Zach's Draft Corner: Linebackers
Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.
It might seem like the 2018 NFL Draft was just yesterday, but in just two short months, college football will once again be underway and fans will be clamoring to find their studs and sleepers of the 2019 draft class. For the next few months, I’m going to give you my names to note for the upcoming season at every position, along with a mini scouting report and where I’d like to see the prospects improve this season if they want to hear their name called early come April. Given in no particular order, these will be the prospects that, at least at the beginning of the season, will be generating the most buzz. Consider this a primer for the upcoming season of Saturdays, and a potential guide for your television if you aren’t sure which game to watch. Previously, I covered the deep defensive line class. This week, I am finishing up the front seven by looking at the off-ball linebackers.
Mack Wilson – University of Alabama, Junior
As a preliminary note, this is not a great linebacker class. There is some talent, but there are glaring holes with almost every prospect in the class. Whether it be athleticism, mental processing, coverage abilities, or level of competition, almost every prospect has an issue that, without improvement in 2018, will keep them from moving into the first round of the draft. The exception to that may be Lyndell “Mack” Wilson, a linebacker from (shocker) Alabama.
At 6'1" and 231 pounds, Wilson may have been seen as undersized in the past, but fits right in with the smaller, faster linebacker that seems to be the ideal model in the modern NFL. Wilson uses his athleticism to be great in both man and zone coverage, his elite motor to pursue the ball carrier at every level of the field, and his IQ to dissect the play from the beginning. He’s not without his concerns, though. Wilson only just began starting in the College Football Playoff because of how deep Alabama is, and due to an injury to starter and 2018 sixth-round draft pick Shaun Dion Hamilton. In his two starts, Wilson dominated, putting up 18 tackles, a pass defended, another interception that he returned for a touchdown pick-six, and two tackles for loss. Wilson also has some injury concerns, as he battled a nagging foot injury all last year. Wilson comes with a huge lack of experience, but with a good year (and a healthy one), he could be a first round pick.
Paddy Fisher – Northwestern University, Redshirt Sophomore
Paddy Fisher might be my favorite linebacker from this class, and likely has the highest ceiling of them all. Measuring in at 6'4" and 245 pounds, Fisher has the elite size necessary to be the most versatile weapon on any defense. He very well could return to school for another year so that he can graduate, but with a weak linebacker class, he could be the second linebacker in most rankings behind Mack Wilson, or even linebacker number one if Wilson has another injury plagued season, doesn't excel in his increased role, or if Fisher improves in his one area of weakness.
The big issue that I see with Fisher is that he can get caught thinking too much. He tries to process things too much, leading to slower reactions and trying to make tackles from less-than-optimal positions. This leads to too many missed tackles for my liking. We also may not have seen Fisher’s peak athleticism, given his younger age and the habit of overthinking that slows him down. He could also improve his coverage, but I think the hesitation he has in coverage also stems from his lower levels of confidence.
I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, as he was a redshirt freshman playing in the Big Ten, especially because Fisher flashed brilliance with what he had experience-wise. Even with the moments of hesitation, Fisher led all returning FBS linebackers in run stop percentage with 15.8%, according to Pro Football Focus. Fisher displayed great leadership despite being a first year player, partly because he led by example with an absolutely undying motor. Fisher also has the athleticism to make plays all over the field. I want to see him play with confidence this year rather than analytics, because if he shows that brilliance more consistently, he could be a future All-Pro.
Devin Bush – University of Michigan, Junior
While the NFL is trending towards smaller linebackers, Devin Bush may be too far into that trend. Measuring in at only 5'11" and 222 pounds, there will be plenty of chatter about whether Bush can hold up to the physicality of the NFL. Bush, however, is out here to prove that it’s not about the size of the package, but instead how that package moves and attacks.
While Bush isn’t super athletic, he has good body control and short-area quickness. As expected, if he engages in a block, it’s unlikely that he will be able to shed that block with his lack of length. However, Bush uses his height as a weapon in defeating blocks to go under/around the linemen before they engage. He also uses this shiftiness to be an effective blitzer from the middle. Once he gets to the ball carrier, he is a reliable tackler with a surprising amount of pop in his hits. Bush’s mental processing leaves a little bit to be desired. He shows a lack of discipline on play-fakes, whether it be biting on a counter/misdirection run or cheating too much towards the line on a play action pass. If there is no deception, Bush can be good in coverage, but won't have the size to man up bigger tight ends. Bush certainly has some room to improve with his discipline, but his limitations put a pretty hard ceiling on what he can likely become at the next level.
Kendall Joseph – Clemson, Senior
The 6’0”, 225-pound Joseph has to feel like the luckiest linebacker in the nation. As with past defensive players I’ve watched from Clemson, in the little bit of tape that I watched on Joseph, I couldn’t help but notice how dominant that defensive line is. A great defensive line makes everyone better, and his tape shows exactly why.
You will rarely see Joseph have to worry about engaging with blockers, because his defensive line keeps him very clean. His job is to run around in space and bring down the ball carrier, and he does that job very well. Joseph is very athletic, has great reaction time, and shows the level of quickness and speed needed to be a successful modern NFL linebacker. He also has a good motor and surprising length for his size, so he has a chance to be successful in the NFL. However, when he is relied on to do more than just clean up, can he do it? Joseph is poor in coverage at this point in his career, and is not great at shedding blocks if he does engage with a lineman. He is not a super physical linebacker, but hasn't had to be yet. Because his line keeps him clean, Joseph is patient and waits until the play is very defined before attacking, but he won’t be able to do that in the NFL. He will be a risky pick, and he’ll have to prove that he is strong in his own right rather than simply being the benefactor of one of the best defensive line units college football has ever seen.
Devin White – Louisiana State University, Junior
This may have been the longest I’ve gone in a draft preview before bringing up the first “ultra athlete but poor football player” prospect for a particular position. Well, don’t worry, now I am giving you Devin White. At 6'1" and 255 pounds, White may be the best athlete in this linebacker class, pairing sub-4.5 speed with a very thick frame. Although the “raw” label is generally given negatively, I see it as a positive for White. This is because he is very inexperienced on the defensive side of the ball, as White was actually the fifth-ranked running back in the nation for his recruiting class. LSU moved him to linebacker as a freshman, and he has turned some heads.
The straight-line speed has been mentioned, but White also has superior short-area quickness and change-of-direction speed. This combination gives White some good pass rushing skills from the inside. White is also surprisingly good in coverage for his general level of inexperience, but it’s promising that he can excel when the game is essentially boiled down to “focus on staying with this one receiver” or “stay in this area of the field and cover whatever receivers enter your zone.” When it gets more complicated, White tends to just guess. He’s very aggressive in his guesses, but it puts him out of position too often. White also has trouble beating blocks, as he too often tries to just hit the lineman as hard as he can to resist engagement. He also can miss tackles because his body control is lacking. In 2018, I want to see him play in control and process the offense a bit more rather than guess. If he can hone the mental side of the game, he could be the best linebacker in the class when you reflect in five years.
Te'Von Coney – Notre Dame, Senior
If we are going to mention the “raw” prospect, it seems only right that we move to the guy who seems to have it all but just doesn’t seem to want it. That player is Te’Von Coney from Notre Dame. Measuring in at 6'0" and 235 pounds, Coney came on strong as the leader the Fighting Irish defense needed in 2017, being the cornerstone of a defense that always has talent. If he goes into 2018 with a desire to shed the moniker of the guy who gives up on plays too often, he could see his stock rise fast.
Quicker than fast, Coney uses his great change of direction and twitchiness to react and get in the best position to make a play. He’s a reliable tackler who stops the ball carrier in their tracks, not allowing them to push through for extra yards. Coney is also good in zone coverage, although his lack of elite size or speed makes putting Coney on an island in man coverage a bit more difficult. Where Coney’s motor proves troublesome is when he engages in blocks. While he flashes the ability to get off blocks, he too often gives up on the play once he engages. Coney doesn’t want to work through traffic, and can be seen taking a breather if he feels like he’s out of the play. I want to see Coney come out with a fire and a desire to prove that he belongs in the NFL, where coaches will eat him alive if they see him give up on a play just because he is chipped and the run is to the other side of the formation.
Ryan Connelly – University of Wisconsin, Senior
Ryan Connelly, along with his teammate T.J Edwards, follow Wisconsin’s all too common path to success that has allowed the program to stay relevant for the past decade-plus. A walk-on who played quarterback at this Minnesota high school, the 6'3", 235-pound Connelly worked his way up to being a strong piece of a vaunted Badger defense. For a team that rarely walks away with the 4- or 5-star talent that some other schools can draw, it’s guys like Connelly that keep Madison fans jumping around on Saturdays.
Scouting Connelly was pretty simple. He is solid in run defense, diagnosing the plays with ease and getting into the necessary gap to stop the runner for a minimal gain. He will gladly engage in a block to tie up an offensive player, but he won’t shed those blocks too often. He also provides a surprising level of pass rushing from the inside, giving him a dynamic differentiator from most linebackers that come through Wisconsin. Unfortunately, Connelly is pretty middling in coverage, and shouldn’t be relied on in that area. He also doesn’t have great athleticism, which will likely limit his ceiling as a pro. Ultimately, he processes plays well and is usually in a good position to make a play, and will have a place somewhere in the NFL.
T.J. Edwards – University of Wisconsin, Senior
Similar to his teammate, Edwards was a 2-star recruit whose lack of sideline-to-sideline speed will hinder his draft stock. Unlike Connelly, however, I think that the 6'1", 244-pound Edwards actually has more of an upside as a professional prospect. That is because Edwards is your typical Wisconsin linebacker: he’s not an elite athlete, but he’s thick, strong, and technically sound in most every area of the game.
What truly separates Edwards from Connelly is that, in addition to being able to fill a gap, he is great at shedding blocks and getting to the ball carrier through traffic. He has a very high football IQ, diagnosing plays almost immediately. This allows him to get into the right spot for any given play, which is important with his lack of elite speed. Edwards also excels in zone coverage, although his lack of size and speed will make man coverage troublesome in many cases. His only downside is that he is not a true sideline-to-sideline guy, but I think that Edwards still has the potential to be a three-down linebacker who will strengthen a defense.
Shaquille Quarterman – University of Miami, Junior
Shaquille Quarterman is an old-school, hard-nosed linebacker, having the mentality that former Hurricanes Ray Lewis and Dan Morgan personified coming out of “The U.” A starter since he was a freshman, the 6'0", 240-pound Quarterman is hoping to restart that tradition, but will he have the same type of professional success seen by his predecessors? I’m not so sure.
Where Quarterman excels is in every aspect of defending the run. He is strong at the point of attack, shows great quickness, and also has the sideline-to-sideline speed that makes him a playmaker when the opponents run the ball. He is also a reliable tackler, giving him the perfect combination of being able to get to the ball carrier and then bring them down by himself. This athleticism has not translated to coverage, where he lacks fluidity. He also lacks the size to cover bigger tight ends. As a pro, Quarterman may be limited to being a run-stopping specialist, which limits his upside to being a two-down linebacker at best. I want to see him improve in coverage to truly earn a high grade, as he’ll be a liability on 60% of plays otherwise.
Cameron Smith - University of Southern California, Senior
If T.J. Edwards went to USC instead of Wisconsin, he would pretty much be Cameron Smith. At 6'2" and 245 pounds, Smith will not wow anyone with his speed. However, don’t confuse his lack of speed with a lack of effectiveness.
Smith is great at filling the gaps left open by his defensive line and stopping the runner in his tracks. Additionally, Smith was a high-level heavyweight wrestler in high school, which helps with his tackling and block shedding, allowing him to stay low and gain leverage on the offensive player. Smith plays with a high motor and a high IQ. Combine this with his size, and Smith is better in coverage than his speed would indicate, although he is still better in zone than man. Smith is a high floor, low ceiling type guy who will have success as a pro, but is unlikely to see an All-Pro title before his name at any point.
Khalil Hodge – University of Buffalo, Senior
I considered putting Khalil Hodge in here as a small school sleeper, but he’s actually garnering a bit of buzz in preseason scouting circles and might not be a sleeper anymore. The 6'1", 240-pound Hodge is the leader of a Buffalo defense that is hoping to help the Bulls win the MAC this year, and there is quite a bit to like about him.
Hodge has displayed great reactionary skills on the defense, noticing where the play is going very quickly. Coupled with his plus athleticism, Hodge’s straight-line speed and change of direction routinely puts him in great position to make a play. Hodge is also one of the better linebackers in coverage for this class, excelling in both man and zone concepts. While he is a reliable tackler, Hodge is lacking the power you would prefer to see out of a linebacker at his level of competition. This is especially evident when Hodge engages with a blocker, as he is too often taken out of the play. Part of this issue may stem from him having a motor that seems like he's almost bored in the MAC, as he doesn't always sprint to the play and doesn’t have the "punisher" mentality you want to see. Hodge is a great base to the defense, but he doesn’t take over games. If he can prove he is capable of doing so, his stock will see a good boost this year.
SMALL SCHOOL SLEEPER - Jahlani Tavai – University of Hawaii, Senior
Jahlani Tavai is a breath of fresh air for me. Too often, you hear about athletes getting arrested after a physical altercation involving a woman, and you hate the world. When I saw that the 6'3", 235-pound Tavai was arrested for misdemeanor assault at a nightclub this past June after a physical altercation involving a woman, I wanted to take him off my board. However, it seems that what actually happened was that he and a teammate witnessed a man pushing a woman to the ground, and the two of them pursued and confronted the offending male to defend the woman. While you hate to see a person resort to physical violence, I’m happy to look the other way in a case like this. Maybe I’m watching too much Marvel on Netflix, but I don’t mind seeing the physically-exceptional administer some vigilante justice on occasion.
On the field, Tavai is the unquestioned leader of the Hawaii defense. Starting since he was a sophomore, Tavai has racked up the stats like few others, making 129 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, and 6 sacks in 2016. Tavai continued his dominance in 2017 with 124 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks. Tavai even punted twice as a freshman with 54.0-yard average. If you watch a Hawaii game, you will see Tavai making plays all over the field with a great combination of speed and intelligence. He has a high motor, and is an all-around great linebacker that is fun to watch. He may not be the overall elite athlete you see from others in the class, but is just a great football player that performs in every aspect of the game. He can defend the run, he can cover, he makes plays in the backfield. He really does it all. Tavai has the potential to be a cornerstone of an NFL defense, and the character to be a fan-favorite. If you want to stay up late to watch those midnight-Eastern kickoffs that Hawaii routinely has, I urge you to do so to catch Tavai’s play on defense. You can sleep in on Sundays.
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