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Devin White
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Evaluations

NFL Draft LB Rankings

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: April 19, 2019, 11:02 pm ET

The spider web of each prospect's test results from the NFL Combine comes courtesy of MockDraftable. SPARQ composite scores are provided by Zach Whitman. All players’ ages are calculated as of September 2019.

This is the 10th installment of my NFL Draft deep-dive scouting series, following quarterbacksrunning backstight endswide receiversguardscenterstacklesinterior DL and EDGE. Wrapping up next with defensive backs, followed by my top-400 big board and my final mock draft on Wednesday!


1. Devin White (LSU) | 6’0/237

Age: 21.5

SPARQ percentile: 93.3

Comp: Myles Jack (Lance Zierlein)


devinwhite

Devin White is a different kind of dude. After watching a YouTube video about horses, he got it into his head that he would own one. Perhaps you’ve had a similar fleeting thought, if not about horses than about buying a yacht, or building an engine, or moving abroad for a year.

But Devin White isn’t into half-measures nor fleeting thoughts. He spent a day driving 12 hours to Tennessee to buy a horse while in college — this is a true story, I swear — named Daisy Mae. You may have seen the video of White riding Daisy Mae to class. If you haven’t, you’re in luck — enjoy.

White went on to buy six more horses. He and his stable — I predict it’s about to get a lot bigger! — are now off the NFL. The class of this year’s off-ball crop, White is a next-generation prototype. He’s a true five-tool modern linebacker: Athleticism, versatility, run defense, blitzing and coverage.

Against the run, White is a sideline-to-sideline drone who squares up targets and blasts them, like Aaron Judge. He racked up 256 tackles and the past two years in the SEC, and forced three fumbles last season.

As a blitzer, White sees creases, times his jailbreak, and explodes through them like a Jose Altuve line drive opposite-field double between two chasing outfielders. White may be the off-ball classes’ best blitzer. Over the past two campaigns, White logged 26 TFL, 7.5 sacks and 13 hurries.

And in coverage, White boasts the athleticism, skill and know-how to excel in both man and zone, an athletic rover out there like Byron Buxton. He broke up nine passes and picked off one ball the last two seasons.

He actually began his LSU career as a freaky 260-pound running back after arriving as a local four-star athlete. Tigers DC Dave Aranda — whom LSU had only just poached from Wisconsin earlier in the offseason — got one look at White in practice in 2016 and fell head over heals in love. 

Aranda’s first enormous recruiting win in Baton Rouge was convincing a kid who otherwise would have tried to become the Christian Okoye of our generation to lose a little weight and become the Whi-gerian Nightmare on defense.

White’s running back background — he shredded Louisiana prep defenses with over 5,000 rushing yards and 81 TD during his high school career — is apparent when watching him maneuver through traffic at high speeds while locked onto the ballcarrier.

As a true freshman, White earned playing time as a part-timer. He had one sack that year, and it came in the bowl game on New Year’s Eve against Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, who I picture jogging back to the sidelines to ask HC Bobby Petrino: “What in the #@$% was that?!”

A fiery player known as a locker room leader, White has labored in the film room to improve his instincts, an area that will play up each of his strengths as it continues to improve. On specific reps in college, White’s lost his athleticism trump card as he took an extra beat to decipher where the ball was going.

NFL offenses have gotten more tricky with misdirection in recent years, making read-and-react fluidity even more important. White can also lose a step or two on play-action, which forces him to play catchup. White bests Roquan Smith in more than one trait/area of the game, but I liked Roquan a wee bit more coming out last year due to Smith’s superior diagnostic skills. 

White can get engulfed by offensive linemen when his feet get stuck in the mud for a beat while processing (OL have all kinds of issues touching him if he diagnoses quickly and correctly). The more White is protected by block-eating interior linemen, and the more he cuts down on false steps, the more his athleticism will play up.

White also must work on thinking on his feet as quickly as his actual feet move. Sometimes his eyes are bigger than his stomach, causing him to come screaming in and either fritter a tackle away by either not barreling-up a runner or by outright overrunning him.

A fan favorite at LSU, White rides into the NFL as a top-10 overall talent with perennial Pro Bowl talent. Like his horses, White’s next developmental leap will occur when he’s broken of his tendency to buck and gallop at high speeds whenever he hears a loud noise. 

A disciplined Devin White is going to blast poor running backs and collect a trophy case full of hardware over the next decade. If he never gets there, he’ll merely be a good starter who bursts off the screen a few plays per game with a TNT detonation of a hit or by running down a ball carrier from behind like a racehorse who makes up several lengths down the home stretch to win the Preakness.


2. Devin Bush Jr. (Michigan) | 5’11/234

Age: 21.1

SPARQ percentile: 97.5 

Comp: Stephen Tulloch (Zierlein)


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An LB/S hybrid who may have been seen as a tweener two decades ago but is now a speed-nullifying trump card prototype, Bush is an electric athlete with a super processor between his ears.

He’s short and skinny but plays bigger than he is, consistently laying the wood because he generates a ton of force through speed and leverage. He screams toward the ball low to the ground, and springs through the hips at the target in the kill zone with form and ferocity. 

Bush rarely misses tackles. And because he has ridiculous range, he’s an extremely efficient and proficient defender, swishing a high-percentage at heavy volume like Steph Curry. And while he lacks length and strength, Bush has compensated like a linebacking version of RB Devin Singletary, picking his way through trash with agility, purpose and balance.

Bush’s father — Devin Bush Sr. — was a first-round safety of Atlanta’s in 1995 out of Florida State who won a Super Bowl on Kurt Warner’s “Greatest Show on Turf” 1999 Rams team. In a very cool turn of events, Bush Sr. was able to coach Bush Jr. when Jim Harbaugh hired the former as an analyst. 

Bush Jr. is fabulous in coverage, where his safety background and his father’s teachings really shine through. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s very difficult to shake because not many NFL RBs and TEs can match his size/athleticism combination.

Bush’s weaknesses are predictable for a player of his type. He’s not afraid of big uglies, but he gets trucked when he gets a kamikaze complex. And like White, Bush can overrun plays. Bush also will always have to play with a smaller tackling radius due to his dimensions, an issue he can’t just overcome with hard work.


3. Blake Cashman (Minnesota) | 6’1/237

Age: 23.3

SPARQ percentile: 90.9

Comp: Jake Ryan (Kyle Crabbs)


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When you write about the NFL Draft for work, you get DMs from little-known prospects looking for exposure (in the last class, UTSA CB Devron Davis was infamous for this), or from the friends and family members of overlooked guys. 

In early-January, I received a DM from a member of Cashman’s inner-circle that read: “Check out LB Blake Cashman from Minnesota. He’s rated #72 out 101 of best players for 2018 by PFF. He’s a sleeper and a great story.” It was the first cold-call NFL Draft Twitter DM message that I’ve ever wholeheartedly agreed with.

This person must have been startled when I responded like Brian Fantana in that scene in Anchorman when Ron Burgundy gets his mojo back and emerges from the bar bathroom clean-shaven and dressed to go on the air, using a conch shell to call out for a team he thought had abandoned him: “NEWS TEAM — ASSEMBLE!”

Fantana, shooting pool in the back of the bar with Champ and Brick, casually responds: “We’ve been here literally the entire time you have.” I wrote back to Cashman’s contact the same day: “Preaching to the choir my dude. I live in Minneapolis and watch a ton of Gophs football. Cashman tackles everything that moves. I swear I looked out my window in Uptown one day and saw him tackling pedestrians and cars alike.”

I am a college football writer in Minneapolis who doesn’t attend games, but instead covers four or five every time slot thanks to more screens in my apartment than a Parris Campbell highlight reel. Naturally, I assigned myself the hometown Gophers every weekend. I had a front-row seat to Cashman’s leap. 

A local stud at powerhouse Eden Prairie High School under Mike Grant -- the son of legendary Vikings coach Bud Grant -- Cashman helped EPHS win four consecutive state titles during his prep days. But because of his sawed-off, alligator-arm build, nobody wanted him.

Not even the local Minnesota Gophers, who over the years have shown a particular skill for discharging shotgun rounds into their feet by allowing out-of-state poachers to steal mega-recruits like Larry Fitzgerald (Pitt), Seantrel Henderson (Miami), Michael Floyd (Notre Dame) and Frank Ragnow (Arkansas)*, among others, and then missing on under-recruited local kids who make-good elsewhere (Adam Thielen, Billy Turner, Zach Zenner, John Crockett, Joe Haeg and Matt Burk, to name a few).

*(little known fact: Terrell Suggs grew up in St. Paul and was briefly Joe Mauer’s center in youth football before moving to Arizona in the eighth grade).

And that should have been the story with Cashman, whom 247Sports listed as a 0-star safety (the 3,100 overall recruit in his class). North Dakota State wanted him, and that’s usually where the kids Minnesota mistakenly overlooks usually end up.

Most fortunately for PJ Fleck -- who at the time was still building a short-lived MAC powerhouse at Western Michigan -- Cashman elected to forgive the slight and walk on at the state school. At that time, Minnesota was coached by Jerry Kill.

Most walk-ons have a restraining order from stepping foot on the field as freshman. Cashman won a gig on special teams, a small, fearless burner. He carved out a rotational niche as a sophomore — which won him a scholarship — and then did similar work in 2017.

A prolific gym rat who lives with an I.V. of football injected intravenously, Cashman broke through to seize a starting job this past season. It was clear, from the very start — I’m talking in September — that he was a completely different player than the part-time grinder we’d seen before. Cashman wasn’t just a starter — he had kicked the “ter” without warning. 

Cashman was all over the field every game. I would be looking at one of my secondary screens for a second and hear the name “Cashman” again, only to look up to see him jogging back to huddle up with his teammates again. The Gophers had a joke of a defense last fall, run by a DC (Robb Smith) who was so overmatched that he was fired mid-season by a low-tier Big 10 program that would go on to make a bowl game. 

About the only thing that defense had going for it after S Antoine Winfield Jr.’s season-ending injury in September was Cashman, the fleet pinball warrior who cleaned up his teammate’s messes all over the field.

Cashman finished with 104 tackles, 15 TFL and 2.5 sacks in 12 games, earning an overall PFF grade of over 90.0, the threshold you can read as “dominated.” He was only named Third-Team All-Big 10 — as his his custom, Cashman was slighted out of his just rewards by players who were more recognizable.

Despite that, Cashman entered the draft process overlooked and unknown (shocker!). He was scoffed at for skipping the team’s bowl game — omg lol even blake friggin cashman is skipping bowl games now?!?!?!? — to begin preparations for the NFL Combine. And then Blake Cashman did what Blake Cashman does: He dropped the jaws of tobacco-spitting scouts who’d already pre-written “UDFA” into his report.

He dropped a 90th percentile SPARQ score that nearly matched his 2018 PFF grade. And in so doing, Cashman finally — after years of dogged work despite being told over and over again that he’d never succeed in football* — earned a little respect. But still probably not as much as he should be getting.

*(per Cashman’s contact, at least one high school coach told Cashman that he was crazy for believing he could play FBS football).

Yes, Cashman is small. Yes, he has a shortest recorded LB arm length at the NFL Combine the past five years outside of Shaquem Griffin (a fact, not a joke). Yes, he only has one season of big production. Yes, he's a former walk-on with no pedigree. Yes, he has three shoulder surgeries in his recent past.

And yes, he’s never going to be able to take on blockers and thus must be protected. He has a tiny tackling strike zone and sometimes runs out of arm to reach you, but he never misses when he can.

The only area where Cashman wasn’t elite last year was in coverage, and that’s an area he’ll almost assuredly improve in at the next level as he gets more reps, because his athleticism, mind and work ethic make it almost impossible for him not to. His lack of length also caps his ceiling in this area, but he’s not going to languish.

But, okay, can we talk about what Blake Cashman IS, now? Blake Cashman is a tackling machine with A+ athleticism. He’s a maniacal worker who is going to reach every inch of his ceiling. He plays with incredible technique at high speeds, detonating the chests of ballcarriers with squared shoulder pads. 

From Day 1, he’ll be a tremendous special teams player, and he’ll likely be that for the duration of his career. He also has a better chance of starting Year 1 in the NFL than many believe. I told Cashman’s contact in the days after the NFL Combine that I thought he was earmarked for Round 3. 

I still believe that. But I also wouldn’t argue with an LB-needy team calling his name at the end of Round 2. There’s so much to work with here, and this off-ball class runs out of guys who could start early real quick. Cashman must be included in that group.


4. Mack Wilson (Alabama) | 6’1/240

Age: 21.5

SPARQ percentile: 30.5 

Comp: C.J. Moseley (Zierlein)


wilson

You can’t begrudge a prospect ticketed for Day 2 for making the leap into the NFL — the math checks out from an incentive-to-risk perspective. That said: Dangit, Mack! This kid could have lit it up next year on another Alabama playoff team and potentially worked himself into the top-10. Instead, he’s probably going to have to settle for a Round 2 call.

The former five-star prospect contributed off the bench and on special teams as a freshman in 2016 (and even moonlighted on offense) before earning two starts as a true sophomore. Boy did he flash in limited exposure, picking off a team-leading four passes, including a pick-six in the semifinal against Clemson. 

A little more than a week later, he tormented Georgia in the national title game with 12 tackles and two TFL during Alabama’s come-from-behind win. Much was expected of Mack heading into his junior year, his first as a starter. And in many ways, he met expectations. 

Mack earned Second-Team All-American honors on another team that made a run to the title.* He showed off a game predicated on size, smoothness in space, and power. Mack confirmed his interceptions in 2017 weren’t a right-place-right-time fluke by picking off two more balls and forcing a series of contested situations with tight ends and running backs who leaked out of the backfield.

*(this time, Clemson got the last laugh — Mack’s pick-six the year before off Kelly Bryant no doubt replayed in Dabo Swinney’s mind throughout the offseason as Swinney kicked around how and when he’d make the switch to true freshman child prodigy Trevor Lawrence).

For a classic Alabama downhill thumper with a surly attitude, Mack presented a nifty dichotomy with his patented skill with the ball was in the air. Hand on the Bible, I swear: If Alabama had developed Mack on offense, he would have turned into a more dangerous receiving weapon than Irv Smith.* 

*(Of course, that development would have killed two guys’ rookie paychecks, as Mack is even more vertically challenged than Irv — but at 6’1/240, Wilson has great size for a linebacker).

Having said all this, I was still a bit disappointed that Mack didn’t return to team up with Tua and his merry band of marauding burners for another crack at Clemson. He provided more flashes in 2018, but was not the wrecking-ball the Devins were, in large part because his inexperience wafted off him during lost reps when Mack’s indecision had a corrosive effect on his effectiveness. 

Last year, what we saw out of Mack was a slugger who hammered balls across the street from Fenway when he guessed the pitch correctly or cooled off infielders with massive whiffed cuts when he didn’t.

And for a player with his frame and physicality, Mack has this weird quirk where he’ll gift yardage to the offense because he’s more hell-bent on not engaging with blockers than he is with using his body as a sacrifice in the name of truncating the play. 

We saw Mack take ultra-wide berths to the ball, like a skittish jet skier who won’t go within 100 feet of a buoy, or voluntarily elect to leave his perch in a running lane while trying to thread the needle of ducking a linemen laterally to try to clip a runner, which is a strategy not unlike stepping around a screen in basketball, giving the dribbler extra space to drive or pull up.

Mack is an interesting prospect. The pedigree, the physical package and the flashes all suggest a future star, but the warts in his game and disappointing athletic testing introduce risk into his profile. Risk that he could have potentially mitigated or eliminated by returning to campus to camp out with Nick Saban’s collection of film rat assistants over the summer. 

But to give the counter-point to the counter-point, Wilson proved from the jump in Tuscaloosa that he’s a superb special-teams contributor. He deserves a bit of a value bump from that, especially if you’re going to dock him for perhaps not being ready to challenge for a Pro Bowl berth at linebacker as a rookie, as both of the Devins could if they find the right situations.

Consider him a medium-floor, high-ceiling prospect and earmark him to get plucked off the board early Friday evening.


5. Jahlani Tavai (Hawaii) | 6’2/250

SPARQ percentile: N/A

Comp: Vontaze Burfict (Matt Miller)


*Did not test at the NFL Scouting Combine

A rugby star at Mira Costa High in California, Tavai received only a modicum of recruiting interest in football. Rivals graded him as a two-star recruit in the 2014 class. USC kicked the tires -- specifically Ed Orgeron, a vaunted recruiter now running the LSU program — but didn't pull the trigger on a scholarship offer. 

So Tavai moved to Honolulu, not the worst of consolation prizes. Tavai redshirted, and then recorded 56 tackles as a second-year freshman. He went on to collect 252 tackles (30.5 TFL) between 2016-2017 while shifting between all three linebacker spots.

This was borderline heroic work. The Rainbow Warriors had one of the worst defenses in the FBS during Tavai’s stay and, incredibly, cycled through six defensive coordinators during Tavai’s stay on the Islands. Cashman persevered through poor coaching, Tavai persevered through worse coaching.

Less heroic was Tavai's barroom fight stunt last summer that got him arrested and suspended for the opener. And then a season-ending shoulder injury cut his year short at eight games. Tavai missed the pre-draft process while rehabbing.

But barring clearance on his background check and medicals, I saw enough on the field to grade him as a late Day 2 prospect. Tavai plays so hard, and he’s got a sonar radar for movement and flow that reroutes him while picking through traffic. It sharpens his chase angles like a knife.

Tavai is not “twitchy,” but he gets there fast enough and brings hurricane force explosion on impact. Sometimes to a fault. Tavai loves to launch at ball-carriers. And in short, that’s how you shake him: Allow him to overplay his hand and then run the hell away before he can get back up. You can also slop him. In traffic, sometimes Tavai gets lost in a maze. 

For the next level, assuming he can recover from his shoulder injury, Tavai’s versatility makes for a real plus. As does his tone-setting play style. Just please let him land in a stable situation. He needs to develop under one defensive coordinator, in one system. 

Going through six at Hawaii and getting shuffled this way and that to best cover for his overmatched teammates did a disservice to Tavai’s development. And yet he still found ways to succeed. I like me a passionate self-starter, and that’s Tavai.

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is Rotoworld’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!