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NFL draft preview: LSU's Devin White leads thin group at inside backer

This is the eighth installment of a position-by-position preview of the 2019 NFL Draft.

The role of the traditional, run-stuffing inside linebacker keeps diminishing in the NFL.

Inside linebackers have to be able to cover more like outside linebackers.

“When you have linebackers that can't cover, it's a liability, and you will get picked on repeatedly,” said NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah. “It is tough to hide out there when you have a linebacker who can't cover.”

“As the NFL becomes more of a passing league,” said NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks, “inside linebackers must be able to hit, run and cover to stay on the field.”

An example is former Bill Reggie Ragland, picked in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft to play inside in Rex Ryan’s 3-4 defense. Ragland was traded to Kansas City, where he played about 45 percent of the snaps in 2017 and 50 percent of the snaps last season.

The linebacker position is not deep in top talent in 2019. There may only be five or six off-the-ball linebackers taken in the first three rounds. Last year 13 went in the first three rounds.

“The linebacker position would probably be the thinnest,” Jeremiah said. “The inside linebacker position, when you're looking at it, is where it's a little bit light. I don't know that there's quite the same talent or depth at that position.”

Grade for position: C.

The Best: Devin White, Louisiana State. He is expected to go in the top 10 picks, if not the top five. He’s a sideline-to-sideline playmaker who never will come off the field. A running back in high school, he’s a two-year starter and he just turned 21 in February. He helped his stock even more by running the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds.

“He's going to be able to run and cover and help match up against some of the better tight ends and even some of these backs how they're using the passing game,” Jeremiah said. “That's a huge asset.”

Bills View: The Buffalo defense needs depth behind starters Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano. Veteran Julian Stanford is the backup to Edmunds in the middle. Drafting someone on the third day to compete with Stanford is a possibility. What’s really needed are more options who fit the mold as fast, sideline-to-sideline tacklers. Another Matt Milano, in other words. So third-day options from the outside linebacker list may be the ideal targets for the Bills. A few of the fastest third-day options who fall on our inside linebacker list (but can play inside or outside) include Stanford’s Bobby Okereke (4.58), Colorado’s Drew Lewis (4.51) and TCU’s Ty Summers (4.51).

Bull watch: University at Buffalo middle linebacker Khalil Hodge is projected to be a late-round pick or an undrafted free agent. The issue is speed. He ran the 40 in 4.95 seconds at UB’s pro day and his vertical jump of 29 inches was near the bottom at the position. However, Hodge plays better than he times. He made 419 tackles the past three years, tops in the nation, and he brings all the intangibles coaches love. He fits better as a two-down linebacker in a 3-4 scheme than in a 4-3 defense, which limits his draft options. Hodge didn’t get any FBS offers out of high school, even though he made an incredible 262 tackles as a prep senior. He’s used to beating the odds.

Sleeper: Josiah Tauaefa, Texas San Antonio. He’s a true middle linebacker who didn’t get much attention from draftniks early in the scouting process. He spent his redshirt as a defensive end, then made 30 career starts at linebacker. He has good instincts and offers some pass rush. He’ll have to prove his coverage ability.

Next: Outside linebackers

Top 10 Inside Linebackers

1. Devin White*, Louisiana State, 6-0, 237. True junior with 4.42 speed is a two-year starter. Will be a sideline-to-sideline star.

2. Devin Bush*, Michigan, 5-11, 234. Son of ex-NFL safety, he flies to ball and can cover. A tad small but an excellent tackler.

3. Mack Wilson*, Alabama, 6-1, 240. One-year starter fits mold of modern cover LB. Only ranked fifth on team in tackles.

4. Bobby Okereke, Stanford, 6-1 1-2, 239, Smart, instinctive team captain. He once performed in choir at Carnegie Hall.

5. Jahlani Tavai, Hawaii, 6-2, 250. Brings size, toughness, aggressiveness. Has shoulder injury. Coverage is a question.

6. Te’Von Coney, Notre Dame, 6-0, 229. Throwback player, hard hitter, 100-plus tackles last two years. OK in coverage.

7. Cameron Smith, Southern Cal, 6-1, 241. Smart, four-year starter. Only average range. Was Sam Darnold’s roommate.

8. Emeke Egbule, 6-2, 245. Raw, athletic player who’s a boom-or-bust pick. Made 30 starts. Has ideal size.

9. Josiah Tauefa*, Texas San Antonio, 6-2, 245. True MLB with Samoan heritage and hair like Troy Polamalu. Didn’t get NFL Combine invite.

10. Drew Lewis, Colorado, 6-2, 229. Ran 4.51 at pro day and had 28 pressures in 2018. Impressed at East-West Shrine Game.

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