NFL draft positional analysis: Inside linebackers

Two inside/middle linebackers stand out as first-round picks, but after that it may be harder to find elite long-term starters. Even so, there are plenty of long-term contributors to be found after examining the strengths and weakness of the top 10 prospects.

VIKINGS INSIDE LINEBACKERS – Eric Kendricks, Audie Cole.

TEAM NEED – With only two middle linebackers currently on the roster, it will be a safe bet that the Vikings will put their toe in the water at some point in the draft and likely take a serious foray into the undrafted free agent market to fill the spot with at least a couple more players to create competition and/or camp bodies. They have a solid 1-2 punch, but depth is needed.

POSITION ANALYSIS – This can’t be reduced simply to be a two-man class, but it is pretty pedestrian beyond Myles Jack of UCLA and Reggie Ragland of Alabama. After Ragland gets his name called, it’s going to a long time until you hear the next one. There is depth to be had and a lot of veteran players from power conferences that will make NFL rosters, but the run on inside/middle linebackers won’t start until Day 3.


Myles Jack, UCLA, 6-1, 245 – Third-year junior…Started 28 of 29 career games, finishing with 178 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss, one sack, four interceptions, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries…Suffered a torn meniscus that required surgery and he withdrew from school to rehab the injury, which will make each interested team’s medical recheck on him critical…Incredibly explosive, fast, quick-twitch and agile…Very aware in coverage and forces QBs to look elsewhere…Doesn’t shy away from contact and wraps up when he gets to the ball carrier…Times his blitzes well despite not having anything in the way of sack numbers – he doesn’t get there, but he blows up plays…Doesn’t take on blockers as head-on as he does skill position guys…Knee will be a big concern…Is undersized and about as big as he’s going to get without sacrificing speed…Received a medical exemption at the Combine, but did lift and had 19 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
PROJECTION: It is hard to watch Jack on game film and not come away shaking your head with respect, but there have been a lot of great college players who left it all on the field and come to the NFL as damaged goods. Jack fits that description. You can only imagine that teams in the top six are having the best medical advice being given. If it comes back positive, he’s off the board very, very early.

Reggie Ragland, Alabama, 6-1¼, 247 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 195 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss, four sacks, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and one interception in that span…A consensus All-America in 2015 and SEC Defensive Player of the Year…Has prototypical size and speed for a middle linebacker…Although he played in a 3-4 scheme, he figures to be a glove fit in a 3-4 or a 4-3…Has excellent closing burst and is a solid form tackler…Has great pursuit skills and chases plays from sideline to sideline…Some scouts are concerned that his playing style will lend itself to injuries…Freelances too much and his aggression will take him out of position at times – something he will have to change in the NFL…Will bite on play fakes too often…Did not lift at the Combine due to a right shoulder injury but ran a 4.72 40 with a 31½-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A heavy hitting player who clearly loves the game and leaves it all on the field. He will need to have a harness put on him to control his freelancing, but he likely has a long NFL career if he stays healthy.


Kentrell Brothers, Missouri, 6-0½, 245 – Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter who had 344 tackles, 23½ tackles for a loss, 4½ sacks, four forced fumbles and five interceptions…A tackling machine who averaged nine tackles a game in his career…Has good recognition and read-and-react skills…Has good playing speed and sifts his way effectively through the trash to get to the ball…Plays with very good gap discipline…Is not elite in coverage in the passing game when shadowing running backs and athletic tight ends…Doesn’t have a second gear and doesn’t always wrap up the ball carrier…Is a little undersized and doesn’t have long arms…Ran a 4.89 40 at the Combine with 19 reps of 225 pounds, a 28½-inch vertical jump and a 9-2 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A very sound player, he doesn’t have great speed but is always around the ball and makes plays consistently. He isn’t an elite athlete, but does so many things well he will likely be a priority pick once the second day of the draft starts.

Antonio Morrison, Florida, 6-1, 232 – Fourth-year senior…Started 37 of 47 game played, finishing with 276 tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, 3½ sacks, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one interception…A strong tackler who hits with pop…Has very good read-and-react skills…Has very good range in pass coverage and can stick with receivers a long time…Is undersized and gets swept out of plays too easily…Uses his hands too much in pass coverage, which will lead to holding penalties in the NFL...Bites to often on play fakes and misdirection…Did not attend the Combine for medical reasons.
PROJECTION: An undersized linebacker who has the requisite skills to be a starter in the NFL, but he will need to clean up his game and retain more gap integrity. His size will probably drop him well into Day 2 before he comes off the board.

Philip Wright, Arizona, 5-11¾, 239 – Third-year junior…Started 29 of 30 career games, finishing with 270 tackles, 43½ tackles for a loss, 17 sacks, five forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one interception…Won just about every award possible in 2014, including the Nagurski, Bednarik and Lombardi Awards, as well as being named All-America and winning the Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year Award…Led the country in tackles (164) and tackles for a loss (31) in 2014 to go with 14 sacks…Played in just three games in 2015 after tearing his right meniscus and dealing with a foot injury that sidelined him…Has very good strength and balance to shoot through gaps to get to the ball…Has very good diagnostic skills and is relentless to the ball…Times blitzes well and consistently blows up plays…Does not have good speed and doesn’t always get to the edge to make plays…Some contend the 3-3-5 defense he played in inflated his numbers because the scheme naturally funnels plays his way…When blockers get their hands on him, he tends to get neutralized…Ran a 4.90 40 at the Combine with 22 reps of 225 pounds, a 31-inch vertical jump and a 9-5 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A highly productive player with great instincts, he has some severe limitations in terms of speed and athleticism, which will likely limit him to 3-4 defenses that confine him in space and get him off the field on passing downs, which should drop him well into Day 3.

Tyler Matakevich, Temple, 6-0, 238 – Fourth-year senior…Started 44 of 48 games, amassing a whopping 493 tackles, 40½ tackles for a loss, seven sacks, four forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and seven interceptions in his career…Dominated the awards season in 2015, winning the Nagurski and Bednarik Awards, being named a consensus All-America and winning the AAC Defensive Player of the Year…Very strong against the run…A tackling machine who is always around the ball…Has very good read-and-react skills and rarely takes a misstep…Is not an elite athlete in terms of strength or size…Does not have ideal cutback or change-of-direction skills…Will get engulfed by blockers when they get hold of him….Ran a 4.81 40 at the Combine with 22 reps, a 31-inch vertical jump and a 9-4 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A man among boys in the American Athletic Conference, his production is hard to deny. He isn’t an elite athlete, but has the chance to earn a role for himself as a two-down linebacker, which might get him drafted on Day 2.


Blake Martinez, Stanford, 6-1¾, 237 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 240 tackles, 13½ tackles for a loss, 6½ sacks, four forced fumbles and four interceptions in that span…Plays a physical style and never shies away from contact…A very aggressive run stopper whose motor never idles…Strong open-field tackler who rarely slides off the ball carrier…Is not consistent in his pad level and will lose leverage battles when he plays too upright…Isn’t a classic 3-4 inside linebacker, but he projects to that in the NFL…Is a little undersized by NFL standards…Ran a 4.71 40 at the Combine with 22 reps of 225 pounds, a 28½-inch vertical jump and a 9-5 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A productive, intense, hard-hitting player who will be someone several teams will be looking at once Day 3 of the draft begins.

Nick Kwiatkoski, West Virginia, 6-2, 243 – Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter who had 267 tackles, 28½ tackles for a loss, six sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and six interceptions in that span…Came to WVU as a safety and converted to linebacker as a sophomore…Very strong against the run…Adept at using his speed and lateral agility to avoid blockers and get to the ball…Has good closing speed and delivers big hits with power…Added 30 pounds during his college career and doesn’t have a lot more growing he can do…Played in a conference that throws a lot with three- and four-receiver sets that doesn’t naturally lend itself to the style of the NFL…Doesn’t have sideline-to-sideline range…Ran a 4.73 40 at the Combine with 19 reps, a 32-inch vertical jump and a 10-0 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A player who eats, breathes and sleeps football. He doesn’t have the elite skills that will get him drafted in the early rounds, but whatever team drafts him on Day 3 will have a hard time cutting him because he will give everything he has and lead by example.

Dominique Alexander, Oklahoma, 6-0¼, 232 – Third-year junior who started all 38 games of his career, finishing with 292 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, 4½ sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception…Won Big 12 Freshman of the Year in 2013…Has very good speed for an inside linebacker and knows how to use it to his advantage…Does a good job of mirroring running backs and tight ends in coverage…Has explosive closing speed and delivers big hits…Does not have the size of a traditional inside linebacker at the pro level and may have to be moved outside…Uses his speed too much and gets swallowed up when blockers get hold of him…Bites on play fakes and misdirection too often…Did not run at the Combine with an unspecified injury, but did 17 reps of 225 pounds with a 28½-inch vertical jump and an 8-8 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A hard-working player with outstanding production at the college level, his lack of elite traits and seemingly being miscast at the next level will likely drop him into the late rounds, but he will be a solid player who could be a core special teamer who has a long NFL career.

Jared Norris, Utah, 6-1¼, 241 – Fifth-year senior…Two-year full-time starter who had 203 tackles, 19½ tackles for a loss, five sacks, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in that span…Attacks running lanes and has some good pop in his hits…Locates the ball quickly and has good read-and-react skills…Very good in zone coverage assignments and is consistently in the right place…Plays a little too high-cut and is susceptible to low blocks cutting his legs out…He doesn’t have ideal playing speed when asked to chase down NFL running backs and tight ends…Leaves his feet too often when he’s making tackles and that will need to change…Ran a 4.80 40 at the Combine with 19 reps, a 29½-inch vertical jump and a 9-6 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A player with athletic limitations who may never be a full-time starter but could turn into a solid special teams ace and part-time defensive player who will be at his best against the run.


Joe Bolden, Michigan, 6-1½, 239
Beniquez Brown, Mississippi State, 6-0¾, 229
Jatavis Brown, Akron, 5-11, 222
James Burgess, Louisville, 6-0¼, 229
Josh Forrest, Kentucky, 6-3¼, 249
Jake Ganus, Georgia, 6-2, 231
Reggie Northrup, Florida State, 6-0½, 231
Luke Rhodes, William & Mary, 6-2¼, 239
Anthony Sarao, USC, 5-11, 229
Nick Vigil, Utah State, 6-2½, 239
Antwione Williams, Georgia Southern, 6-3, 245



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