The 2017 NFL Scouting Combine is led by a very deep defensive lineman and pass rusher class. Now it is time to take a look at the linebackers. By linebackers, I will talk about the traditional inside linebacker and 4-3 outside linebackers. In recent years the NFL has gotten smaller and faster. That change has taken place primarily in the linebacking corp. A number of hybrid safety conversation guys who will make a difference in sub packages are exactly what today’s NFL is looking for. Even the inside linebackers have shrunk in recent years. Having said that, which linebackers really made a name for themselves for better or worse?
First, we have to talk about Reuben Foster before we even get into the on-field drills. Foster originally couldn’t work out at the combine due to injury but later had to get sent home after an altercation with one of the hospital workers at the combine. It’s a huge red flag that will likely get sorted out shortly. There is no denying his talent though as the Alabama linebacker could be even better than former alums such as Dont’a Hightower and C.J. Mosely.
The Ultimate Hybrid:
I can’t think of anyone who has risen his draft stock more than Temple linebacker Haason Reddick from the end of this past season. No player was more impressive during Senior Bowl week period. Reddick originally committed to Temple as a safety and ultimately played defensive end in college. He recorded 10.5 sacks in 2016 from the defensive end spot. Now NFL teams are hoping to play him in a linebacker setting and he just flat out excels at everything he gets asked to do. I would like to see him play 3-4 outside linebacker as he has such a natural pass rush feel to him and could even line him up at defensive end in passing downs. His 4.52 – 40 time was the fastest of any player at the combine on day 3 and looked absolutely flawless in the coverage drills. Reddick, 6’1″, 237, also jumped 36.5 inches in the vertical, and 133 inches in the broad jump.
Jabrill Peppers from Michigan is the only player who is going to go through the linebacker and defensive back drills. He simply put on a show which was to be expected considering he is probably going to play in the secondary in the NFL. I actually prefer him at linebacker because he is really stout in the run game and essentially adds an elite cover man as one of your linebacker slots. Peppers at 5’11”, 213 could realistically play outside linebacker in a 4-3. He is going to be that perfect matchup answer for whoever you need him to shadow on Sundays. Check out Peppers on-field drills. The Michigan product ran a 4.46 – 40 time and looked like an elite cover man in the drills. What’s not to love?
Illinois Carroll Phillips rounds out this group. He is trying to do the same thing as Reddick converting from defensive end to linebacker. At around the same size and similar sack production (9 sacks in 2016), Phillips could really wind up being a steal on draft day. He was one of the better players at the Senior Bowl and continued momentum here. He showed exceptional lateral quickness in the drills.
Undersized Speedy Linebacker:
These 3 players stood out as inside linebackers that could make a difference in the NFL. Jayon Brown from UCLA wasn’t really on my radar as much as he should have been. As a converted safety, Brown moved really well in the drills and showed off 4.70 speed. He shined in the coverage drills and could really do wonders as a sub-package linebacker. He constantly finds his way to the football which really is something that can’t be taught. Filling in at UCLA for Myles Jack the past two years leading UCLA in tackles and picking off 3 passes this past year.
Zach Cunningham of Vanderbilt has first round grades all over him from other people. At 6’3″, 234, my concern with him was he often times got swallowed up by an offensive lineman when his interior teammates didn’t keep him clean. He also did not record any interceptions in college which has to worry some teams. He did lead the SEC with 125 tackles in 2016 which is no small feat. He ran a 4.67 – 40 time and sort of has that Alec Ogletree feel to him but obviously not as fast.
Duke Riley was often times overlooked because his linebacker teammate Kendall Beckwith was more of the known commodity. Riley has really started to make a name for himself in recent weeks starting with a great showing at the Senior Bowl. At 6’0″, 232, Riley ran a 4.58 time which is terrific. He also was a top performer in the cone drills showing top end change of direction speed. He led LSU in tackles this past season with 93 and is a player who needs more recognition. Check him out in the coverage drills below it’s fun to watch.
The Ultimate Throwback:
The downhill thumper linebacker is almost sort of a dead trait in today’s NFL but look no further than Ben Boulware. He reminds me so much of Brian Urlacher and might not even get drafted. Teams worry about his speed and for good reason because he didn’t participate in the 40-yard dash. That number realistically might even be in the 5.0 range but who cares, the same concerns were thrown at Vontaze Burfict and he turned into a star. All I know is Boulware is one of the most instinctive linebackers in college football and led his defense to a national championship win. At 6’0, 238, the Clemson linebacker looked awfully comfortable in the drills despite not having that top-end speed.
Michigan’s Ben Gedeon falls into this same category but is probably a step down from Boulware’s level of play.
Teams love what Leonard Floyd did for the Bears a year ago as a 4-3 outside linebacker who might be too long for the position but can get after the quarterback. Tyus Bowser showed a quick burst to the quarterback this year for Houston. Bowser looked great in the Senior Bowl and moved really smooth for a guy his size (6’3″, 247). He is also one of those twitchy pass rushers that could come in on 3rd downs to go hunt the quarterback. His 4.65 – 40 time caught a bunch of eyes and could go drafted much earlier than expected.
Devonte Fields comes with the same play style but has a ton of off the field incidents. He may be off the field a number of teams draft board before the combine ever started. Fields finished his collegiate career with 6 sacks at Louisville but put up a ton of production at TCU. His 4.72 – 40 time could have been better but I know he could be a really solid pro if his head is on straight.
I thought Raekwon McMillan had the best day of any pure inside linebacker. The Ohio State alum plays with great anticipation and always reads the proper angle to the football. For a draft class that lacks the traditional inside linebacker, I’m not sure why he isn’t getting more love. I want you to watch him in the movement drills. He really sinks his hips and explodes for a 6’2″, 240 linebacker. McMillan was much faster than I anticipated running a 4.61 – 40 time.
Hardy Nickerson Jr. from Illinois had a great week at the East-West Shrine Game and continued to flash here. His Dad, with the same name, is his defensive coordinator in college and played in the pros for the Bucs for a few years. The NFL bloodlines are there with him. He comes in well coached by the Lovie Smith defense that continues to put out NFL defenders and could be the next Kwon Alexander.
Vince Biegal played on the other side of T.J. Watt for Wisconsin. There is no other way to describe this guy besides that he is just a tough football player. Biegal can play either inside or outside and fits that Green Bay Packer mold.
*LSU linebacker Kendall Beckwith, Jared Davis from Florida, and Michigan State linebacker Riley Bullough did not work out. Both players are highly ranked on my board.
*Alex Anzalone from Florida also had a really nice day but has so many red flags because of previous injuries he is tough to grade.
Top 5 Linebacker Rankings:
- Haason Reddick (Temple)
- Reuben Foster (Alabama)
- Jabrill Peppers (Michigan)
- Raekwon McMillan (Ohio State)
- Tyus Bowser (Houston)