2016 Draft – Position Group – Outside Linebacker
The Linebacker group in this draft is sort of the lost position group, as the Defensive Line and Defensive Backs are both stacked in 2016. That’s not to say there isn’t talent here though, as there are some very athletic and rangy players on the board this year. There are also some talented blitzers who are more Linebacker than Edge Rusher, and there are a few good old fashioned run thumpers as well.
Health plays a bit of a role in the perception of this group. Myles Jack (UCLA) and Jaylon Smith (Notre Dame) would be top 10 picks for certain if it weren’t for injuries. Jack will probably still go in the top 10, but Smith’s knee injury occurred much later in the year. Even potential mid-round pick Travis Feeney (Washington) and possible late round pick TT Barber (Middle Tennessee) are banged up and were unable to fully show off their abilities to teams.
There are also players that were Linebackers or occasional Linebackers in college who project likely elsewhere in the NFL. Leonard Floyd (Georgia) and Kamalei Correa (Boise State) are 1st or 2nd Round picks, but they are Edge Rushers in a 3-4, not true Linebackers. Su’a Cravens (USC) is getting more of a look as in in the box Safety or hybrid Safety/Linebacker than a traditional Linebacker. There aren’t a ton of guys in this group going in Rounds 1-3, but there are a number of players who will go in the middle rounds and provide rotation depth right away while developing into more.
1. Myles Jack – UCLA – 6’1 245Lbs
Jack is a tremendous athlete, logging effective snaps at all Linebacker spots, Safety, and Runningback while at UCLA. He has a twitch-fast first move on the snap, excellent lateral quickness for filling gaps, and the ability to match faster Runningbacks and Tight Ends stride for stride in coverage. He is a true sideline to sideline Linebacker. He has a strong understanding of the game, able to slip in front of routes in coverage and able to read the lanes to flip gaps with his quickness and meet the Runningback in the hole. He is a sure tackler who wraps them up and keeps the ball carrier from picking up extra yardage.
Even as a plus athlete, Jack isn’t as tall or long as a lot of upper tier Linebackers. He at times can get caught up in the wash and is unable to shed blockers to make the play. The bigger concern is health, where he is coming off a torn meniscus and will have to prove to teams that his knee is healthy. Being undersized, it is also possible that this injury will give some teams extra pause, wondering if he can hold up in the NFL. The fact is though, that he is the perfect fit as the rangy weak-side or Will Linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. He could play elsewhere, but a team could fall in love with the idea of him using his speed to be a playmaker all over the field, with 4 Defensive Linemen in front of him to give him the space to make plays. The Browns at pick 2 could go after Jack, but I think the most likely landing spots are the Cowboys at 4th, Jaguars at 5th, or 49ers at 7th.
2. Darron Lee – Ohio State – 6’1 233Lbs
In a draft without Myles Jack, Lee would be the rangy and athletic Linebacker prospect. He is a naturally fast player who has a great instinct for how to feel out and shoot the gaps to go with a solid understanding of reading the runner. He is able to quickly diagnose a play, use his natural athleticism and closing speed, and is a hard hitter due to his low body position and explosiveness. He has a smooth flow about his running both in coverage and as a blitzer. He has the quicks and body control to stay with Runningbacks and Tight Ends in coverage, and has the reaction speed to make plays in zone. He’s at his best blitzing by shooting the gap, making himself skinny and shielded, then turning and closing quickly on a Quarterback.
Lee is a bit on the small side for an NFL Linebacker, and his build doesn’t allow him to put on much more bulk. He will need to work on technique and hand use to shed blockers better in order to avoid being swallowed up by Offensive Linemen. At times he is overly aggressive, which can lead to penalties or a loss of containment and overrunning a play. He is a very good player who will produce immediately as a 4-3 Will Linebacker and likely stand out on Special Teams as well. Considering his athleticism, potential, production, and stand out numbers at the Combine, I would be shocked if he lasted past the Top 20. He could go as early as pick 10 to the New York Giants, and would make a lot of sense with the Saints at 12th, Dolphins at 13th, or Falcons at 17th.
3. Deion Jones – LSU – 6’1 222Lbs
Jones was mostly a standout on Special Teams for LSU before having a stellar Senior season with 100 Tackles (13.5 TFL), 5 Sacks, 3 Pass Breakups, and 2 Interceptions. As that stat line would indication, he is a rangy 3 down type Linebacker who makes plays against the pass and the run. He has sideline to sideline speed, exceptional lateral quickness, and plus acceleration. He hits the hole hard, delivering a blow to the blocker on the ball carrier, no matter who he meets in there. He has a good understanding of his role in the defense and plays to it. Has the quickness, speed, awareness, and understanding of routes to cover Runningbacks, Tight Ends, and even Slot Receivers.
Despite all he showed in his Senior year, there will be some worry about him as a One Year Wonder. He doesn’t have great size for the NFL, relying a lot on taking on or running around blockers as opposed to being able to consistently shed them. At times he takes bad angles, playing too aggressively and opening things up for a big play. He also showed some struggle keeping up with tempo offenses late in games. In all he carries a similar package to Darron Lee, but with less experience and overall is more of an unknown. At this point it seems likely he will fall to the 2nd Round, and I would look for one of the teams that missed on Lee to take Jones for the same role.
3 MORE TO WATCH
1. Jaylon Smith – Notre Dame – 6’2 223Lbs
If it weren’t for injuries, everyone would be asking if Smith would go in the Top 10 and if he would go ahead of Myles Jack in the 1st Round. He is quick and athletic with great range. He can take on anybody in man coverage, and shows plus change of direction and closing speed. He is a hard tackler, with a high Football IQ and tons of natural ability. He also tore up his knee badly in the Fiesta Bowl, and there are worries that he won’t play next year and could possibly never be the same. Knee surgery has come a long way, just ask Adrian Peterson, but it is still not a safe bet that Smith will get back to 100%. His potential makes it a chance someone tries to grab him at the back end of the 1st Round, but his injury means he could slip to the 3rd.
2. Kyler Fackrell – Utah State – 6’5 245Lbs
Utah State has quietly become something of a pipeline for solid NFL talent, and Kyler Fackrell is part of an interesting group coming out in 2016. He is tall and long for a linebacker, showing solid athleticism and lateral quickness. He was asked to drop back in coverage a lot in college, and shows the ability to play in space and get after the ball (4 career Interceptions). He looks like another tackle machine coming from this program, and will make an immediate impact in the rotation at LB and on Special Teams. He is long, but lacks some bulk and you worry about blockers getting into him. He also has potential as a pass rusher, but wasn’t asked to do it much in college and will need to be coached up on his technique. He’s projected to go in the 2nd – 3rd Round, and could be a real steal of a player there.
3. Joshua Perry – Ohio State – 6’4 254Lbs
Perry is a big, physical player who was a leader at Ohio State. It would be easy to peg him as an old school run thumping Linebacker, who plays strong and moves downhill to beat up on blockers and lay big hits on ball carriers. He is all of those things, but he is also instinctive in coverage for both man and zone and provides value as a 3 down type Linebacker. He lacks top end speed and at times gets too caught up in fighting with blockers and doesn’t make the play, but overall he is a big plus for any defense. He will likely be picked somewhere in the 2nd Round of the Draft.