Thor Nystrom

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NFL Draft LB Rankings

Monday, April 16, 2018


To minimize clutter and confusion, I’ve combined my LB rankings into one list, which should give you a better idea of where I see value on an apples-to-apples basis. For each player, I’ve included a column listing best NFL position fit.

 

1. Roquan Smith (Georgia) | 6’1/236 | NFL position: 4-3 OLB or 3-4 ILB

 

Athletic composite percentile: 68.1%

Player Comp: Lavonte David (hat tip: Jonah Tuls)

 

The NFL has learned to weaponize players with Smith’s skillset, and Smith may be the most evolved of all of them heading into the pros. He’s undersized, and that can be an issue when an offensive lineman locks onto him. That’s about all I’ve got from a nitpicking standpoint (and I should add that OL rarely, rarely get their hands on him).

 

Smith was my favorite defender to watch in college football last season—and it wasn’t close. Georgia wouldn’t have beaten Oklahoma without him (nor made it to the Playoff in the first place). He’s not a heat-seeking missile—he’s a drone. He sees you when you don’t see him. He strikes from anywhere, and sometimes it appears like he’s everywhere. He’s a next-generation linebacker as an athletic super-freak with a nasty streak. His play speed and lateral agility is as good as it gets in this class, and he absolutely lays people out when he gets to the ball.

 

You'll almost never see Smith get fooled by fakes. Fiery competitor. Technically sound player. Smith’s lack of length is in many ways mitigated by his preternatural ability to make tackles outside of his frame. When Vladimir Guerrero was coming up, his plate discipline was lampooned—he was seen as a player who would swing at anything, even pitches in the dirt and intentional walk offerings. That turned out to be spot on, but the thing of it was that Vladdy kept crushing at the highest level because he could hit junk pitches like nobody we’d ever seen. Roquan Smith makes tackles outside of his frame in the same way—he doesn’t need to be squared up to level you, and he doesn’t need a great angle to bring you down.

 

Already a fabulous run defender, Smith’s elite athleticism makes it easy to project him as a stud in coverage as well heading into a league that airs it out on nearly 65-percent of its offensive plays. He could become one of the NFL’s best linebackers in short order.

 

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2. Tremaine Edmunds (Virginia Tech) | 6’4/253 | NFL position: 4-3 MLB or 3-4 OLB

 

Athletic composite percentile: 69.2%

Player Comp: Anthony Barr (hat tip: Chris Trapasso)

 

Edmunds' ceiling is difficult to get a grip on. Edmunds is enormous, runs like a gazelle and has quick-twitch, explosive athleticism. Above, I mentioned that Smith has developed an insane capacity for tackling outside of his frame. Edmunds needs no such skill—with his length and long arms, his natural tackling radius is epically huge.

 

Over the past two seasons—his true sophomore and junior campaigns—Edmunds lived up to his hyped recruiting billing by combining for 215 tackles, 32.5 TFL, 10 sacks and three forced fumbles. Edmunds’ elite combination of size/speed will help his NFL defense negate the league’s deep collection of mismatch-making move TEs, assuming he keeps improving in coverage.

 

Could turn into one of the NFL’s best linebackers if he can learn to play up his athleticism even more by camping in the film room and improving his instincts. They aren’t poor. But improving them from a B- to an A- will yield one of the scariest defenders in the game. And there’s reason to believe that there’s plenty more development to come. Not only is Edmunds the youngest player in this class, he’s about to join Amobi Okoye (Houston Texans’ 2007 first-round selection) as just the second 19-year-old to ever be drafted into the NFL. Virginia Tech HC Justin Fuente lauds Edmunds’ work ethic and character.

 

3.  Rashaan Evans (Alabama) | 6’2/232 | NFL position: 3-4 ILB or 4-3 OLB

 

Athletic composite percentile: N/A

Player Comp: Nigel Bradham (hat tip: Chris Trapasso)

 

Alabama doesn’t miss on its five-star linebackers, and Evans was no exception. The Crimson Tide famously plucked him out of the city limits of Auburn, Alabama—Evans’ father was an Auburn running back who lost his job once the school signed Bo Jackson.

 

Evans is an exceptional athlete with a physical game. He’s at his vintage best when diagnosing quickly and exploding downhill to level a ball carrier. Evans has outstanding range and the agility and smarts to evade clutter on his way to the ball. Like most Crimson Tide defenders, he’s technically sound and highly competitive. Smith can get after the quarterback when unleashed as a rusher.

 

Evans’ evaluation isn’t quite as clean as Smith’s or Edmunds’. He didn’t become a full-time starter until last season, and he missed time in each of the past two seasons with injury (including two games with a groin injury in 2017). That has led to some durability concerns (his 2016 injury was also groin-related). Evans also needs to learn to play with better discipline. As mentioned, he’s best when playing the hunter in pursuit. But Evans is always in that mindset, and sometimes that leads to running himself out of the play or taking a few false steps. The hope is that his instincts will improve as he gets more experience.

 

4. Leighton Vander Esch (Boise State) | 6’4/256 | NFL position: 3-4 ILB

 

Athletic composite percentile: 97.3%

Player Comp: Early-career Karlos Dansby (hat tip: Lance Zierlein)

 

Vander Esch went ballistic in his first full season as a starter (half his 2016 season was wiped out with injuries), posting 141 tackles, 8.5 TFL, four sacks, four breakups, and four forced fumbles. Coming into 2017, he’d posted 47 career tackles.

 

After asserting himself as legitimate NFL prospect, Vander Esch went out and blew up the NFL Combine. He may look like a natural—with a big frame, long arms and ridiculous athleticism—but Vander Esch is a self-made star. He grew up in a small, 400-person Idaho city and arrived at Boise State as a zero-star walk-on. His work ethic around Boise is legendary.

 

The upside is high—he’s big, he’s athletic, he’s always around the ball, he covers a lot of ground in run defense and he’s strong in coverage—but Vander Esch remains a little raw due to limited collegiate starts. His technique is rudimentary, as you might expect from a player with a mere 14 collegiate starts. In conjunction with getting more mental reps, he’ll want to hit the weight room and fill out that long frame.

 

He isn’t a very physical linebacker, and if he never develops that nastiness, Vander Esch may ultimately become a good-but-not-great player. It’s also worth pointing out that Walter Football’s Charlie Campbell and ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported on Monday that a few teams had flagged Vander Esch’s medicals. Not long after, I was told by a league source that teams are looking into a pinched nerve in Vander Esch's neck, the injury he suffered along with a concussion to end his 2016 season. It's important to note that Vander Esch was completely healthy and fabulously productive last season, so this may end up being a minor issue that doesn't affect his stock in the slightest.

 

5. Malik Jefferson (Texas) | 6’2/236 | NFL position: 4-3 OLB

 

Athletic composite percentile: 89.3%

Player Comp: Lawrence Timmons (hat tip: Jonathan Tuls)

 

Jefferson was the nation's top linebacker coming out of high school. He enjoyed his best season last year, but Jefferson's stock fell anyway after he entered the campaign as a consensus first-round prospect.

 

The size/speed combo has always jumped off the tape, but Jefferson has a tendency to play out of control. He’s at his best when he’s straight attacking. When he’s asked to dissect and react, his feel for his responsibilities evaporates and he can become a little lost-puppy tentative. I tend to forgive him for a little of the delayed development because of Texas’ coaching changes during his tenure and the playing time deprived of him due to a concussion in 2016.

 

However, it is true that Jefferson plays a little lazy and sluggish sometimes, relishing the opportunity to deliver a blow but shirking away from blockers in a way that can be detrimental to his team. He also needs to improve in coverage. This is a top-of-Round 1 physical package with enough questions surrounding his game that he’ll likely be available on Day 2.

 

6. Josey Jewell (Iowa) | 6’1/234 | NFL position: 4-3 MLB or 3-4 ILB

 

Athletic composite percentile: 32.8%

Player Comp: Sean Lee (hat tip: Lance Zierlein)

 

Jewell is a personal favorite. As an Iowa alum, I don’t miss a snap of Hawkeye football. Jewell jumped off the screen constantly over the past four years. He had 51 tackles as a redshirt freshman and then topped 120 tackles each of the three years after that (433 tackles, 28 TFL, 10 sacks, six interceptions and 26 passes defended over his Hawkeye career).

 

Dude diagnoses quicker than the kid on 'The Good Doctor.' He doesn’t get fooled, he doesn’t miss tackles, and he’s surprisingly strong in pass coverage due to his instincts. The knocks on him are size and speed, and that’ll conspire to push him down the board a bit. It’s fair to point out that he plays faster than he tests, another attribute that can be partially attributed to his smarts—he gets where he’s going as fast or faster than quicker players because he sees the play developing in his head sooner. And while he only tested in the 32nd percentile as an athlete, Jewell finished second among all linebackers with a 6.8 three-cone time—one of the 10-fastest LB three-cone times of the past decade. He also had strong shuttle times.

 

Jewell isn’t the biggest, fastest or most explosive, but he’s right up there in productivity, brains, diagnostic skills, character, toughness, competitiveness and agility. Some team is about to get a Day 1 starter and a tone-setter on a discount.

 

7. Lorenzo Carter (Georgia) | 6’5/250 | NFL position: OLB

 

Athletic composite percentile: 96.1%

Player Comp: Na’il Diggs (hat tip: Lance Zierlein)

 

It has always made me uncomfortable to read the sentence: “He’s a specimen.” But Lorenzo Carter has given me no choice... Holy cow is this dude a specimen! Carter is enormous, with a long, well-built frame, huge hands and a long wingspan. And the former five-star recruit is also a freakish athlete, ranking No. 3 in testing when combining all edge rushers and linebackers in this class (behind only Leighton Vander Esch and Matthew Thomas).

 

You see the speed on film, with Carter galloping all over the field to corral running backs and crashing down hard on the quarterback off the edge. Long-legged and a long strider, Carter is at his best when he has a clear path to sprint along and less effective when he has to navigate around bodies to reach the target. Carter is around the ball often. He posted 14 sacks, seven forced fumbles and five fumbles recovered at Georgia.

 

Carter has more of a finesse game than you’d expect with his build. He can have issues disengaging and/or holding his ground when offensive linemen latch on. Improving his play strength would help, as would adding a few moves to his pass-rushing arsenal. This is an uneven profile, to be sure, but athletic packages like this are rare. If Carter isn’t taken in Round 1, he won’t be around long on Friday night.

 

8. Fred Warner (BYU) | 6’3/236 | NFL position: 4-3 OLB

 

Athletic composite percentile: 80.4%

Player Comp: Kyle Van Noy (hat tip: Parker Hurley)

 

Warner is a former ballyhooed recruit who spurned USC and Washington to sign with BYU. He plays with outstanding athleticism, and his calling card, heading into a pass-happy league, is coverage chops (20 passes defended and seven interceptions with two pick-sixes at BYU). To add to his possession-change prowess, Warner also recovered five fumbles for BYU. You draft Warner with the intention of having more success against pass-catching tight ends next year.

 

Warner is a little thin, and it’s hard for him to disengage when a lineman gets his hands on him. He’s a reliable tackler, but he’s more finesse than enforcer in that area of the game. The NFL has realized the value in players like Warner in recent years, and Warner’s draft position figures to reflect that.

 

9. Arden Key (LSU) | 6’5/238 | NFL position: Edge rusher

 

Athletic composite percentile: N/A

Player Comp: Randy Gregory (hat tip: Jonah Tuls)

 

Key’s commitment to his craft is being questioned around the NFL right now. In one of the more bizarre college football stories from a year ago, Key mysteriously left the Tigers for several months in the offseason. The coaching staff cited shoulder surgery. That type of thing typically doesn’t lead to a player ghosting his squad. Here’s how Walter Football’s Charlie Campbell summarized the situation: “(NFL teams feel that) Key's off-the-field issues are similar to Randy Gregory or Tim Williams.” Key was also often injured in college and carries durability concerns.

 

Gregory has become the go-to comp for Key, another boom-or-bust proposition. Key is a fabulous talent, with length, flexibility and natural explosion. He posted 21 sacks in 31 career games at LSU. If it all comes together, he could easily turn into one of this class’ best edge rushers. If it doesn’t? Well, he’ll be Randy Gregory, who has one career sack and has played in only two games over the past two years.

 

10. Kemoko Turay (Rutgers) | 6’5/253 | NFL position: Edge rusher

 

Athletic composite percentile: N/A

Player Comp: Bud Dupree (hat tip: Dan Matney)

 

Turay will require some gamble on Draft Day to take the plunge, but his ceiling will likely convince a team to do so in Round 2. He’s extremely long, thin and explosive. Turay can bend the edge, and he knows how to use his hands. He’s better moving north-to-south than east-to-west—he has running back speed when given the chance to work up to it—and you can cripple his effectiveness by jarring him off his path. 

 

For all his talent, Turay had a bizarre career at Rutgers. He burst onto the scene as a freshman (8.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks) but curiously went through long stretches of milk carton disappearance over the past three campaigns, in part due to injuries (eight sacks combined between 2015-2017). Turay isn’t likely to ever turn into a strong defender against the run. You invest because of the rare pass-rushing traits and hope for the best.

 


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Thor Nystrom is a former MLB.com associate reporter whose writing has been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to Rotoworld's college football writer on Twitter @thorku.
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