This is the eighth installment of a position-by-position preview of the 2018 NFL Draft. Previous installments were on running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive tackles, interior offensive linemen, cornerbacks and safeties.
Overview: Linebacker is truly a do-it-all job in the NFL these days. Players at the position have to be stout against the run, athletic enough to keep up with running backs and tight ends in pass coverage and strong enough to generate a pass rush.
Some prospects are good at one or two of those traits, but pegging a player who can do all three is what NFL teams are after. This draft does not appear to be very deep in that regard. Grade: C+.
“As more teams opt for a hybrid defense, outside linebackers with pass-rush skills are becoming hot commodities in the NFL scouting community,” nfl.com analyst Bucky Brooks wrote.
The analytics website Pro Football Focus previews the position in the following way: “There are a couple of star prospects at the linebacker spot, but after that the group gets relatively thin quite quickly. … Lower down in the draft, there is an interesting mix of talented athletes that have underachieved on the field and productive college players who will struggle to hit the NFL benchmarks when it comes to measurables. This draft also features an unusual number of players who are coming off a down year and whose best college season was 2016, not their most recent action.”
The best: Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech. He’s 6-foot-5, 253 pounds and ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. So, yes, it’s fair to call Edmunds a genetic freak. The son of two-time Pro Bowl tight end Ferrell Edmunds, Tremaine has the versatility to play any linebacker position.
"Just my length, my speed, my ability to play out in space,” Edmunds said about what sets him apart. “I just feel like I can match up. I can do different things. I don't limit myself, so I can perfect my craft at whatever position it is. Whatever position they ask me to play, I'll be fine.”
Bills view: One look at the linebacker depth chart shows how big of a need the position is entering the draft. Outside of Matt Milano, there does not appear to be any realistic starting options for the base 4-3 scheme. Veteran Lorenzo Alexander turns 35 next month. Counting on him to be an every-down player at this point in his career is asking a lot. The kind of outside linebacker the Bills are looking for is also up for debate. If it’s a player who specializes in pass coverage, BYU’s Fred Warner would make sense in the third or fourth round. If it’s a player who provides more of a pass rush, Southern California’s Uchenna Nwosu is a name to watch. He’s thought of as a second-round prospect. The Bills found Milano last year in the fifth round and perhaps they wait that long again, but it would be a surprise if at least one linebacker wasn’t added.
An inspiration: There is no better story in this year’s draft than that of Central Florida’s Shaquem Griffin. His left hand was amputated at the age of 4 due to complications from a rare birth condition, but that never stopped Griffin from pursuing his dream of playing football at the highest level.
A three-star recruit coming out of high school in St. Petersburg, Fla., he chose to attend Central Florida. After redshirting as a freshman in 2013, he spent 2014 on the scout team and played as a backup safety in 2015. When Scott Frost took over as coach in 2016, Griffin moved to outside linebacker and his career took off. He finished with 20 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, nine passes defensed and one interception as a redshirt junior in 2016, winning the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. As a senior, he was a first-team All-AAC choice after making 74 tackles, including 13.5 for losses, seven sacks and one interception.
At the NFL Scouting Combine last month, Griffin blew people away with a 4.38-second 40-yard dash – the fastest ever recorded for a linebacker (since official times started to be tracked in 2003). Oh yeah, he also did 20 reps on the 225-pound bench press, too.
“I didn't have to wait until I was in high school or college to have tough skin about people having questions about me, because that started when I first started playing football,” Griffin said. “I was able to learn from there, and as I got older, I got better at handling different situations and things that were said about me. I've proved them wrong, and that's not going to stop. I know that on each and every level, I have to prove everybody wrong. I have no problem doing that, and I'll remain doing the same thing I've been doing.”
Sleeper: Oren Burks, Vanderbilt. A member of the 2016 Allstate-AFCA FBS National Good Works Team for his work in the community, Burks was a defensive co-captain for the Commodores. Those are all traits valued by Bills coach Sean McDermott. As a senior, he finished with 82 tackles, including seven for losses, one interception and three passes defensed.
Next: Inside linebackers.
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TOP 10 OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS
1. Tremaine Edmunds*, Virginia Tech. 6-4, 250. At 19, he’s just scratching the surface of his potential.
2. Uchenna Nwosu, Southern California. 6-2, 245. Made a pre-draft visit to the Bills.
3. Harold Landry, Boston College. 6-2, 250. Played in just nine games in 2017 because of an ankle injury.
4. Lorenzo Carter, Georgia, 6-5, 243. Somewhat disappointing college career ended on a high note as a second-team All-SEC pick.
5. Jerome Baker*, Ohio State. 6-1, 225. Fits the description of today’s linebacker – someone who can get sideline to sideline.
6. Kemoko Turay, Rutgers. 6-4, 252. Turay came to the U.S. with his family from Guinea at the age of 3.
7. Fred Warner, BYU. 6-4, 235. Has the coverage skills of a safety, but it’s not clear what his best position is.
8. Shaquem Griffin, Central Florida. 6-0, 222. Older twin brother (by 60 seconds), Shaquill, was drafted last year by Seattle.
9. Dorian O’Daniel, Clemson, 6-1, 215. Has just one season as a starter, but is dynamite on special teams.
10. Darius Leonard*, South Carolina State. Won MEAC Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2016.
Story topics: 2018 NFL Draft