Desperate times, desperate measures.
In order to turn Clay Matthews loose on third-and-long early last season, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson turned to Dallas’ practice squad to sign Joe Thomas — the very same Joe Thomas who wasn’t good enough to make the Packers’ roster at the end of training camp.
Thomas wasn’t bad. But “not bad” isn’t good enough for a defense that needs to take the next step. Here are our top coverage inside linebackers.
Here are the 10 best pass-coverage inside linebackers in this week’s draft. Our overall rankings went 27 deep; our statistical comparisons go 25 deep, leaving out Myles Jack and Scooby Wright, who missed most of the season due to injuries.
No. 10: 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: Smart and instinctive for zone coverage, Ragland ranked ninth with 6.2 yards allowed per target and tied for third with seven passes defensed. We had Ragland covered like a blanket right here.
No. 9: NICK KWIATOSKI, West Virginia
Position rank: 8
Height: 6-foot-2. Weight: 243. 20 shuttle: 4.22. 3-cone: 7.16. Broad jump: 10-0.
Notes: All things being equal, bigger is better. General manager Ted Thompson has drafted seven inside linebackers. The lightest? Abdul Hodge at 236 pounds. The average? Almost 241. So, Kwiatoski fits the bill. And he can cover, too. He started his West Virginia career as a safety so he has that in his background. While he ranked 12th with a 61.5 percent completion rate and 18th with 8.3 yards allowed per target, he was No. 1 with 10 passes defensed. He intercepted three passes, more than all but Temple’s Tyler Matakevich among our group of inside linebackers. With experience in the wide-open, spread-the-field Big 12, he's used to being in space. His 20-yard shuttle, which helps measure change-of-direction ability and explosiveness, ranked third in our group. Kwiatoski is a terrific all-around player, ranking third in our inside linebacker class with 38 run disruptions. In three seasons as a starter, he piled up 303 tackles, including 28 for losses.
No. 8: 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: The only player with better coverage numbers than Burgess was Alexander, who allowed 35.0 percent completions and just 3.2 yards per target. Will that production carry over despite below-average size/speed numbers? We had Alexander covered like a blanket right here.
No. 7: JAMES BURGESS, Louisville
Position rank: 14
Height: 6-foot 1/4. Weight: 229. 20 shuttle: 4.43. 3-cone: 6.99. Broad jump: 10-1.
Notes: Burgess isn’t big and he can’t tackle, with a group-worst 16 missed tackles and ranking next-to-last with 5.4 tackles per missed tackle. But he is slick in coverage, finishing second with 3.8 yards allowed per target and a 40.6 percent completion rate. He intercepted one pass as a senior but had three as a junior, including one of Jameis Winston. From a coverage perspective, the concern is height.
No. 6: NICK VIGIL, Utah State
Position rank: 7
Height: 6-foot-2 3/8. Weight: 239. 20 shuttle: 4.00. 3-cone: 6.73. Broad jump: 9-7.
Notes: Vigil is a name to remember. The Packers don’t hold many formal interviews at the Scouting Combine with seniors but they did talk to Vigil. Not only does he have size, but look at that blistering 20-yard shuttle, which blew away everyone in this group of 10 and would have beaten all but five defensive backs at the Combine. In our group of 25 inside linebackers, Vigil ranked sixth with 5.3 yards allowed per target and 10th with a 61.1 percent completion rate. Vigil led the Mountain West Conference and finished second in the inside linebacker class with a career-high 144 tackles. He was the only player in the nation to record at least nine tackles in every game. He added three sacks, 13.5 for losses, two forced fumbles. He ranked second with 39 run disruptions and fourth with 16 tackles per missed tackle. In 2014, he played running back, too.
No. 5: JAYLON SMITH, Notre Dame
Position rank: 6
Height: 6-foot-2. Weight: 223. 20 shuttle: DNP. 3-cone: DNP. Broad jump: DNP.
Notes: Smith’s story has been well-documented. If not for a knee injury sustained in the bowl game, the Butkus Award-winning linebacker might be in the running for No. 1 overall pick. Instead, because of nerve damage, there’s a pretty good chance he will spend his entire rookie season on injured reserve. So, this ranking is based on what Smith showed in college and not on what might lie ahead. When healthy, he is exceptional in coverage, ranking third with a 42.3 percent completion rate and fourth with 5.0 yards allowed per attempt.
No. 4: 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: Here’s what you need to know: Cravens had almost as many passes defensed (eight) as completions allowed (nine in 20 targets). We had Cravens covered like a blanket right here.
No. 3: DEION JONES, LSU
Position rank: 9
Height: 6-foot 7/8. Weight: 222. 20 shuttle: 4.26. 3-cone: 7.13. Broad jump: 10-0.
Notes: You want an athlete to play on third down? After running his 40 in 4.59 seconds at the Scouting Combine, Jones ran a blistering 4.39 at LSU’s pro day last month. Jones started only as a senior, but what a season it was. Jones led the Tigers with 95 tackles and 13.5 tackles for losses as he was named a finalist for the Butkus Award. His pass-defense numbers are misleading because the LSU coaching staff asked him to do things that other coaches wouldn’t dare ask of a lesser athlete. So, take these numbers with a grain of sale: Jones ranked 12th with 6.7 yards allowed per target and 19th with a 65.1 percent completion rate. “The first one that comes to mind, though I’m not sure he’d be a fit for Green Bay, would be Deion Jones,” Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, a former NFL general manager, said of third-down linebackers in this draft. “He’s more of a specialized sub role, at least initially. If you’re in a 3-4, he’d line up on the weak side. As far as playing on third down, I think he could do that right away.”
No. 2: 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: Much like Jones, Lee’s so-so coverage numbers are a byproduct of getting tough matchups. We had Lee covered like a blanket right here.
No. 1: MYLES JACK, UCLA
Position rank: 1
Height: 6-foot-1. Weight: 245. 20 shuttle: DNP. 3-cone: DNP. Broad jump: 10-4.
Notes: In limited duty before a season-ending knee injury, Jack allowed 7-of-13 passing and a meager 5.9 yards per target. We had Jack covered like a blanket right here.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.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.null