2019 NFL Draft: Here's an early introduction to six of the potential top linebackers
Let's peek ahead at the possible headliners in the 2019 draft class of linebackers
Four super-talented and productive off-ball linebackers were selected in the first round in the 2018 draft, and while the 2019 group doesn't feature prospects with the size of Tremaine Edmunds or Leighton Vander Esch, there are a few linebackers who have some Roquan Smith to their games.
Here's an early introduction to the potential top linebacker prospects in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Experience: Has appeared in 33 games for the Fighting Irish and spent the past two seasons as a regular contributor. Had 61 tackles in 2016. Last year, his tackle figure jumped to 116, and he had 11.5 tackles for loss to go along with three sacks.
Strengths: Flashes of impressive ability to quickly scrape through traffic and dispatch weaker blocks to get to the ball. Requisite sideline-to-sideline speed to meet running backs at the corner. Body type of a safety. Plays under control and is a very reliable tackler. Sinks comfortably into zone coverage. Change-of-direction explosion is what you look for in a linebacker.
Weaknesses: Needs to make more plays on the ball and get more reliable when shedding blocks. Not extremely fast and could stand to get more powerful. Motor isn't bad but has a tendency to run hot-and-cold.
Early comparison: Jordan Hicks
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Experience: Enters the 2018 season with 22 games of experience at LSU. Exploded in 2017 with 133 total tackles -- but just 37 solo -- with 13.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Also defended three passes and had an interception.
Strengths: Incredibly dynamic athlete who plays with noticeable urgency. Elite twitch and plus speed. Is not limited physically whatsoever. Unafraid of blockers getting to the second level. Usually avoids them but very willing to deliver a powerful pop to initiate contact with blockers before shedding. Capable of manning up in coverage and decently aware in zone. Effective blitzer.
Weaknesses: Plays out of control and at top gear too often, which leads to a plethora of missed tackles.
Early comparison: Myles Jack
T.J. Edwards, Wisconsin
Experience: Has already been a part of 40 games at Wisconsin. Has reached the 80-tackle plateau every season. Following 8.5 tackles for loss, three picks, and three sacks in 2016, Edwards had 11 tackles for loss, four interceptions, and two sacks in 2017. Also had seven pass breakups last season.
Strengths: Powerful at the point of attack. Refined block-shedding ability and knows how to work through traffic and around blocks to get to the ball-carrier. Keen play-recognition skills that help him sniff out screens and misdirection plays. Rarely caught out of position. Quickly finds receivers in his area in zone.
Weaknesses: Could stand to drop some weight to increase his overall speed and quickness. Not a true sideline-to-sideline linebacker at this point.
Early comparison: Reggie Ragland
Experience: Has appeared in 30 games over three seasons at Clemson, starting the past two. As a sophomore in 2016, he had 106 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. Last year, his numbers dipped to 96 tackles, five tackles for loss and a half sack.
Strengths: Looks the part of a modern-day linebacker. Good height and weight but not bulky. Sudden movements and his springiness and long strides lead to him covering ground efficiently. Very quick reaction to his keys against the run. Uses his plus length to his advantage and is above average at dispatching blocks. Flashed the ability to avoid them too. Not a rare athlete yet is rarely hindered physically. Moves well, has good speed and plays with a high motor.
Weaknesses: Mostly a run-game specialist. Not nearly as comfortable in coverage, and it shows with his limited pass-game production. Tackling can be hit-or-miss.
Early comparison: Demario Davis
Experience: Played sparingly in 2016, when he had 11 tackles in seven games. Was a starter in 2017, and erupted with 95 tackles -- 44 solo -- 10 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and seven pass breakups.
Strengths: Looks like a running back and has the skill set of one too. He is a smaller linebacker but extremely difficult to block mainly due to his twitchiness, body control, and plus quickness. Easily gets around blocks. Plays with immense suddenness and deceptive power for his size. Understands how to get underneath the pads of blockers and shed them in the run game. Has moments of impressive coverage skills. Not only can he sink into short zones but can man up with backs out of the backfield. Almost looks like a safety. Very reliable tackler. Delivers a strong pop and wraps up consistently. Highly effective blitzer because of his athleticism and good speed-to-power conversion. Takes efficient angles to the quarterback.
Weaknesses: Not quite 6-0. And his lack of length may very well hurt him against bigger, longer offensive linemen at the NFL level. Could stand to improve his straight-line speed.
Early comparison: Shaq Thompson
Experience: Has played in 24 games at Buffalo, accumulating 267 total tackles (including 153 in 2017). He also had two interceptions and 6.5 tackles for loss last season after a seven-tackles-for-loss campaign in 2016.
Strengths: Reacts to plays much quicker than most linebackers his age. Body and speed of a well-built strong safety. Crafty block-avoider and has the athleticism to get to the ball-carrier even if he can't take a straight line to him. Smooth zone drops and can make the acrobatic interception while sinking. Flashed some stack-and-shed ability. Mostly a reliable, form tackler.
Weaknesses: Could stand to get a little more powerful and consistent at the point of attack against lead blockers. Must play with a little more urgency en route to runners. The same goes for his sideline-to-sideline speed. Not stiff but doesn't possess top-level change-of-direction skills.
Early comparison: Matt Milano
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