I'm a gigantic fan of Washington's Ben Burr-Kirven, so much so that he's my top off-ball linebacker headed into the combine. I've certainly scouted better linebacker classes than this one, but there's a huge collection of middle round prospects with NFL-caliber athleticism but limited experience in coverage and using their hands to beat blockers as they scrape across the second level.
This is the seventh installment in a position-by-position breakdown of the rankings of prospects you need to know in the 2019 NFL Draft.
*Important note: These rankings are subject to change somewhat after the combine.
Instant impact starters
1. Ben Burr-Kirven, Washington
2. Devin White, LSU
3. Devin Bush, Michigan
4. Terrill Hanks, New Mexico State
5. Blake Cashman, Minnesota
Similar to Terronne Prescod, you won't see Burr-Kirven ranked anywhere as close to this high anywhere else on the interwebs. And that's fine by me. Burr-Kirven is a smaller linebacker, but in today's NFL, I'd much rather my linebackers be in the 220-pound range than in the 240-plus round range if they're around 6-foot-0. He's an awesome block-shedder and sifts through traffic across the field better than any linebacker in the class.on NC State guard
While not an amazing, high-end athlete, he certainly can cover ground quickly to close on the football. In coverage, Burr-Kirven rapidly reacts to route concepts to limit yards after the catch or even break up the pass. The combine will either cement his status as my favorite linebacker prospect in this class or push him down a bit. Either way, he's a twitchy, refined second-level defender ideally suited for the modern-day NFL.
White is the odds-on favorite to be the first linebacker off the board, and I totally get it. He's a wide, chiseled, athletic freak of nature who flies all over the field. He can play a little out of control, which leads to him overrunning the football and, at times, inconsistency as a tackler. He has the physical profile to thrive in coverage.
Much of the same is true with Bush, although he's a shorter, stockier version of White. There are not limitations with him athletically, and he doesn't back down from any meeting with any blocker in space. I would've liked to see more plays in coverage. Hanks has drawn some Darius Leonard comparisons, and while I thought Leonard was a better cover linebacker coming out of South Carolina State a season ago, the explosive see-ball, get-ball style from Hanks is similar to the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year. Awesome sideline-to-sideline range.
Cashman is very under control and steady. Almost always in the right place at the right time, and is a textbook, wrap-up tackler. He's aggressive as a blitzer and is smooth enough moving in any direction to be an asset in coverage.
Decent starters / valuable backups in need of polish
6. Dakota Allen, Texas Tech
7. Vosean Joseph, Florida
8. Te'von Coney, Notre Dame
9. Germaine Pratt, NC State
10. Jordan Jones, Kentucky
11. Mack Wilson, Alabama
12. Bobby Okereke, Stanford
13. Jeff Allison, Fresno State
14. Tyrel Dodson, Texas A&M
15. Drue Tranquill, Notre Dame
This large tier is all graded very closely right now, as the vast majority of them are "new-age" sleek linebackers with plus athleticism, not much block-shedding ability, and the physical skills to ultimately be good in coverage.
The only outlier is Coney, a slower, more methodical player who can defeat blocks and is an adequate underneath coverage defender but not someone you want lining up with tight ends or running backs at the next level.
Allen doesn't waste any time or movements en route to the football. He's comfortable playing in space coming from Texas Tech. Joseph isn't the most reliable tackler and can look like a future All-Pro one game then a late-round pick the next. He's a gifted athlete with above-average ability to defeat blocks. Pratt is a former safety with impressive mobility and dynamic closing speed. I'd love to see him use his longer arms more authoritatively against blockers in space and make more plays in coverage.
Jones is a spring-loaded, twitchy mover who loves shooting gaps to make impact plays in the backfield. If you can keep him relatively clean, he can be a high-level producer. Wilson could be the most athletically gifted player of the group, but his play simply doesn't match this physical capabilities. He's not aggressive, isn't a reliable block-shedder, can miss some tackles in space, but is a decent coverage linebacker.
Okereke is a tall, long, good athlete with high-end flashes who needs to recognize play designs quicker and simply hit the gas and go. He's much better coming downhill than in coverage. Allison, a linebacker who'd benefit from losing weight at the next level, has incredible straight-line burst but at times is stiff when needing to change directions. Somewhat of a coverage liability too. Much of the same is true of Dodson. He's not as explosive to the football as Allison. Tranquill has more build-up speed than explosiveness in his movements but is an experienced coverage linebacker who'll be useful at the pro level. He's not a reliable tackler however.
16. T.J. Edwards, Wisconsin
17. Deshaun Davis, Auburn
18. David Long, West Virginia
19. Cameron Smith, USC
20. Kendall Joseph, Clemson
21. Joe Giles-Harris, Duke
22. Gary Johnson, Texas
23. Otaro Alaka, Texas A&M
24. Khalil Hodge, Buffalo
25. Joe Dineen, Kansas
26. Dre Greenlaw, Arkansas
Most of the players in this group are what you'd probably expect -- slower, stiffer, run-stopping specialists who would've been much more sought after had they entered the NFL even 10 years ago. Edwards produced in coverage while at Wisconsin. He's similar to Coney in a way that, while not overly fast, you always see him around the ball. Davis a little twitchier but often looks lost when retreating.
Smith made the right choice by returning for his senior year and shedding weight. He's typically in good position, improved his coverage skills in 2018 but stays glued to blocks too often for how experienced he is. And he's still not an upper-level athlete for the position. Long can mirror running backs as well as any linebacker in the class. In fact, he has a running back body. I'm concerned with his tackling radius at under 6-0 with short arms. Joseph played behind the best defensive line in college football and, weirdly, can look like a springy linebacker one play, then a stiff defender with a high center of gravity the next.
Giles-Harris has an NFL body right now, and he's not totally immobile. He works well across the field through traffic just doesn't possess the traits needs to flourish in coverage. Johnson is a smaller, high-energy player I view in a similar vein to Long, and Alaka and Hodge are methodical lateral movers with moments of higher-end twitch when flying downhill and the ability to beat blocks.
Dineen is a run-stopping menace who's a step ahead of everyone else on the field. He's a bouncy athlete who can win in tight quarters. Greenlaw looks like a big safety on the field and showcases smooth movements. He's just far behind when it comes to defeating blocks to get to the ball-carrier.