There are two absolute monsters at the top of this linebacker crop. After that, trust your scouts, trust your coaching staff.
Tremaine Edmunds: He plays fast. From the jump off the snap, to his straight line speed, to his closing burst. Excellent power as well. Edmunds is a bit raw in coverage, but can make up for it with his athleticism. With some proper coaching, he could be a true master of all trades. With his 6’5 frame and 34.5 inch arms, he’s capable of affecting the passing game even when slowed at the line of scrimmage. I like Edmunds a ton and expect him to be a great value pickup wherever he lands.
Roquan Smith: Just flew off the screen during the BCS. One edge I’ll give to Smith over Edmunds is his field vision and instincts. He’s masterful at weaving through traffic to get to the ballcarrier. Has some difficulty shedding blocks, but balances that out by being tough to grab in the first place. Hits like a truck, which is good for causing fumbles, but potentially bad for your long-term health. Both Smith and Edmunds are excellent football players with huge upside. I’d lean towards Edmunds due to his size and power, but I wouldn’t fault a team for going in the other direction.
Rashaan Evans: Has shown an ability to get into the backfield from the edge or the interior. Excellent read and react skills. Exceptional burst and tackling skills. Has shown the ability to cover backs and ends. Looks to be close to the prototype MLB, with the versatility to play outside. Superb tackling skills. The only real criticism I can see of Evans is he’s more patient than instinctual, so he doesn’t react as quickly as you might like. I feel that he makes good decisions on the field so I’ll take the tradeoff for processing time. Solid pickup in the second half of the first round.
Leighton Vander Esch: A very good athlete who plays very hard. I’m concerned that he lacks good football instincts/technique. When I watched him on film he struggled to fight his way through traffic. Blockers stuck to him like glue. Excellent tackler. Fantastic at flying through open space to beat the ball-carrier to a spot. I have to think he has decent upside with NFL training on how to fight off blockers. Of course, NFL blockers are much harder to fight off. I’d want to wait until the second round to take Vander Esch off the board.
Lorenzo Carter: Dude makes no sense to me. He had the combine of a top 10 pick. How did he play four years at Georgia with only 14.5 sacks? On film he showed a good pass-rush. Perhaps his technique was poor, but there has to be something more than that going on. Maybe it was just a question of functional strength at the point of attack. He was poor when he had to engage with offensive linemen. He was brutally effective when he could fly to the ball. Gargantuan tackle radius in space. I have to figure there’s a coaching staff out there that thinks they can get the most out of him. He’s a first-round talent that didn’t perform like one at Georgia. I’d be willing to take a flier on him early in the second round.
Obo Okoronkwo: The most polarizing prospect in the draft? His combine and college stats were solid, but unspectacular. However, when you dig deeper he emerges as a potential diamond in the rough. His pass-rush statistics are awesome when you take his opposition into account. He could beat offensive lineman with a multitude of moves. I’m still years away from developing pass-rush “pythag” statistics, but my sense is Okoronkwo will shine there. He’s decent against the run and in space. His future value will come from his ability to get behind the line of scrimmage. I’d be willing to take him from the middle of the second round onward.
Jerome Baker: A tweener. Excellent speed, but lacking in the size and power you’d like from a linebacker, even on the weakside. He doesn’t have the coverage skills of a safety. His value comes from his ability to match up with offensive “freaks” who bring too much size for traditional safeties and too much speed for most linebackers. His excellent field coverage seals the deal for me. I like Baker from the third-round on.
Malik Jefferson: Doesn’t always make good decisions, but damn, he makes them at full speed. When he guesses right he can blow up a play Tecmo Bowl style. Because he doesn’t naturally read and react, he needs to given clear responsibilities. Can cover man-to-man. Looked silly in zone coverage when it was clear he didn’t know how to challenge players on the edge of his zone. He’s an exceptional athlete, but lacking in the football instincts and vision that you’d like from a player in space. Too good an athlete to pass up from the third-round on. I expect him to come off the board before Baker due to his potential upside.
Darius Leonard: At first he impressed me with his cerebral play. He diagnosed plays quickly at got to the right spot before the ball-carrier arrived. However, he struggled in coverage. He was a great blitzer when he saw an opportunity to come through unblocked. Struggled mightily when he had to battle offensive linemen. He lacks the power you’d like. I respect his range, but he doesn’t have the upside to justify a selection ahead of the players I’ve listed above.
Fred Warner: He isn’t good enough in any of the linebacker positions to justify penciling in as a starter. Where Warner excels is versatility. He can handle any of the roles, either in the base defense, or the nickel. The question a team has to ask is how much does it value a player who can do a decent job at any of the roles you’d ask? I figure he comes off the board late day two.
Uchenna Nwosu: Absurdly good vision. Bats passes out of the air better than any other player I can think of other than Ed “Too Tall” Jones. He isn’t great attacking the line of scrimmage. His pass-rush skills are garbage. Struggles to hold his position at the point of attack. Decent in space. Not a great athlete. Frankly, if not for his freakish ability to read and react to the quarterback’s eyes, I’d pass on Nwosu. As is, Maybe a team can find a way to make him a functional linebacker while hiding his weaknesses. I still think I’d stay away though.
Josey Jewell: Tricky call here. He doesn’t have NFL-level athleticism. What he does have are great instincts and technique. Jewell’s play is over if a blocker gets his hands on him. Jewell’s range is limited. But within it? He gets to the right spot and tackles efficiently. Within his range, Jewell’s coverage skills are solid. You can trust Jewell to make good decisions and do his job to the best of his ability. The concern is that he just isn’t athletically gifted to handle RB’s and TE’s in space. I could see Jewell going in the third round, or falling to day three. I’m a fan of his and would be happy to see him come to NY early on day three.