Graphic by Robert Robinson
Written by Cody Manning
We are a couple months away from the NFL Draft as we await to go through the NFL Combine as well as player’s Pro Days. How players test and perform in the team interviews will determine where they end up on the boards. In the 2018 NFL Draft we saw a total of four linebackers go in the first round and with a defensive-heavy draft, we could see that happen again. Free agency could change some teams needs but we could see organizations like the 49ers, Raiders, Bengals, Vikings, Ravens, Steelers, and Packers all look to address the linebacker position in the first round. I look at my Top 5 linebackers for the upcoming draft!
1. Devin White: LSU
Career Stats: 33 games
Tackles for loss: 28.5
Forced Fumbles: 3
Fumble Recoveries: 3
Devin White was a leader for the LSU defense over the past two seasons and was a big part why their team was able to find success on the field. After making a small contribution as a freshman he was able to be a key part of their defensive unit his sophomore season. He racked up 133 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 1 interception, and 3 pass deflections. Some of his numbers this year saw a small drop off but that could be blamed on his questionable 1st half suspension against Alabama and that the team must still compete in their respective bowl game. But he has managed 115 tackles, 3 sacks, 5 pass deflections, while forcing 2 fumbles and recovering a couple as well. White has shown that he can be a consistent performer and be a productive linebacker which should translate to the next level.
White is a see ball, get ball type linebacker. He is very quick in open space as his quickness allows him to close on ball carriers and the quarterback when he is rushing. He is effective at filling gaps and has a way of squeezing his way through tight spaces to make a play on the ball. He is very fluid in coverage and seems comfortable dropping back into zone coverage. He can flip his hips and play man-to-man coverage as well. He plays all over the field and looks to make a tackle on every play if he can. He is very good at helping stuff the run.
White has his moments when he appears to have a lapse at reading players when he is dropped back in zone coverage. He can be delayed in reacting which takes him out of the play. He does take bad angles when runs go to the outside which leads to him completely whiffing on tackles. He needs to play with a lower pad level because when he doesn't lineman can have their way with him because he makes it easy for them to get underneath. He isn't much of a pass rusher as he is just a straight line blitzer. He has no pass rush moves so if he gets blocked then he becomes ineffective.
White should be able to come in and be an immediate contributor for any team that needs help in their linebacker corps. He is an all-around linebacker that does well in all aspects of the game. If he can fine-tune his flaws, he can be a great backer at the next level. He possesses the athletic ability to be a sideline to sideline player. During his first year he should be able to come in as a starter. He will be effective against the run and should be able to drop back in pass coverage. I would expect some errors as a rookie but if he can develop at reading plays at a faster rate than his mistakes should drop over time. No team should draft him with the plan on using him as a pass rusher except for well-timed blitzes that he will get a straight-line path to the quarterback. He can be one the best linebackers if he is developed right.
Projected Round: 1st
Team Fits: 49ers, Raiders, Bengals
NFL Comparison: Bobby Wagner
2. Mack Wilson: Alabama
Career Stats: 32 games
Tackles for loss: 7
Forced Fumbles: 1
Fumble Recoveries: 0
Mack Wilson isn’t just another part of the vaunted Alabama defense, he has a big role in their defense and is one of the reasons teams struggle to run the ball against them. He has seen development under the leadership of Nick Saban as his productivity has increased every year that he has been on the field. After seeing Rashaan Evans leave for the NFL last year, Wilson was able to take over as the best linebacker on the unit and it showed as his tackles increased from 40 to 63. His stats aren’t eye-popping, but like Evans, it is hard to show up on the box score every week when you have so many playmakers on a defensive unit.
Wilson can be a team's run stuffer at the next level. His initial quickness allows him to fill the gaps and plug holes, so he can make the tackle on the runner. He is very strong and can push lineman back or toss them to the side. He can be very fluid in his pass coverage, very comfortable when he drops back, can flip his hips and run with the receiver. He always keeps his eye on the ball and the quarterback's eyes which allows him to flow to where the play is going to, he can react to it. Overall, he is solid in all areas of his game.
Wilson can take bad angles which can take him out of plays or overrun the ball carrier. He does need work on his tackling form as he can come in too high which allows the rusher to run through his tackle. When his pad level rises, he can get knocked over on blocks. If lineman lock onto him first they can have their way with him and drive him into the ground. He showed that he can misdiagnose or have a misunderstanding of his assignment which can result in chunk plays for the offense. He won't be effective as a pass rusher unless he is sent on timed blitzes or stunts that allow a free lane.
He should be able to come to the next level and help upgrade a team's linebacker corps. He has a strong overall game which allows him to be efficient as a backer. He can improve a team's defense against the run because of his ability to plug holes and his initial speed which allows him to close space on ball carriers. He will bring the thud on every hit and hopes that will force a fumble. He can drop back in coverage and cover his assignment, but he will have moments where he gives up a chunk play on a misread. His play recognition will be something that teams should look to improve upon when he enters the building. During his rookie season he should be able to come in as a starter and be an immediate contributor. He would be a better fit for a team that already has established defensive tackles which will allow him to have more space to flow freely to the ball. If he can add a little more size, develop as a player, then he should be a cog for a team's defense by the time that he enters his third season.
Projected Round: 1st
Team Fits: Raiders, Bengals, Packers
NFL Comparison: Dont’a Hightower
3. Devin Bush: Michigan
Career Stats: 32 games
Tackles for loss: 18.5
Forced Fumbles: 0
Fumble Recoveries: 0
Devin Bush has been a key part of the Michigan defense over the past couple of seasons which was the bright spot for the Wolverines. His best season came as a sophomore when he posted 95 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 interception and 7 pass deflections. While he kept up his solo tackles over this past season, his overall tackles saw a significant decrease down to 66, but he does have his team’s bowl game to help those numbers out. He is consistent across the board which scouts like to see in a linebacker, but he will need to work on finding a way to force more turnovers at the next level.
Bush could come in and be an immediate contributor to a team's rush defense. He is an explosive athlete that can fill gaps immediately and penetrate the backfield to help snuff out the run. He does a great job at reading the ball carrier and upstanding what angle he should take to make the tackle. He is a hustler and can run down the rusher from across the field. He is effective when sent on blitzes, he can bend around lineman, and close on the quarterback to force the sack. He could be a cog in a defense that needs this type of player.
He does lack strength at times when trying to battle with a stronger lineman. He can get stood up on pass rushes and get driven back on runs. If he doesn't want to fight for the leverage, he will try to bend around the lineman with his speed which will take him out of plays and open lanes for the back. He struggles in pass coverage as he doesn't flip his hips well to run with the receiver. It takes one cut for a receiver to get open and he tends to hold on to them which will result in a penalty more often at the next level. He also can give up too much space in zone coverage which results in chunk plays.
Bush can come in and be a starter on a team's defense if he can be used to the type of linebacker that his talents allow him to be. He can come in and be a thumper for their unit it. He will look to blow up run plays, stuff gaps, and will bring the wood if the opportunity is there. His initial quickness also helps him when he is rushing the quarterback as he can brush by lineman, can bend around tackles, and can get a good bull rush at times. He can be a liability in pass coverage as he will struggle to cover most running backs and tight ends. If he doesn't fix his habit of grabbing on to the receiver when they make cuts, then he could wrack up penalties at the next level. A team is getting a player that may have his limits in certain areas, but he is a hustler, constantly keeps his feet moving, and can chase down the ball carrier from across the field. If does develop his pass coverage skills, then he could be a Pro Bowler by his third season. He has the potential to be a long-term contributor and be a cog for a defense.
Projected Round: 1st
Team Fits: Ravens, Vikings, Steelers
NFL Comparison: Denzel Perryman
4. T.J. Edwards: Wisconsin
Height: 6’1” Weight: 245 Career Stats: 53 games Tackles: 366 Tackles for loss: 37.5 Sacks: 8 Interceptions: 10 Forced Fumbles: 1 Fumble Recoveries: 1
Edwards is a 4-year starter who can offer a team a lot of game experience and someone who showed progress as a player throughout his time at Wisconsin. Every season he had at least 81 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. In his final three seasons he had at least 3 interceptions and 2 sacks. He showed improvement at getting to the ball carrier beyond the line of scrimmage when he cracked the double digit number for tackles for loss his junior year. He is coming off the best season in his college career where he posted 112 tackles, 73 solo tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 3 interceptions, and recovered a fumble. His overall experience and growth as a player is one of the many reasons that will make teams consider him during the draft.
He is an effective run stuffer as he can control the box with his ability to explode up into the gap or to engage with the lineman in order to get rid of them to help disrupt the play. He excels at shedding blockers because he will lock onto them, bench press them off him to create space, then will look to get rid of them. He has great pursuit angles which allows him to put himself in position to make the play on the ball carrier. He brings down everything because he is so strong once he wraps up he will explode through them to bring them to the ground.
His overall athleticism could possibly hamper him at the next level. His sideline-to-sideline speed isn't there and if he doesn't take the proper angle then faster backs will just outrun him on outside runs. He also needs some work in his man coverage skills because he can be stiff in the hips and struggles to keep up with players that have a speed advantage against him. He can be easy to create separation on. He has a small set of moves and isn't the most effective guy to send on blitzes. If the original move doesn't work then he doesn't have enough to fall back upon to get pressure.
Edwards has the ability to come in the league and be a contributor to a defensive unit. He might not be the flashiest linebacker in this draft but he does get the job done. He can help improve a team's run defense because he is so effective when offenses try to just line up and run the ball. He can disrupt plays because of how quick he is in small space as he can either blow up a play in the backfield, fill a gap, or just get rid of a blocker with ease to make the tackle. As far as his coverage skills he will be better served in zone coverage because he does a great job when he can sit back and read how the play is developing. Once he sees where the quarterback wants to go he can explode in the direction to make a play on the ball. He has tons of game experience as a 4-year starter so he should be able to come in and play as a rookie. He will be a help if he isn't asked to do too much in year one. If he can develop as an athlete plus as a player then by his third season he can be a key part of a defense for a long time.
Projected Round: 2nd-3rd
Team Fits: Packers, Steelers, Vikings
NFL Comparison: Wesley Woodyard
5. Tre Lamar: Clemson
Career Stats: 32 games
Tackles for loss: 13.5
Forced Fumbles: 1
Fumble Recoveries: 1
Tre Lamar finds himself in a similar situation to Mack Wilson where he finds himself on a talented defense which makes it difficult to put up a huge stat line. He has shown progression every season and continues to increase his production as he has become a better linebacker. As a sophomore he only had 14 solo tackles out of his 50 total tackles. This season he saw a big increase as he has 35 solo tackles out of 68 total tackles this past season. Lamar has a lot of growth that he needs in his overall game, but he has proven he can make improvements in the areas that he needed to address.
His strong suit in his game is his ability to help stop the run. He has enough strength that allows him to get underneath the lineman to create enough separation to make the tackle. His initial quickness allows him to control the box and help fill gaps to bounce the run to the outside. He can lineup outside the tackle and does a good job at setting the edge. He is a very tough linebacker who won't back down from a challenge. He will get in the face of the toughest lineman even if he knows they are stronger than him. Overall, he is an effective run stuffer.
His biggest flaw against the run is the lack of his sideline to sideline speed. He struggles to close the edge against speedy backs. You won't see him running down guys from behind. He can be a liability in pass coverage. He can have stiff hips which is a problem when he goes to flip them and run with the receiver. Players can create separation from him with their speed and/or with effective route running. He doesn't get enough pressure on a consistent basis. He lacks pass rush moves and doesn't have enough bend to get around the lineman to get to the quarterback.
He is the prototypical run stuffing linebacker that defensive coordinators would love to have on their unit. He will fill gaps and disrupt plays. He does an amazing job with his tackling skills. If he wraps up, the ball carrier doesn't have a chance to break the tackle. He brings down most if he is only able to get an arm on them. He could be a matchup problem in today's NFL because of his pass coverage skills. He struggles with shifty players in open space as they can create space for the quarterback to drop the ball in. He also isn't a sideline to sideline backer, so teams can look to use outside zone against him with a speedy back to get the edge for yards. He has the talent to come in and play as a rookie. Any team that is looking to plug him in a run stuffing role can find a player that they can use day one. If he can develop his pass coverage, then he can be a key part of a team's defense by his third season.
Projected Round: 2nd-3rd
Team Fits: 49ers, Bengals, Raiders
NFL Comparison: Demario Davis