With the speed and tempo of offenses increasing each season, defenses are becoming even more dependent on clear and concise communication amongst all 11 players. Typically the player in-charge with the role of getting everyone lined up, calling out coverages, and moving his lineman is the inside linebacker.
This year's inside linebacker class doesn't have a top end player such as a Luke Kuechly or Patrick Willis. The inside linebacker has evolved from a position of power and strength to a position of speed and finesse. This year class is filled with players who excel in pass coverage and are able to run stride for stride with some of the NFL's top tight ends, or can cover a running back in coverage.
This position group isn't the deepest group within the NFL Draft this year. A run on inside linebackers will most likely happen in the second and third rounds.
One statistic that I like to incorporate is Impact Points. This is based on a formula I created that calculates a defensive player's point value based on total tackles, tackles-for-loss, sacks, forced fumbles, blocked kicks and their team's overall rush defense and pass defense.
1) Paul Dawson (TCU): Some players are able to shine at the NFL Combine. They are able to put months of hard work towards an antiquated set of tests and prove that they are actually athletic. The funny thing is, you can't actually fail at the combine (yes, I know you can fail a drug test but let's not get technical). Paul Dawson didn't fail at the combine, he just didn't produce the eye-popping numbers that some believed he would. This is okay, because what he has done during the last two seasons at TCU has been nothing short of extraordinary.
At 6'0” and 235 pounds, Dawson is built more like a bulldog. With a short frame and broad shoulders he is built for punishing unsuspecting ball carriers. He does a good job of wrapping up and breaking a ball carrier down in space. Even with his smaller stature, Dawson shoots the gap with reckless abandon, sheds blockers and has shown the consistent ability to make plays in the backfield.
In 38 career games Dawson recorded 188.5 tackles, 31 TFL, 6.5 sacks, eight PB, three FF, and five interceptions. He amassed 53.5 impact plays, an average of 1.41 impact plays per game.
What separates Dawson from the rest of the linebacker prospects is his ability to drop into coverage, read a quarterback's eyes and make a play on the ball. He does a good job of holding his spot in zone coverage and shows exemplary range, running stride for stride with tight ends and receivers in the middle of the field. The difference between good and great pass coverage for a linebacker is being able to read a quarterback's eyes and then, in an instant, drive on the ball and make a play. Based on the five interceptions and eight pass breakups for his career, Dawson has these traits.
What makes Dawson an intriguing prospect are his moxie and instincts, which can also be a hindrance to him and his team. He will occasionally get caught in play-action and lose gap responsibility as he works his way towards making a play on a ball carrier. In time, I believe that he can learn to minimize his risk and maximize his team's rewards to making big plays.
The combine hurt Dawson's stock with a few teams, but the smart ones will look beyond his performance and see him as the top rated linebacker in this year's draft class. While Dawson isn't at the level of a Luke Kuechly, in terms of player comparisons he is similar to current Philadelphia Eagle Kiko Alonso.
2) Eric Kendricks (UCLA): While Dawson lacks top-end speed, Kendricks is able to utilize his quickness to get to the edge and stop opponents from hitting the corner and getting upfield. A tackling machine similar to his older brother, Mychal Kendricks, Eric is a true student of the game, has sound judgment on the field and makes sound reads and calls during the past three years.
A three-year starter for the Bruins, Kendricks has been a leader on and off the field while putting his teammates in the right spot to be successful each week. In watching his game film, he can cover ground and make up space quicker than most cornerbacks. He won't get caught in traffic and he is flexible and agile enough to bend the corner as a pass rusher. Kendricks lacked traditional form tackling a few times this past season, instead going for the big hit with his shoulder. In most cases the ball carrier went down, but in the NFL he will quickly understand that technique is more important and ball carriers such as Marshawn Lynch won't go down with a simple shoulder bump.
In 52 career games played, Kendricks recorded 392.5 tackles, 26 TFL, 10 sacks, 11 PB, three FF, five INT, and two blocked kicks. He finished with a total of 61 impact plays, an average of 1.17 impact plays per game.
Kendricks' ability to flip his hips and run with most running backs out of the backfield will make him all the more valuable to NFL organizations. He is a complete three down linebacker capable of staying on the field and being a vocal leader. His ability to drop into coverage or attack as a blitzer with his speed is what has defensive coordinators intrigued about adding such a versatile player to their arsenal.
Kendricks does have a few traits that he will need to improve upon as he continues to develop. While he has the quickness and agility to slip underneath blockers, once they are able to get their hands on him he will need to work on fighting through blocks and not getting pushed out of position.
Similar to his brother, Eric Kendricks will be a quality addition to most NFL rosters and a player who will work his way to a starting position within his rookie season. Look for Kendricks to be an early second round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
3) Shaq Thompson (UW): If you ask ten different scouts or front office personnel which position Shaq Thompson should play in the NFL, you would probably get ten different answers. Some believe he is built to be a safety; with his speed and size he could lock down opposing tight ends and has the range to cover some serious ground in the backend. Other scouts believe Thompson could be an outside linebacker; he can cover, play the run, and rush the quarterback if asked. Lastly, there are a few who think that Thompson is best suited to play running back in the NFL. He has the strength to break through tackles, the speed to out-run most defenders and the power to run over would-be tacklers.
While there is no doubt that Thompson could try any of these positions, I think he is ideally suited as a middle linebacker in the NFL. A smart player who was capable of being a two-way player in college, Thompson has a deep understanding of offenses and schemes.
He can drop into coverage and also has the range of some of today's top safeties. Thompson will get engulfed by linemen, but he won't back down from a challenge and with his speed, he is usually capable of maneuvering around the traffic and making a play on the ball carrier.
In 40 career games Thompson recorded 188.5 tackles, 15 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 11 PB, two FF, five INT, one blocked kick. He had a total of 39.5 impact plays, an average of 1 impact play per game.
It remains to be seen which route Thompson will take, but showing a selfless style of play and demonstrating the leadership needed to step up and play a position with little practice and still excel shows what a truly special player his is.
It wasn't that long ago that another former college safety/linebacker hybrid made his way into the NFL and was labeled as an outside linebacker. That player was Brian Urlacher. Now, that might be a lofty comparison, but Urlacher had a fantastic career playing as a middle linebacker in a Cover-2 base defense. This same role is what I believe would best suit Thompson and allow him to utilize all of his strengths and become one of the top young linebackers in the NFL.
4) Stephone Anthony (Clemson): The Clemson defense, which finished as the top overall defense in college football last season, had its share of top flight NFL Draft prospects. This group was led by the top rated defensive end (Vic Beasley) and the seventh ranked defensive tackle (Grady Jarrett). Rounding out the group is Stephone Anthony who quietly made plays that allowed his teammates up front the freedom to attack and get into opponents' backfields.
At 6'3” and 245 pounds, Anthony has the ideal size and frame to withstand the rigors of today's NFL game. He was an NFL Combine star, finishing in the top percentile amongst inside linebackers and was widely regarded as one of the top performers.
It's his play on the field that gets Anthony this spot on my board. He was a tackling machine, capable of wrapping up ball carriers with his long arms and tracking down quicker backs in the open field. As a solid open field tackler, Anthony is able to wrap up and minimize any significant yards after contact.
In 52 career games played, Anthony recorded 203 tackles, 35 TFL, ten sacks, eight PB, seven FF, and three interceptions. He finished with 63 impact plays, an average of 1.21 impact plays per game.
An exceptional talent in pass coverage, Anthony can slide over and cover the tight end and he does a good job of using his length to attack the football at its highest point. When covering the running back, Anthony was caught flat-footed on a few occasions and lost his man in traffic. In zone coverage, he has a tendency to slide out of position once a play breaks down, leaving his area wide open and susceptible to a big play.
In terms of a pass rusher, Anthony isn't a natural talent; he doesn't have the speed or agility to really bend around a corner. Most of his sack numbers came on delayed blitzes. Once he was able to get his hands on opposing quarterbacks, they almost always went down to the ground.
Anthony is an all-round and fundamentally sound inside linebacker whose size and tackling ability make him a hot prospect in this year's draft class. In terms of scouting and statistical comparisons, Anthony is comparable to current Seattle Seahawk K.J. Wright.
Look for Anthony to be a mid to late second round selection.
5) Denzel Perryman (Miami): Grading on pure tackling ability, Perryman is the top rated tackler in this draft class. He is a compact, muscular linebacker who lacks the ideal measurables, but is a player with more substance than flash. He has been a leader both on and off the field for the Hurricanes during the past few seasons.
Perryman has been a durable and consistent starter for past three seasons and he has shown the ability to shut down opponents inside and outside the rushing attack. He also does a good job of minimizing yards after contact and had the fewest missed tackles compared to the other inside linebackers in this year's draft.
In 47 career games played, Perryman recorded 294.5 tackles, 27 TFL, 4.5 sacks, ten PB, seven FF, and two interceptions. He finished with 50.5 impact plays, an average of 1.07 impact plays per game.
At 5'11” and 236 pounds, there were a few occasions this past season where Perryman was overmatched at the line of scrimmage. In coverage, he is quick to diagnose and counter to the offense's scheme. He could be a liability in coverage if he is matched up with a bigger tight end or running back. A willing tackler, Perryman can be looking to make a big play and get caught falling for the play-action fake.
Against Nebraska in 2014, Perryman was caught flat footed in open space as he covered Ameer Abdullah. He was able to make amends for his mistakes by breaking up two pass attempts and forcing a fumble later in the game.
In terms of being a pass rusher, Perryman will likely choose running over his blocker instead of using technique or agility to get around them. One NFL coach referred to Perryman as the hammer and every NFL teams needs at least one of them on their roster. Perryman has a unique skill set in forcing fumbles, proven by his seven forced fumbles for his career.
In terms of comparisons from a scouting and statistical perspective, Perryman is similar to current Detroit Lion Stephen Tulloch. In speaking with scouts, most believe Perryman to be a late second or early third rounder.
Best of the Rest
6.) Zach Vigil (Utah State): Career impact plays: 75: Impact plays per game average: 1.63
7) Amarlo Herrera (Georgia): Career impact plays: 43.5: Impact plays per game average: .81
8) Taiwan Jones (Michigan State): Career impact plays: 37: Impact plays per game average: .69
9) Terrance Plummer (UCF): Career impact plays: 59: Impact plays per game average: 1.16
10) Hayes Pullard (USC): Career impact plays: 54.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.05
11) Quayshawn Nealy (Georgia Tech): Career impact plays: 39.5: Impact plays per game average: .73
12) A.J. Johnson (Tennessee): Career impact plays: 46.5: Impact plays per game average: .99
13) Ramik Wilson (Georgia): Career impact plays: 32: Impact plays per game average: .74
14) Benardrick McKinney (Mississippi State): Career impact plays: 36: Impact plays per game average: .92
15) Mike Hill (Penn State): Career impact plays: 49: Impact plays per game average: .1.02
16) Jordan Hicks (Texas): Career impact plays: 36: Impact plays per game average: .75
17) Bryce Hager (Baylor): Career impact plays: 42: Impact plays per game average: .88
18) John Timu (Washington): Career impact plays: 47.5: Impact plays per game average: .91
19) A.J. Tarpley (Stanford): Career impact plays: 47: Impact plays per game average: .87
20) Trey DePriest (Alabama): Career impact plays: 30: Impact plays per game average: .57
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