This is the third in a nine-part series previewing the NFL Draft on April 30-May 2. Today’s installment: Linebackers.
// News Sports Reporter
Playing linebacker in today’s NFL demands one trait above all else: versatility.
Gone are the days a player can be a true every-down linebacker if he can’t equally defend the run and pass. Offenses are too quick and too sophisticated; coordinators will identify and attack any perceived weaknesses in those areas.
The advent of the spread offense in college football has made evaluating the pass coverage part of that equation easier, but conversely, finding those players who are stout against the run has become more of a challenge.
“A lot of these linebackers sometimes have to be a little smaller to run around,” said Kelvin Fisher, the Buffalo Bills’ director of college scouting. “It’s easier in the sense of pass coverage, but then you struggle when it comes to the run game.”
Finding those players who are comfortable in each situation – every-down linebackers – is a constant goal of every NFL personnel department. The Bills have done it well in back-to-back drafts, first with Oregon’s Kiko Alonso in the second round of the 2013 draft, then with Louisville’s Preston Brown in the third round in 2014.
“I think the way these guys are playing in college, you do see a lot of every-down players because of the pass game,” Fisher said.
The emphasis on speed also means players listed as defensive ends in college might transition to outside linebackers in the NFL.
“You see pass rushers who can possibly play linebacker because of the athleticism,” Fisher said. “Everyone’s trying to get 250-pound pass rushers to rush the passer in college.”
In terms of the 2015 draft, the top linebacker with every-down potential is UCLA’s Eric Kendricks. He’s undersized at 6-foot and 232 pounds, but that didn’t hold him back with the Bruins.
Kendricks led the NCAA with 101 solo tackles in 2014, and made 149 overall.
Not surprisingly, he called his “ability to track down the ball carrier wherever he’s at” the aspect of his game he prides himself most on.
“I think it’s uncommon,” he said. “I can’t explain how I do it. I just get to the ball.”
Kendricks’ older brother, Mychal, is a linebacker with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“We were 17 months apart, so we fought all the time,” Eric Kendricks said. “We competed in everything - including getting to the remote for the television. I was born in that environment and I still to this day crave it. I crave competition and I find it in every aspect of life. Competition is in my blood.”
Kendricks’ competition for the top spot at linebacker in the 2015 draft class comes from a group that includes Clemson’s Stephone Anthony, TCU’s Paul Dawson and Miami’s Denzel Perryman.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said Anthony, a 6-3, 243-pounder, has “great movement skills and great size.
“In today’s NFL you have to be able to run, and that kid can run,” Mayock said.
Charles Davis, a colleague of Mayock’s on the NFL Network, said Anthony has flown under the radar. He’s expected to be a second-round pick, while Kendricks could slip into the bottom of the first round.
“He is a big-time player not many people around the country know about,” Davis said of Anthony. “They’re going to know quickly about him.”
Dawson had a dominant 2014 season with the Horned Frogs, finishing with 136 tackles, including 20 for losses. He also had four interceptions and was selected the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.
The big question with Dawson is how he’ll fit into a locker room. It’s possible some teams will drop him down their board or take him off it entirely because of character concerns.
Dawson said his issues at TCU were based mostly on tardiness, which he’s taken steps to correct.
“Just realizing that this is my life,” he said about what clicked for him. “I’ve got to make the best of what I can do, especially to provide for my daughter. She’s 2 years old. Just having the best life for her, like my parents tried to have for me.”
Perryman is more of a run-stuffer in the role of Brandon Spikes. He will have to prove to teams he can play in coverage.
“I’m a smart guy. I just need to brush up on my man-to-man coverage,” Perryman said. “Say my name and you’re going to get a physical, hard-nosed downhill dog.”
Mississippi State’s Benardrick McKinney is the last inside linebacker thought to be a possibility to be selected in the first two rounds. McKinney was a second-team All-American in 2014, but his production has been questioned by some analysts.
“The more you watch, the more I got concerned,” NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said. “He couldn’t find the football. He couldn’t get off blocks. So to me, he’s one of the tougher guys to figure out.”
McKinney is unusually tall for the position at 6-4.
“I have an advantage because of my height and making the quarterback make difficult throws over the top of me,” he said.
On day three of the draft, linebackers are often drafted first for their special teams ability. There are plenty of candidates who can help in that regard, beginning with Michigan State’s Taiwan Jones and Georgia’s Malik Wilson.
At outside linebacker, one of the most intriguing players is UCLA’s Shaq Thompson. He won the Paul Hornung Award in 2014. That’s given to the nation’s most versatile player. Thompson scored six touchdowns last season, two as a running back and four on defense (one interception, three fumble returns).
He could project to safety depending on the team that drafts him given his size (6-0, 228).
Next: Defensive tackles.