Stuart McNair

A look at the top inside linebacker prospects at the NFL Combine

A look at the top inside linebacker prospects at the NFL Combine

Here are the 18 inside 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. For Part 1, CLICK HERE.

Ben Gedeon, Michigan (6-2, 243): Gedeon made the most of his one year in the starting lineup, recording 106 tackles, including 4.5 sacks and 15.5 for losses to be second-team all-Big Ten. Compare that to his 5.5 TFLs during his first three seasons combined.

Gedeon climbed into the lineup as a senior. Before the season, he climbed Colorado’s Mount Evans, a 14,265-foot peak, with teammates including tight end Jake Butt. “You want a 48-hour acclimation period to get used to the elevation,” Gedeon said. “But we just kind of got there and ran right up on the 14er. There were little kids going up there too and it’s like, how are these kids doing this? We were dying.”

Gedeon would be a great addition for the Packers, Lions or Vikings. After all, he’s proven he can tackle a bear.

Connor Harris, Lindenwood (5-11, 241): Lindenwood won the Cliff Harris Award as the nation’s top defensive player among NCAA Division II, NCAA Division III, and NAIA programs. His 138 tackles as a senior pushed his career total to 633 — more than any player in the history of college football, regardless of division. In starting all 48 career games, Harris finished with 34 tackles for losses, 8.5 sacks, six interceptions and three forced fumbles. He also punted, kicked extra points and scored seven touchdowns on 50 carries on offense.

Harris did everything in high school, too, but he was deemed too small by the big schools. So he went to Lindenwood, where he dominated for all four seasons. “I knew that if I was good enough, they’d find me,” Harris said of NFL teams. “Flash forward a few years, and I’ve got the chance of a lifetime.”

Keith Kelsey, Louisville (6-0, 236): Kelsey was a three-year starter who finished his career with 308 tackles. As a senior, Kelsey tallied 93 tackles, including one sack and 5.5 for losses, while adding three forced fumbles to be second-team all-conference. He made more impact plays as a junior, with his 100 tackles including 3.5 sacks and 12 for losses. Kelsey is one of only 13 players in school history to pace the team in tackles in back-to-back seasons. He had 87 tackles with six sacks as a sophomore.

In September, he visited a fan who is battling blood cancer. They formed a bond during weekly visits.

Kelsey’s father, Keith Sr., played linebacker at Florida in the 1990s. They talk after every game. “He’s a big influence on me,” Keith Kelsey Jr. said. “Even when I play good, he still always points out the bad things I do and the things I can get better on. Because he never wants me to be conceited, and he always wants me to work hard. He plays a big role. We talk every day.”

Harvey Langi, BYU (6-2, 252): Langi didn’t just change schools. He changed sides of the ball. After rushing for 70 yards as a freshman at Utah in 2011, Langi went on a two-year Mormon mission to Florida. Upon his return, he enrolled at BYU and moved to defense.

He started as a junior and senior. Playing linebacker in 2015, he had 68 tackles, including 4.5 sacks and 6.5 for losses, plus two interceptions. Playing on the defensive line and then back to linebacker in 2016, he had 57 tackles, including two sacks and five for losses.

He also returned to his running back roots with 79 yards on 20 carries as a senior. Against UMass in November, he carried 14 times for 56 yards and two touchdowns. Was the change as easy as riding a bike? “This bike was more powerful and giddies up a little quicker than the high school one but I started catching on as the reps went on,” he said after the UMass game. “It was just crazy being on that side.”

A younger brother, Tongi Langi, is a defensive back who is part of the 2017 recruiting class. A cousin, Motekiai Langi — all 6-foot-7, 400-plus pounds of him — will join the BYU football team in 2017.

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Marquel Lee, Wake Forest (6-3, 230): With three productive seasons, Lee fell just short of 300 career tackles. Lee had 101 tackles as a sophomore and 105 as a senior. He was second-team all-ACC during his final season, which included career highs of 7.5 sacks (he had seven in his first three years),  20 tackles for losses (he had 22 in his first three years) and three forced fumbles (he had one in his first three years).

Lee knew he had to step it up heading into his senior season. “If you set the standard, you’ve got to be the standard. You’ve just got to live up to that every day, the way you play, the way you prepare in the weight room and the film room, in those types of situations.’’

Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State (6-2-240): Junior. McMillan was first-team all-Big Ten, second-team All-America and a finalist for the Lott IMPACT Trophy and Butkus Award in his final season. He had 102 tackles, including two sacks and seven for losses, plus two forced fumbles and four passes broken up. He was even better as a sophomore, with 119 tackles, 1.5 sacks, four tackles for losses and four passes defensed — good for first-team all-Big Ten, second-team All-America and third place in Butkus balloting.

In three seasons, he did everything but make first-team All-America. Perhaps most impressive is he’s a no-excuses kind of guy. Not even minus-17 is an excuse.

While his stats were slightly better in 2015, McMillan became a complete master of the position in 2016.

Who needs to talk trash when you’ve got your mom going on Twitter and saying “Light his ass up!!!” to a member of the Sooners who claimed the OSU system was simplistic?

As a senior at Liberty County (Ga.) High School, McMillan won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top high school linebacker. So how did a Georgia phenom not land at Georgia — or at least stay in the SEC? This story, umm, paints the picture.

During the offseason between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, McMillan went to Jamaica as part of the Soles4Souls program. He was inspired to do so by former teammate Joshua Perry, who went to Costa Rica in 2015. While in Jamaica, McMillan and teammate Billy Price visited schools that had no air conditioning, water supply or bathrooms. The children lined up for their feet to be washed and received a new pair of shoes. “Learning how much this impacted (Perry’s) life made me feel like this was something I needed to do because I am blessed with so many opportunities that I don’t get the chance very often to see what other people do not have.”

Hardy Nickerson, Illinois (6-0, 236): Nickerson started at Cal from 2013 through 2015, piling up 246 tackles during that span — including a team-high 112 as a junior. Having earned his diploma, Nickerson transferred to Illinois for his senior season and was voted third-team all-conference. He led the team with 107 tackles and added two sacks, 5.5 tackles for losses and two interceptions. His impact was immediate beyond the production, as he was voted a team captain. Nickerson’s four-year total was 353 tackles.

Nickerson’s father is Hardy Nickerson, a 16-year NFL veteran who was a four-time All-Pro linebacker. He is the Illini’s defensive coordinator. Dad didn’t push son to play football, let alone join him at Illinois. “People always ask me: ‘Did you force him to play football?’ When he was born, he was reaching for a ball, that football. And when he was a baby, a toddler, he wouldn’t go to sleep unless he had cleats on and a football helmet on.”

Hardy Sr. closed his career with the Packers. At age 8, Hardy Jr. played in a Pop Warner game at Lambeau Field. "I'm coming off the field and his team was right there coming onto the field," the elder Nickerson said. "I got to walk by and see him. My career was ending and his was starting. We were passing each other. It was one of those moments."

Tanner Vallejo, Boise State (6-1, 223): Vallejo’s season ended four games early due to a wrist injury. He earned all-Mountain West honors in each of his final three seasons with 100 tackles, three sacks, 16.5 tackles for losses, three fumble recoveries and four passes defensed as a sophomore, 57 tackles, eight TFLs and two forced fumbles as a junior and 69 tackles and six TFLs as a senior. A three-and-a-half-year starter, his four-year total was 277 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 36 TFLs, two forced fumbles and seven passes defensed.

Vallejo played most of his senior season with torn ligaments in his wrist but he got tired of it popping out of place doing such mundane tasks as buckling his seatbelt. “I honestly felt it was getting worse, and the recovery is pretty long. You definitely think of that, but I wanted to kind of live in the moment, hearing the rehab process, wanted to get it going.”

Younger brother Hunter was diagnosed with brain cancer as a baby. “My biggest motivation is my little brother. He’s always been my motivation and he always will be. When I’m out there playing, I’m playing with him on my back.”

Anthony Walker Jr., Northwestern (6-1, 235): Junior. Walker piled up 227 tackles during his two seasons as a full-time starter. As a sophomore, he earned some All-American recognition with 122 tackles, including a whopping 20.5 for losses. As a junior, he tallied 105 tackles, including two sacks and 10 for losses, plus two interceptions, five passes defensed, six hurries and four forced fumbles.

Walker is incredibly tight with his father — a single dad who teaches and coaches at Monsignor Pace High School in Miami Gardens. At first, he lacked the speed and agility to play. Walker, however, worked himself into the rotation. In the fourth game of his redshirt freshman season, an injury elevated Walker into the starting lineup against Penn State. A pick-six against Christian Hackenberg led to teammates calling Walker “The Franchise.”

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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