A couple of SEC stalwarts top our ranking
The 2018 NFL Draft is set for April 26-28, so you still have time to get ready with the Athlon Sports 2018 Draft Guide. With 526 players ranked and needs outlined for every NFL team, it has everything you need.
Here’s a sneak peek at our top five inside linebackers in this year's NFL Draft:
1. Roquan Smith
CLASS: Jr. HEIGHT: 6’0” WEIGHT: 225
STRONG POINTS: The leader of a Georgia defense that carried the Bulldogs to the national title game, Smith is the next in line of undersized, fast and cerebral linebackers who are thriving in the modern NFL. He moves like a defensive back, with the pure speed to cover a ton of ground. But his greatest strength is his exceptional football IQ. He can often diagnose where the ball is going before the play, but when he doesn’t, he’s able to almost instantly recognize blocking schemes and get to the ball. His cerebral play allows him to play even faster. He’s twitched up and packs the kind of power as a tackler that you wouldn’t expect in a small frame. In man coverage, he’s a fluid mover who can handle running backs and most tight ends, and his instincts shine through when sitting back in zone coverage. He’s also a dangerous blitzer, timing things up and showing the quickness and closing burst to finish off plays. He was praised as a high-character team leader at Georgia.
WEAK POINTS: Smith is small, and it shows when blockers get to him. He lacks the length and pure strength to disengage from blockers. He’ll struggle to stack and shed as a run defender, and a defensive line will have to go out of its way to keep him clean.
SUMMARY: Smith would be ideal as a 4-3 Will, but in the current NFL, he could play inside linebacker the same way guys like Deion Jones in Atlanta and Deone Bucannon in Arizona do. And Smith is a little faster and a little more instinctive than they were as prospects. He should be a Day 1 starter with the potential for multiple Pro Bowl appearances over the next decade.
FINAL GRADE: 1st round
2. Rashaan Evans
CLASS: Sr. HEIGHT: 6’3” WEIGHT: 235
STRONG POINTS: The latest in a long line of NFL linebackers from coach Nick Saban’s program, Evans (above, right) returned to Alabama for his senior year and delivered the kind of season everyone was looking for. Once just a pure athlete, he was quicker to read and react, and he played faster all season because of it. Physically, he has all the tools. He’s a fluid mover who has the explosiveness and speed to cover ground fast. He thrives on physicality. Evans takes on blocks aggressively, with the long arms and strong hands to stack and shed — though a lot of times he will simply try to blow them up and pave the way for a teammate to clean up the ball carrier. He is twitchy and violent as a tackler as well. In coverage, he has the fluid hips and speed to run with backs and tight ends in man coverage. He’s also capable as a blitzer or a pure edge rusher. He occasionally put his hand in the dirt at Alabama, and he showed the flexibility and speed to turn the edge. He played through injuries for most of last season, and he has the kind of football character and physical, tone-setting temperament that coaches will love.
WEAK POINTS: Evans often gets overaggressive; he’s more comfortable attacking downhill than anything else. He’ll overrun plays and give in to misdirection looks. He too often goes for the kill shot rather than wrapping up as a tackler. If asked to rush the passer off the edge, he’ll have to add to his repertoire.
SUMMARY: Evans probably fits best inside for an attacking 3-4 defense. He’s a Day 1 starter, and while his instincts still need work, last year’s improvement was promising.
FINAL GRADE: 1st round
3. Leighton Vander Esch
COLLEGE: Boise State
CLASS: R-Jr. HEIGHT: 6’3” WEIGHT: 240
WEAK POINTS: Despite good length, Vander Esch will struggle to disengage and doesn’t have the stack-and-shed power to thrive in traffic. He either needs to be kept clean or given the opportunity to run around blocks. He’s a solid tackler, but he doesn’t pack the kind of thump that some of the other top linebacker prospects do.
SUMMARY: He doesn’t have the ceiling of some of the other linebackers in this class, but Vander Esch is a safe bet to start on Day 1 and stay on the field for three downs.
FINAL GRADE: 1st/2nd round
4. Josey Jewell
CLASS: R-Sr. HEIGHT: 6’1” WEIGHT: 235
STRONG POINTS: Jewell’s (right) size belies his physical play, as he racked up a highlight reel full of violent tackles in Big Ten play. He has a high football IQ and the instincts to often recognize where the ball is going pre-snap. He’s fast to recognize blocking schemes and attacks downhill. He is effective dropping into zone coverage, reading the quarterback’s eyes and getting into passing lanes. Coaches will love his football character.
WEAK POINTS: The measurables are lacking, and Jewell will have his limits at the next level. Despite his best efforts, he can get caught up in the wash. He’s also a bit of a stiff mover. He isn’t going to be able to play a lot of man coverage, as he lacks the ability to mirror athletic running backs.
SUMMARY: His instincts are good enough that Jewell should be able to keep outplaying his measurables at the next level, but his limitations on third down limit his appeal. He’s likely a quality starter as a 3-4 Will or possibly a 4-3 Mike, even if he’s only going to play on early downs.
FINAL GRADE: 3rd round
5. Tegray Scales
CLASS: Sr. HEIGHT: 6’0” WEIGHT: 230
STRONG POINTS: An undersized but rangy linebacker, Scales played bigger than his size at IU. He is instinctive and fast to diagnose, reading blocking schemes and reacting quickly, then attacking aggressively. There’s suddenness to his movements, and he seems to get up on blockers faster than expected and catch them off-guard with his power. He showed sideline-to-sideline range but did his best work attacking downhill, making a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage. He also has value as a blitzer.
WEAK POINTS: Size will be an issue at the next level, as Scales will surely get overwhelmed by NFL offensive linemen. He’s much better attacking than retreating in coverage, showing some stiffness in change of direction and less-than-ideal awareness when playing zone coverage.
SUMMARY: Scales’ combination of instincts, motor and play speed should give him a chance to carve out a role as an inside linebacker or a Sam. He’s a two-down backer who could make an impact as a third-down blitzer as well.
FINAL GRADE: 3rd/4th round
Other inside linebackers that could be drafted: Micah Kiser, Virginia; Fred Warner, BYU; Nick DeLuca, North Dakota State; Jack Cichy, Wisconsin; Shaun Dion Hamilton, Alabama; Mike McCray, Michigan; Chris Worley, Ohio State