In-depth NFL draft analysis: Inside linebackers

The value of two-down linebackers is dropping, which makes the elite ones that can cover that much more valuable. We assess the top 10 inside linebackers, which may even be more than are drafted, based on production, limitations and potential.

VIKINGS INSIDE LINEBACKERS – Eric Kendricks, Kentrell Brothers.

TEAM NEED: With the free agent loss of Audie Cole, the Vikings find themselves a man short in the middle. While Cole wasn’t a starter, he was a key reserve and a special teams ace, so his absence will be felt. It’s unclear as to whether the Vikings intend to keep both Kendricks and Brothers in the middle – the team’s official website lists Brothers as an outside linebacker. If that’s the case, at least one middle linebacker may find himself on the Vikings by the end of business draft weekend.

POSITION ANALYSIS: This isn’t an overly strong draft class in terms of quality depth, but there could easily be a handful of players who come off the board in the first two days, led by Reuben Foster, who has the ability to be a top-10 pick. With so much focus on edge rushers, there are legitimate linebacker-only types who will hope to enjoy a renaissance because, while the game is changing, inside/middle linebacker remains a core function of the NFL game.

THE CREAM OF THE CROP

Reuben Foster, Alabama, 6-0, 229 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 188 tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, seven sacks and 11 passes defensed in that span…Has an 8-year-old daughter…Won the Butkus Award in 2016, given annually to college football’s best linebacker…Explosive jump off the snap and attacks the ball carrier like he owes him money…A three-down linebacker who rarely came off the field…Is relentless in pursuit and finishes tackles from sideline to sideline…Is an intimidator who can get in the head of receivers coming across the middle…His biggest red flags are injuries, which include multiple concussions, hamstring, shoulder stingers, a broken hand and a rotator cuff injury…Is a victim of his own aggression at times and will run himself out of plays…Lacks ideal size for a classic middle linebacker…Did not work out at the NFL Scouting Combine after getting into a verbal confrontation with a medical worker and was dismissed from the rest of the Combine workouts. However, he was going to have a medical exemption while recovering from right rotator cuff surgery. PROJECTION: It’s almost impossible to watch an Alabama game without noticing Foster. He is a difference-maker that makes plays. He’s a top-10 talent, but his laundry list of injuries has to be a concern to teams picking in the top 10.

http://www.scout.com/nfl/vikings/story/1771416-viking-update-mock-draft-...

Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State, 6-2, 240 – Third-year junior…Two-year starter who had 221 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, 3½ sacks and eight passes defensed in that span…A high school All-America viewed as the top MLB coming into college in 2014…Excellent size and has very good functional playing strength to attack blockers to get to the ball…Is a good form tackler who rarely misses when he gets a player in his sights…Has good speed and natural instincts to chase and pursue and make plays all over the field…Has a high football IQ and lines up his defense well when it isn’t in the right formation for the play being called…Isn’t always aware of the blockers around him and will get his legs cut out from under him…Gets caught up on play-fakes and misdirection too often and NFL QBs will take advantage of that…Doesn’t have elite foot speed to take on tight ends down the seam when asked to turn and run…Ran a 4.61 40 at the Combine with 23 reps of 225 pounds, a 33-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: A passionate, tough player who has great football instincts, but his struggles in coverage will likely drop him into the second round, where teams will line up to grab him because he brings a toughness and good instincts to the position.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Anthony Walker Jr., Northwestern, 6-0¾, 238 – Fourth-year junior…Two-year full-time starter who had 227 tackles, 30½ tackles for a loss, six sacks, nine passes defensed and two interceptions in that span…Arrived at college weighing just 195 pounds and added 45 pounds of muscle and bulk…Has a good burst off the snap and attacks holes in the run game…Very productive in tackles numbers because he has excellent instincts and read-and-react skills…Has very good lower body strength, which shows in his run defense, and he stops runners in their tracks when he is squared up…Doesn’t have great hand technique and struggles to shed blockers when they latch onto him…Has maxed out in terms of growth potential and the ability to add more bulk or muscle…Is muscle-bound and struggles to change directions when a play goes the opposite way that he is pursuing…Ran a 4.67 40 at the Combine with 23 reps of 225 pounds, a 30½-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: A player who appeared to bulk up too much last season and didn’t play with the same speed he did earlier in his career. If he’s given a role in a defense that plays to his strength, he could actually drop 10 pounds and be more impressive at the next level. A late-Day 2 pick.

Kendell Beckwith, LSU, 6-2, 243 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter with 252 tackles, 23½ tackles for a loss, 6½ sacks, eight passes defensed and one interception in that span…Tore his left ACL in November and is still recuperating from the injury…Prototype inside linebacker who excels against the run…Stacks the line effectively and sheds blockers to get the ball carrier…A physical player who delivers the highlight-film hit often…His biggest red flag is his left knee – teams have a hard time investing in a player who can’t work out and would be a question mark to be ready for the start of the regular season…Is not an effective tackler in the open field and misses too often in coverage…More of a reactor than an instinctive player who naturally knows where plays are going…Didn’t run or jump at the Combine while rehabbing his torn ACL, but did 20 reps of 225 pounds. PROJECTION: Before his injury, he had the look of a pair of his former teammates, Deion Jones of Atlanta and Kwon Alexander of Tampa Bay, who made immediate impacts with their new teams. His ACL is going to be a big concern and, although his surgery went well and a full recovery is expected, it may knock him out of the second round (where he belonged pre-injury) if not a lot farther.

http://www.scout.com/nfl/vikings/story/1769708-2017-vikings-draft-guide

Ben Gedeon, Michigan, 6-1¾, 244 – Fourth-year senior…One-year starter who had 106 tackles, 15½ tackles for a loss, 4½ sacks and two passes defensed in 2016…Very good size and pure strength (see below) for an NFL linebacker and plays like his hair is on fire, attacking on every play…Shows strength at the point of attack and does a nice job of shedding blockers…An elite run defender who closes strong and finishes tackles…Doesn’t have good speed or range in coverage, where he can be a liability at times…A limited sample size with just one year as a starter and is raw in key aspects of the game, like coverage and changing directions…Doesn’t consistently use his hands on blockers and can get neutralized or have his legs cut out from under him…Ran a 4.75 40 at the Combine with 27 reps, a 34½-inch vertical jump and a 9-11 broad jump. PROJECTION: A throwback type of linebacker who plays with a lot of fire and intensity and has a good football IQ. But he is likely going to be purely a two-down thumper and those kind of guys are easier to find, which should drop him into the third day of the draft.

Ben Boulware, Clemson, 6-0, 238 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year full-time starter who had 269 tackles, 19½ tackles for a loss, 7½ sacks, nine passes defensed and three interceptions in that span…Has good instincts and is always on the move – leading the national champs in tackles is saying something…A student of the game who spends a lot of time off the field working to improve his on-field game…Good instincts in both recognizing deception (misdirection, play-fakes, setting up screens, etc.) and takes good angles to blow up those plays or force a QB to re-think the play…Lacks height and has short arms, often resulting in blockers being able to get into his body and steer him away from plays…Doesn’t have good foot quickness and can’t afford to make a misstep because he doesn’t have the needed recovery speed…More of a wrap-up tackler than a big-hitter…Didn’t run the 40 at the Combine by his choice, but had 20 reps, a 29½-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: A player with a love of the game and an overachiever in terms of what he could accomplish on the field, but his weaknesses are pronounced. He has the desire and the smarts to play on defense, but he is more likely a special teams ace who will more than likely be on the board late in the draft. 

THE BEST OF THE REST

Hardy Nickerson, Jr., Illinois, 5-11¾, 232 – Fifth-year senior…Spent his first four seasons at Cal before being a graduate transfer to Illinois in 2016…In his last two seasons, he recorded 219 tackles, 5½ tackles for a loss, three sacks and two interceptions in that span…His father Hardy Sr. played 16 NFL seasons…Attended eight different schools growing up, forced to move constantly as a child…Suffered a Lisfranc fracture in his left foot in 2013…Has good natural foot quickness and explosive closing speed when he gets the ball in his sights…High-character player who is a natural leader and doesn’t take being a legacy as his ticket to cruise – spending extra time in practice, the weight room and film study…Uses his hands extremely well to keep blockers away from his body…Short, undersized and has limited potential to grow any bigger…Wasn’t used much in pass coverage and, when he was, he wasn’t effective with any consistency…Doesn’t have the sustained burst to consistently get to the perimeter and shut down RBs before they can turn the corner…Ran a 4.78 40 at the Combine with 18 reps, a 33-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: An extremely smart and passionate player, his physical limitations likely will prevent him from being a full-time starter, but he will be an immediate upgrade on special teams with a chance to prove himself capable of being on the field with the defense. A Day 3 pick that could go higher than our ranking based on his passion and bloodline.

Harvey Langi, BYU, 6-2, 251 – Fourth-year senior who spent his freshman year at Utah in 2011 as a backup running back before going on a Mormon mission in 2012-13…In his final two seasons, he recorded 125 tackles, 11½ tackles for a loss, 6½ sacks, three passes defensed and two interceptions…Has very good size as a two-down, run-stuffing Mike ’backer…A consistent tackler who rarely misses a hit when he has a player lined up…Very physical and doesn’t mind sacrificing himself to blow up a lead blocker or fill a hole at full speed…Doesn’t have ideal footwork and can get off balance by taking choppy steps and getting pushed laterally by blockers…Is old for a rookie – he graduated high school in 2010…Does not have good change-of-direction skills, which showed up at the Combine…Worked out with defensive linemen at the Combine and chose not to run, but had 23 reps, a 33-inch vertical jump and a 9-10 broad jump. PROJECTION: A player who saw time on the D-line and at linebacker during his college career, he plays with a lot of energy and passion and his coach will love his effort, but his limitations may end up having him as a special teams core player and a backup on defense, which should push him well into Day 3 of the draft.

http://www.scout.com/nfl/vikings/story/1769795-in-depth-nfl-draft-analys...

Connor Harris, Lindenwood, 5-11¼, 242 – Fifth-year senior who started all 48 games he played…Redshirted in his sophomore season with a Grade 3 AC joint injury that tore three ligaments and required surgery…Set an NCAA record with 633 career tackles, along with 34 tackles for a loss, 8½ sacks and four interceptions…Two-time Mid-America Conference Defensive Player of the Year and national Player of the Year in 2016…Plays with extremely good instincts and rarely gets out of position…Truly loves every aspect of the game, including extra hours in the weight room and on film study…Has good speed and reactions and stood out at the Senior Bowl, which put him on the map for a lot of teams…Is undersized and has short arms, which will be a problem against gigantic offensive linemen at the next level…Played against very marginal competition, so his numbers were inflated…Wasn’t asked to do much in coverage so he remains raw in that respect…Ran a 4.73 40 at the Combine with 18 reps, a 33-inch vertical jump and 9-6 broad jump. PROJECTION: His production numbers speak for themselves in terms of his ability to finish plays and take a line to the ball that consistently gets him there. But he will have a big learning curve going to the pros and will likely struggle early against larger, faster competition. A solid mid- to late-Day 3 pick that could thrive in the right system but will require patience.

Riley Bullough, Michigan State, 6-2, 226 – Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 182 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, four sacks and two interceptions…Came to MSU as a running back/fullback before making the move to defense…A heavy-hitting physical tackler with good instincts to sniff out plays and find tackling gaps…Is in phenomenal shape in terms of musculature and is very good in strength and conditioning…Has good coverage awareness…Has short arms and struggles to get away from blockers when they get their hands on him…Is a little undersized and has maxed out most of his growth potential…Doesn’t have ideal upper- or lower-body strength so he needs to veer around blockers rather than take them head on…Didn’t run at the Combine with a left hamstring injury, but had 20 reps, a 31½-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: A player with a good college pedigree, but likely not a starter in the NFL. To make a roster, he may have to move back to fullback or become a special teams ace because he will get swallowed up too often by blockers and will struggle in coverage against speed. A late-round prospect or priority free agent.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Dylan Cole, Missouri State, 6-0, 233
Kevin Davis, Colorado State, 6-2, 235
Ukeme Eligwe, Georgia Southern, 6-2¼, 239
Brooks Ellis, Arkansas, 6-2, 240
Jordan Evans, Oklahoma, 6-2¼, 235
Keith Kelsey, Louisville, 6-0½, 233
Steven Taylor, Houston, 6-0¾, 230
Tanner Vallejo, Boise State, 6-1¼, 228
Shaan Washington, Texas A&M, 6-3, 235
Eric Wilson, Cincinnati, 6-2, 225


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