In-depth NFL draft analysis: Outside linebackers

The 2017 NFL draft class features plenty of pass rushers at linebacker, but perhaps fewer well-rounded players. We analyze the strengths and weaknesses, agility and production of the top 10.

VIKINGS OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS – Anthony Barr, Emmanuel Lamur, Edmond Robinson.

TEAM NEED: The Vikings only have three outside linebackers on the roster at the current time after the retirement of Chad Greenway, so there is a clear need here. The Vikings didn’t get much out of Lamur last season, so the hope is either that he steps up this season or the Vikings find at least one linebacker in the draft. 

POSITION ANALYSIS: As with defensive end, the role of outside linebackers has become blurred with the proliferation of 3-4 defenses and the addition of edge-rush specialists. The top-ranked OLB on our board is Derek Barnett, but some see him adding 20 pounds and becoming a dominant defensive end prospect. There are a handful of players who could be gone in the top 50 picks, so there is talent and depth at the position in this year’s draft class.


Derek Barnett, Tennessee, 6-3, 259 – Third-year junior…Started 36 of 39 games, recording 197 tackles, 52 tackles for a loss, 33 sacks, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries…Had shoulder surgery following the 2014 season…Broke the school sack record formerly held by Hall of Famer Reggie White…Will be a 21-year-old rookie…An exceptional blend of size, speed and power…Anticipates the snap extremely well and is almost always the first player moving on the snap…A tireless worker who doesn’t give up on plays until the whistle…Is very good at using his hands to neutralize blockers to get around them…Doesn’t have the explosion to consistently beat tackles to the outside…Has limited coverage experience, which isn’t good if the plan of the team that drafts him is to play him at outside linebacker with duties other than rushing the passer…Doesn’t have elite lower-body strength and can get pushed around when blockers get their hands on him…Did all the workouts at the Combine with the exception of weightlifting due to an illness, but ran a 4.88 40 with a 31-inch vertical jump and a 9-9 broad jump. PROJECTION: A player who will get drafted in the first round based as much on his work ethic and his running motor than pure athleticism. He can play in either a 4-3 or 3-4, but will likely be asked to play linebacker at the next level or add weight to be an edge-setting defensive end.

Haason Reddick, Temple, 6-1½, 237 – Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 110 tackles, 35 tackles for a loss, 15½ sacks and one interception in that span…Broke his femur as a junior in high school and tore his meniscus as a senior…Came to Temple as a 185-pound walk-on…Was arrested for felony aggravated assault in an off-campus fight in March 2015 and accepted a plea deal to avoid a trial…A very physical player who has some explosion to his game…A good finisher who chases plays and times hitting holes and creases when they’re created…Makes a lot of plays behind the line and is an excellent finisher…Can fit in any scheme because of his position versatility…Doesn’t have ideal size for an outside linebacker at the NFL level…Doesn’t use his hands well and will get engulfed when blockers get their hands on him…Doesn’t have anchor strength to set the edge vs. the run…Ran a 4.52 40 at the Combine with 24 reps, a 36½-inch vertical jump and an 11-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: An undersized linebacker with a ton of fire in his belly, he was a late riser coming off a big 2016 season and showing very well at the Senior Bowl. He was seen as a second-round prospect early in the season, but now wouldn’t surprise anyone if he goes in the first round.

Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt, 6-3½, 234 – Fourth-year junior…Started 27 of 36 career games and had 295 tackles, 39½ tackles for a loss, six sacks and eight passes defensed…Led the SEC in tackles each of the last two seasons…Very good instincts and read-and-react skills, which explain his high production volume…Has the frame to add bulk and muscle without sacrificing speed or agility…Is explosive of the snap and has excellent closing speed…Doesn’t have good upper body strength, as was shown at the Combine (see below)…Very raw as a pass rusher because he wasn’t asked to do it very often…Isn’t a big hitter and, because of his lack of top-end strength, with slide off too many tackles…Ran a 4.67 40 at the Combine with 15 reps of 225 pounds, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 10-5 broad jump. PROJECTION: His versatility to play different positions and his on-field production will likely get him drafted in the second round, but he has work to do to reach his full potential and it won’t be on the field – it will be in the weight room and in film study.


Jarrad Davis, Florida, 6-1, 238 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 158 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss, 5½ sacks, nine passes defensed and one interception in that span…Missed all or parts of six games as a senior with left ankle injuries…A very good overall athlete who is strong in the run game because of his ability to shed tacklers and rely on his instincts to make plays…Has a high football I.Q. and quickly reads and diagnoses plays…Extremely good blitzer who uses his initial quickness to shoot gaps and blow up plays…Will play a little out of control at times and either miss tackles or take himself out of plays with his own aggression…The Gators’ style let him freelance a lot and patrol the middle zone, rarely taking on blockers one-on-one…Has had a series of knee and ankle injuries dating back to high school that have some questioning his durability…Chose not to work out or do position drills at the Combine. PROJECTION: A productive playmaker who has all the attributes of a first-round pick, he could be a Pro Bowl player, but a lot of teams will have legitimate concerns about his injury history, which will likely drop him into the second round.

T.J. Watt, Wisconsin, 6-4½, 252 – Fourth-year junior…One-year starter who had 63 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, 11½ sacks and two forced fumbles in 2016…The brother of Texans Pro Bowler J.J. Watt…Missed the 2014 season with a right patella subluxation and suffered the same injury to his left patella in the spring practice of 2015…Both knees have been surgically repaired…Spent his first two years playing tight end before moving to defense in 2015…Has good burst and initial quickness off the snap…Is a violent hitter who uses his hands well to disengage blockers and force to bring down the ball carrier…Has good straight-line and lateral quickness and chases plays all the way to the sideline…A raw player with just one year or starting experience and a frame that will have to add 10-20 pounds of bulk and muscle to reach his full potential…Doesn’t have elite change-of-direction skills, so when he takes a misstep, it is costly…Wasn’t asked to take backs and tight ends in coverage very often and will have a learning curve…Ran a 4.69 40 at the Combine with 21 reps of 225 pounds, a 37-inch vertical jump and a 10-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: If his last name wasn’t Watt, he would probably be viewed as a second- or third-round prospect, but given his name recognition and non-stop motor, he has the chance to go late in the first round or early in the second. With his raw skill set and his abilities, he may be of most value only as a rush linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

Ryan Anderson, Alabama, 6-2, 253 – Fifth-year senior…One-year starter who had 61 tackles, 19 tackles for a loss, nine sacks, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in 2016…Had his left labrum surgically repaired following the 2014 season…Was arrested for misdemeanor domestic assault in January 2015 in which he damaged a female student’s vehicle after a heated argument…Injured his left thumb during Senior Bowl week and wasn’t able to lift at the Combine…Very good football instincts and is quick to read, react and diagnose plays in front of him…A physical wrap-up tackler who consistently finishes…Has very good strength and balance and can take on blockers head-on and keep on his lane to the ball…Slows down on contact and can get neutralized by blockers when they get their hands on him…Is undersized with short arms and a frame that can’t add much more in the way of bulk or muscle…Only a one-year starter and was limited in pass coverage…Didn’t lift at the Combine because of a left thumb injury and opted out of the jumps and shuttles, but ran a 4.75 40. PROJECTION: A player whose skill set would seem to limit him almost exclusively as an edge-rushing linebacker for a 3-4 scheme, which likely will push him well into the second round, if not out of it.


Duke Riley, LSU, 6-0½, 232 – Fourth-year senior…One-year starter who had 93 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, 1½ sacks and one interception in 2016… Was voted team MVP as a senior…Very instinctive and makes plays all over the field because he reads and reacts quickly…Is very patient to hit gaps and rarely takes himself out of plays…Has good speed and can handle running backs and tight ends in coverage…Is very undersized for a NFL linebacker and doesn’t have much in the way of growth potential…Isn’t strong at the point of attack and gets neutralized when blockers get their hands on him…A limited sample size as just a one-year starter and has a learning curve in front of him…Ran a 4.58 40 at the Combine with 18 reps of 225 pounds, a 34½-inch vertical jump and a 10-2 broad jump. PROJECTION: A hard-hitting undersized linebacker who seems best suited to be in a 4-3 system, he will be a special teams dominator and will have the chance to be a starter sooner than later.

Tyus Bowser, Houston, 6-2¾, 247 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 97 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, nine sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception in that span…A multi-sport athlete who also got Division I basketball scholarship offers…Missed five games as a senior with an orbital fracture caused when he collided with a teammate…Has an explosive first step off the snap and has effortless redirection skills…Has very good lower-body strength, which he showed at the Combine with the best vertical jump among linebackers (see below)…Has long arms and uses them well to keep defenders off his body, which allows him to show off pass-rush skills…Doesn’t convert his speed into power in his pass rush and will get knocked off his route by blockers…Needs to improve his upper body strength and spend more time in the weight room…Inconsistent defending the run…Ran a 4.65 40 at the Combine with 21 reps, a 37½-inch vertical jump and a 10-7 broad jump. PROJECTION: With a lot of upside and the need to develop his game, if he remains on the board in the second half of Day 2 in the third round, he will become a priority pick at that point.

Alex Anzalone, Florida, 6-3, 241 – Fourth-year junior…Only started 10 career games, recording 59 tackles, four tackles for a loss and three sacks in that span…Tore his right labrum as a true freshman and required surgery to fix it…Suffered a dislocated shoulder as a redshirt freshman and a right shoulder injury in 2015 that ended his season…Played eight games in 2016 before breaking his left forearm…A smart player with good instincts who knows how to take proper angles and get the ball carrier…Looks the part with prototype size, strength and speed…Has a motor that runs hot and will pursue plays to the sideline…Gigantic durability questions since he has been injured each of four years in college…As a pass rusher, he is too easily pushed off his spot by blockers who get their hands on him…Doesn’t have ideal upper body strength and needs to improve there (if his shoulders will allow it)…Ran a 4.63 40 with 16 reps, a 30½-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: He passes the eyeball test because he has many of the prototype skills NFL teams look for in linebackers, but his injury red flags will likely push him into Day 3 because few organizations will be willing to take the chance on him earlier than the end of the third or the fourth round.

Vince Biegel, Wisconsin, 6-3¼, 246 – Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter who recorded 173 tackles, 35½ tackles for a loss and 18½ sacks…Wisconsin Player of the Year as a senior…Had surgery on his left foot as a senior…An intense player who runs hot at all times and makes plays all over the field…Is well-proportioned and has a body that can add additional weight and bulk without sacrificing speed…Is a disruptive player who uses his hands well to fight off blockers and gets into the backfield often…A one-speed player who doesn’t have a great initial burst or long speed…Is not elite in coverage and will struggle when he has to flip his hips covering backs and tight ends…Doesn’t have good change of direction skills and loses a step when forced to retrace his steps on misdirection…Ran a 4.67 40 at the Combine with 21 reps, a 31½-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: A player whose skill set translates in both a 3-4 and 4-3 scheme, he is a hard worker who gets the most of his abilities. He will have an NFL career, but it will likely be as a special teams ace and part-time defender, which will likely push him to be a premium player when Day 3 starts.


Blair Brown, Ohio, 5-11½, 238
Jayon Brown, UCLA, 6-0, 231
Josh Carraway, TCU, 6-3, 242
Devonte’ Fields, Louisville, 6-2½, 236
Marquel Lee, Wake Forest, 6-3¼, 240
JoJo Mathis, Washington, 6-2, 266
Matt Milano, Boston College, 6-0½, 223
James Onwualu, Notre Dame, 6-1, 230
Carroll Phillips, Illinois, 6-3¼, 242
Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee, 6-0½, 230 

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