Here are the 20 outside linebackers who have been invited to the Scouting Combine. Players are listed in alphabetical order. Heights and weights come from CBSSports.com/NFLDraftScout.com. All players are seniors unless noted. Note: Position designations might not reflect how they'd line up in all NFL defensive schemes.
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Takkarist McKinley, UCLA (6-2, 258): McKinley was named a first-team all-Pac-12 performer as a senior. He did a little of everything with 61 tackles, 10 sacks, 18 tackles for losses, six passes defensed, three forced fumbles and three hurries. McKinley finished second in the conference in tackles for losses and third in sacks. McKinley attended a junior college from June 2013 through September 2014, arriving at UCLA for the fourth game of the 2014 season. If the timing seems odd, that’s because it is odd. McKinley was slated to spend all of 2014 at junior college but Bruins D-line coach Angus McClure found a mistake in McKinley’s transcript, allowing the talented defender to get to UCLA months earlier than expected.
That’s a rare bright spot in a life filled with potholes. This is how the Los Angeles Daily News’ Jack Wang led off this powerful feature: “Takkarist McKinley is trying to think of his favorite childhood memory, and at the moment, he’s coming up empty. His earliest, haziest recollections are of a trip to Mississippi to meet a man he thought was his father. A paternity test later proved otherwise. He remembers all the nights he spent on couches or floors around the East Bay, having given up the bedroom to his younger cousins in a crowded house. He thinks of the T-shirts left on the streets, marking the spots of gunned-down bodies.”
He is scheduled to have shoulder surgery after the Combine.
Matt Milano, Boston College (6-0, 221): Milano recorded back-to-back all-ACC seasons. As a junior, he had 6.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for losses among his 60 tackles. As a senior, he had 6.5 sacks and 11 tackles for losses among his 58 stops.
Said renowned trainer Tom Shaw, with whom he’s working out with to get ready for the Combine: “Matt is quick and explosive, because he was an all-state safety when he came out of Dr. Phillips [High in Orlando, Fla]. I think when he gets to the NFL, he’ll play both [linebacker and safety]. He’ll end up covering and playing a safety, strong safety where he has to come up like [former Pittsburgh Steelers safety] Troy Polamalu in the box and play like that.”
Noble Nwachukwu, West Virginia (6-2, 275): Over his final three seasons, Nwachukwu recorded 28.5 tackles for losses. He had 40 tackles in each of his final two seasons, with 8.5 sacks, 13 TFLs and one forced fumble as a junior and four sacks, 7.5 TFLs and one forced fumble as a senior.
Nwachukwu’s recruitment story is interesting. It includes trying to find a place for a 200-pound kid who played only two years of high school ball and trying to break through to a quiet kid and two parents who are from Nigeria. He comes from an athletic family, with older sister Michelle being a former sprinter at Baylor and younger sister Andrew being a long jumper at Texas A&M.
Jabrill Peppers, Michigan (6-1, 205): Junior. Peppers did almost everything at Michigan. He was listed as a linebacker and defensive back, and that could be his lot in the NFL. He will workout with the linebackers, not the DBs, at the Combine.
During his final season, Peppers finished fifth in Heisman Trophy voting and won the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player and the Lott IMPACT Trophy. He was a unanimous first-team All-American and incredibly became the first player in Big Ten history to win three individual awards — Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year, Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year and Rodgers-Dwight Return Specialist of the Year. On defense, he had 72 tackles, four sacks, 16 tackles for losses, one forced fumble and one interception. On special teams, he averaged 26.0 yards per kickoff return and 14.8 yards per punt return with one touchdown. On offense, he carried 27 times for 167 yards (6.2 average) and three touchdowns. The comparisons to Charles Woodson were obvious.
"The unique thing is all the positions he plays," Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. "You start counting them — safety, corner, nickel, outside linebacker, slot receiver, Wildcat quarterback, running back, kick returner, punt returner, gunner, hold-up — that's 11 or 12 right there. And I know there's others he could do, and do well."
As a sophomore, he was a second-team All-American and a finalist for the Hornung Award with 10 passes defensed and elite production as a returner. In 2014, he was a Freshman All-American.
In high school, he became only the second boy to win both the 100 and 200 meters at the New Jersey state meet in consecutive years.
None of that is as impressive as his life story. When Peppers was 7, his father was sent to prison. When he was 14, his brother was shot to death. It was his brother who predicted Peppers would be a star. "That was basically my male model growing up. So a lot of things he instilled in me, I still carry with me. I can hear him now saying, 'I told you little bro, just stick to the plan.’”
Peppers vowed he wouldn’t follow the same path that consumed his brother. As Peppers wrote in The Players’ Journal, “The streets don’t care about your dreams. They don’t care if you have good intentions or if your little brother has potential. The path Don was on almost always leads to the same place.”
Ejuan Price, Pittsburgh (5-11, 246): After missing the entire 2012 and 2014 seasons (chest injuries) and another seven games in 2013 (back), Price finished his career with back-to-back huge seasons. As a senior, he piled up 12 sacks, 23 tackles for losses, three forced fumbles and 14 hurries. He was named first team all-ACC for the second consecutive season, a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Defensive End of the Year Award and a second team All-American. That came on the heels of his junior campaign of 11.5 sacks, 19.5 TFLs and one forced fumble. “Of course, you’re wondering if it’ll ever be that time again or if you’ll ever get it right.”
Yeah, he’s short. He’s heard about that a time or two. “The way they talk about you, you'd think I was yay high,” said Price, stretching his hand on a level plane with his belt. “I'm not like a dwarf. I'm a nice-size guy.” Then again, Elvis Dumervil and James Harrison are short, too. Yeah, he’s short. So are his pants.
The injuries gave Price a sixth year of eligibility, which he took advantage of by earning a degree in communications in 2015 and working toward another degree in administration of justice.
Haason Reddick, Temple (6-1, 237): As a sophomore, Reddick had 23 tackles. As a senior, he had 22.5 tackles for losses. Reddick had a tremendous final season, earning some All-American accolades while winning first-team all-conference. He tallied 65 tackles, highlighted by 10.5 sacks, 22.5 TFLs and three forced fumbles. Reddick broke into the lineup as a junior and had five sacks and 12.5 TFLs.
Reddick was a semifinalist for the Burlsworth Trophy, which goes to the nation’s best player who started his career as a walk-on. When he broke his leg early during his senior year of high school, all scholarship offers evaporated. After redshirting as a defensive back in 2012, the coaching staff told Reddick he wouldn’t be asked back in 2013. But a change in coaching staffs gave Reddick a second chance — at linebacker — and he pounced.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee (6-0, 230): Reeves-Maybin’s senior season ended with a shoulder injury. He recorded 20 tackles, with two for losses, during his abbreviated season. As a sophomore and junior, he tallied back-to-back 100-tackle seasons, with 101 tackles, two sacks and 11 tackles for losses as a sophomore and 105 tackles, six sacks, 14 tackles for losses, two forced fumbles and four passes defensed as a junior in which he earned some all-SEC honors.
Reeves-Maybin’s dad, Marques, played basketball at Louisville under renowned coach Denny Crum. A motorcycle accident left him paralyzed from the waist down in 2003. Jalen was 8. "Emotionally, I could tell he was hurt about it," Marques said. "But everyone was strong. We have a strong family."
His work ethic is legendary. Just ask his former high school coach, who worked out with Reeves-Maybin at 6 a.m. Or, go back to Reeves-Maybin’s junior year of high school. The kicker missed four extra points in a one-point loss. The next day, Reeves-Maybin started practicing extra points.
Duke Riley, LSU (6-1, 231): After starting just one game in his first three seasons, Riley started 12 times as a senior and was voted team MVP. He finished with a team-high 93 tackles, nine tackles for losses, 1.5 sacks, one interception and three hurries.
Playing for LSU was Riley’s dream, even when he was being beaten up or having his glasses — the glasses he so badly needed after being nearly blinded by spinal meningitis — broken by other kids in his hometown of Buras, La. “I was always the one being picked on, never the best athlete. My Facebook name has been the same since I made (an account). It sounds corny, but it’s ‘Duke Dream Chaser Riley.’ I wrote that on there because I really meant that. I was always chasing this life I’m living right now.”
Derek Rivers, Youngstown State (6-4, 250): Rivers had career-high figures of 58 tackles, 14 sacks, 19.5 tackles for losses and three fumble recoveries to help the Penguins reach the FCS championship game. Rivers, a three-time first-team all-conference selection and two-time All-American, had four-year totals of 37.5 sacks, 56.5 TFLs and three forced fumbles.
When he was 9, he started having seizures. “Not the grand mal type; he would just kind of space out,” his mom said. “He was on medication and he seems to have outgrown them as an adult, but he’s had to overcome a lot.” Rivers’ father played basketball and football at Virginia Tech. The strength, however, comes from his mom, who could do 100 straight male push-ups in college.
T.J. Watt, Wisconsin (6-4, 243): Junior. Watt is brothers with superstar Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Chargers fullback Derek Watt. T.J. and J.J. share a similar story as former walk-ons who started their college careers on offense. T.J. Watt redshirted in 2013, did not play in 2014 due to a knee injury and recorded eight tackles in 2015. He broke out in a big way in 2016, with 11.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for losses among his 63 tackles. He forced two fumbles and intercepted one pass to earn second-team All-America. “I expected to be in this spot. I really worked hard and I wanted to be in this spot really bad. It’s awesome to see it pay off.”
Watt’s rise is remarkable. He didn’t make his move to defense until training camp before the 2015 season. "I think it'd be amazing if it was anyone but T.J.," Badgers linebacker Jack Cichy said. "You see it with his brothers. He comes from a football family, and he's a football player. At first, there was a learning curve, but he's blown that out of the water. He's matured drastically from the time he first came on the defensive side of the ball. And he's just really exponentially getting better every week.”
Watt is all football. “I don’t go out on weekends. After games, I’ll literally sit in my apartment and watch football. I have it instilled in me from my brothers, J.J. especially, minimal gains and marginal gains, you can be 1 percent better. I honestly believe that if I stay in, there’s probably a player from Michigan State or Ohio State going out drinking beer, and I have to be getting better than him.”
Tim Williams, Alabama (6-3, 252): Williams was first-team all-SEC and an All-American as a senior, when 16 of his 31 tackles came behind the line of scrimmage. Williams had nine sacks as part of those 16 tackles for losses, along with two forced fumbles and 12 hurries. Williams contributed 10.5 sacks and 12.5 TFLs during a breakout junior season.
Williams is a fearsome pass rusher. What’s going through his head at the snap? What's he thinking when the ball is snapped? “Eat. Destroy. Predator. Conqueror. Anything,”
A native of Baton Rouge, La. — the home of LSU — Williams’ path to Alabama started with a mistake. “His freshman year I accidentally signed him up for the wrong camp at Alabama,” said his mom, Carolyn Williams, Tim’s mother. “I signed him up for the upperclassmen camp. He was a freshman.”
He was arrested in late September on a gun charge and was suspended for the first half of the Kentucky game. That won’t be the first issue broached by teams at the Combine.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.