B/R NFL Draft 100: Top Linebackers

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterApril 18, 2014

B/R NFL Draft 100: Top Linebackers

0 of 13

    Butch Dill

    Inside linebacker, outside linebacker, rush 'backer. The position has evolved with the NFL looking for more and more speed, but the job requirements remain the same: Get the ball. But with so many different types of athletes and players available in the 2014 draft, who is the best?

    That’s what the NFL Draft 100 aims to identify. Looking only at the film, who is the best? 

    The B/R NFL Draft 100 metric is based on scouting each player and grading the key criteria for each position. The criteria are weighted according to importance on a 100-point scale. Unlike our NFL 1,000 series, this project factors in upside for each player—as the NFL draft is as much about upside as it is about production.

    Linebackers are broken into two categories—inside and outside. Inside linebackers are judged on run defense (50 points), pass rush (10), coverage (20) and upside (20). Outside linebackers are graded on pass rush (40 points), coverage (10), run defense (30) and upside (20). Both include these categories and all of the technique, athletic ability and football intelligence needed to play the position.

    In the case of ties, the ranking is based on which player I prefer personally.

    Subjective? Yes. But ties are no fun.

    Each player was scouted by me with these key criteria in mind. The following scouting reports and grades are the work of months of film study and in-person evaluation.

13. Yawin Smallwood, ILB, UConn

1 of 13

    Charles Krupa

    Run Defense

    43/50

    Yawin Smallwood was an active, productive middle linebacker at UConn, but can he be that player in the NFL? A lack of speed (5.01 seconds in the 40-yard dash) is concerning, and if asked to track outside the tackle box, he will struggle to stay ahead of the run. The positive is that his read-and-reaction times are exceptional, considering his poor timed speed. Smallwood puts himself in the right place with a high football IQ and a memory that allows him to translate film to the field. 

    Pass Rush

    6/10

    A solid A-gap blitzer, Smallwood will need to improve his hands to succeed in the NFL. His timing and burst are all on par with the expectation of a prospect, but blockers who are chipping at his frame can too often knock him off his path.

    Coverage

    14/20

    A solid cover man in college, Smallwood must overcome a lack of speed and just average footwork in the NFL. He doesn't consistently show the light feet needed to run in coverage or turn and move through space to attack the ball in a zone. He can also be very handsy in coverage, something the NFL doesn't allow. He has the awareness and quick processing skills to improve here.

    Upside

    16/20

    Smallwood is better than some of his individual test scores might show and was an incredibly aware and productive linebacker in college. While he doesn't possess great speed or strength, he does all the little things well and has room to improve his athleticism once he's in an NFL training room. 

    Overall

    79/100

12. Christian Kirksey, OLB, Iowa

2 of 13

    Chris O'Meara

    Pass Rush

    30/40

    A classic weak-side 4-3 linebacker, Christian Kirksey hasn't been asked to do much as a pass-rusher in the Iowa scheme. He does have the short-area quickness and burst to come off the edge and pressure the pocket, but the production and experience are lacking. At the Senior Bowl, he did well fighting through running backs in blitz drills, and definitely has upside there. 

    Coverage

    8/10

    Looking at Kirksey's athletic ability and fluid movement skills, it's easy to see him staying on the field in nickel and dime packages. Both on film and in postseason workouts he showed the ability to backpedal, flip his hips and run with receivers or tight ends. He has enough strength to also press at the line of scrimmage. His hands are solid, and he could project as a multiple-interception coverage linebacker.

    Run Defense

    25/30

    Kirksey has the instincts and agility you want from a 4-3 outside linebacker. He moves exceptionally well in space and has the quickness to close on the ball. He's quick to react and rarely gets out of position against the run. He's aggressive but disciplined. He is a smaller player, and that could be his downfall in the NFL. Coming off blocks and fighting through traffic to attack the ball will be his biggest areas of development.

    Upside

    18/20

    A player with Kirksey's athletic ability should have been unleashed on the offense, but in the Iowa system he wasn't always utilized as a playmaker. Once in the NFL, he could have a Lavonte David-like rise if coached up in the right 4-3 scheme. 

    Overall

    81/100

11. Telvin Smith, OLB, Florida State

3 of 13

    Michael Conroy

    Pass Rush

    30/40

    Telvin Smith has the quickness and lower-body explosiveness to affect the game as a pass-rusher but lacks the ideal strength and bulk to do so in the NFL. If he can add strength—and his frame could easily hold more good weightSmith's instincts and agility would allow him to be a strong pass-rusher as a weak-side linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. He's not a hand-in-the-dirt type of guy but has value as a blitzer. 

    Coverage

    8/10

    A top-tier zone-coverage linebacker, Smith can easily move through space and then plant and drive to close on the ball. He has the awareness and vision to read and react in the passing game, and he is a menace to the screen and underneath game. He does a good job of getting hands on players off the line and shows press skills on tight ends and slot receivers. 

    Run Defense

    24/30

    Among the most instinctive players at the position, Smith does an excellent job of getting in position to take on the ball. Where he may struggle in the NFL is when a blocker gets hands on him. At just 218 pounds, he will struggle to disengage from blockers and even fight through routine traffic on the edge.  

    Upside

    20/20

    Just a one-year starter, Smith has some positional upside as an outside linebacker, but his true ceiling is in that he can still grow and become stronger. Given his quickness and attacking style of play, any gained strength will be huge for his NFL success. 

    Overall

    82/100

10. Kevin Pierre-Louis, OLB, Boston College

4 of 13

    Steven Senne

    Pass Rush

    34/40

    An explosive athlete, Kevin Pierre-Louis was one of the most impressive players at the combine. Turn on the film, and you see flashes of his athleticism at work. The Boston College linebacker is a fluid mover in space and has exceptional flexibility when making the turn in the pass-rush game. His burst and closing speed are top-tier but don't always translate to production. He must get stronger functionally in order to beat blockers and shed hands at the next level. He's a natural mover and has good lower body flexibility. 

    Coverage

    5/10

    Speed in coverage will not be an issue for Pierre-Louis, but route recognition and awareness could be. He doesn't show great consistency in his diagnosis ability and will get caught peaking into the backfield at the quarterback. And while he did intercept a few balls in college, he doesn't seem to attack and close on the ball particularly well. 

    Run Defense

    23/30

    With 28 reps of 225 pounds at the combine, Pierre-Louis was one of the best linebackers on the bench press. That strength doesn't equate to on-field performance, though, as he struggles to shed hands and get to the ball. His open-field tackling skills are on point, but his lean frame opens him up to being controlled by linemen and tight ends in the run game. When moving through space he's nearly elite but must get better in traffic.

    Upside

    20/20

    Few players can boast the overall athletic gifts that Pierre-Louis has, but those traits don't always carry over onto the field. As he's coached up and learns to better use those skills on the field, he could be an absolute steal. 

    Overall

    82/100

9. Carl Bradford, OLB, Arizona State

5 of 13

    Michael Conroy

    Pass Rush

    36/40

    Carl Bradford doesn't immediately look the part of a pass-rusher, but he gets the job done. At the NFL level, you do have to worry that his shorter arms will limit his ability, but many players have worked around that limitation by learning to win with speed, leverage and hand use. Bradford can be the same. Playing defensive end in college, he learned to get off the ball well and is an explosive mover, despite his 4.76 time in the 40-yard-dash. He has the lower-body strength to drive blockers off the ball if they get their hands inside his frame, but he must learn to disengage and close on the ball from the bull rush.

    Coverage

    5/10

    Bradford hasn't been exposed to coverage as much as other outside linebacker prospects, but he does show good hands and natural instincts. His best bet would be becoming a zone-drop linebacker and not being asked to match up in man coverage.

    Run Defense

    23/30

    The biggest weakness in Bradford's game right now is an inability to come off blockers. Moving from a down position to outside linebacker may help him here—as he won't be covering up the tackle as much—but he must learn to break free and use his arms to keep offensive linemen off his frame.  

    Upside

    18/20

    Making the move from defensive end to outside linebacker in the NFL will offer Bradford room to grow and improve. His athletic profile is much more suited to the stand-up style of play.  

    Overall

    82/100

8. Jordan Tripp, OLB, Montana

6 of 13

    Michael Conroy

    Pass Rush

    30/40

    One of the toughest players in this year's class, Jordan Tripp could step right into a starting job as an inside or outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. As a pass-rusher, he was underutilized at Montana but shows the athletic traits to do well there. Tripp, as an ideal 4-3 linebacker, isn't the fast, twitchy edge-rusher like Khalil Mack, but he has the power, timing and agility to bring heat either off the corner or up the middle as a blitzer. His potential as a stunting outside linebacker is high due to his awareness and closing speed. 

    Coverage

    9/10

    Tripp impressed with his movement skills at the Senior Bowl, and going back to the film, you see the same thing. He's like a strong safety in his backpedal and change-of-direction skills. He won't struggle to flip his hips and run with receivers downfield. His awareness and soft hands also make him a target for turnovers and batted passes in coverage.

    Run Defense

    25/30

    An athlete in space, Tripp does a great job in pursuit and in making plays in the open field. He can struggle to come clean from a blocker but does fight through traffic and has an unrelenting motor when asked to make plays that require him to get through trash. 

    Upside

    19/20

    Tripp is an exciting athlete with the potential to play in a 3-4 or 4-3 defense, and in that "40" front, he could play inside or outside linebacker. His potential is unlimited once in the NFL. 

    Overall

    83/100

7. Chris Borland, ILB, Wisconsin

7 of 13

    Michael Conroy

    Run Defense

    48/50

    A lockdown run defender in the tackle box, Chris Borland is a hard hitter with a violent streak. He's not the biggest guy (5'11", 248 pounds) or the fastest (4.83 in the 40), but he has incredible instincts and football IQ. Borland does have a slight tendency to over-run the play and then track back away from traffic to make a tackle, but he produces at an incredibly high rate. His knee bend and agility are top-tier, and he does play much faster than his 40 time. He is also strong and uses his hands well to stack-and-shed blockers in the hole. In pursuit he shows a great feel for space and keeps his legs churning through tackles.  

    Pass Rush

    8/10

    As an A-gap blitzer, Borland is on the money. He attacks well and does an excellent job of disguising his intentions until the path is clear. Then he fires through like a missile and hits the quarterback with raw power. When met in the hole he'll struggle to break free, but his timing and awareness are elite enough that he was rarely caught in college. 

    Coverage

    16/20

    A 4-3 inside linebacker must be able to get depth and play the hook-to-curl. Borland does that well. He doesn't have the size or speed to be great in man coverage but shows the instincts, lateral agility and vision to do well in a spying or zone-drop role. 

    Upside

    14/20

    Borland does come into the NFL as a maxed-out player—both in terms of physique and technique. You don't see identifiable areas where he can improve, as he's an instincts-and-agility player with top-end reaction skills. 

    Overall

    86/100

6. Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB, Georgia Tech

8 of 13

    Gerry Broome

    Pass Rush

    38/40

    Few players at the outside linebacker position have Jeremiah Attaochu's raw ability as a pass-rusher. He's an explosive, dynamic athlete with fluid movement and natural strength. With top-tier length and burst, he's able to beat blockers with a strong set of pass-rushing moves. He bends the edge well and has the flexibility to dip his inside shoulder and drive to turn the corner. He does an excellent job of keeping his feet moving throughout the rush and doesn't let blockers frustrate him to the point of failure. Attaochu is super intelligent and comes with experience as a defensive end and stand-up linebacker. The only real knock is a lack of power conversion in his game. If he doesn't win with speed or leverage from his shoulder dip, he can get shut down.

    Coverage

    5/10

    As a defensive end, Attaochu was rarely asked to drop into coverage. During his time as an outside linebacker, he was almost exclusively used in pass-rushing situations. He has the awareness and athleticism to play in coverage but is very raw here technically. 

    Run Defense

    25/30

    Playing strong at the point of attack is an area where Attaochu must get better, but the tools are all there for him to develop into a stronger edge-setter. He excels now in pursuit and weak-side run situations and does a great job of making open-field tackles on ball-carriers in space. 

    Upside

    20/20

    Born in Nigeria, Attaochu has only been playing football since his freshman year of high school. He has natural gifts that are waiting to be refined by NFL-level coaches and comes into the league with exceptional upside.  

    Overall

    88/100

5. Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State

9 of 13

    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Pass Rush

    37/40

    With one of the best first steps in college football, Ryan Shazier lives in the backfield. The Ohio State linebacker is among the most explosive players in the draft, and he backs that up on the field with disruptive plays. Shazier shows high-level agility and flexibility to get past blockers, and his initial quickness often gives him the upper hand in leverage and balance. He's an easy, fluid mover coming off the edge but does not have ideal length or size to play as a primary pass-rusher. He has to learn a secondary pass-rush move and begin to set up and counter blockers instead of relying only on speed to win. 

    Coverage

    8/10

    A true three-down player, Shazier is a plug-and-play linebacker. With his ability to easily move through space, he can be an asset in zone or man coverage. You won't want him matched up against Jimmy Graham in single coverage, but he can move well enough to hold his own against tight ends, backs and some slot receivers. 

    Run Defense

    26/30

    As a smaller, leaner player, Shazier may struggle to take on blockers and clear out against the run. His lack of bulk and strength makes him a target for pulling guards, but he has shown that his quickness allows him to beat blockers to the hole and excel in pursuit. 

    Upside

    18/20

    Shazier took some time to become an impact player at Ohio State, and there's still room for him to grow both physically and as a player. If an NFL team fills his frame out more, he would be better-suited to play on the edge in a 3-4 defense. 

    Overall

    89/100

4. Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU

10 of 13

    Michael Conroy

    Pass Rush

    35/40

    A productive player as a pass-rusher, Kyle Van Noy doesn't have the natural quickness and flexibility coming off the edge as others in this draft. That said, he's still able to get the job done. He has very good first-step ability and can generate depth and pressure on an offensive tackle from the jump. Van Noy's best asset as a pass-rusher is that he never lets his feet go dead, as he's always working toward the ball. What he lacks in raw speed and agility, he makes up for with exceptional awareness and football IQ. Van Noy throws his hands at the quarterback if he can't get the sack and has been successful at batting down balls.  

    Coverage

    9/10

    Van Noy is an excellent mover in space. At the Senior Bowl while I was viewing from the press box, it was easy to mistake No. 3 for a safety due to his exceptional balance and body control in a backpedal or breaking on the ball in space. He has the tools to play outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme thanks to his ability to move in coverage. 

    Run Defense

    27/30

    An area where Van Noy can immediately improve is as a tackler against the run. Too often he lets the ball-carrier slip out of his arms at the last minute, which leads to a frustrating amount of tackles left on the field. He does have good functional strength to take on blockers and turn the run back in off the edge. You have to like his tenacity and instincts to read and react. 

    Upside

    18/20

    Van Noy has undeniable athletic ability, but he also has a good amount of positional upside. Once drafted, he'll be able to flourish as he's placed into a specific scheme. A 4-3 or 3-4 defense could use his ability on the strong side, and once settled in, he can easily become a more impactful player. 

    Overall

    89/100

3. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA

11 of 13

    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Pass Rush

    38/40

    A naturally gifted athlete on the edge, Anthony Barr has the speed and power to frustrate and confuse offensive linemen. He has top-notch first-step ability and is very explosive coming off the line. He also shows the flexibility to bend the edge when getting depth off the corner. Barr has the length, strength and speed to be scheme-versatile—meaning he can play in a 4-3 or 3-4 defense. He's a violent hitter with big ability to close on the quarterback's blind side and make an impact. You do worry about his lack of skill when asked to disengage from blockers, but this is a very coachable skill he must learn.  

    Coverage

    9/10

    When dropping into space, Barr shows instincts and the soft hands you want from a zone linebacker. Ideally he's going to be rushing the quarterback on passing downs, but when asked to take a zone drop or even match up in man-to-man, he shows high-level hip flexibility and foot speed.  

    Run Defense

    25/30

    Barr is at his best in weak-side pursuit and making plays in space that allow his speed to show up. When the run comes his way, he can get pancaked and pushed around in the run game. He must learn to play with better lower-body leverage and strength to take on blockers and hold the edge. 

    Upside

    20/20

    Barr is a world-class athlete, and he's still very new to the outside linebacker position after playing running back previously. He has plenty of room to be coached up in all areas of the game. If Barr produces in the NFL like he did for Jim Mora, he'll be in good hands. 

    Overall

    92/100

2. C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama

12 of 13

    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    48/50

    C.J. Mosley has the instincts and athleticism that scouts fall in love with at the inside linebacker position. He's incredibly fluid in space and has the speed to run alleys and attack the ball at the line of scrimmage. He's not a catch-tackler, which means he moves forward to take on the ball and doesn't wait for the runner to get to him. He's a top-tier athlete and plays with light feet and a natural spring in his step. If asked to track the ball outside, Mosley shows range in getting outside the hashes and doesn't get outrun to the boundary. He plays with good strength and won't get handled by blockers, but he could do a better job of working through trash instead of relying on his speed to get him in the right position. Mosley is an intense, highly intelligent player with ideal linebacker qualities. 

    Pass Rush

    8/10

    Playing inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, Mosley is asked to pull the chain and attack through A- and B-gaps often. He shows burst and awareness but also agility to evade blockers and change direction to get to the passer. He's not a top-tier player with hand use or counter moves, but he can have a big impact as a blitzer. 

    Coverage

    18/20

    Inside linebackers need zone awareness and fluid movement, and Mosley has both. He sees the ball well and finds himself in position to challenge the pass. In man situations, he can get turned around or passed, and he does need work in learning to time his coverage turns. But his awareness and instincts are off the charts. 

    Upside

    18/20

    Recent evidence suggests you have to worry a little about players coming out of Alabama, and Mosley is no different. Nick Saban tends to run his players into the ground, and Mosley does have injury question marks with a shoulder injury. Still, his natural talents project him as a starter at either inside or outside linebacker. 

    Overall

    92/100

1. Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo

13 of 13

    Michael Conroy

    Pass Rush

    40/40

    Khalil Mack is a one-man wrecking crew against the pass. He displays the quickness, strength and tenacity to attack the backfield. Unlike Aaron Curry—who some have compared him to—Mack wants to be great and plays with a chip on his shoulder. That shows up in the way he uses his hands to violently disengage from blockers. He's also fast enough to drop his inside shoulder to get leverage and then bend the corner in pass-rushing situations. He's versatile enough to line up in a two- or three-point stance and be a high-level producer. Mack uses his 4.65 40 speed well on the field, looping around or going right by blockers. And when he gets to the ball, he's a big hitter. He is violent in how he attacks and closes on the passer.

    Coverage

    8/10

    Mack plays with high-level body control and awareness. He's capable of dropping into zone coverage and shows good curl-to-flat recognition. In space he's a quick mover with the short-area burst you need to close on the ball. If matched up against a very fluid tight end, he could struggle with timing on his hip turns. 

    Run Defense

    27/30

    Mack's unreal first-step quickness shows up in the run game. He's instinctive and fast and uses his strength well to get through blockers and attack the ball-carrier. He can be a bit overaggressive at times and must learn to play assignment football. When you go back to the Baylor game where he was controlled well by the running game, you see room for improvement in his ability to beat blockers when he's targeted. 

    Upside

    20/20

    Mack is still a raw player with big upside. He can win with the tools he has but can stand to get better at using his hands and setting up counter moves in his pass-rush game. 

    Overall

    95/100