This post covers my preliminary rankings of the top linebackers entering the 2017 NFL Draft. The group consists of traditional 4-3 linebackers (MLB and OLB) and 3-4 inside linebacker prospects. The group excludes 3-4 outside linebackers (who are included in the defensive edge rusher prospect rankings). For analysis of the respective rankings of certain prospects, see the corresponding footnotes (+).
1. Rueben Foster (Alabama) | 6’1 240 (+)
2. Zach Cunningham (Vanderbilt) | 6’3 230 (++)
3. Jarrad Davis (Florida) | 6’1 240 (+++)
4. Haason Reddick (Temple) | 6’1 230 (++++)
5. Raekwon McMillen (Ohio State) | 6’2 240 (+++++)
6. Alex Anzalone (Florida) | 6’2 245
7. Kendall Beckwith (LSU) | 6’2 250
8. Marcus Oliver (Indiana) | 6’1 240
9. Duke Riley (LSU) | 6’0 230
10. Marquel Lee (Wake Forest) | 6’3 240
11. Anthony Walker Jr. (Northwestern) | 6’1 235
12. Elijah Lee (Kansas St) | 6’3 220
13. Ukeme Eligwe (Georgia Southern) | 6’2 240
(+) Alabama’s Rueben Foster is a likely top 15 pick in the 2017 Draft. At 6’1 240, he possesses excellent instincts, closing speed, and finishing ability to be a key cog in the middle of practically any scheme at the next level. Foster also demonstrates pass-rushing and coverage abilities to be a true 3-down LB. If there is one (very small) critique, its that he’s not exceptional at taking blockers head on and shedding. But Foster otherwise displays the all-around traits to become one of the top inside linebackers in the NFL.
(++) Cunningham’s instincts– his ability to diagnose the play and get downhill– are the best among the linebackers in this draft class. Moreover, Cunningham possesses exceptional agility and athleticism, and might also display the best pass coverage abilities among this group. At 6’3 230, he has a frame arguably better-suited to play 4-3 OLB, but Cunningham has the type of build that could easily add 10-20 pounds without losing speed or quickness. He also demonstrates a good ability to take on and shed blockers–and that facet to his game could become exceptional with added bulk and power. Accordingly, there are a lot of reasons to believe Cunningham demonstrates the highest upside of all the LB prospects, including Foster. However, one glaring deficiency in Cunningham’s game– which is the thing his stats would suggest he’s best at– is his tackling ability. For all the tackles Cunningham makes, he misses a fair amount too. The observable deficiencies in his tackling approach are: (i) a failure to break down; (ii) tackling ball carriers high; and (iii) over-reliance on arm tackling. These deficiencies seem very coachable, but it could lead to some early growing pains in his development at the next level. Regardless, Cunningham is a worthy mid to late first round prospect and an absolute steal if tackling concerns cause him to slip to round two.
(+++) The best way to describe Florida’s Jarrad Davis is that he’s the quintessential bully at linebacker. He utilizes explosive closing speed and physicality to ensure that every offensive player he comes into contact with regrets the encounter. This is true regardless of whether he’s taking on interior lineman or tackling Derrick Henry one on one. Davis’ range and coverage abilities also give him position and scheme versatility at the next level. With that said, as much as I love Jarrad Davis as a prospect, I have two concerns. The first concern is durability. He possesses a powerful and compact build at 6’1 240. But the sheer wear and tear that he subjects his body to through his brand of play is concerning to his longevity potential. In that vein, Davis had to miss multiple games this season due to different injuries. The second concern is whether he exhibits consistent instincts. When he reads a play correctly, Davis possesses second-to-none ability to blow a play up. But as I’ve watched the top LB prospects play more closely, I’ve noticed greater instances of Davis taking false steps and misdiagnosing plays than the other top LB’s seem to commit. Accordingly, it’s something to note for further review. At the moment, Davis is a consensus late first, early second round draft prospect.
(++++) Anybody who closely follows NFL draft prospects inevitably develops a list of favorite players to watch play– and Temple’s Haason Reddick sits at the top my list. Pound for pound (at 6’1 230), Reddick exhibits the best agility of any prospect at any position in this draft. Along with good instincts, surprisingly powerful take-on abilities, and excellent closing speed, he has a chance to be a very good player at the next level. Reddick’s play demonstrates a lot of similarities to Lawrence Timmons’ play in college at Florida State. Despite being criminally undersized at 6’1 230, both players (Reddick more than Timmons) would often line up at a traditional DE position and were highly effective at rushing the passer and sealing the edge. Although Reddick’s coaches rarely asked him play inside linebacker or cover much, Reddick looked very natural and instinctive in the few times I did see him perform those assignments. Accordingly, while Reddick’s best position might be 4-3 weak side LB, I believe Reddick possesses the requisite attributes and abilities to develop into a high quality 3-4 inside linebacker, like Timmons. Reddick is a second round talent that could very easily slip to the third round in a deep draft such as this.
(+++++) Ohio State’s McMillen is a quality inside LB prospect that demonstrates a solid build, very good instincts and sound tackling abilities. While he’s fairly agile, McMillen’s range (sideline to sideline) and coverage abilities are average at best. Accordingly, I question whether he’s more than a very good two-down LB at the next level. Accordingly, I think he’s more of a second/third round talent than first round talent at this point.