Zach's Draft Corner: Linebacker Position Breakdown

April 10, 2020

 

 Image Credit:  Wake Forest Athletics

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.

 

 

Linebackers may be the least important position in the modern defense, but they still have some value.  Linebackers are generally the only players on the field large enough and athletic enough to cover tight ends physically, they can clean up plays in the run game, and they make great special teams players due to their ability to tackle in the open field while still moving generally quickly.

 

Where do the 49ers come into play?  With the holes currently on the roster, the depth at the position with Kwon Alexander, Fred Warner, and Dre Greenlaw, the lack of depth at the position in this class, and the lack of picks they currently hold, I wouldn't expect the 49ers to draft a linebacker before day three, even if they trade back from one of their first round picks.  The 49ers merely need a player who can contribute to special teams and may be able to replace one of the big three in a pinch better than players like Elijah Lee and Mark Nzeocha.  There may be only a few names that fit what the 49ers currently need at the value they would be willing to spend, but there are a few options.

 

Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State

6'2", 219 pounds

Pros

Davis-Gaither has the highest ceiling of any of these prospects, having the potential to be a legitimate three-down starter in the NFL.  He has very good athleticism and flexibility, using both to be a very violent player.  He has very good range with that athleticism and can dominate matchups, both against ball carriers and in coverage, when his task is to play a particular person.  He played a Fred Warner role for the Mountaineers, covering receivers when needed.  He can immediately contribute as a core special-teamer, and has a ceiling of much more if he can take care of some difficulties reading an entire offense.

 

Cons

Davis-Gaither is a little undersized in his mass, but he has the frame to add some more muscle.  The biggest issue is with his mental processing of an entire offense.  If the opponent runs a zone scheme, being patient and taking the correct angle out wide can be difficult for him.  In zone coverage, he stays with receivers for too long, taking him out of his zone.  Davis-Gaither needs some coaching, but he is promising if he takes to it.

 

Where to draft:  Early day three

 

David Woodward, Utah State

6'2", 235 pounds

Pros

My favorite linebacker in this draft.  Woodward can really do it all.  He is a reliable, yet violent, tackler.  He was the leader of the Utah State defense in every way, calling the plays and changing assignments for the defenders.  He can stick with tight ends in man coverage, and dissects route combinations in zone coverage.  While not the elite athlete of a player like Davis-Gaither, he is still good enough to have sideline-to-sideline range.  The fact that he could be available on day three could be a steal.

 

Cons

There has to be a reason he's available there, right?  Woodward was one of the most injury-prone linebackers in college football.  He has sustained multiple documented concussions, fractured his vertebrae, and had his 2019 season ended early due to injuries.  With a sharp increase in physicality from Utah State to the NFL, there's a big question as to whether his body can hold up.

 

Where to draft:  Mid-day three

 

Justin Strnad, Wake Forest

6'3", 235 pounds

Pros

Strnad has a tantalizing combination of athleticism and instincts that makes him a solid prospect.  He processes plays well, even if he doesn't immediately trust his instincts.  This is shown in the way he flows to the correct spot and processes route combinations in zone coverage.  He is also a physical player with some highlight reel hits.

 

Cons

Strnad has some pretty poor technique in some key aspects of playing the position.  Specifically, while he is a hard hitter, he is prone to missed tackles due to poor form.  He also is athletic enough to keep up with tight ends, but is tight-hipped and can be caught way out of position against shiftier route runners.  There is also concern that he has reached his ceiling, being 24-years old already.

 

Where to draft:  Mid-day three

 

Markus Bailey, Purdue

6'1", 240 pounds

Pros

Bailey is potentially the smartest pure linebacker in this class.  He was an easy leader of the Boilermaker defense, and would continuously put himself and his teammates in the best position to make a play.  He is certainly strong enough to play the position, as well.

 

Cons

Average athleticism may be the death knell to Bailey's career.  There is absolutely a position for a player like Bailey on the roster, and he has a position as a coach whenever he finishes his playing career, but his ceiling is limited due to his moderate athleticism, average range, and concerning lack of explosiveness.  He could be worth a chance to see if he has enough athleticism, but there's also a chance he simply doesn't.

 

Where to draft:  Mid-to-late day three

 

Davion Taylor, Colorado

6'1", 224 pounds

Pros

If I could somehow give Markus Bailey all of Taylor's athleticism, we would have a first-round talent.  Taylor flies around the field, flowing easily from sideline to sideline and using his speed and agility to get to his spot.  Taylor is my Bobby Boucher of this draft.  He sees the ball, he flies to the ball, and he hits the player with the ball very hard.

 

Cons

While Taylor has the one thing you can't teach, he's lacking a lot of the things you can.  His technique in coverage is quite poor, sticking with receivers more on his athleticism being able to catch up rather than his ability to actually stay with a receiver.  He can overrun zone running plays, and is easily caught out of place in zone coverage.  He is a project, but that athleticism could be worth the risk.

 

Where to draft:  Mid-to-late day three

 

Kamal Martin, Minnesota

6'3", 245 pounds

Pros

Martin is a great player at moving vertically.  He attacks the line better than almost any prospect left on this list, and plays in pursuit very well.  He is a prototypical thumper, taking on blockers with ease and shedding them effectively to get to his spot.  Martin is an ideal Sam linebacker, as he is an elite run defender.

 

Cons

As good as Martin is in run defense, he is equally poor in pass defense.  He doesn't have the speed to stick with tight ends in coverage, and is slow in reacting to combinations in zone coverage.  He has a place on the 49ers as a special-teams player and a replacement for Greenlaw if he gets injured or has to replace Alexander or Warner, but his ceiling is quite limited.

 

Where to draft:  Late day three

 

Daniel Bituli, Tennessee

6'3", 252 pounds

Pros

Bituli is another player that excels as a run defender in every way.  He sheds blocks very well, and puts himself in the optimal position for the situation. He can take away cutbacks, he can plug gaps, he can chase a back out on a stretch run.  Really, he is extremely impressive in run defense in every way.

 

Cons

Whereas Martin put out bad tape in coverage, we really have little to no tape of Bituli in coverage.  Tennessee would completely take him off the field in these situations.  Were the coaches rightfully or wrongfully influenced here?  He may have been poor to start, but we never saw him get the opportunity to get better.  This could mean his practice performance was so terrible that he couldn't see the field, or that he just didn't win the trust of the coaches after a first impression.  It's a serious question mark, but you have the floor of a player who can win a roster spot.

 

Where to draft:  Undrafted

 

Michael Pinckney, Miami

6'1", 226 pounds

Pros

A trend with late-round and undrafted linebackers is that they excel in run defense, and run defense-only is not seen as very valuable in today's game.  I am a bit higher on Pinckney than most because I think he has the general technique down in playing coverage.  In addition to playing stout run defense, Pinckney at least has the instincts to know where he is supposed to be and the discipline to stick with tight ends in man coverage.

 

Cons

The ceiling on Pinckney may be more limited than that of Martin and Bituli because he is a smaller linebacker with arms that are quite a bit shorter.  That lack of length makes him less effective in coverage as a whole, and can even get him in trouble with bigger, more powerful runners.  I wish I could give Pinckney a little extra speed and length because he is a great person, by all accounts, and a very intelligent player.  Physically, he just might not have enough.

 

Where to draft:  Undrafted

 

 

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