Written by- Cody Manning
We are right in the middle of Pro Day season, and about a month away from the draft! As we climb closer to April 26th, personnel departments are figuring out their big boards. Some teams will be looking to address certain positions, and one of those will be the commander of the defense, the linebacker position. In last year’s draft we saw teams like the Cardinals, Lions, and 49ers address it by taking one in the 1st round. We should see at least three go in the 1st round but could see four to five if teams are drastic for a linebacker. Teams that I could see taking a linebacker in the first round: Colts, Bears, Raiders, 49ers, Dolphins, Packers, Chargers, Rams, Bengals, and Steelers.
1. Roquan Smith: Georgia
Height: 6’1” Weight: 236
Career Stats: 38 career games
Tackles for a loss: 20.5
Force Fumbles: 3
Fumble Recoveries: 3
Roquan Smith showed tremendous growth this past season as the leader of the Georgia Bulldog defensive unit. In his previous two seasons combined, he had 115 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 0 sacks. During his junior year, he had 137 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks. Smith ability to grow is why a team should be ecstatic about the chance to draft someone who has the athleticism that he holds and could potentially develop into an All-Pro linebacker.
Roquan is a sideline to sideline linebacker who has the quickness to close space on the ball carrier. He is very instinctive at reading runs plays — once he diagnoses where the runner is going, he explodes in their direction and runs them down into the ground. He has elite speed which allows him to flow freely around blockers to make the tackle or get pressure on the quarterback. His athleticism makes him dependent versus both the run and pass. He can be used in man and zone coverage, and can cover his area in zone as well as run with most assignments he would have in man. He is a high motor guy that any defensive coordinator would want on their unit, and is always looking to make a play on the ball.
There are some aspects of Smith’s game that he will need to work on to develop into the player I believe he can become. He is a bit undersized for his position, which showed on tape. When strong lineman got their hands on him, he would be easily blocked, and taken out of the play. He will need to develop moves to shed blockers so he doesn’t have to rely on his agility to get around lineman. The same could be said when he is sent on a blitz — if his speed didn’t win the battle, then he would be picked up effortlessly. He did show the ability to play man coverage, but I mostly saw him in zone coverage on tape, so he may need to be coached up in that area to succeed at the next level. Lastly, there are times where he can be juked in open space. This can be attributed to him outrunning his body, so he needs to learn to control his speed, to break down and make the tackle.
Roquan Smith may get the undersized label but he did bulk up for the Combine, which shows that under the right strength and conditioning program he will develop into a NFL linebacker body. His pro comparison for me is Lavonte David, who came into his combine at 6’1”, 233 pounds and ran a 4.65 40-yard time. Smith came in at 6’1”, 236 pounds, and ran a 4.51 40-yard time. The reason I compare them to each other is because of their athleticism and ability to be all over the field making plays for their defense. If Smith is coming in bigger and faster as a rookie compared to David, there is no limit for him to become one of the best linebackers in the league. I think he is a top 10 talent in this year’s draft, but because of the QB-needy teams, he could fall in the 10–15 range. Whichever team turns the card in on him should expect to have an All-Pro
linebacker by his third season.
Projected Round: 1st
Team Fits: Bears, 49ers, Raiders
NFL Comparison: Lavonte David
2. Tremaine Edmunds: Virginia Tech
Career Stats: 32 career games
Tackles for a loss: 33
Force Fumbles: 3
Fumble Recoveries: 1
If I could have done a 1A and 1B for my player rankings I would have. I had Tremaine Edmunds barely under Roquan Smith when I did my draft grades for the both. Edmunds is a consistent performer and a tackle machine when he is on the field. He was the leader of Virginia Tech’s defense for the past two seasons, and he demanded attention from the opposing offense when he was on the field. He is disruptive in the backfield and it showed, with 33 tackles for loss that he had over his collegiate career.
Tremaine has the size and athletic ability that you want from the linebacker position. He is great in the box because he uses his athleticism to put himself in position to make a play on the ball or tackle the runner. His excellent lateral quickness, and how he keeps his feet moving, allows him to move around the field with ease. He can be effective in pass coverage because of his ability to read the quarterback’s eyes, and he has enough quickness to keep up with his assignments in coverage. He is also does a great job at keeping his pad level low and using his strength to win the leverage battle with offensive lineman. He will be a sound tackler at the next level, can bring the wood, and will fill the gap to pop the runner. He can be used during pass rushing situations as he has a great first step that allows him to get by lineman to get pressure on the quarterback.
Edmunds will need to develop some pass rush moves because if his initial quickness doesn’t win the battle then doesn’t find himself getting pressure consistently. While he had a great 40-yard time (4.54), I felt like on tape his overall speed held him back from being a sideline to sideline linebacker. He will improve his ability to read plays as they develop. At times when there was a lot of movement in the backfield, play action, and misdirection, he could get confused. Sometimes in man coverage he didn’t recognize his man which made it too easy for the quarterback. These are things he can develop as a pro under the right coaching, and the best part is Edmunds will only be 19 years old when he gets drafted.
One of the most appealing parts of Edmunds to scouts must be his age. He played at a high level consistently for two seasons and hasn’t even reached the age of 20 yet. He has a high ceiling if he can get under the right coach that can help him develop as a professional football player. He also showed that he can play at all three linebacker spots during his time in college. Due to his size and athletic ability I believe he will be a coveted player on draft day. Even though he is 2nd on my list, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets taken ahead of Roquan Smith. Just like Smith, he is a top 10 talent in this draft class but could fall in the 10–15 range. Teams should be excited to potentially land a young and talented linebacker like Edmunds.
Projected Round: 1st
Team Fits: 49ers, Raiders, Dolphins
NFL Comparison: Anthony Barr
3. Rashaan Evans : Alabama
Career Stats: 42 career games
Tackles for a loss: 23.5
Force Fumbles: 2
Fumble Recoveries: 2
Rashaan Evans might not have the stat line like Smith and Edmunds and might not get the publicity like some of his co-stars from the vaunted Alabama defense, but his playmaking ability has brought him some attention from NFL scouts. He showed consistent development as a player through all four years he spent at Alabama: he had 74 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, and 6 sacks in his senior year, up from 52 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 4 sacks as a junior. He showed that he was able to step up after losing Reuben Foster and became a player his teammates could rely on throughout the season.
Rashaan showed that he is a monster in the run-stopping game. He does a nice job at utilizing his lateral quickness to fill gaps and keeps himself below shoulder pad level, so he can dip himself around the blockers to stuff the run or even get pressure on the quarterback. He is effective as a pass rusher — his initial burst allows him to win the early battle this pass rush moves help finish the job. He did show he can put his hand on the ground and still get that quickness with his first step. His speed allows him to be a sideline to sideline player and has the quickness to close space on runners. I believe Evans has the right athleticism to come in and help a defense out right away at the next level.
At times he diagnoses plays slowly, getting out of position. Typically, this results in bad angles on a runner or finding a receiver running past him and getting the necessary separation. Evans will need to find a way to read plays faster and learn how to keep his feet ready to turn and run with his assignments in coverage. He sometimes stays flat footed, allowing tight ends to beat him with a simple double move. He has the speed to be effective in pass coverage, but if he doesn’t fix his issues then he could be a liability, which is why I believe Alabama used him as a pass rusher in situations.
Rashaan should be able to come into a team and contribute right away. He has the right athleticism that a team should want from their linebacker and could be used as a disruptive pass rusher. A team that needs a run stuffer should be able to plug and play him because of how he uses his lateral quickness and keeps his shoulder pads low. He reminds me of Navarro Bowman because of his run stuffing abilities. I believe he is a first round talent that should fall somewhere in the 15–32 range of the draft. Whoever picks them should be getting a player that could develop into a cog in their defense that they can rely upon every week.
Projected Round: 1st
Team fits: Chargers, Bengals, Bills, Rams
NFL Comparison: Navarro Bowman
4. Leighton Vander Esch: Boise St.
Height: 6’4” Weight: 256
Career Stats: 28 career games
Tackles for a loss: 13
Force Fumbles: 4
Fumble Recoveries: 1
Leighton Vander Esch is an interesting prospect in this year’s linebacker class. He was very quiet during his freshman and sophomore seasons (14 games) with 47 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 1 sack. Then he blew up in 2017, during his junior year (14 games) he had 141 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 4 sacks. He tripled the number of tackles he had between those seasons. That productivity caught the area scout’s eyes in the northwest, and combined with his athleticism he could also be a potential 1st round pick.
This former basketball player is very athletic — he uses his speed to his advantage while combining his lateral quickness to maneuver around lineman to make a play on the runner. He is an effective tackler by using a great form to wrap up the runner and bring them to the ground. Leighton excels in zone coverage, keeps everything in front of him, understands his assignment, and can cover it because of his initial quickness. He also can be used in man coverage as he does a great job at turning his hips so he can run with the receiver. He is a tackling machine — once he sees where he wants to go he does a nice job at exploding through his gap, then taking down the runner. Vander Esch is great inside the box, using his agility to glide his way around blockers to make a play on the ball.
While he excels inside, he does struggle when he starts to get outside the hash marks. He takes bad angles for the tackles and overruns his target, which leaves him susceptible to being juked in the open field or falling behind on speedy backs. He depends on his athletic abilities too much, sometimes taking himself out of a play to avoid taking on the blocker. If strong linemen lock onto him he can be driven away because he comes in with a high pad level at times. If he doesn’t have an open lane to the quarterback, then he is non-existent when it comes to getting pressure. He has a tendency of running into the blocker and getting stood up. Most teams should rely on his coverage skills over rushing him to the quarterback.
Vander Esch show he can be a tackling machine and can be ultra-productive in the right situation. He has the size and athletic ability to come into a defense that has some pieces and contribute as a rookie. If a team needs someone that can control the box in their defensive scheme while being effective during pass coverage situations, then I believe he could fill that role. I see him landing in the late 1st round-2nd round because some team will want to bet on his potential. If he is developed and in the right defensive scheme for his abilities, then a team should have an important part of their team for the next 5 years.
Projected Round: 1–2
Team Fits: Titans, Steelers, Colts, Patriots
NFL Comparison: Brandon Marshall
5. Darius Leonard: South Carolina St.
Height: 6’2” Weight: 234
Career Stats: 40 career games
Tackles for a loss: 53.5
Force Fumbles: 7
Fumble Recoveries: 0
Consistency is the first word that comes to my mind when I think of Darius Leonard. You can be the greatest player on your team, but if your play isn’t consistent then why should your teammates depend on you every week. Darius came in as a freshman and dominated opposing offenses for four straight years. In his last two seasons he put up over 100 tackles in each season, and as well as 8.5 sacks for his senior year. He didn’t have one season where he had less than 12 tackles for a loss. Between his sophomore to senior year, he had two interceptions in each season. While some may downplay that he was at a lower level of play, you can’t deny the consistent production that he brings and that he dominated at that level.
Darius Leonard’s long and athletic body is one of the reasons why scouts believe he can succeed in the NFL. He excels at using his long arms by making it difficult for linemen to get their hands on him, which he uses to his advantage to help shed the blocker when it is time to stuff the run. He is very quick and has the speed to be a sideline to sideline linebacker. He can close space to make the tackle or get pressure on the quarterback. When he drops back into coverage he flows easily can turn his hips to run with the receiver. He looks to make a play on every possession which is why he’s so consistent.
While he is long and athletic Leonard’s lean frame does concern me, because if he doesn’t gain more mass strong linemen will have their way with him at the next level. He also can play with a high pad level at times, so it makes it easy for a blocker to get leverage on him and drive him back. In pass coverage he does have a delayed reaction at times. When that happens in the run game it results in him taking a bad angle, allowing the running back to get by him. He does rely on his athleticism too much, and it hampers him in run support because he takes himself out of plays. While he is a very productive tackler, I would like to see him improve his form because he relies on his arms to finish the job.
If Darius Leonard gets into the right strength and conditioning program and the team that selects him gives him a year to develop his size, then I think they could potentially have found a steal. He just needs some small fixes in his game along with his growth as a player to potentially turn into thde best linebacker on his team and possibly one of the better ones in the league. I do believe that the level he played at and the concern with his physique at the next level may turn away teams from drafting him early, but I do think a team will somewhere in the 2nd-3rd round. I think he ends up making that organization happy in the future.
Projected Round: 2–3
Team Fits: Chargers, Colts, Browns, Steelers
NFL Comparison: Alec Ogletree