at middle linebacker as a senior with a career-high 102 tackles. He added 2.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for losses and seven passes defensed. In our top 27, Ragland tied for 14th with 9.5 stuffs and tied for 20th with 20 run disruptions. Nonetheless, Ragland anchored a defense that entered the playoffs ranked No. 1 in scoring defense, No. 1 in rushing defense and No. 2 in total defense. He’s the best tackler in this class in terms of hitting ability and efficiency, with a stellar 20.4 tackles per missed tackle. The key to his draft fate will be his coverage ability. Playing mostly zone, he allowed a 64.1 percent completion rate but just 6.2 yards per target. He ranked third in our top 27 with seven passes defensed. Going head-to-head against Lee, Ragland had 36 more tackles and allowed 1.4 yards fewer per target, but had two fewer sacks, five fewer pressures and two fewer run disruptions.

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Scouting: There’s probably not an analyst on earth who knows Ragland better than Phil Savage. Savage, the former Ravens general manager, is executive director of the Senior Bowl and an analyst on Alabama’s radio broadcasts. “He finally got in there as a junior and played well, and there was talk that he might come out. Obviously, it paid off for him to go back,” Savage said. “He really blossomed into a full-fledged leader, signal-caller. He was really a glue guy for Alabama. Seemed to show up and make plays. I know people questioned his speed but I never sensed that he was slow. He builds speed. He’s not super, super quick when things are happening right at him but I like him better than Rolando McClain all the way around. McClain’s a meaner guy but he was more maintenance than Reggie would ever think about being. I wouldn’t say he’s Luke Kuechly. To me, Kuechly’s got that snap, that explosive burst. I don’t know if Reggie’s got that. He’s physically strong and runs well and had good instincts and has really learned how to play the position but he’s not as sudden as Kuechly is.”

We surveyed five scouts about a month ago via text, with a “1” meaning Ragland should be available at Green Bay’s spot and “10” meaning there was no chance Ragland would be available. Two responded with a 10, one with a nine, one with an eight and one with a seven.
“Ragland has excellent explosiveness coming off the snap,” Thomas said. “He shows fluid change-of-direction agility that is evident in his above-average range. He maintains balance working down the line and has the hip flexibility to come of his backpedal and drop back in the zone sharply. He can chase the ball down from sideline to sideline and utilizes his leaping skills to be disruptive going up or knocking down the ball. Ragland shows above-average instincts and awareness. He makes fluid and decisive adjustments on the move and has a good nose for the plays in front of him. When he sees the plays develop, he has good reactions to misdirection and play action. Much like the former San Francisco 49ers’ Patrick Willis, he is simply a smart, instinctive player with above-average field vision. He uses that to easily anticipate and jump the play in the passing game. Ragland is quick to shed blocks, thanks to his active hands and long arms that he uses effectively to keep blockers off his body. He is more explosive than strong, at the moment, but generates natural pop upon contact. His ability to shock and jolt with his hands allows him to more than hold his own when facing up to the offensive linemen. When Ragland is active with his hands, he has the moves to slip and avoid blockers to get through trash. He is equally effective when playing vs. the outside run and when working in-line. When having to cover the inside rush, he utilizes his bulk to match up to offensive linemen.”

Personally: As a kid, he got sage advice from his parents. School comes first. Girls come later. "Reggie knew he had to answer to me," Ragland Sr. said. "That's one of the main reasons he stayed in line was because he always knew he was going to have to answer for whatever he did out there. He'll tell you one of the reasons he didn't do anything was because he knew what would be waiting on him once he came home." He’s a big guy now; he was a big guy when he was little, too. "When he was little and in diapers, everybody thought he was three or four years old," his mom said. "People said, 'Why does that boy still have diapers on?' This kid wasn't even a year old yet."

SU’A CRAVENS

Position rank: 4

Height: 6-foot 3/4. Weight: 226. 20 shuttle: 4.41. 3-cone: 6.92. Broad jump: 9-6.

Notes: Underclassman. Cravens starred as an undersized linebacker, learning well under the tutelage of former NFL linebacker Chris Claiborne. Cravens led the Trojans in just about every key statistic in 2015, when he was first-team all-Pac-12 and a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker. He had team-leading figures of 82 tackles, six sacks, 15 tackles for losses and two forced fumbles. His two interceptions were one off the team lead and he was third with eight passes defensed. Of our top 27, Cravens ranked second in sacks, fifth with 34 run disruptions and tied for seventh with 11.5 stuffs. Because of his size, he was a below-average tackler (9.1 tackles per missed tackle) but made up for it with his playmaking ability and coverage skills, as he ranked fourth with a 45.0 percent completion rate and a second-ranked eight passes defensed. Cravens wasted no time in making an impact. He graduated from high school a semester early and started at safety as a true freshman, earning Freshman All-America honors with four interceptions. As a sophomore, he played a hybrid safety/outside linebacker and registered team highs of 17 tackles for losses and three interceptions.

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Scouting: Cravens is a bit of an outside-the-box solution to the Packers’ coverage needs at the position. While he played linebacker at USC, his build is closer to that of an NFL safety than a linebacker, and Thompson has not used a single pick on an undersized linebacker. The lightest? Abdul Hodge at 236. “Different teams have different opinions on Su'a Cravens from USC, whether he's a safety or a linebacker, but he fits what today's outside linebacker is — a little bit like a Deone Bucannon,” Mayock said. “He could be a strong safety, he could be a Will linebacker, he could rush, he could be a dime linebacker in your dime package.” One opinion from a scout is Cravens could go in the first round.

If the idea is to get a more dynamic player on the field on, at the very least, passing downs, Cravens is the solution. “Cravens has great agility and athletic ability, playing with ideal quickness and speed,” Thomas said. “He shows fine balance closing on the ball and the ability to stay on his feet working through trash. With his flexibility, he is quick to redirect and work his way to the flow of the ball. He has the quickness of a safety dropping back in zone coverage and is an above average space player, thanks to the suddenness when closing. He looks very athletic moving to the ball, showing fluid change of direction, acceleration and body control in attempts to keep the action in front of him. He is simply a very athletic defender, showing the hip swerve and flexibility you find in a safety, rather than a linebacker. Cravens is a superb space player, but can also be an impact performer when challenging multiple blockers in tight quarters. He is very quick and active with his hands to control and get off blocks in attempts to get to the ball. He is strong for his size and can hit with leverage to stun lead blocks and cause a pile, compensating for not having great ‘sand in his pants’ to take on linemen. In man coverage, Cravens has a natural feel for the flow of the ball, showing quick lateral movement and fluid change of direction agility. He has that ease of movement when changing direction to turn and run on the ball in an instant. He explodes out of his breaks and has a good feel working in the zone, quickly making the switch-off due to fine anticipation skills. He gets a quick break on the ball and shows the body adjustments to redirect and his ball skills are evident by his ability to jump the receiver.”

Personally: Cravens loved football at an early age. As a toddler, he’d watch it while sitting on his father’s lap. He’d cry if the channel was changed. As with Lee, Cravens is entering the league at the right time. “I just think I bring versatility to the next level,” he said at the Combine. “I know the role of being a big safety is beginning to change. I think before it was kind of frowned upon. But now that guy that can run with slots and guard tight ends in man and then come into the box and be that extra linebacker without having to sub, it’s pretty big nowadays. With the league becoming a passing league, you’re going to need guys like that so I think now I’m at an advantage more than a disadvantage."

DOMINIQUE ALEXANDER

Position rank: 5

Height: 6-foot 1/4. Weight: 232. 20 shuttle: 4.59. 3-cone: 7.81. Broad jump: 8-8.

Notes: Alexander received postseason honors following each of his three seasons. In 2015, he was first-team all-Big 12 with 102 tackles. He tallied 1.5 sacks, seven tackles for losses, one interception and three passes defensed. Alexander was second-team all-conference as a sophomore with a career-high 107 tackles and a first-team Freshman All-American and the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. In 2015, he showed his all-around skill. Want a playmaker? Of our top 27, he finished first with 44 run disruptions and second with 16 stuffs. You want coverage? He ranked No. 1 with a 35.0 percent completion rate allowed and 3.2 yards allowed per target, even while working frequently in the slot against tight ends and backs. You want a tackler? With seven misses, he had 14.6 tackles per missed tackle. That ranked seventh.

Scouting: "He can do it all," his linebackers coach, Tim Kish, said. "He’s a great student of the game, he watches tons of film, he understands formations and he understands what offenses are trying to do to defeat us, that takes the thinking out of it when the ball is snapped for him. He’s so athletic, he has great fundamentals and techniques. He takes great angles in the run game, takes great drops in the pass game. All those things make him the best linebacker he can be." If Alexander would have had a big Scouting Combine and pro day, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone. Instead, at OU’s pro day, he ran his 40 in 4.75, and his three-cone time was a shocking three-tenths of a second slower than any linebacker from the Combine. For some guys, Packers GM Ted Thompson said last week, the stopwatch is irrelevant. Is Alexander that type of guy? Only Thompson knows the answer to that question, though a scout said that workout sent Alexander tumbling down his team’s board. “Aggressive in the box, showing the quickness to spurt past would-be blockers and create havoc at the line of scrimmage,” wrote NFL Draft Scout’s Rob Rang, who covers the Seahawks for Scout.com. “Possesses very good speed for the position, showing the awareness and closing speed to beat backs to the edge. Relies on his agility and burst to slip past would-be blockers, struggling to disengage once opponents latch on. Could improve in this area with greater take-on strength but will always struggle in this area due to his lack of ideal length.” In today’s NFL, with offenses increasingly looking to exploit athletically overmatched linebackers, Alexander’s strengths might outweigh his weaknesses.

Personally: Alexander’s father, Derrick, played at Oklahoma State and an older brother, Derrick Alexander Jr., just completed his senior season as a starting defensive end at Tulsa. They played each other three times. He’s also a father, which has only added to his motivation. “It has changed majorly,” he said at the Combine. “I had to mature in a major way. I am glad it happened because the maturity needed to happen. I am a father now, and it’s just … everything is really important. I don’t take anything for granted.”

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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