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B/R CFB 250: Top 20 Outside Linebackers in College Football

Michael FelderFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 7, 2017

B/R CFB 250: Top 20 Outside Linebackers in College Football

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    Editor's note: This is the seventh installment in Bleacher Report's CFB 250 for the 2013 season. This signature series runs through December, with National College Football Lead Writer Michael Felder ranking the best players at every position. You can read more about the series in this introductory article. See the CFB 250 page for more rankings.

    Outside linebackers, depending on the scheme, operate in a unique space. They run the gamut from primary tacklers in some schemes to big-time pass-rushers in others. Meanwhile, other coaches like to use smaller outside linebackers all over the field instead of putting true nickel packages in the game.

    With that vast array of responsibilities in mind, we took everything into account as a means of evaluating these talented players. We evaluated pass rush, run defense, coverage and tackling skills in rating these outside linebackers. If there were any ties, the edge went to the player we would rather have.

    Keep in mind, these outside linebackers are being rated on their performance in college, not NFL potential. But to see where these players may go in the NFL draft (whether they are eligible in 2014 or later), check out Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller's projections at the end of each player's slide. 

20. Spencer Shuey, Clemson

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    Spencer Shuey is a big non-factor in the Clemson Tigers' pass rush. They have Vic Beasley and Stephone Anthony to get after the passer. In passing downs, Shuey is off the field more often than not.

    This is why Shuey stays on the field for the Tigers. He is a classic, old-school, downhill linebacker. He’s a throwback on a team full of new-wave players. He gets downhill, tracks the backside A-gap and finds his way into all the opponent's run plays.

    Shuey is off the field in obvious passing situations because he is a liability in coverage. He doesn’t transition well from downhill to sinking into a zone.

    Despite being a limited athlete, Shuey does have great body control. He understands how to stop players from juking him out and reacts quickly to minimize yardage gained by faster players.

    A throwback linebacker in the OLB category, Shuey is interesting to watch. He works hard in the interior and makes the tackles that help Clemson win early downs. The big thing is that his play against the run helps set up Beasley to turn it loose in 3rd-and-long situations as Shuey leaves the field.

    Undrafted free agent. Lack of speed and stiff hips hinder his pro potential.

19. Shaq Thompson, Washington

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    Shaq Thompson is not a pass-rusher, even in Justin Wilcox’s dynamic defense. The linebacker is a bigger asset in coverage, working into the zones vacated by other players getting to the quarterback.

    Thompson is still learning how to get downhill and sift through the wash, but he brings good speed to the position and tracks down bounced runs very well. He can get impatient with runs away, attempting to run them down, but he has improved in tracking the cutback over the season.

    The converted safety is comfortable playing in space against the pass. He takes solid drops, drives on the football and recognizes how to take away throws before quarterbacks have a chance to hurt the defense.

    The sophomore is a better tackler as a linebacker than he ever was as a safety because he has less space between him and the football. He closes quickly, limits options for runners and then finishes tackles well.

    Moving into the box was a tremendous change for the better in Thompson’s career. He went from being a big safety with some issues to now playing as a smaller linebacker with great speed in the box. He covers well, tackles well and is still just scratching the surface at the position.

    First Round. He has as much potential as any linebacker in college. A future star.

18. James Ross III, Michigan

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    James Ross III is the Michigan Wolverines' least active linebacker in the pass rush. He’s a quicker player who, when in the game for passing situations, the Wolverines prefer in coverage rather than up bringing pressure.

    Ross is the run-through player for the Wolverines. He is the linebacker who scrapes and fills as the rest of the defensive front forces runs to bounce or contains them inside. He’s the tackler for the system.

    The sophomore is a good mover. He sinks into coverage and pushes to hit his landmarks. He’s good at driving the flat from the inside out, but he is still learning when to jump routes and when to sink with quarterback drops.

    As one of the primary tacklers for the Wolverines, Ross gets the job done. He does a good job of running his feet through contact in order to bring players down. Because most of his tackles come in the box, he is also capable of bringing ball-carriers down while fighting through trash.

    One of the more unsung producers in the Michigan linebacking corps, Ross is the guy set up to simply go make tackles. He reads his keys well, gets downhill quickly and keeps his head behind the football in following the backside A-gap.

    Second Round. Only question marks are his lack of strength and bulk.

17. Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame

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    Notre Dame did not add Jaylon Smith to the mix very often. Part of that is a function of bringing the youth along slowly. But the more important element is that the Irish needed the athletic true freshman to play coverage.

    The kid has become a fighter in the run game in just 12 games. He’s a terror for opponents because he is so versatile in defending the run game. Smith can hammer a run back inside by coming up hard and quick on the edge, or he can split defenders and go make the play himself without much help.

    Smith is a fluid athlete who gets into coverage with ease and purpose. He is still learning when to jump routes, when to wall off and when to pattern-match, but he has skills in this area that most outside linebackers will never have.

    The game is not too fast for Smith, but at times he plays too fast for the game. He’s overrun tackles at times, failing to keep his head behind the ball. As the season has progressed, the idea of letting the play come to him has sunk in.

    Smith is just scratching the surface for the Irish. That should worry opponents. He’s becoming a monster against the run because his speed gives blockers trouble. In the pass game, he is figuring out how to be a problem.

    First Round. Looks like a future top-10 pick with strength and speed.

16. Deontae Skinner, Mississippi State

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    Deontae Skinner is not a constant addition to the pass rush, but he can be a player when the Mississippi State Bulldogs opt to add him into the mix. He understands rush lanes and how to help get himself and teammates chances at the quarterback.

    Skinner is another outside linebacker who is at his best working the run-through lane to make tackles and tracking the bounces to the exterior of the defense. He tracked the ball well during the season and found a way to insert himself often on plays away.

    The Bulldogs senior is a plus in coverage because of his experience. He understands how to sink into his zones, and although he is not the most athletic player at the spot, he knows what is going on in front of him. He drives routes well and reads the quarterback to help him break on the ball.

    Prior to his neck injury, Skinner was a tackling machine. After getting healthy, he again posted good numbers in the season finale against Ole Miss. He overpursues at times, hoping to make a play for the Bulldogs, but in general, he’s a sound tackler.

    Skinner is a good player without a ton of protection in front of him, but he still finds a way to get through the wash and make a tackle.

    Undrafted Free Agent. Doesn't flash NFL-caliber speed on the field.

15. David Santos, Nebraska

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    David Santos, along with the other Nebraska linebackers, is not a pass-rusher. He can add himself to the mix and get results, but the coaching staff relies on the front four to get pressure on the quarterback.

    Moving outside was a big plus for Santos. He is a good scrape-and-fill player. He handles running to the football better than pushing to engage in the hole to spill runs to his teammates or fighting off blockers to get to the tackle.

    Santos is capable in coverage. He shows an understanding of how the pieces fit in the defense, and that is what coaches are looking for out of defenders. His big move will be transitioning from getting to his landmarks and setting up to moving on to make plays.

    He is one of the better tacklers on the 'Huskers roster because he is doggedly determined to get ball-carriers on the ground. He shoots through clear lanes to meet ball-carriers and drives his feet to bring opponents down.

    Santos is a quality linebacker who is still growing into his role. The move outside really helped him become a major player for the Huskers. He’s active against the run, and as he develops his coverage skills, he’ll become a high-caliber player.

    First Round. Huge potential, just needs more experience.

14. Shaun Lewis, Oklahoma State

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    Shaun Lewis is not active in rushing the passer for the Cowboys. He’s on a team that generates its pass rush with the front four and some selective blitzing. He's rooted in the corners, disrupting timing with press coverage.

    The Pokes ask Lewis and fellow linebacker Caleb Lavey to be the run-stoppers. Lewis and Lavey play off each other well, and Lewis does not hesitate to play both the hammer and the tackler from his outside linebacker position. Being a versatile player, which is a plus, he is able to tackle the spill, hammer plays back inside or fight through the backside A.

    Lewis is an exceptional coverage linebacker. That’s why he stays on the field in a league where passing is how teams butter their bread. A fluid athlete, he can run in the intermediate zones with backs and tight ends. Plus, he drives on shorter routes.

    Lewis is a sure tackler in the run and the pass games. He closes with good speed, is a bigger body than folks expect when he gets to the impact point and drops opponents when he makes contact.

    He’s a high-quality linebacker. Lewis moves well in the box, flowing to the football or coming downhill to set the edge and turn runs back to the inside. His biggest asset is how comfortable he is outside of the box, moving laterally to make plays.

    Seventh Round. Short, lean linebacker who projects best as a nickel package player.

13. Denzel Perryman, Miami

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    Denzel Perryman isn’t a big asset to Miami against the pass. He is not a rusher with a plan when added to the mix, and the Hurricanes are better served using other linebackers to get pressure.

    Here is where the Miami linebacker is at his best. He is a fill player who scrapes well to the football and gets in to stop running backs. His best asset is tracking the backside of the play to stop cutbacks and bring running backs down before they can get upfield.

    Perryman is trying to figure out how to get to his landmarks and still see the receivers and the ball during his drop into coverage. It is not an easy skill to master, and the Miami junior has improved with more reps.

    He is a good tackler who fights to get to ball-carriers and get them on the ground. He runs well through contact and understands how to use his leverage to squeeze down the air to make a tackle.

    One of the ACC’s better linebackers, Perryman has good athleticism that allows him to get involved with plays all over the field. He is growing into a stout run defender, and 2013 was a major step.

    Third Round. A top-level athlete with run-down speed, just a bit short for the position.

12. D.J. Lynch, Bowling Green

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    A good linebacker in the rush game, D.J. Lynch is not a guy who gets added to the mix very often, but he is certainly capable of making an impact when given the opportunity.

    This is Lynch’s strong suit. He uses the backside A-gap to make tackles, and on runs toward him, he has no problem shedding when asked to take on a blocker and make a play. He’s a quick player who can also avoid a block to get to the ball-carrier.

    Experience is a big plus for Lynch in coverage. Although he’s not fluid moving away from the line, he’s comfortable getting to his landmarks and tracking the ball out of the quarterback’s hand so he can drive to the receiver.

    Lynch moves well to the football and delivers a pop upon arrival. He makes a lot of tackles moving side to side. When he gets a chance to square up on an opponent, he does not waste it.

    He’s not a big name, but he plays big football. Lynch is the cornerstone to the very good Bowling Green defense. Although many people do not see the senior play, he goes out and balls week after week.

    Sixth Round. Size and speed make a move to inside linebacker best for his pro potential.

11. Lamin Barrow, LSU

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    Lamin Barrow, like most of the LSU defense, struggled to get to the passer in 2013. He’s not a natural pass-rushing threat. He had some success but was largely pushed off course into the mix of bodies instead of getting to the quarterback.

    Against the run, Barrow is at his best. He’s a good flow linebacker who tracks the backside A to make tackles. The senior got off to a slow start, but over the course of the season, he hit his stride and became the tackler that LSU needed out of the linebacking corps.

    Barrow can get to zones and is capable of sinking into coverage. But he is not a fluid athlete moving away from the line. He can wall off the middle, but he has a hard time transitioning from his drop into moving to match crossers.

    As LSU’s run defense improved, Barrow’s tackling got better. He’s fought through blockers to get to tackles and is doing a good job of consistently getting his targets down.

    Barrow made himself a quality linebacker for LSU. He did his best to pull this defense through some tough times. Although it was not perfect, he put together a solid season. He certainly deserves to be on this list.

    Third Round. Versatile, attacking run defender who projects best to inside linebacker.

10. Derrick Malone, Oregon

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    Derrick Malone has been added to the mix for the Ducks as a pass-rusher out of Nick Aliotti’s sets, but his primary function in the pass game is in coverage. He’s a fluid athlete getting after the quarterback, but he’s better suited for the back end.

    Here is where Malone shines. He has slid nicely into his role as the primary tackler in the run game. He handles cutback runs fluidly and with great pursuit and has the speed to outsprint bouncing backs to the edge.

    Malone is smooth in coverage and runs well. He has the ability to recognize threats in his zone and drives well on the ball. He will fight to break up passes. In moving from the hash to the flat, his speed is a major plus.

    He’s a sure tackler who knows where his help is coming from and uses the sideline and good technique to get ball-carriers down. He closes fast, shuts down the opportunity for cutback runs and puts offensive players into the dirt.

    Malone emerged as Oregon’s best linebacker this season. He used the run-through opportunities to limit gains down the field. He does not get caught up in the wash tracking the cutback, and that’s a great skill to have.

    Third Round. Active, aggressive athlete, but a small frame for the NFL.

9. Steve Edmond, Texas

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    Steve Edmond can be a problem for quarterbacks when he gets a shot to rush the passer. He pushes through well, and even though he is rarely the primary free runner, he does draw interest and gives Texas help to get to the passer.

    The Texas junior hammers the run game. He plays well off of Dalton Santos and tracks the ball to make a play. Edmond understands where he fits in the gaps and works good angles to make sure runs do not break the Texas defense.

    Edmond is a big-bodied player, but he moves well in coverage. When he’s in the game during passing situations, he walls off the interior and drives well on the ball. He does a great job of playing deep to short and then making a tackle.

    One of the better tacklers on the Texas roster, Edmond gets good results. He understands leverage and how to play off his teammates, something many tacklers fail to do. He plays good team defense. Part of that is making tackles in tight spots.

    Edmond’s season came to an end when he lacerated his liver against Texas Tech. Prior to that incident, he was a big-production player who did all of the little things for the Longhorns. He was not the big-play guy or a flashy player, but he was what made things work in Austin.

    Sixth Round. Big, strong linebacker with limited outside speed.

8. Eddie Lackey, Baylor

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    Eddie Lackey is a bear in the Baylor blitz packages. He’s comfortable coming from the outside or adding to the rush from the inside to help get to the quarterback.

    Lackey is a fighter in the box. He’s not afraid to take on a fullback and turn the run back inside to Bryce Hager. Or, in the case of Hager doing the spilling, he has the speed to beat the back to the corner and get a stop for minimal to no gain.

    Although Lackey has two interceptions, he’s not great in coverage. He’s better at being a part of the rush package than he is at sinking into coverage. However, he does handle coverage situations well enough to be a plus for the Bears.

    Lackey does a great job of running down his troubles. He flows fast to the football, keeping his head behind the ball-carrier and shutting down the cutback lane. He gets his head across and puts ball-carriers down.

    He’s not a player many would expect to be high on the list, but Lackey has earned his way near the top. He fights to make plays for Baylor and is a big part of the reason the Bears defense has had such a strong turnaround in 2013.

    Seventh Round. Seriously undersized linebacker who could use a move to safety.

7. Jonathan Brown, Illinois

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    Jonathan Brown has grown into a solid pass-rusher for the Illini. The team struggled getting to the quarterback, but adding Brown to the pass-rushing schemes has helped it get more consistent pressure on the quarterback.

    Brown is the heart and soul of the Illini defense, and the run-stopping revolves around him. He makes good run fits, and even when there is no fit to be made, he finds a way to get to the football.

    The Illinois senior is tasked with coverage when he is not added to the pass rush. He is capable of transitioning well into coverage. He moves fluidly to play the ball and is not afraid to break on a pass after reading the quarterback.

    Brown is a tackling machine. He understands that his team needs him to be everywhere at once, and he responds accordingly. He can’t afford to miss tackles because, often, misses turn into big gains.

    Brown is one of the better outside linebackers in America. He flies to the ball and always wants to stick his face into the mix. He challenges every play. In his final season, he was the anchor of the defense.

    Fifth Round. Looks the part, but lacks NFL speed and agility.

6. Anthony Hitchens, Iowa

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    Anthony Hitchens has been added to Iowa's blitz packages in spots, and he’s generated some positive results. He’s a dogged pursuer of the quarterback in those scenarios and will fight to get to the passer.

    Hitchens excels against the run. He’s a great run-through linebacker, but he is also comfortable being a hammer-splatter player for his linebacking teammate, James Morris. Hitchens can get to the ball through linemen, and he will not hesitate to hammer plays back to the interior.

    The Iowa linebacker is not the most fluid player moving away from the line, but he does understand how to stop crossers and drive routes better than expected. His experience is the best reason for his success in the back end.

    Hitchens is great on the move to ball-carriers. He moves well from sideline to sideline, and he wants to get to the opponent in the backfield to make a big play. He secures the tackle well, even moving full speed, and that is a plus for a guy who moves like him.

    Another Big Ten linebacker, Hitchens is among the best of the bunch. He flashes in a big way during Iowa games, and he is tough to block because he is such an active player.

    Seventh Round. Love his production, but he has to show much better athletic ability.

5. James Vaughters, Stanford

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    James Vaughters is the Cardinal outside linebacker who plays the most coverage, but he is certainly capable of getting to the quarterback when asked to do so. He can fight from the outside to the quarterback, beating tackles in the process.

    Here is where Vaughters is among the best in the nation. He can set a hard edge for the defense, and when the opportunity occurs, he will insert himself into the play by disengaging and going to make a tackle.

    Vaughters is a big kid who is comfortable getting into coverage. He is the best of the Stanford linebackers at moving away from the line. His best quality is recognizing trouble and moving to take it away before quarterbacks have a shot to make a play.

    He’s another in a list of Stanford players who tackle well. He closes to the ball, knows where help comes from and shuts down the ball-carrier’s ability to do anything but get tackled.

    Vaughters is a really good football player who fills in as a do-everything linebacker for the Stanford Cardinal. He does not make the highlight-level plays that teammates Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov make, but he’s the glue that allows them to be risk-takers.

    Fifth Round. Productive and stout, but doesn't bring much pass-rush help.

4. Kevin Pierre-Louis, Boston College

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    Boston College linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis is a capable blitzer, and when he is added to the mix, he can be an impact player. He understands his role in pressures, and that helps him work to squeeze the pocket off the edge.

    Pierre-Louis is another linebacker who just flies around and tackles the football. His team funnels plays to him, and he knocks down ball-carriers at a great clip. He tracks the ball well and wants to put his nose in as running backs try to pick their way through traffic.

    Pierre-Louis can sink into coverage, and he understands how to drive on routes. He is getting better at protecting the interior, and his ability to get from deep to short in the flat is solid.

    Pierre-Louis is a sound tackler. He gets to the ball-carrier and puts him in the dirt in a hurry. The two things he does at a high level are track the backside A-gap for cutbacks and play the front-side bounce well. He explodes through ball-carriers.

    Pierre-Louis is not on most casual fans’ radars, but he should be. He gets to the ball quickly and brings a hard-nosed approach to the game.

    Seventh Round. Impressive athletic ability, but size and strength are question marks.

3. Ryan Shazier, Ohio State

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    Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Ryan Shazier is becoming a quality asset in getting after the quarterback. He is still learning how to get to the passer under control and avoid being knocked off course by linemen and backs, but he is impacting passing situations in the backfield, without a doubt.

    The junior linebacker is a missile on the football field. This defense is set up for fellow linebacker Curtis Grant to splatter and hammer plays toward a scraping Shazier, and it works perfectly, because both players know their roles. Shazier pursues relentlessly and moves quickly to get to the football.

    This is Shazier’s weakness. He understands the landmarks and how to take his drops, but he is far less comfortable seeing through receivers in his zone to the quarterback or recognizing when to drive on a shallow route versus when to sink for an intermediate pass.

    Shazier will overrun a tackle or two in a game, but he generally keeps his head behind the football, tracks the ball-carrier well and ends up putting him on the ground. His teammates funnel runs in his direction, so he can make plays.

    Shazier is a very good linebacker. He flies around the football and tackles everything when he gets a chance. He is not at the top of this category because he has holes in his coverage game, but he is certainly a plus on the field in most situations.

    First Round. The best first step at the linebacker position in college football.

2. Denicos Allen, Michigan State

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    Denicos Allen does not fit the traditional mold of the quarterback terrorizer, but the linebacker has found his niche as a pass-rusher. He’s active in Michigan State's blitz packages. Because he has the speed to come from depth or across the formation, he can be extremely disruptive.

    Allen is a Spartan, and all of the Spartans play run defense. He gets downhill in a hurry and fills his gap, and when he has to set the edge, he hammers the blocker hard to keep the ball inside. This is a senior who not only understands the scheme, but also truly trusts it to work for him and his teammates.

    Allen is a quality coverage linebacker. He’s a solid athlete who transitions well from run-first technique into coverage. He can wall off the interior and drive exceptionally well on shorter routes.

    He another solid-tackling Spartan. He uses leverage and his own speed to create problems for ball-carriers. Allen's gap integrity limits escapes, and when he’s asked to tackle in close quarters, he truly wants to strike the opponent.

    Allen is a high-quality outside linebacker. He’s not of the same caliber as Anthony Barr, but no one else in the category is either. Allen gets it done with smart football and makes an impact against both the run and the pass.

    Fifth Round. A great athlete, but lacks size for the next level.

1. Anthony Barr, UCLA

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    Anthony Barr is the premier pass-rusher at not just his position, but likely at the hybrid linebacker spot as well. He’s capable of getting around the edge quickly and being a problem in the passing game.

    The senior is a great read-and-react player against the run. He wants to come up and make plays, understands how to set the edge and is not afraid to split defenders to create problems at the mesh point.

    Ordinarily, a player who is great at rushing the passer is a liability in coverage. That is not the case with Barr. He’s a fluid athlete moving away from the line and looks good—very good—in coverage. He’s comfortable tracking receivers out in space.

    One of the nation’s best tacklers, Barr rarely misses and usually delivers a sound pop to get ball-carriers on the ground. Even in space he knows how to string out runs, use the sidelines and stop ball-carriers from advancing.

    Many think of Barr as a hybrid linebacker, and that does his talent a true disservice. He’s a true outside linebacker who happens to be very good at rushing the passer, among other things. He’s the best player at his position and is one of the best football players nationally at any position.

    Early First Round. A tremendous athlete, Barr has instant pass-rushing ability.

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