Preseason 2016 NFL Draft Watch: Linebackers
For a team looking for a pass rushing outside linebacker, one of the first names to come up will likely be Georgia’s Leonard Floyd. At 230 pounds, Floyd is fairly stout against the run and can generate a bit of a bull rush. His real strength is using his great first step, torso flexibility, and swim move to reach the quarterback. Don’t mistake Floyd’s pass rush ability as his only quality skill. Although Floyd is not as accomplished as a coverage linebacker, he still shows good range and good instincts for finding the ball carrier. If Floyd does have a clear weakness it is in pass coverage, where he lacks good fluidity and doesn’t look comfortable when dropping back.
The counterpart to Floyd is Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith. Unlike Floyd, Smith’s strength is not rushing the passer; in fact it is probably the worst part of his game. On the flip side, the rest of his game is outstanding. Smith is one of the most instinctive linebackers in this group. Additionally, Smith is a top tier athlete whose movement skills and strength make him arguably the top non-pass rushing linebacker in this group.
Scooby Wright will probably be the most decorated defensive player once the 2015 season concludes. The Arizona Wildcat defender is one of the most active players in the game and shows great instincts for dealing with the pass and the run. He probably could play defensive end with his strength and athleticism, a combination which produced 29 tackles for loss in 2014. The big issue with Wright’s game is his tackling, as he frequently will whiff on the ball carrier, turning a good play for the defense into a big play for the offense. Also, Wright is not as rangy as some other linebackers in this group, but is adequate in chasing outside runs or dropping into coverage.
Other names to watch out for include: Myles Jack: OLB, UCLA and Dadi Nicholas: OLB, Virginia Tech.
Mid Round & Sleepers
If a team needs a throwback (middle linebacker) who can come down to the line of scrimmage and plug up run holes, they should look at Alabama’s Reggie Ragland. The Crimson Tide linebacker isn't as small and light as others at his position-which can make him a bit of a liability in space. However, he is great in tight quarters, using his strength to engage bigger blockers and then disengage to make tackles for loss. Ragland also scores points for versatility, lining up on the defensive line at times and being a frequent contributor on special teams.
Oklahoma’s Eric Striker could be one of the most decorated linebackers in the country. Unfortunately, Striker will likely be a much better college player than pro. Part of this is due to his size, weighing in at a shade under 230 pounds, below average bulk. His versatility is also in question, as he projects likely as an outside linebacker in a 4-3. Still, Striker is a pretty rangy player despite his size and looks to be a pretty solid pass rusher. His instincts for the position need work.
A player who, while currently a relative unknown, could be a first round pick by season’s end is Rutgers outside linebacker Kemoko Turay. At 6’6” 240, Turay has a great frame, with perhaps the ability to add some weight and play full time defensive end. Although Turay spent most of his time playing on third downs in 2014, he did begin to see more snaps as the season progressed. The reason he mainly played on third down is because his pass rush skills are developing but, with some refinement, could be the best in the draft. With that said, Turay is extremely raw as a linebacker struggling to play the run and seldom dropping back in passing situations.
Other names to watch include, Devonte Fields: OLB, Louisville, Kyler Fackrell: OLB, Utah State, Joshua Perry: ILB, Ohio State, Daron Lee: OLB, Ohio State
Best of the Rest
Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy will likely be an inside linebacker at the next level. McKinzy looks to be pretty stout at 6’3” 253 pounds, and he can take on bigger offensive lineman with ease. He appears to know his assignments a bit better on passing plays than on running plays. McKinzy is not very rangy or very good at rushing the passer, but he is formidable against the run and a good tackler.
Striker’s teammate at Oklahoma, Dominique Alexander, is another NFL linebacker hopeful. Alexander appears to be a more traditional inside linebacker who does a good job at locating and flowing to the ball. He is a good tackler, despite his 6’0 220 pound frame, and shows a good amount of range. Like Striker, Alexander is undersized for the position, and it really shows when he has to engage with bigger blockers, lacking the strength to hold his ground when teams run in his direction.
Other players to watch are: Tyrik McCord: OLB, Miami, CJ Johnson: OLB, Ole Miss, Antonio Morrison: ILB, Florida, Kris Frost: ILB, Auburn, Ifeadi Odenigbo: OLB, Northwestern, and Kentrell Brothers: ILB, Missouri.