B/R's NFL 20 for '20: Projecting Top Linebackers in 2020

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterJanuary 25, 2016

B/R's NFL 20 for '20: Projecting Top Linebackers in 2020

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    We don't like to think about what the NFL will look like without linebackers like NaVorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson or even underrated studs like Thomas Davis; but it will happen. And it'll happen soon. 

    My generation didn't want to think about an NFL without game-changers like Derrick Thomas or Lawrence Taylor, but along came the next wave of talent in the form of Ray Lewis, DeMarcus Ware and Brian Urlacher. We didn't want the game without Junior Seau or Zach Thomas, but along came Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner.

    The game moves on, and legends walk away. Looking ahead to the next generation, who will be the best linebacker in the year 2020?

    That's what this signature series aims to answer—our "20 for '20" covers who the top 20 linebackers will be five seasons from now. And if you're looking for guys like Bowman or Clay Matthews—who will be well over 30 years old in 2020—we have to project a few retirements and a few slowdowns. 

Honorable Mention

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    Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

    Others Receiving Strong Consideration

    • Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans
    • Pernell McPhee, Chicago Bears
    • Brandon Marshall, Denver Broncos
    • Deone Bucannon, Arizona Cardinals
    • Mychal Kendricks, Philadelphia Eagles
    • Eric Kendricks, Minnesota Vikings
    • Ryan Kerrigan, Washington
    • Whitney Mercilus, Houston Texans

    Excluded Because of Age and Expected Regression

    • Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs
    • Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers
    • NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers
    • Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots
    • Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs
    • DeMarcus Ware, Denver Broncos

20. Dont'a Hightower (30 Years Old)

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 30

    2020 Pass Rush

    22/30

    A product of Nick Saban at Alabama and now Bill Belichick in the NFL, Dont’a Hightower is a true do-it-all linebacker. In baseball, he’d be a five-tool guy. But in the NFL, he’s a three-tool player, given his ability to rush the passer, stop the run and play in coverage. And while he’ll never be unleashed as an edge-rusher, Hightower is an impact rusher in the Patriots’ blitz-heavy scheme.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    18/20

    This is where Hightower makes his money. He’s big enough to bang with guards and fullbacks between the tackles, and he’s agile enough to slip a block and attack the ball. Hightower is a handful for any kind of blocker trying to engage him between the tackles.

     

    2020 Coverage

    27/30

    Coming into the NFL, Hightower didn't have advanced coverage skills. He’s been able to become very good, though, at taking tight ends off the line and running in-phase or putting a body on them at the line to limit routes.

     

    2020 Upside

    17/20

    At 25 years old, Hightower is still young by NFL standards and still has room to grow and learn as a player. But the beating he’s taken at Alabama and now in New England does put a limit on his upside over the next five seasons.

     

    2020 Overall

    84/100

    Hightower is a gifted player, and he plays in the perfect scheme for his tools. As long as he’s in Belichick’s defense, expect to see his name mentioned in the top 20.

19. Shane Ray (27 Years Old)

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 27

    2020 Pass Rush

    28/30

    A natural edge defender, Shane Ray can play defensive end or outside linebacker and create pressure on the quarterback. He’s quick out of his stance and plays with great leverage and bend. Looking ahead five seasons, he’ll have the hand use and timing down to dominate offensive tackles.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    14/20

    Given Ray’s smaller frame (6'3", 245 lbs), he’s never going to look like Justin Smith or J.J. Watt setting the edge, but he does give you great pursuit on backside plays and enough juice in space to knife through traffic and make a play on the ball.

     

    2020 Coverage

    22/30

    A big area of development for Ray—coming from a defensive end position at Missouri—is in pass coverage. He has the athletic tools to be good here, even if that’s not showing up in year one. Remember, this is about where he’ll be in five years, and Ray has the gifts to hold his own against tight ends and backs.

     

    2020 Upside

    20/20

    Ray has all the tools to become great. He’s agile, flexible, quick off the line and uses his hands well. And maybe most importantly, he’s coachable and has shown the work ethic to improve.

     

    2020 Overall

    84/100

    Ray is lost in the shuffle of a great Denver defense right now, but he’s the man in line to replace DeMarcus Ware and will be a household name himself by 2020.

18. Ryan Shazier (28 Years Old)

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 28

    2020 Pass Rush

    23/30

    A true inside linebacker, Ryan Shazier has become a good pass-rusher when he’s asked to clean up the pocket or come through an A-gap on a delayed blitz. He’s never going to line up on the edge and rush the quarterback, but he’s capable of putting pressure on the backfield.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    15/20

    Shazier, at 23 years old, is showing the skills to be a good, athletic tackler against the run. He sees the ball well, and fast-forwarding five years, his ability to stack-and-shed blockers will be even better.

     

    2020 Coverage

    27/30

    Basing these scores on potential takes faith, but you can turn on the film today and see the pass coverage skills that will make Shazier into a top-20 linebacker. He’s fluid, decisive and reads the offense on the fly.

     

    2020 Upside

    20/20

    Today’s ideal inside linebacker is fast, athletic, flexible and strong. Shazier possesses all of those traits and has proved himself to be valuable on all three downs. His potential is through the roof.

     

    2020 Overall

    85/100

    Shazier is full of potential, and in his second season, that ability started to flash on the field. The sky is the limit for the former Buckeye.

17. Jordan Hicks (28 Years Old)

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 28

    2020 Pass Rush

    23/30

    An inside linebacker with range, instincts, vision and upper-level athleticism, Jordan Hicks can get after quarterbacks when they scramble out of the pocket or when there are coverage-sack opportunities, but he’s not a natural edge-rusher or perimeter player.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    15/20

    As a smaller inside linebacker (6'1", 236 lbs), Hicks doesn’t have the bulk to bang with guards and fullbacks and be a 15-tackle guy between the tackle box. What he does do well is attack in space and bring down ball-carriers in the open field. That’ll be good enough to hit the 100-tackle mark each season. 

     

    2020 Coverage

    27/30

    Hicks has the natural movement skills and instincts to be good in coverage. In fact, during Senior Bowl practices before the 2015 NFL draft, he was by far the best coverage linebacker in attendance and often looked like a safety in his backpedal and coverage drills. As long as he’s healthy, Hicks should be great in passing situations.

     

    2020 Upside

    20/20

    Hicks has all the tools to be great, and he showed that early in his rookie season before a torn left pectoral tendon ended his campaign prematurely. He has to stay healthy to live up to expectations.

     

    2020 Overall

    85/100

    Fast-forward five years and Hicks may be the best inside linebacker in the league, but with his injury history, he may also struggle to stay on the field long enough to develop. 

16. Aldon Smith (31 Years Old)

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 31

    2020 Pass Rush

    30/30

    Aldon Smith crashing off the right side of the defense made the San Francisco 49ers a nightmare to deal with and has helped the Oakland Raiders crawl out of the bottom of the AFC West. Given his rare length, power and agility, Smith is able to beat both speed and power at left tackle.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    18/20

    His years in San Francisco were so focused on pass-rushing statistics that people forgot to look at just how good Smith was in stopping the outside run. Whether he’s in a three-point-stance or standing up in space, Smith does a great job jamming the tackle and setting the edge against the run.

     

    2020 Coverage

    22/30

    Smith was never a great cover man, but he is good on the line of scrimmage at redirecting and jamming tight ends or slot receivers. He’s a little awkward moving backward in space, but he does have closing speed and good length to play the ball in front of him.

     

    2020 Upside

    15/20

    The lack of upside for Smith has little to do with age and more to do with his off-field issues. If he is dialed-in and focused on football, he could be a top-five player in 2020.

     

    2020 Overall

    85/100

    Smith is an absolute star when on the field—and it wasn’t that long ago he was in the conversation as one of the best pass-rushers in football. He can get back to that level if he’s all-in on football.

15. Aaron Lynch (27 Years Old)

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 27

    2020 Pass Rush

    28/30

    Aaron Lynch was made to rush the passer. He’s powerful, long, fast, violent and tenacious when getting off the ball and into the backfield. Right now, Lynch flashes brilliance, but moving ahead five years, he has the traits to be a Mario Williams-like threat.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    15/20

    Backside runs and setting the edge are exceptional skills Lynch shows in his second season. He’s strong at the point of attack and has the length and speed to shed tacklers and attack the run head-on. He’s not great here, but he could be good in the future.

     

    2020 Coverage

    23/30

    The 49ers love to unleash Lynch on the backfield, and that doesn’t leave much time for pass coverage. That said, he has the tools to become good at jamming tight ends on the line of scrimmage and pinning targets to the line.

     

    2020 Upside

    19/20

    Lynch was raw when he left South Florida for the NFL, and even in his second year, he’s showing that he needs work as a three-down player. The good news for Lynch is that he continues to get better and has all the tools to become a dominant force.

     

    2020 Overall

    85/100

    Placing Lynch in the top 15 for 2020 requires some imagination and a lot of hope, but if he can produce consistently at the level he flashes now, it will become a reality. 

14. Reggie Ragland (27 Years Old)

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    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 27

    2020 Pass Rush

    22/30

    Reggie Ragland is a classic middle linebacker, and while that doesn’t mean he can’t rush the quarterback and create some panic and pressure there, it’s not his primary job. Five seasons from now, expect Ragland to be able to clean up the pocket but not be a top-tier rushing linebacker.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    17/20

    A thumper between the tackles, Ragland also has the speed to chase and take down ball-carriers outside the tackle box. He’s big, for sure, but the quickness and strength are evident to count on Ragland being great all over the field when taking on the run.

     

    2020 Coverage

    26/30

    One area where Ragland already stands out in college is when he’s playing zone coverage and attacking the pass. He’s quick, and the instincts and football IQ needed to flow with the ball and jump routes are definitely there to be developed by 2020.

     

    2020 Upside

    20/20

    Alabama linebackers have been largely bust-proof in the NFL, and Ragland looks to be next in that group. He has the talent to become a Dont’a Hightower-like impact player on all three downs.

     

    2020 Overall

    85/100

    Ragland is one of the best linebackers in college football, and in 2020, he’ll be a veteran and a likely Pro Bowler in the NFL.

13. Bobby Wagner (30 Years Old)

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 30

    2020 Pass Rush

    20/30

    The Seattle defense loves to rush the passer from all angles, but middle linebacker Bobby Wagner isn't often asked to get after the quarterback. He can clean up the pocket when spying a quarterback, though, and scores well there.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    20/20

    They don’t come much better than this. Wagner is a dog chasing a bone when the ball is snapped, and he combines great vision with strength, speed and toughness to shed blockers and find the football. Even being an undersized linebacker (6'0", 241 lbs), Wagner is nasty between the tackles.

     

    2020 Coverage

    28/30

    Turn on the film and you can see Wagner’s excellence at getting depth in zone coverages and ability to turn and run with targets when matched up man-to-man. He’s agile, fast and tough when engaging players in traffic.

     

    2020 Upside

    18/20

    Wagner is only 25 years old as of this writing, but he’s been in the league since 2012. That wear and tear limits his upside a bit.

     

    2020 Overall

    86/100

    You could make a strong case that Wagner is the best middle linebacker in football today, and moving ahead five seasons, he’ll still be one of the best.

12. Lavonte David (30 Years Old)

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    Cliff McBride/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 30

    2020 Pass Rush

    23/30

    A classic 4-3 linebacker, Lavonte David isn’t asked to do much as a pass-rusher. But when he is used as a blitzer or is asked to clean up the pocket on a scramble, he’s shown a great ability to get to the quarterback.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    17/20

    David will never be a huge run-stuffer, and the move to weak-side linebacker in Tampa’s defense is best for his skill set. He is, however, good at darting inside the box to make tackles and is a dynamic, dangerous player on the edge of the defense.

     

    2020 Coverage

    30/30

    One of the original coverage linebackers, David’s experience at safety in college shows up every week in the NFL. He’s quick, smart and can take tight ends and running backs out of the game as receivers.

     

    2020 Upside

    17/20

    At 25 years old in 2015, David is a young player with a ton of success in his short NFL career. But the fact that he’s been in the league since 2012 does limit his upside.

     

    2020 Overall

    87/100

    David is one of the NFL’s best linebackers and definitely among the most consistent. Projecting ahead five years, he’ll still be a force to be reckoned with.

11. Shaq Thompson (26 Years Old)

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 26

    2020 Pass Rush

    23/30

    There isn’t much that Shaq Thompson can’t do from an athletic standpoint. He’s quick, agile and strong at the point of attack. As a pass-rusher, he’s inexperienced, but he has the right mix of traits to become a viable threat off the edge once he takes over Thomas Davis’ role.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    14/20

    Playing the inside run against powerful linemen is a big development point for Thompson as he moves forward. And even if he hits all his markers, it’s tough to imagine Thompson ever becoming a great inside run-stopper. He does have potential to be good on the outside, though, and that’s why his score is so high. 

     

    2020 Coverage

    30/30

    Thompson has the hips and speed of a strong safety, and that shows up when he’s asked to cover in zone spaces or carry a tight end through his route. Thompson has all the right skills to develop into a stud coverage linebacker. 

     

    2020 Upside

    20/20

    The athletic goods and youth that Thompson brings to the league and to the position give him upside that will make him a top-10 linebacker when we push forward five seasons.

     

    2020 Overall

    87/100

    Thompson is one of the most dynamic athletes playing the linebacker position in the NFL right now. With his agility, strength and developing instincts, he could be special by 2020.

10. Malik Jefferson (23 Years Old)

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    Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 23

    2020 Pass Rush

    25/30

    A dynamic linebacker with three-down skills, Malik Jefferson has been deadly on delayed blitzes and A-gap pressures against the spread offenses of the Big 12. Looking at his NFL future, Jefferson isn’t going to be an outside pass-rusher, but he will be able to threaten and pressure the quarterback with his exceptional closing speed and instincts.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    15/20

    Understanding and diagnosing the run is where Jefferson can grow most in the next two or three years at Texas. Given that we’re projecting ahead to 2020, it’s fair to think Jefferson will become the attacking, athletic run defender he flashed to be at times in his first year of college football. 

     

    2020 Coverage

    27/30

    Jefferson lines up in the middle of the Texas defense and is asked to take tight ends away as they cross his face. He’s also shown enough athleticism to slide out into the slot and carry receivers down the field in phase.

     

    2020 Upside

    20/20

    Athletic, strong, fast and instinctive, Jefferson is able to attack the offense as a rusher, run defender or coverage ‘backer. And with NFL size (6'3", 232 lbs) as an 18-year-old, it’s easy to project him into a star spot in the NFL.

     

    2020 Overall

    87/100

    As a true freshman at Texas, Jefferson flashed onto the scene and quickly became one of the most impactful players in college football. There have been mistakes as he learns and grows, but when we look at upside and potential, he’s a unique future star.

9. Justin Houston (31 Years Old)

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    John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 31

    2020 Pass Rush

    30/30

    If you aren’t aware of Justin Houston’s greatness as a pass-rusher, I welcome you from under that rock you’ve been under. Houston is fantastic and a legitimate threat to break the single-season sack record in his career. He’s fast, powerful and has an unstoppable ability to convert speed to power.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    19/20

    When you get off the ball as fast as Houston does, you’re going to meet the running back in the backfield often. He does that, but he’s also disciplined enough to recognize the run and not overpursue or lose gap discipline.

     

    2020 Coverage

    24/30

    An underrated player in coverage, Houston simply isn’t often asked to play the pass because he’s so good rushing the passer. You can’t sleep on his man-coverage ability, though, as it’s widely respected around the league.

     

    2020 Upside

    17/20

    Given his age (27 years old currently), Houston’s upside is a little more limited than the younger players listed here. But make no mistake, he could easily be the league’s best linebacker in five seasons if he maintains his current tools.

     

    2020 Overall

    90/100

    Houston seems like an annual candidate to be the Defensive Player of the Year, and that’s not going to change in the next five seasons. He’ll retain his status heading into his 30s as one of the league’s most dominant defenders. 

8. Von Miller (31 Years Old)

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    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 31

    2020 Pass Rush

    30/30

    Von Miller is, without a doubt, one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL. He’s fast off the line, powerful when confronted by a blocker and has the agility to counter and move, which likely keeps offensive coordinators up at night.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    18/20

    At 6'3", 250 pounds, Miller doesn’t have great size to truly be an inside-the-box run-stuffer, but he’s fantastic off the edge and does a great job protecting the edge when the ball gets outside the tackle box.

     

    2020 Coverage

    25/30

    Too many think of Miller as a pass-rusher only, but he’s surprisingly good in coverage when asked to take a tight end out of the equation. As he gets older and gains even more experience and on-field knowledge, Miller can excel here. 

     

    2020 Upside

    17/20

    Miller has become one of the game’s best linebackers and a true three-down player, but his upside is limited given his age looking ahead.

     

    2020 Overall

    90/100

    Von Miller is on a tear this season, but remember, we’re looking ahead in time five years. By then, he’ll be 31 years old. He'll still make a huge impact but won't be the presence he is now.

7. Anthony Barr (28 Years Old)

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    Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 28

    2020 Pass Rush

    28/30

    When Anthony Barr left UCLA, scouts were torn on how to best use him. Was he a pass-rusher or a coverage guy? The answer is both, and the Minnesota Vikings do a great job utilizing his ability off the edge to affect the pocket. Barr could be a double-digit sack player if ever unleashed as a primary rusher.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    16/20

    Projecting ahead five seasons, Barr could become a much bigger asset in the run game than he is currently. Right now, we see an athletic player making tackles in space, but Barr should become even better between the tackles by 2020. 

     

    2020 Coverage

    27/30

    Already Barr has proved he’s one of the best coverage linebackers in the game, and that shouldn’t change as he heads into his upper 20s. Barr’s agility, length and instincts will keep him aggressive and productive in coverage.

     

    2020 Upside

    19/20

    Barr is just starting to scratch the surface of how good he can be. Five years from now, look for him to be a top-10 linebacker. 

     

    2020 Overall

    90/100

    In 2015, Barr became the threat the Vikings hoped he would be when they made him a first-round pick in the 2014 draft. He’s on the verge of being one of the best linebackers in the NFL.

6. Jamie Collins (30 Years Old)

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 30

    2020 Pass Rush

    28/30

    Jamie Collins took the next step in 2015 and became a true Defensive Player of the Year threat as a three-down wrecking crew for New England. He’s long, fast, explosive off the jump and gets the benefit of being lined up in many different ways in the Patriots’ scheme. As a pass-rusher, Collins has all the tools to post 10 sacks in a season if ever used as a primary pass-rusher.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    17/20

    Collins doesn’t have the elite strength to be a thumper in the middle of the defense, but he does have good length and a good understanding of angles and leverage. Projecting him out five more years, look for Collins to become a top-tier run defender on the outside of the defense.

     

    2020 Coverage

    27/30

    At 6'3", 250 pounds, there aren’t many linebackers with Collins’ height/weight/speed mixture. That allows him to run with tight ends across the formation or get down the field and protect the seam. As he continues to gain experience and as the game slows down for him, expect this to only improve.

     

    2020 Upside

    18/20

    There is a lot of talent to work with here, and at 26 years old currently, Collins is still young enough to continue developing for a few more seasons.

     

    2020 Overall

    90/100

    Collins has emerged as a true force on the Patriots defense. He’s a three-down attacker with elite athleticism and big, big potential.

5. Myles Jack (25 Years Old)

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 25

    2020 Pass Rush

    25/30

    Myles Jack was a two-way star at UCLA, lining up at running back and linebacker, and those talents are easy to see on the field. He has the speed and toughness to rush the quarterback, but he played as an off-the-ball linebacker at UCLA and should continue as such in the NFL. Depending on scheme and use, Jack does have the tools to be an aggressive pass-rusher.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    17/20

    Like most young players, Jack can get overaggressive and shoot gaps too hard, allowing runs outside his shoulder. Learning gap discipline and timing takes reps, and over the next five seasons, he has the talent to become a good edge-setting run defender.

     

    2020 Coverage

    30/30

    There are few linebacker prospects in the last five NFL draft classes that can compare to Jack when it comes to coverage skills. He's agile, fluid, instinctive, smart, and has the traits to become a Luke Kuechly- or Bobby Wagner-type cover man.

     

    2020 Upside

    20/20

    Jack has unreal gifts, which should translate to high upside, but a knee injury suffered in 2015 gives a slight reason for concern moving ahead. How well his body holds up in the NFL over the next five seasons will be crucial to his development.

     

    2020 Overall

    92/100

    Injuries are the only thing that could hold Jack from being a top-five linebacker. If his knee injury recovers as it should, Jack is going to be an All-Pro-caliber player.

4. C.J. Mosley (28 Years Old)

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    Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 28

    2020 Pass Rush

    24/30

    The middle linebacker position in Baltimore doesn’t call for a ton of pass rushing, but C.J. Mosley can get the job done on delayed pressures and blitzes through the inside gaps. He’s best, though, at cleaning up the pocket and spying quarterbacks if they scramble.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    20/20

    Mosley made his mark at Alabama with his ability to stop the inside run and by showing good range. In the NFL, he’s been fantastic attacking the line of scrimmage and knifing through blockers to make tackles behind the line of scrimmage. 

     

    2020 Coverage

    29/30

    Coverage linebackers must have instincts and agility, and Mosley has both. He’s quick enough to carry tight ends through their routes and physical enough to bang in traffic and stop routes over the middle. He’s also athletic enough to flip the field with his hands.

     

    2020 Upside

    19/20

    Mosley got knocked a little in the predraft process over concern for his past shoulder injuries, and that could definitely impact his potential, but the 23-year-old has the instincts and agility to be great as long as he’s on the field.

     

    2020 Overall

    92/100

    Mosley hit the ground running in a fantastic rookie season. In his sophomore season the entire defense took a step back. Nonetheless, he has the tools to be an NFL great in 2020.

3. Jaylon Smith (25 Years Old)

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    Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 25

    2020 Pass Rush

    25/30

    Jaylon Smith is a true defensive weapon. Playing in Notre Dame’s 3-4 scheme, Smith lined up at inside and outside linebacker, and he attacked the backfield as a pass-rusher as often as he tread water as a zone-coverage ‘backer. He’s fast, powerful and agile enough to counter whatever blockers throw at him. Smith could be a dynamic A-gap blitzer in the NFL even if he never becomes a special edge-rusher.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    17/20

    At 6’3” and around 240 pounds, Smith isn’t big enough to be a thumper as a run defender, but he’s excellent at tracking the ball and staying square to the line of scrimmage to make a big play. His range here is special, and while he’ll need to continue learning how to disengage and shed blockers, Smith’s run defense won’t hold him back.

     

    2020 Coverage

    30/30

    The one area where Smith may be special is in pass coverage. He’s lined up as a slot cornerback for Notre Dame and also shows great range and quickness as a Cover 2 middle-of-the-field cover man. Smith can do it all in coverage and could be the answer to solving the athletic tight end question for one lucky team.

     

    2020 Upside

    20/20

    If he can stay healthy, Smith could have an impact in the NFL like Mosley or Kuechly. He has the size, speed, intelligence and work ethic to be great. Bouncing back from the torn ACL and MCL he suffered in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day is crucial to his status as a top linebacker.

     

    2020 Overall

    92/100

    Smith has all the tools and traits to be special—a Patrick Willis-like athlete and analyzer at linebacker—and in five years, he’ll be one of the best in the NFL. 

2. Luke Kuechly (29 Years Old)

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    Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 29

    2020 Pass Rush

    25/30

    Luke Kuechly can do it all from his middle linebacker position. Even if rushing the passer isn’t his primary job, he’s proved to be an asset on delayed blitzes and stunts through the A-gap.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    20/20

    Kuechly is one of the best in the business at shutting down the run game. He’s not the biggest or stoutest linebacker, but his instincts and quickness to fill the hole and stop the run are elite. Kuechly is also fast enough to make plays outside the tackle box in pursuit.

     

    2020 Coverage

    30/30

    A true three-down linebacker, Kuechly excels at taking away tight ends and slot receivers in the passing game. He’s smart, fluid and has the closing speed to attack the ball in the air. Kuechly is a great all-around linebacker, but he may be best in coverage.

     

    2020 Upside

    18/20

    It feels like Kuechly has been in the NFL for a decade, but he’s just 24 years old and has the type of athleticism and instincts to remain a high-impact defender over the next five seasons.

     

    2020 Overall

    93/100

    Kuechly has been a fixture atop the best linebackers list since entering the NFL. A three-game absence following a concussion is something to monitor, though.

1. Khalil Mack (29 Years Old)

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 29

    2020 Pass Rush

    30/30

    Khalil Mack was one of the best linebacker prospects I’d ever seen when he left Buffalo. His rookie season backed up that evaluation, and heading into his sophomore season he looked like a future NFL star. Mack has struggled some playing defensive end, but he’s still a beast in space and a nightmare to match up against with his speed, agility and instincts to find the ball. And looking ahead five years, Mack has all the skills to be truly elite.

     

    2020 Run Stuff

    20/20

    As an outside defender, Mack is asked to hold the edge and force the ball back inside. He does that well with power and burst out of his stance. Playing on the left side of the defense, Mack is great at pursuing back-side runs and squeezing the offense.  

    2020 Coverage

    26/30

    You may have to go back to college, or look at his rookie film in spots, to see Mack in coverage often, but he has skills here. His footwork and hips are quick, and he’s decisive in breaking on the ball or getting his hands on a tight end off the line.

     

    2020 Upside

    20/20

    Mack hit the ground running as a rookie and dominated the NFL. He did the same as a sophomore, showing off his potential to make a huge impact on every down. And Mack's tools speak well to a large, sustained upside.

     

    2020 Overall

    96/100

    Defensive end or outside linebacker? That’s one big question when considering Mack’s future. He has looked best at outside linebacker, but in 2015 he largely played at defensive end. No matter where he plays, the future is very bright.