The linebacker position has gone through a huge change over the years. We have come a long way from the big burly guy in the middle of the field who just stops the run. Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher started the trend of guys who run from sideline to sideline and make plays in both the pass and run game. Now we have moved into the era of hybrid linebackers who are smaller and faster. These linebackers have been created out of need due to the huge spike of speed players on offense. While there is still a place for the throwback thumper from the days of old, speed is what a lot of defenses value these days. This Linebacking class has a huge variety of players that will all be battling to be taken in the first round. Right now it is really a wide-open race to be the first linebacker taken so let’s take a look at my preseason top 5.
- Devin Bush/ Michigan
Devin Bush in my humble opinion is the best combination of an old-school thumper and new school speed guy. Bush showcases his speed when he is asked to blitz. Bush looks like a blur firing through the A gap on defense and he hits the quarterback hard. Bush can definitely run from sideline to sideline and track down runners. He also displayed great awareness by consistently shooting gaps and getting penetration in the backfield. One he is in the backfield it is rare to see him miss because his tackle form is exactly what you looking for in your middle linebacker. While Bush looks great against the run he will need to improve in the pass game this year. He sometimes can get a little lost in zone coverage. Another concern is that Bush is flagged often for targeting which does not really bother me but with all these new tackling rules in the NFL it is something to keep an eye on. Overall Bush is a productive, explosive, violent, and rangy linebacker who projects as a first-round pick.
- Devin White/ LSU
I think the best thing that Devin White has going for him is potential. We see this a lot in the draft process and I do not want it to be considered a bad thing like it so often is. Potential is what every single NFL GM is looking for in every player in the draft some just happen to have that as there number one quality. Now that I have gotten that out of the way let’s talk about Devin White. White might be the fastest Linebacker I have ever seen in my life and I am not kidding. He flies around the field like a heat-seeking missile. White excels as a blitzer where he uses great timing and his blazing speed to create pressure and get sacks. While a lot of people will base their reports on his potential stats, I think White has already had some good production at LSU. White is athletically gifted but still needs to work heavily on the mental part of playing linebacker. Sometimes he reads plays wrong or just over perseus running plays. White might turn some people off because he reads a play wrong but the NFL people are going to see an exceptional athlete who they can teach to read plays.
- Cameron Smith/ USC
Cameron Smith is a player who really surprised me when I started watching his tape. The first thing that jumps out is how fast he is to shoot gaps in the run game. He also knows how to avoid blockers when he is coming downhill. He is able to dip his shoulder and get low to avoid blockers and make sound tackles. Smith has some of the better instincts in this class as well he almost always has a great first step. Smith looks like a solid athlete when he is asked to cover and move in space. Smith’s biggest problem is that sometimes his eyes deceive him too easily. He will often fall for fakes in the backfield and because his first step is so good he is often going downhill to hit the wrong person. It’s something he will have to improve on if he wants to raise his draft stock but I think he has a bright future.
- Josh Allen/ Kentucky
Honestly, I was expecting more from Josh Allen when I was watching his tape. Allen is the first of these linebackers who is not a “middle” linebacker. This means his game emphasizes rushing the passer more than anything else. In that category, Allen does pretty well he has some solid finesse and power moves. He was able to produce sacks and pressure often for a Kentucky team that needed it a lot. While that is a plus for him I saw his pass rush disappear against Georgia which is the closest thing to NFL talent he saw last season. Moving back into the positives, I like Allen in coverage because he has good ball skills. In that Georgia game the only big play he made was an interception and against Florida, he batted another ball out of the air. Now for the real reason, Allen is probably farther down on my list than most is because he is not good in the run game. He gets pushed around way to easy for a player with his skills. He rarely sets a hard edge and when the opposing team runs right at him, they have success. I saw him too many times get taken out of a play by a tight end. Overall NFL teams will be drawn to Allen because of his pass rush ability which might allow him to become a first round pick but I can not ignore how bad he is in the run game.
- TJ Edwards/ Wisconsin
TJ Edwards is almost the direct opposite of Devin White who we already talked about so I won’t do a recap here. Edwards has the mental side of playing linebacker figured out and it is his biggest weapon. Edwards knows when to attack in the passing game and he always wraps up the quarterback when he gets in there. For the running game, I would encourage you to go watch his game against Michigan this season. At least 4 or 5 times during that game he correctly identified the gap the running back was trying to run through and shot it for a stop in the backfield. Warts in Edwards game become pretty obvious though when you have to watch him actually chase someone down who has already broken containment. To put it simply he is very slow on tape. That tells me that he has already hit his ceiling as far as athletic ability is concerned which lowers his stock. If you ask Edwards to cover one of these hybrid tight ends or running backs that double as a wide receiver that we have these days he will get burned.