The recent 2015 linebacker class was lacking depth and top end talent compared to some previous classes. Fortunately, the 2016 class is shaping up to be much better. This is honestly way too early to start ranking these players, but an initial list really helps me in making sure I watch the top players who could be in the NFL draft. I expect this list to change a lot during the season, after the draft and even after pro days. Also, I expect a few inside linebackers to catch my eye during the year who may not be on my radar screen yet. Regardless, it’s time to start thinking about who tomorrow’s IDP starts will be today.
Tier One: Elite Talent
Myles Jack, UCLA
Myles Jack is literally in a tier of his own. I have seen enough film on him already to feel comfortable tagging him as a future NFL star. The only real question is how an NFL team will use him. Some draftnicks are listing him as an edge player and there are even some who like him at running back. Due to his athleticism and coverage skills, I could even see him as a strong safety. I am sticking with him as on off-ball backer for now because I think that is where he will be the bigger difference maker in real life and in fantasy. Jack is a punishing tackler with good form. The strength he plays with is surprising for only being 6’1” and 232 pounds. His tackling form pays defends when wading through traffic and making open field tackles. He also dispatches blocks very well, allowing him to never be out of a play. He looks good in coverage, even against slippery slot receivers. Finally, he understands playing deceptively and altering playing speed to create gaps and tackling lanes. The only flaw I can see in his game is not fully understanding the coverage schemes around him and taking some bad risks. Linebacker prospects do not come much more sure fire than this.
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Tier Two: Elite Potential
Darron Lee, Ohio State
Darron Lee is only a red shirt sophomore. I could see a mass exodus of underclassmen talent from Ohio State if they have another outstanding season. Lee is fast, agile and plays with a killer instinct. It is as if he has another gear as soon as his gets close to making a play. He does very well dealing with blocks, dropping his hips and playing stronger than his 235 pounds would indicate. His play diagnosis skills are hit or miss. Sometimes he plays very intuitively knowing how the play will break down and on some plays he is playing catch up. While watching his film, I cannot help but root for him because he is often very close to making game altering plays. Lee has the potential to be in the same conversation as Myles Jack, but I will need to see a little more season to make that jump.
Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame
Many in the draft community are listing Jaylon Smith as the top off-ball linebacker prospect. Based on the film I have seen, I have concerns with that ranking. Honestly, I see two different players on film. The first one makes quick reads, looks like a man among boys and is a destructive hitter. The other gets frozen diagnosing plays, has trouble getting off blocks and looks weaker than he is. I think it is obvious Smith has good instincts and “plus” athleticism when he is chasing plays. When doing so, he eradicates traffic, can catch almost anyone on the field, takes good angles and makes them pay. Smith may need to let his instincts take over or work on understanding the game better so he can react quickly more often. There is no question Smith possesses elite talent, I just want to see him put it use more before putting him in my top tier.
Terrance Smith, FSU
Terrance is the lesser known of the off ball linebacker Smiths. I am in the minority, but I think a case could be made that Terrance Smith being the better Smith. Smith is extremely agile especially in light of the fact is listed at 6’4”. Smith has displayed strong coverage skills and is able to deal with blocks to get in the right position. Smith always seems to be making a play, affecting the play, or just being near the action. I think this speaks to his strong instincts, athleticism and his ability to diagnose plays quickly. Smith has potential to be a serious NFL talent. I will anxiously be watching him this year to see if he can take the next step.
Tier Three: NFL Starting Talent
Reggie Ragland, Alabama
Ragland is good tackler with great instincts. These instincts and the solid decision making he shows are critical to his game because he does not have top end speed or elite agility. A comparable to the 2015 draft class might be Denzel Perryman, although he is not as punishing as a tackler. This is a little concerning because inside linebacker near 260 pounds should be hammering most college level running backs. Ragland also struggles in coverage, but that should not be surprising with his lack of speed and agility. I see Ragland as a prospect who will not move much on draft boards because I think we know what he is, and there just is not a lot more potential. With that being said, he is a reasonable two down backer who should find a home on a NFL team and potentially be a rotational starter.
Scooby Wright III, Arizona
Wright is the most divisive player on this list. He was highly productive last year, compiling 164 total tackles and 15 sacks. He plays smart, strong and has a great motor. The naysayers of Wright have recently come out in full force on draft twitter, though. The knock on Scooby is his lack of athleticism – namely speed and agility. I bet he will test better in the combine than people may currently think. A simple comparison could be a better Jake Ryan – a player who also surprised many with a better combine performance than expected. A player with this much production should be paid attention to, the question is how he ranks in this strong class.
Eric Striker, Oklahoma
Listing Striker with the off-ball linebackers will most likely be controversial. I really have not seen him mentioned as that in many draft circles. I think it is where his skill set and size fits best in the NFL. Striker is barely six feet and is listed at 223, but he looks leaner than that. This smaller frame allows him to be lightning fast and plays with his hair on fire. On the other hand, he has some work to do to become an inside backer. He will need to diagnose plays better, not over pursue as much and learn to read plays better. I see poor man’s Ryan Shazier on film. I hope he is forced to play inside in the Senior Bowl so we can see more what he looks like in that role.
Kris Frost, Auburn
The good news is Frost has shown an ability to diagnose plays quickly and reads quarterbacks well. He also does well in traffic and is reasonable in coverage. He plays strong and displays disciplined tackling. The bad news is he struggles with blocks sometimes and does not has a consistent motor. His quickness and speed is adequate but not special. How Frost performs on the field this year will be critical to his draft stock.
Tier Four: NFL Potential with Upside
Su’a Cravens, USC
At this stage, Cravens looks more like a project than a legit NFL talent. Although he does have the athleticism to become a high level player. Cravens displays elite agility and will most likely be described as rangy. While he plays fast, he lacks tempo and there is no nuance to his game. His combination of speed and agility should allow him to be good in coverage but a lack of discipline makes him only average. He also struggles to get off blocks and sometimes takes poor angles. I have focused on the bad here, but he has so much untapped potential he can be frustrating to watch. The good news is the flaws in his game can be corrected. If he does work on his craft, he could shoot up draft boards.
Kendell Beckwith, LSU
Beckwith plays with a mean strike I love to see in inside linebackers. In only a few minutes of film, you can see Beckwith plays with an angry and aggressive style. One of his best traits is how well he deals with blocks and dispatches them quickly. He is also very effective when blitzing. Unfortunately, he plays lazy when chasing the play and makes a few too many mental mistakes. His aggressive style causes him to not consistently keep the play in front of him. His impact is not always evident, but it is evident when he is off the field. LSU routinely was gashed up the middle when Beckwith was off the field. Beckwith could be a big mover if he improves his craft this season.
Here are short list of players who have flashed enough to keep your eye on during the year. I am sure we will have number inside linebackers who take step forward and jostle the above tiers.
CJ Johnson, Dominique Alexander, Kentrell Brothers, Cassanova McKinzy, Rodney Hardrick, Reggie Northrup, Zeek Bigger, Tyler Matakevich, Frank Shannon, Darryl Monroe, Trey DePriest, Antonio Morrison, Tyriq McCord, Deon Clarke, Blake Martinez, James Burgess, Jatavis Brown, Marquise Vann, Reggie Carter, Josh Forsett, Salamo Fiso, Addison Gillam