A – Top Tier
B – Starter
C – Backup
D – Practice Squad
Recent Prospect Grade Comparison: Luke Kuechly, A+
1. Roquan Smith – Generally believed to be the top linebacker in this draft class, Smith is a smaller playmaker who would excel as a sideline to sideline player. He is very fast, using his amazing instincts to read plays and rack up tackles. He excels at getting to the outside, as he is very good at taking the correct pursuit angles to cut off the ball carrier. Although he lacks big hitting ability, his tackling form is good and physical. He is a liability in the interior run game, one of the few flaws in his game. However, he merely gets outsized – rather than fully bullied – and can sometimes shed tackles to make the play. Although Smith tends to get blocked on interior runs, he is generally around the ball and is a very clutch player. He performs his best in big games, coming through with big tackles in particular. Additionally, he did show up to the combine with added weight and still exhibited his top tier movement skills. While he was not fully tested in the passing game, he displays the speed and athleticism to do very well in coverage. As such, he has the tools to play in zone or man coverage effectively and fluidly. He was also the leader of the Georgia defense, a big positive for an NFL team. He is very similar to Myles Jack and would exceed in a similar playmaker type role.
2. Josey Jewell – A classic 4-3 Mike linebacker, Jewell is a general in the middle of the field. He has great instincts and a nose for the ball, important traits that allow him to control the middle of the field. He shows great effort and toughness in the middle of the field, as well as a willingness to engage blockers. He is not particularly big or athletic, but he can shed blockers and is a fluid player. Although he is on the slower side, his speed generally only serves as a hindrance when a play is outside the numbers. He makes up for his lack of top end speed with good technique, showing the ability to shadow running backs out of the backfield and read the quarterback in zone coverage. Additionally, he uses his instincts to read plays and give him an advantage, although he can get trapped in the crowd of blockers at times. He is also disciplined in the run game, staying in his gaps and not over-pursuing. He is a leader who is very technically sound in all aspects of his game, someone who will serve as the center of an NFL defense for many years.
3. Rashaan Evans – An inside linebacker out of Alabama, Evans has had the benefit of excellent coaching that should enable him to have a smooth transition to the NFL. Although he is not an impressive athlete, he is very physical and versatile, as well as possessing enough speed to make plays the full width of the field. He is also a high effort player, going full speed when attacking the ball either in the air or on the ground. He is very good in coverage, especially for a larger linebacker. He reads the quarterback very well and does a very good job shadowing receivers in coverage to make a play on the ball. In the run game, he is good at shedding blocks and shooting gaps to make plays on the running back. While he is a good tackler, he rarely makes splash plays in the running game, in large part due to his lack of natural instincts. In addition to being a good inside linebacker, Evans also displays above average pass rushing ability off the edge. He has a very good spin move and a good combination of burst and power. His versatility and ability to do well in all facets of the position make him ideal for todays NFL, but his lack of natural feel for the position prevents him from being elite.
4. Darius Leonard – A well rounded linebacker, Leonard faces questions about his ability to compete with higher level competition. He plays at full speed all the time, going after plays like he has a chip on his shoulder. He is a violent tackler, hitting with his whole body and stalling players bigger than him in their tracks. He has some missed tackles when he doesn’t break down well. He is capable at shedding smaller blockers, although he struggles with bigger and stronger players. However, he is not fully filled out at 6′ 3″, so he could easily gain the play strength to make his technique more effective. He is very patient in waiting for plays to develop, enabling him to diagnose plays and not get fooled easily. It is in this manner that he makes many of his tackles, although there are times where he misses out on a big play due to this. He is a bigger asset in stopping the pass game, as he excels at reading the quarterback’s eyes. He is a good blitzer from all of the linebacker spots, and is great at knowing when to come up and make plays on the quarterback. Additionally, he is very fluid in coverage, showing great movement skills when in man or zone coverage and good athleticism when making plays on the ball. The concerns about his playing level were quieted while at the Senior Bowl, helping to negate one of his biggest perceived flaws.
5. Malik Jefferson – An elite run defender, Jefferson is a more raw version of Dont’a Hightower. He is very strong and fast, and his explosiveness shows up on the field. However, he can get lazy at times when chasing plays to the sideline, limiting his ability to play the full width of the field. He is an elite run defender who has questions in the pass game, in large part due to his limited action in coverage. He is extremely physical playing the run, with solid tackles and a great deal of pop in his hits. Although he has more toughness than instinct, he is disciplined in his run defense and is great at shooting gaps to make tackles. He is good at scraping along the line and taking on bigger blockers in order to get to the ball carrier. Ideally, he would fit in a 3-4 Mike linebacker role. He doesn’t have very fluid hips, contributing to his flaws in coverage and adjusting to cutbacks. He can play some zone coverage adequately because of his athletic traits, although he is better at chasing the quarterback. He is a tone setter on defense, displaying the hitting ability and aggressiveness to anchor the run game. While his talent and athleticism are undeniable, his questionable effort and other off the field issues are red flags that lower his value.
8. Tremaine Edmunds – At only 19 years of age, Edmunds is extremely raw and extremely athletic. He is very long for a linebacker, but he still possesses great speed and strength. He is a physical and aggressive hitter, pounding the ball carrier relentlessly. Additionally, he is extremely willing to take on blocks, relying on his athleticism to shed blocks. There are also times where he explodes into the running lane before the blocker gets there, using his athleticism to make the play. However, his football instincts and IQ are a detriment to his talent, as he is often taken out of plays because of it. There are many times where he whiffs tackles because of bad angles or is drawn in by fakes and is unable to recover. He has a much better feel for the game in pass coverage, displaying the ability to match up with offensive players in man coverage. He is also good at playing the ball, using his length and speed to make the play. He is decent in zone coverage, as his top tier movement skills generally put him in a good position. He does make mistakes and misses players. He is more of an athletic talent than a football talent, although there is much correlation between the two. Much of his upside depends on the ability of NFL coaches to harness his talent and prepare him mentally, as he has the ability and time to be developed into a dominant player.
6. Leighton Vander Esch – A popular sleeper candidate at the linebacker position, Vander Esch is a long athlete who faces questions about his lack of starter experience and competition levels. He has very long strides when running, but he also has nimble feet to avoid cut blocks and make transitions. While he has bad instincts, he is a turnover generator, especially in important games. He can get caught in bad situations due to his lack of ability to read plays. If he recovers from such plays, it is generally more due to his propensity to chase everything than his athleticism. His strength is in his pass coverage, where he is one of the best at transitioning and making fluid turns in the draft. Similarly, he makes very clean speed turns, wasting little motion and using excellent footwork. He has a great feel for zone coverage, staying in good position to read both the quarterback and the receivers. He is also good at using his size and strength, challenging bigger blockers and getting an arm free to make a tackle. However, Vander Esch has some problems tackling, as it is not uncommon to see him whiff tackles by failing to get a good angle. While he has some problems, he can be a solid starter now and should develop into a good player down the line.
7. Shaquem Griffin – Seen by many as merely a feel-good story, Griffin is a high-level player regardless of his disability. He shows outstanding effort chasing down the ball carrier and has elite speed to match. He is extremely versatile, as he can both rush the passer off the edge and play slot corner. He is an good blitzer from the inside and outside, using his quickness and athleticism to beat blockers with good bend and a good spin move. However, he lacks balance often, making him susceptible to harder blocks. He also has trouble disengaging from blocks due to his inability to hand fight effectively, and he lacks hitting tenacity. He is also an average tackler, although he sometimes has problems holding on to the ball carrier. He is a huge playmaker, showing the ability to take over at times. Additionally, he is very good at getting splash plays, using his missing hand to force fumbles and not letting it prevent him from getting interceptions. In coverage, he plays very relaxedly and fluid, a testament to his confidence in his speed. He is undersized for a linebacker, contributing to his low play strength. He is forced to rely on his speed at times because he lacks above average instincts, often making plays by chasing opponents from behind. Griffin can be used effectively as a hybrid player and playmaker, although he lacks the positional talent to be a full time starter at any position.