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Green Bay Packers NFL Draft Preview: Inside Linebacker

We go 22 deep at inside linebacker, a list that includes Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham as a potential every-down defender.

We continue our position-by-position preview of the NFL Draft with the inside linebackers.

In Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson’s first draft, he took A.J. Hawk in the first round and Abdul Hodge in the third round. He hasn’t picked an inside linebacker in the first three rounds since, which probably tells you all you needed to know about how Thompson views the importance of this position.

The Packers enter this draft with a decent group of Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez and Joe Thomas. Ryan, in fact, had an impactful second season. There is, however, no three-down linebacker in this group, no game-changing playmaker.

Thompson’s last three selections were Sam Barrington, Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez, who recorded 20-yard shuttle times of 4.25, 4.20 and 4.20 seconds, respectively. That’s faster than most of the prospects in this draft class. The lightest of Thompson’s picks was Hodge at 236 pounds.

With that as a backdrop, here are our top 22 prospects. Our rankings put a bit more emphasis on playing pass defense. Note: Run-stop percentage and tackling efficiency are from ProFootballFocus.com’s Draft Pass. Run-stop percentage measures impact tackles (less than 40 percent of needed yardage on first down, less than 60 percent on second down and short of the line to gain on third and fourth down). Tackling efficiency measures attempts per missed tackle. The statistical rankings in those categories are based on the 17 prospects who played as off-the-ball linebackers at an FBS-level school, and do not include the two edge defenders and three small-school players in our Top 22.

Reuben Foster, Alabama (6-0 1/4, 229; no test results): Foster was the No. 1-ranked high school linebacker coming out of Auburn (Ala.) High School, he was the No. 1 linebacker in the nation as a senior and he’s the No. 1 inside linebacker in this draft. As a senior, Foster won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker and was a unanimous first-team All-American. He paced the team with 115 tackles and added five sacks, 13 tackles for losses, eight hurries and two passes defensed. Foster had 73 tackles as a first-year starter as a junior. As a senior, he led all draft prospects at the position in PFF’s run-stop percentage. He missed 13 tackles, which put him eighth in efficiency. While Foster remains the consensus top-ranked inside linebacker because he’s a legit three-down player, he was sent home from the Combine following an argument with a hospital worker and, on Thursday, Foster told NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport about having a diluted urine sample at the Combine. “Put me in the (drug-testing) program. Test me,” he said.

The recent news notwithstanding, Foster’s story is one of triumph over tragedy. In November 1995, Foster’s father, Danny, shot and seriously injured his ex-girlfriend, who happened to be holding 18-month-old Reuben, who also was wounded. Freed on bond, Foster fled to California. He was arrested there and brought back to Randolph County (Ala.) Jail, where he was found guilty of assault and sentenced to a mandatory 30 years in prison. However, he escaped and remained on the run for more than 16 years before he was arrested in February 2013.

Haason Reddick, Temple (6-1 1/2, 237; 4.52 40; 4.37 shuttle): As a sophomore, Reddick had 23 tackles. As a senior edge defender, 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. We did not include him in our run-stop percentage rankings because of the difference in positions; he would have ranked 13th in our group. 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 — as an edge rusher — and he pounced. He exceled as an off-the-ball linebacker at the Senior Bowl. He should be used like the Packers used Clay Matthews in 2014 and 2015, though he likely won’t fall into Green Bay’s neck of the woods at No. 29. One major knock as an inside linebacker: He missed 15 tackles as a senior. And one minor knock: While his 40 time ranks second in our group, his shuttle time wasn’t too far below average.

Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt (6-3 1-2, 234; 4.67 40; 4.29 shuttle): Junior. Cunningham left Vandy after becoming the first unanimous first-team All-American in school history. In 2016, the Butkus Award finalist ranked among national leaders in several categories, including an SEC-leading 125 total tackles and four fumble recoveries. His 71 solo tackles ranked second in the league and his 16.5 tackles for losses ranked third. While most players with high TFL counts are pass rushers, Cunningham didn’t record a single sack; all of his tackles for losses stopped running plays. Thus, not surprisingly, he ranked third in PFF’s run-stop percentage. He added three pass breakups. However, he was 14th in tackling efficiency with a whopping 20 misses. That often was a byproduct of being tall and rangy, which resulted in inconsistent pad level and issues breaking down in space. With his size, intelligence and agility, he is one of the top coverage linebackers in this draft. In three seasons, Cunningham amassed 295 tackles, 39.5 tackles for losses and seven forced fumbles. “I think I’m a lengthy player. A pretty fast player. Speed. A sideline to sideline player. And that’s something that has helped me. That and my instincts has helped me to be a good player.” He is one of seven children.

Jarrad Davis, Florida (6-1, 238; 4.62 40; 4.29 shuttle): Davis started as a junior and senior. As a senior, he tallied 60 tackles, two sacks, six tackles for losses, four passes defensed and five hurries. Despite missing four games due to a pair of injuries, he was named second-team all-SEC, earned some All-America recognition and was a finalist for the Lott IMPACT Trophy and the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker. He ranked 12th in run-stop percentage and 15th in tackling efficiency (eight missed tackles). As a junior, he had 3.5 sacks and 11 TFLs among 98 stops. While he has the athleticism to be good in coverage, he’s a better blitzer than cover man in the passing game. If he can put it all together, he could be a tremendous player. “The biggest thing is just technique. You’ve gotta work that every day in practice. You’re not gonna be able to go out and just cover a receiver or a tight end, especially in the NFL. You’ve gotta work on that, work on that, work on that, and constantly beat yourself up about everything you do because it has to be perfect. Any misstep — the quarterbacks in college were pretty good, but the quarterbacks in the league are putting balls in tight windows, so you’ve gotta be able to close those windows.” Davis went from running back to linebacker at Camden County High School in his hometown of Kingsland, Ga. Davis wanted to quit. If he did so, that would mean doing more chores at home, his mom said.

Duke Riley, LSU (6-0 1/2, 232; 4.58 40; 4.21 shuttle): 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. Riley ranked 10th in run-stop percentage and seventh in tackling efficiency (nine misses). “(Teams) love who I am. They love how I can write up the whole defense by position, not just one but multiple defenses They watch my tape and love my tape. Film don’t lie. They love the things I can do and things I’m capable of.” He’s got the athleticism and length (32 7/8 arms) to be a three-down player if his instincts keep improving, but he might not be great in either phase. 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.”

Raekwon McMillian, Ohio State (6-1 7/8, 240; 4.61 40; 4.39 shuttle): 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 2016, he ranked sixth in run-stop percentage and fourth in tackling efficiency (10 missed tackles). He’ll be a two-down linebacker, however, because he is poor in coverage and lacks the athleticism to significantly improve. 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? McMillian won the high school Butkus Award at Liberty County (Ga.) High.

Alex Anzalone, Florida (6-2 7/8, 241; 4.63 40; 4.25 shuttle): Junior. Anzalone tallied 53 tackles, including three sacks and four tackles for losses, during a final season that was cut short with a broken arm sustained in the eighth game of the season. He ranked 14th in run-stop percentage and 12th in tackling efficiency (seven misses) but was the most effective blitzer. Injuries are by far the biggest question mark. He missed most of the 2015 season with a shoulder injury and battled shoulder injuries as a freshman in 2013, as well. All of the injuries left him a work in progress from a fundamental perspective, as he relied on his size and athletic ability to win at Florida. He doesn’t have much experience in coverage, either, but he’s got the potential to be an asset in that phase. But can he stay healthy? His four-year totals were 75 tackles, three sacks and five TFLs. There’s no doubting his intelligence. Anzalone was a graduate student during the 2016 season. In high school, he had a 4.8 GPA.

Jordan Evans, Oklahoma (6-2 7/8, 232; 4.51 40; 4.18 shuttle): Evans was one of the surprise Combine snubs. The three-year starter posted 286 tackles, 22 tackles for losses, five interceptions, four forced fumbles and 16 passes defensed for his career. The PBU count is tied for second in school history among linebackers. As a senior, the team captain and first-team all-Big 12 choice had 98 tackles, including 2.5 sacks and 10 for losses, plus four interceptions and eight pass breakups. Evans ranked 13th in run-stop percentage and 10th in tackling efficiency (12 misses). He had a great pro day was his 40 time ranking No. 1 among the inside linebacker class, his shuttle ranking second and his vertical (38 1/2) ranking third. He had a predraft visit to Green Bay. At worst, he’ll be the third-down coverage linebacker because of his athleticism, instincts and length.

Blair Brown, Ohio (5-11 1/2, 238; 4.65 40; 4.18 shuttle): Brown was named first-team all-MAC and earned some All-America accolades as a senior with 128 tackles, including 4.5 sacks and 15 for losses, and one forced fumble. Brown started for most of his sophomore season (55 tackles) and all of his junior season (65 tackles). The knocks are obvious. First is size, not just height but length (31 1/4 arms). The three-year starter broke up only two passes — and those came as a sophomore. That will make him a two-down linebacker and special-teams ace. However, he was the most efficient tackler in the draft class, leading PFF’s metric while missing only three tackles, and among the most impactful, trailing only Foster in run-stop percentage. “He’s very physical, he blows up plays at the line of scrimmage,” defensive coordinator Jimmy Burrow told PostAthens.com during the season. “Really, against the run game, that’s what you need.”

Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee (6-0 3/8, 230; 4.68 40; 4.38 shuttle): Reeves-Maybin’s senior season ended with a shoulder injury. He recorded 20 tackles, with two for losses, during his abbreviated season. He ranked seventh in run-stop percentage and sixth in tackling efficiency (two misses). 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.  In the passing game, he’s a much better blitzer than cover man, as he gave up a total of 61 catches in 2014 and 2015, according to PFF. 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.

Dylan Cole, Missouri State (6-0 1/2, 239; 4.54 40; 4.19 shuttle): Cole put up huge numbers as a senior with 141 tackles, including eight for losses, along with two interceptions and three forced fumbles. After being limited to only three stops by Kansas State, Cole had at least 13 tackles in each of his final eight games. Cole was a first-team All-American and a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the top defender in FCS. Cole also posted 152 tackles as a junior. That’s all well and good, considering the competition, but then Cole had a great pro day. In our group of prospects, Cole’s 40 ranks fourth and his shuttle is tied for third. Moreover, Cole’s 32 reps on the bench press top the charts and his 39-inch vertical ranks second.

Anthony Walker, Northwestern (6-0 5/8, 238; 4.65 40; 4.34 shuttle): 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. He ranked eighth in run-stop percentage but a next-to-last 16th in tackling efficiency (19 misses). Walker wins with quickness and strength (23 reps on the bench) but probably won’t factor as a third-down linebacker. PFF had him giving up a total of 65 completions the past two seasons. 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.”

Kendell Beckwith, LSU (6-2, 241; DNP Combine due to ACL): Beckwith started during his final two-and-a-half seasons. As a junior, he was a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker, after tallying 84 tackles, including 3.5 sacks and 10 for losses, and two forced fumbles. As a senior, he earned All-America honors with 91 tackles, one sack, six tackles for losses and a career-high four passes defensed, despite missing the final few games with the torn ACL. He ranked fifth in run-stop percentage but 13th in tackling efficiency (14 misses). Beckwith gave up 72 catches in his three seasons in the lineup and looks like a two-down run stopper because of athletic limitations. A brother, Wendell, played defensive end for Tulane and a cousin, Darry Beckwith, was a two-time all-SEC linebacker for LSU who spent time with the Chargers. “Always competitive, always competitive,” he said of he and his brother. “We’d go out in the yard and play one-on-one football against each other until a fight happened and that deadens it all, kind of have to shut it down after that. After games on Saturday’s in little league, we’d come home and put our pads back on and go out in the yard and play one-on-one against each other.”

Eric Wilson (6-1 1/8, 230; 4.53 40; 4.31 shuttle): Wilson opened his career at Northwestern in 2012 and emerged as a starter for his final two seasons at Cincinnati. As a senior, he had a team-high 129 tackles, including three sacks and 7.5 for losses, plus broke up two passes and forced a fumble. Wilson ranked only 15th in run-stop percentage but was second in tackling efficiency (eight misses). That combination shows an efficient if not an impact tackler. In three years at Cincinnati, he recovered seven fumbles and added 25 tackles on special teams. His 39 1/2-inch vertical is the best in the class, his 40 time is the second-fastest and his 25 reps on the bench tied for the third-most. He visited the Packers.

Chase Allen, Southern Illinois (6-3 1/8, 241; 4.60 40; 4.19 shuttle):  After starting his career as a backup outside linebacker, Allen led the team in tackles in each of his three seasons at inside linebacker, becoming just the second player in program history to be the team's leading tackler three times. He had 292 tackles during that span and ranks 12th in school history with 324 tackles. Former NFL star Bart Scott is one of only three players ahead of Allen in tackles since 2000. As a senior, he had 77 tackles, including seven for losses, plus one pass breakup and one forced fumble. PFF does not keep small-school data. His shuttle time is tied for third-fastest in this inside linebacker class — an impressive feat considering his size.

Brooks Ellis, Arkansas (6-1 7/8, 240; 4.79 40; 4.25 shuttle): Ellis started 41 games in four seasons. For his career, he posted 290 tackles, including 3.5 sacks and 22.5 for losses, along with four interceptions and two forced fumbles. As a senior, he had 83 tackles, including one sack and seven for losses, and added three hurries and five passes defensed. Ellis tied for last in run-stop percentage and was eighth in tackling efficiency (nine misses). He’s also an adept blitzer. He had a career-high 102 tackles as a junior. The two-time captain was the school’s 20th Academic All-American, the SEC’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year and was a finalist for the William Campbell Trophy — aka the Academic Heisman. That intelligence showed up on Saturdays, as he made more plays than he should have based on athletic ability.

Marquel Lee, Wake Forest (6-3 1/4, 240; 4.78 40; 4.33 shuttle): 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). By PFF’s metrics, Lee was excellent — fourth in run-stop percentage and third in tackling efficiency (10 misses). He’s a two-down defender and special-teams player.

Ben Gedeon, Michigan (6-1 3/4, 244; 4.75 40; 4.13 shuttle): 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. He ranked 11th in run-stop percentage and 10th in tackling efficiency (11 misses). Gedeon’s strength showed up with all of those tackles for losses; he led the Combine’s linebackers with 27 reps on the bench press. As was the case with Ryan, Gedeon’s fast shuttle time probably won’t equate to being a factor as a third-down cover man. The 40 time is really slow and likely played a role in the missed-tackle count as he’s a half-time slow to the spot at times. 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.

Connor Harris, Lindenwood (5-11 1/8, 242; 4.73 40; 4.31 shuttle): Harris 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. PFF does not have stats for small-school players. 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. One scout said Harris was too short to play linebacker but was being considered a fullback.

Tanner Vallejo, Boise State (6-1 1/4, 228; 4.67 40; 4.39 shuttle): 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. So, he shut it down with four games left in the season. Still, 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. He’s got a chance to be a three-down contributor but ranked ninth in run-stop percentage and a dead-last 17th in tackling efficiency (17 misses). The wrist no doubt played a role in that, but he’s also light. He was an adept blitzer, ranking second in our group in PFF’s pass-rushing stat. 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. Based on Thompson’s history, he might be too light for Green Bay.

Harvey Langi, BYU (6-1 7/8, 251; 4.66 40; 4.32 shuttle): 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. Because he lined up at a different position, we did not include him in our run-stop rankings, though he would have ranked 13th. He missed only three tackles.

Hardy Nickerson, Illinois (5-11 5/8, 232; 4.78 40; 4.38 shuttle): 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 transfered 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. Nickerson ranked only 16th in run-stop percentage (tied for for last) but was fifth in tackling efficiency (11 misses). 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 and four-time All-Pro linebacker who ended his career with the Packers.

Potentially off the board

Our story kept most of the prospects because Green Bay’s history is all over the map, from short (D.J. Smith was 5-10 5/8 at the 2011 Combine) to slow (Barrington ran a 4.84 40 in 2013) to relatively unathletic (Desmond Bishop ran a 4.65 shuttle but had the best bench press in 2007). As stated at the start of the story, Barrington, Ryan and Martinez turned in excellent shuttle times. Was that the start of a trend? Or just the way it worked out? With that said, we ruled out these five from the Scouting Combine: Michigan State’s Riley Bullough (226 pounds is 11 pounds lighter than anyone the Packers have drafted at the position), Clemson’s Ben Boulware (4.43 shuttle), UCLA’s Jayon Brown (4.53 shuttle), Colorado State’s Kevin Davis (4.91 40) and Louisville’s Devante Fields (4.50 shuttle).

The bottom line

Could Green Bay use an upgrade at inside linebacker? Of course. But, in our opinion, Thompson shouldn’t bother drafting “just a guy.” Either get an impact player (Florida’s Davis or Vandy’s Cunningham) in the first round, a role player with some elite traits (Evans) in the middle rounds or worry about building depth through college free agency.

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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