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2016 NFL Draft: Linebacker

By: Robert Davis

Linebackers that can run and cover ground have always been coveted. Tight ends have become bigger weapons in the passing game, and the amount of teams spreading defenses out has made them a necessity in today's NFL.

There isn't a more complete package at the position than Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith, although a late season injury has clouded his future. When healthy, he is a fantastic athlete, showing the flexibility to change direction breaking down, turning and running in coverage, and bend rushing the passer off the edge. He is as fluid a linebacker as you will see and his ability to play sideline to sideline is special. The fact that he has those movement skills in a 6'3 240lb package is special. Smith isn't just an athlete, however. In addition to possession the physical skills to be the type of linebacker that never leaves the field, he shows very good instincts. He's quick to read the run and attack the line, but also shows the awareness in space and in coverage to make plays. As gifted and as good as Smith has been on the field, a knee injury has clouded his future. He's dropped to 225lbs since the injury, and he may not be able to play at all as a rookie. With the injury and surgery being so recent, it's hard to get a true feel for his recovery and long term prognosis. Late medical evaluations in April will go a long way in determing his draft stock. Once a top ten lock, Smith looks like a redshirt candidate as a rookie, which may cause him to slide pretty far on draft day.

UCLA's Myles Jack is another standout athlete. He has the speed, athleticism, and range on par with Smith. He is a very aggressive player who wants to hit you, and hit you hard. He has the speed, quickness, and change of direction to do anything he wants on the field. His athleticism and speed are so special, he doubled as a running back for the Bruins and was a difference maker at that position as well. There are no questions with Jack's ability to cover ground and make plays on defense, but he does have some questions and areas he needs to work on. His junior season ended early with a knee injury, and he signed with an agent immediately. His medical reports and ability to work out for teams will be key for determining exactly where he ends up on draft day. His aggressiveness can also get the best of him at times, as he can bite on play action and overrun some plays. The knee injury kept him from working out at the combine, but he will participate at UCLA's pro day. The times won't matter so much, because he's still in the recovery process. But how fluid and mobile he appears at this point of his rehab is important. If he is fluid and agile, Jack could be right back in discussion as a potential top five pick.

OLB RANKINGS
  1. Myles Jack, UCLA
  2. Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame
  3. Darron Lee, Ohio St.
  4. Leonard Floyd, Georgia
  5. SuĠa Cravens, USC
  6. Kamalei Correa, Boise St.
  7. Deion Jones, LSU
  8. Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
  9. Kyler Fackrell, Utah St.
  10. Jatavis Brown, Akron

Georgia's Leonard Floyd may have the most upside as a pass rusher in this entire draft class. He's another impressive physical specimen, standing 6'6 244lbs with very good athleticism and playmaking ability. He has experience rushing the passer off the edge as well as a traditional linebacker playing off the line, and shows the range and fluidity to do either in the NFL at a high level. That versatility should help him in the NFL, because he is still a work in progress as a pass rusher. He has the length, athleticism, and speed to get a terror off the edge, but it hasn't come together yet for him. Floyd needs to bulk up and get stronger to allow his speed to play up even more. While he works on his pass rush skills, he can still see the field and make plays in space. He definitely has the frame to add more eight and maintain his athleticism, and that may be needed to maximize his potential. If he can do that, he would have a complete package of speed, athleticism, and power. His potential is through the roof, and with a lack of explosive edge rushers near the top of the draft, Floyd could be in high demand on draft day.

Reggie Ragland of Alabama is the drafts top true inside linebacker, and by a good margin. He is does not fit the physical profile of many of the other guys on this list, but he has a different job to do. He has a thick and powerful build at 6'1 250, making him a load to block going downhill. He excels reading the play, exploding forward and making the play against the ball carrier. His strength allows him to absorb blocks and his power allows him to finish the play and hit the back with a jolt. He does not have great range, but he can fill gaps and make plays tackle to tackle. Ragland doesn't really have the athleticism or footspeed to match up in coverage, but he does have the instincts to see the ball and make a play on things over the middle of the field. Ragland's best traits may be his intangibles. He was the defensive leader for the Tide this year. He has the work ethic, toughness, and intelligence for that to carry over to the NFL and be a true leader at inside linebacker. He's not going to be a flashy playmaker, but his steadiness and physical style of play will help set the tone for the defense he joins.

Ohio State's Darron Lee might be the best athlete among the linebacker prospects. With Jaylon Smith and Myles Jack on the board, that is quite a statement. That athleticism is evident on the field. He flies around the field with tremendous speed and agility, looking like a defensive back flying around the field. That range and change of direction allow him to make plays in all facets of the game. He can drop into coverage, play sideline to sideline against the run, and he can wreak havoc as a blitzer. Lee also shows impressive natural instincts for a draft eligible sophomore. He quickly reads the action and with his speed, is always around the action. Lee is a bit light in the pants though, and that is just as evident on the field as his strengths are. He is willing to take on blocks and sort through traffic, but he does not have the bulk or strength to hold up at the point of attack and may have trouble with large tight ends down the field. Lee's range and playmaking ability will be very attractive on draft day. He is capable of playing now with those skills, but still has potential left in his game because of his youth and inexperience. Had he spent another year in college, he could have been the 2017 version of Myles Jack. If he can get stronger and bulk up, he could be as good as any linebacker in this draft.

Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence is arguably the top 34 OLB prospect available this year. He isn't your typical small school star, as he starred at Ohio St. before he was banned by the Big 10 for a drug problem. He has a powerfully built 6'3 260lb frame, which would benefit him in terms of playing early on Sundays. Spence also has impressive natural athleticism and change of direction off the edge, and he shows tremendous upside as a pass rusher. His time at Ohio State will put scouts at ease that his physical traits can project to big plays at a higher level, because he was a playmaker before his dismissal. That drug problem will be the biggest issue facing Spence as he goes through the post season process. He's a certain first rounder physically. He has apparently kicked his habit during his time at EKU, but teams will need more than that to be assured that he will not regress once he has money and a lot of freedom as a pro athlete. The talent is there to be a 34 OLB or even a 43 DE, but he needs to be focused. There have been reports of teams being turned off by his interviews, but that is all speculation. The truth will come out on draft day if he slides, but ultimately, only one team needs to fall in love. Teams will overlook a lot of things for talented pass rushers, and Spence is one of the best in the draft. p>
ILB RANKINGS
  1. Reggie Ragland, Alabama
  2. Kentrell Brothers, Missouri
  3. Josh Parry, Ohio St.
  4. Scooby Wright, Arizona
  5. Tyler Matakevich, Temple
  6. Dominique Alexander, Oklahoma
  7. Nick Kwiatkowski, West Virginia
  8. Blake Martinez, Stanford
  9. Nick Vigil, Utah St.
  10. BJ Goodson, Clemson

Su'a Cravens of USC is a lot like his crosstown counterpart, Jack. Across the board, he's not quite as good as Jack, but he is still an excellent athlete with good speed and playmaking ability, in a slightly smaller frame. Cravens is such a gifted athlete, that he could be a better fit at safety. That's the position he prefers, and the position his 6'1 225lb frame probably fits better at. Some teams will like him at linebacker, which is why he'll get a lot of looks at the position. Cravens has a knack for knowing where the action will be and finds a way to get there, even when sorting through the trash near the line of scrimmage, with much bigger players. His lack of bulk can be a problem when he's run straight at, which will limit him to specific schemes if they view him as a linebacker. But his cover ability will really be coveted. He can play man coverage against any tight end and even some bigger receivers and stay stride for stride with them. Cravens has the physical tools and instincts to be a real playmaker in the NFL. Whether hes a weakside linebacker in a 43 defense or as a physical, all around safety. He isn't the type to wow in workouts, but he shows up on game day. He is a day two pick that fits different teams in different ways with his positional versatility.

Georgia's Jordan Jenkins is not quite the physical specimen his teammate Leonard Floyd is, but he's a better football player at this point. He has a squatty build, tipping the scales at 6'3 260. He uses that stout build to his advantage, playing with more power than a player of those dimensions is expected to. He can set the edge well, and shows some pop to knock the blocker on his heels. That ability will allow him make an early impact in the NFL, whether as a 34 OLB or with his hand down, two roles he has experience in. Jenkins does have impressive quickness and is a good athlete, with the ability to consistently beat tackles off the edge and apply pressure on the QB. He isn't a freak athlete and doesn't have great closing speed but his ability to play with quickness and power allow him to play multiple roles in multiple fronts, and his all around game will be a nice addition to some teams front seven on day two.

Arizona's Scooby Wright is a hard player to miss when you watch the Wildcats play. His aggressiveness and nose for the football are truly impressive. He plays the game at 100mph for 60 minutes. He displays excellent instincts on the field, quickly reading the action, then flying upfield to the ball carrier. His sophomore season was truly remarkable. He turned in 163 tackles, 29 for loss, with 14 sacks, and six forced fumbles. His aggressive nature and quickness to read the action in front of him allow him to get into the backfield as a blitzer and to get to plays outside the tackle box. Despite all the big plays and his productivity, Wright has some glaring concerns about his game. His aggression can cause him to overrun the action, but more importantly, he is in on a lot of hits. That could affect his durability. Wright missed most of his junior season because of knee and foot injuries suffered in games, and that may be a concern in the NFL. He also isn't the most physically gifted player at his position. He's got some quickness and can close on the ball because he reads things so quickly, but he's not going to match up well in coverage and isn't going to make plays on sheer speed or strength. Wright's style of play allows him to make a lot of plays and that should carry over to the NFL, but he will need to learn to be a bit more disciplined. He will probably need some protection up front because he isn't great at shedding blocks, but his intensity can be infectious and will be a boost to a teams linebacking corps. Wright confirmed that he isn't a workout warrior, posting pedestrian numbers at the combine, including a 4.9 40 that will hurt his stock. He is a gamer though, so expect to see him making plays in the NFL, no matter where he is drafted.

Other names to watch: Deion Jones, OLB(LSU), ILB Kentrell Brothers(Missouri), OLB Josh Perry(Ohio St), ILB Tyler Matakevich(Temple), OLB Kyler Fackrell(Utah St)

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