NFL Draft Position Rankings 1.0: Linebackers
By Jim Johnson
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Ranking the ACC, SEC, Sun Belt, and SoCon 2017 NFL Draft prospects.
The 2017 NFL Draft is just a couple of months away and, as always, the bulk of the top talent is coming out of our coverage area -- the ACC and SEC (with some Sun Belt and SoCon players as well) -- so I will be releasing fluid position rankings throughout the run-up to April 27th. This ranking only includes players from teams that we cover, meaning some of the major players from the other conferences will not be included. Curiously, the rankings wouldn't look much different even if they were, though.
1. Reuben Foster, Alabama
Reuben Foster is a bad, bad man. Elite at every phase of playing defense. Absolutely wrecks people -- as devastating a tackler as there is. Cut significant weight prior to last season, and subsequently proved to be one of the best all-around athletes in the sport. Sideline to sideline. Effective pass rusher, especially through the interior of the line. One of the best cover linebackers (especially in man), as well, taking him to another level entirely. Not a hole in his game; better than all of his peers at every possible inside linebacker criteria.
2. Jarrad Davis, Florida
From his on-field production to his off-field work ethic, character, and leadership, Davis is a coach's dream. Top notch flexibility allows him to get through gaps that he should't be able to. Superb athlete, both straightaway speed and change of direction. Good pass rush efficacy, compared to other inside linebackers. Can cover tight ends and running backs, downfield, often forcing them to adjust their routes. Finishes strong when the ball carrier is within his grasp, but he blows by them too often, rather than breaking down and getting under control. Needs to be more measured in his approach to tackling, but everything else is great.
3. Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
Proved at Vanderbilt that he can excel even surrounded by inferior talent. Seems to enjoy taking on and making quick work of lead blockers in the run game. Better in zone coverage than man, but is plenty serviceable in either. Versatile enough to shift outside, situationally, and create pressure. A born playmaker. Tries to tackle up high, rather than utilizing leverage, resulting in more broken tackles than you would like. Similar to Jarrad Davis, the tackling mechanics need to be addressed, but there's far too much to like to pick at that one thing.
4. Kendell Beckwith, LSU
A torn ACL late last season has him sliding down some boards, but it shouldn't. He's an old school linebacker, big and physically imposing. A natural football player with great awareness and instincts. Better in coverage than some similar recent players, like Bernardrick McKinney or Reggie Ragland. Could improve his tackling technique, but it gets results, as is. Could start early on if his ACL heals properly.
5. Ukeme Eligwe, Georgia Southern
Eligwe has an athletic build, with long arms, and the versatility to play inside or outside. Strong enough to take on guards and force ball carriers to bounce outside where he has help. Plus cover skills. Held his own, as well as could be reasonably expected, with Evan Engram when the Eagles played Ole Miss. Was too reliant on his athleticism instead of his instincts, in college. Good directional burst, but is not very agile. His frame, coupled with the coverage ability, should allow him to compete for playing time, even as a rookie in certain packages.
6. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee
Super athlete. Might should have returned to school, given the shoulder injury, but his drop seems like an overreaction, especially with how highly rated he was before the season. Very instinctual, diagnoses plays and gets where he needs to be in a hurry. Effortless runner, can catch ball carriers from behind. Talented in coverage. Smaller than one would like, and the injury is a cause for concern, to some teams. Because of his size, his success coul be largely scheme dependent, but the potential is there to be a very solid NFL player.
7. Alex Anzalone, Florida
An elite athlete capable of playing any linebacker spot, in any scheme. Great straightaway speed, and fluid hips allowing him to change direction at the drop of a hat. Speed an quickness give him the tools to be good in coverage. Fast enough to stay with runningbacks and big enough to scare quarterbacks away from tight ends, yet, when the ball was thrown his way, he allowed completions on 75% of attempts. Needs to improve strength and misses more tackles than he should. Would be higher if not for his having been plagued by injuries at Florida.
8. John Law, Appalachian State
John Law has a playmaker's mentality. Good at everything, but no one attribute blows you away. A true inside linebacker. Was second on his team in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks in 2015. Production decreased last season, raising some concerns, but his talent alone should get him roster spot. May need to focus on special teams to play early.
9. Marquel Lee, Wake Forest
Great size with coachable traits. Has the frame to play any of the three linebacker spots. Flows well to the ball. Solid against the run. Sufficient in zone coverage. Doesn't have the foot speed to go man to man. While size is good for any linebacking spot, his relative lack of athleticism could lock him into an inside role.
10. Matt Milano, Boston College
Pound for pound, one of the toughest players in the draft. Seeks out contact and is a thumper for his size. Excellent tackling form. Plus athleticism. Undersized for the position. Could be an outside backer in a 4-3 or inside in a 3-4. Was a beast on special teams at Boston College, blocking three punts, and make 24 tackles as a gunner. That may be his best shot to make a roster and see the field, at first.