Continuing with our series in previewing some of the prospects for the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft. This week we take a glimpse at the top-five inside linebackers who look to be available come the Spring of 2017.
Although this is not a deep group as a whole, there are a couple of top notch prospects who will be selected in the first round and expected to make an impact as rookies next season.
1. Reuben Foster, Alabama
Foster, the 2016 Butkus Award winner and Unanimous First-Team All-American, is the leader and signal caller for Alabama’s defensive unit. A unit which has been the catalyst for much of the on-field success Alabama has had this season as they lead the nation in rush defense (63.4 YPG), total defense (247.8 YPG), and scoring (11.9 PPG).
Foster has been a two-year starter for the Crimson Tide and led the team with 94 tackles this past season. Often overshadowed by some of his higher profiled defensive mates Foster has developed into one of the more complete linebackers in college football. He is a three-down player who is effective in defending the run as well as capable of dropping back into coverage.
Foster is a highly aggressive, athletic, big-hitting middle linebacker who looks to finish his tackles by running through a ball carrier. He is physical at the point-of-contact able to take on lead blockers and stack them at the line of scrimmage. He demonstrates his instincts for the position by quickly locating the football, diagnosing the play, then proceeding to flow to the ball carrier, and making his presence felt once he arrives.
Foster prepared for his senior season by trimming his weight down from 240 pounds to around the 225-230 range. The added quickness allows him to now make tackles sideline-to-sideline, and able to avoid blockers on the run, while also taking good angles to the ball.
Foster is very comfortable dropping into coverage with the ability to quickly change directions and mirror tight ends or receivers crossing the middle of the field. He can open his hips and cover down the seam, or quickly click his heels and come downhill to tackle anything caught in front of him.
Foster will not only head into the 2017 NFL Draft as the top-ranked middle linebacker, and possible top-ten pick, but when it’s all said and done he could prove to be a better pro than some of his Crimson Tide predecessors.
2. Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham is a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine, if you don’t believe me just put on Vanderbilt’s games from this past season versus Georgia and Florida respectively. You will see Cunningham at times appears to be unblock able. He led the SEC in tackles (119) this past season on his way to becoming the first Commodore player in school history to be named a Unanimous First-Team All-American.
At 6’4” 230-pounds Cunningham’s length, and speed are his two biggest assets. He possesses very good closing burst that allows him to track down ball carriers from behind or beat them to a spot. He has strong hands and a powerful punch, which will cause offensive lineman to jolt back when he extends his arms and plants them into the blockers chests. His ability to be physical at the point-of-contact allows Cunningham to stack and quickly shed blockers, as he gets to the ball carrier.
Cunningham possesses good range and body control to excel in coverage. He can cover backs out of the backfield, run step for step with tight ends across the middle or down the seam, and at times was lined up on the numbers covering receivers. His ability to change directions quickly with his feet, coupled with good balance, and loose hips allow him to be a playmaker in space. As an NFL linebacker, he projects to be a four-down player who can be used in multiple ways on both defense and special teams.
Playing in the SEC Cunningham has gone up against some quality opponents as well as athletes, and not only held his own, but in some cases out shined some of those better-known players.
3. Kendell Beckwith, LSU
Beckwith is a fourth-year senior who took over the starting middle linebacker position in the seventh game of his sophomore campaign (2014) and hasn’t relinquished it since then.
After last season, where he was named a semifinalist for both the Bednarik and Butkus awards, Beckwith had an opportunity to forgo his final season in Baton Rouge to enter the NFL draft. Instead he decided to come back and fulfill his commitment to the LSU program, while also embracing new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda switching to a 3-4 defense which would require Beckwith to go from playing the MIKE backer in a four-man front to one of the inside positions in the new scheme.
A left knee injury ended Beckwith’s season quicker than anticipated, and the news got worse last week when a report surfaced that Beckwith had apparently torn his ACL.
When healthy Beckwith is a downhill linebacker who has the size to be a hole plugger, and a dependable run-stuffing defender. He does a nice job of anticipating the plays flow and leveraging that to get to the spot before the ball carrier does. With his balance and lateral quickness he is able to hastily sift through the trash around the line of scrimmage.
He displays a good deal of patience in diagnosing the play and reading his keys before taking his initial step.
Beckwith has strong hands and he does of nice job of hand fighting to keep the lineman from getting into his frame. He is also strong enough at the point-of-attack to stack and shed blockers as he continues his pursuit to the ball carrier. Beckwith also demonstrates a knack to shoot through gaps and get himself into the backfield and at the feet of the runner.
While in pass coverage Beckwith appears comfortable dropping into a zone coverage and can quickly wrap up anything caught in front of him or out in the flats.
Knowing that the knee injury will keep him sidelined during the pre-draft process, likely extending into his rookie season, Beckwith still retains a spot in my top-five. Mainly because once he is healthy Beckwith is an instinctive inside linebacker, and a downhill run stuffer. His size coupled with his strength permits him to compete inside versus lead blockers and pulling lineman, highlighting his ability to stack and shed at the point-of-contact.
Once this knee injury is put behind him, look for Beckwith to quickly emerge as a starting caliber linebacker and a defensive mainstay along an NFL teams front seven.
4. Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
The football factory run by head coach Urban Meyer over in Columbus Ohio continues to produce NFL caliber talent. After sending six defenders to the NFL last year the Buckeyes this year have another group of talented players led by middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan.
McMillan, a former five-star high school prospect, has been a starter at linebacker for Ohio State for the past three seasons. In 2015 he led the team with 119 tackles, which was the most by a Buckeye sophomore in 25 years (Steve Tovar had 125 tackles in 1990).
McMillan is a thickly built middle linebacker who was made to play inside the box, and in the center of a defensive unit. He is a physical player who possesses the instincts, size, and leadership qualities that can take command of a unit and make sure every member knows their assignments.
McMillan demonstrates the ability to quickly diagnose, locate, and get to the football. It’s apparent he possesses the natural instincts for the position.
He has no issues coming downhill filling the hole, and laying a big hit on the running back. As he is a good tackler who will keep his feet churning and run through the ball carrier.
While on passing plays he appears comfortable dropping back into coverage, opening his hips and shadowing a tight end or receiver coming across the middle of the field. McMillan can also race out (from in between the hash marks) to the flats to cover a back sneaking out of the backfield.
Some of the concerns with McMillan are that he does not appear to be a quick-twitch athlete and doesn’t possess elite sideline-to-sideline speed. McMillan also appeared to have trouble quickly disengaging from blockers, and was not very effective as a Blitzer.
However, while he may lack the overall athleticism that some of the other linebackers in college football seem to possess, his ability to quickly reads his keys and diagnose a play coupled with his capacity to drop back into coverage will allow him the opportunity to develop into a three-down linebacker who could mature into the leader of a defense for years to come.
5. Jarrad Davis, Florida
Predominately a special team’s contributor his first two seasons in Gainesville, Davis moved into the starting lineup in 2015 and recorded 94 tackles with 11 tackles for loss. This season injuries caused him to miss a few games, and limited some of his impact as he attempted to play through them.
As a middle linebacker, Davis is athletic with good length, and a physical temperament that seems determined to try and knock someone out every time he goes to tackle them. He is strong at the point of contact, not afraid to mix it up with bigger offensive lineman. Some of that physicality is evident on Davis run blitzes. He picks a gap and blasts his way through to either make the tackle or at the very least impede the play flow causing the runner to alter his path or slowdown, which allows time for Davis teammates to gather around the ball carrier and secure the tackle.
Being as aggressive as he is, Davis is seen consistently hustling to the ball with good sideline-to-sideline speed. While he was not used much as a pass rusher, Davis displays a good burst and closing speed to quickly get to the quarterback once he sees him outside the pocket.
Some of that same aggression however can cause Davis to overrun a play, and get himself out of position to make a tackle. Davis also tends to freeze up or get sucked in on play action or Read/Pass/Option plays. Which lead to concerns regarding Davis instincts for the positon, and if an eventual move to an outside LB position (likely weak-side) could be where Davis eventually ends up at in the NFL.
Physically and athletically Davis has what it takes to play linebacker in the NFL. Whether it’s as a MIKE backer or at one of the outside positions in a 4-3 front, where he could be better positioned to leverage his speed and tackling ability. He is a versatile athlete who could come in and contribute immediately.