Since 2006, there have only been 10 linebackers, not including edge-rusher-only prospects, that have been drafted in the top 10 picks overall. It’s not a position that’s top-10 valued by NFL teams due to its reliance on defensive line support as well as the presumed idea that, like running back, it’s a position you can find a starter anywhere in the draft.
But elite talents like Myles Jack completely change a defense, superseding perceived positional value. He could hear his name called early come April 28.
The 6'1", 245-pound Jack is more than a rangy run defender. He’s more than a potential stand-up pass-rusher. He’s more than a strong coverage linebacker. He’s a defense-changing talent that, despite his position, can be the catalyst for his defense’s success in all three major areas.
Explosiveness and Willingness in Run Game
To be a successful off-ball run-defending linebacker, you need to be willing to fill gap responsibility inside the tackle box, finish in space and on the perimeter, and absorb and work through second-level blockers. Thriving in any one of the three areas can potentially earn a linebacker a starting spot in the NFL.
Jack, despite his relative inexperience, thrives in all three areas and surprisingly offers immediate value to NFL teams as a run defender. The former safety/jack-of-all-trades possesses high-level instincts, but, more importantly, he has developed confidence trusting his read-and-react skill set coupled with his elite athletic upside.
In the first play below, Jack reads the guard-pulling power play in his immediate gap. While it’s his job to attack his gap and work through the blocker, it’s not often that a former safety displays not only a willingness to embrace contact, but explodes through his responsibility with ideal pad level, tenacity and burst. His sudden and impactful pop at the initial hole is what immediately stifles any hope of the running back trying to make something out of the play.
Jack could fill any number of roles in an NFL defense, but he’ll likely be best playing on the edge in a strong-side linebacker spot. Working on the strong side in today’s NFL means ample pitch and outside zone runs, requiring balance and lateral quickness to finish on the perimeter against shiftier runners. As seen in the play below, that won’t be an issue for Jack. He’s able to match any running back’s elusiveness or lateral separation and routinely finishes in space in the run and passing game.
Finally, and most impressively, is Jack’s natural bend before blocker contact that allows him to disengage from second-level blockers. Quickness allows some undersized linebackers to separate and evade major contact, which Jack can do as well. But he seemingly doesn’t need to; he’s able to meet quality run-blockers, stay low with his pad level and dislodge hand placement with ease.
Notice in the play below how Jack, who’s aligned as the strong-side off-ball linebacker, meets his block with balanced and explosive lower-half readiness, easily erases the blocker’s positioning and reaccelerates to the ball-carrier to finish the gang tackle at the line of scrimmage. It’s the rare disengage ability for a linebacker who can also separate in other ways that makes Jack a special run-defending talent.
Underutilized but Capable Pass Rushing
Of the 10 off-ball linebackers drafted in the first 10 picks since 2006, Jack has the lowest career sack total of them all. Finishing with just one career sack, Jack clearly doesn’t have ample experience to make the case that he could be a top edge-rusher in this draft class.
However, as a future outside linebacker in the NFL, he’ll likely be asked to develop as a blitzer and take on at least some pass-rushing responsibility. Despite not being asked to rush the passer all that often at UCLA, Jack has flashed the skill set to do it. While his low pad level and violent explosion should be enough, the play below indicates just how well he can drive the pocket back when asked to do so. Keep in mind that the left tackle he’s going against is Kansas State’s Cody Whitehair, a potential first-round pick.
He likely wasn’t used as a pass-rusher in college due to the fact that his coverage skills were elite for a college linebacker. But that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of immediately adding value as blitzing 4-3 linebacker. It’s a skill set that will need some development to find success at the NFL level, but his movement and athleticism leaves no doubt he could quickly become one of the more productive blitzing linebackers.
Elite Linebacker Pass Coverage
Finally, but perhaps most notably, Jack is an elite coverage linebacker. In fact, Jack is the best coverage linebacker of the last 10 years, and it may not be close. He was frequently asked to cover not only tight ends and running backs, but slot and perimeter receivers for the UCLA defense.
While safety, a position he’s played in the past, wouldn’t maximize his run-defending ability, it’s clear he has the coverage skills to make the transition at the NFL level without many problems. His bend as a run defender and pass-rusher obviously translates to coverage, where it arguably has the most value for a defender.
Jack is able to sink, bend and turn with receivers, and while his footwork hasn’t been refined enough to continue to face the NFL’s top slot receivers or any of their capable perimeter receivers, he’s certainly able to add value as a premier coverage linebacker for tight ends, running backs and occasionally slot receivers.
As in the play below, Jack is able to pick up a slot receiver after five yards, engage, turn and run from a 4-3 linebacker alignment. He’s able to stay tight with his responsibility, turn his hips and neck back toward the quarterback, and finish the play with ideal positioning for the interception and run back.
Jack’s safety experience and rare explosiveness at linebacker will allow him to continue to thrive in space, against NFL blockers and in coverage. And as the 20-year-old continues to develop, he possesses the athletic upside and on-field displays to quickly ascend to the elite level of NFL linebackers, similar to the sudden and dominant rise Khalil Mack made in 2015.
Is Jack the 2016 draft’s best prospect? For some teams, no, he’s not. It’s a position that not every top-10 team needs or covets, and with fellow elite talents like Laremy Tunsil and Joey Bosa playing positions that are perceived as more valuable, you may be hard-pressed to find a team that will place Jack atop their board.
But in terms of his value to a defense, it wouldn’t be a surprise to any evaluator if Jack was the class’ clear-cut top player three years from now. Rare talents with consistent impact plays don’t come around often, and Jack’s talent level can truly change a defense’s potential in a way that few in any draft class can.