The linebacker position has split in two at least twice in NFL history—once when Tom Landry made Sam Huff the first roving middle linebacker in the 1950s, and again when Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick set Lawrence Taylor against every opposing quarterback with extreme prejudice as a pure edge-rushing outside linebacker in the early 1980s. Now, linebackers must be more versatile than ever. In an era where some NFL teams play nickel or dime as their base defense (more than 50 percent of the time), inside linebackers are tasked to be half-field defenders in coverage and still come up to hit the hole hard on running plays. Outside linebackers roam between SAM and WILL responsibilities, and duties as pass-rushers off the edge.
With that in mind, it's no surprise that the top-level linebackers in the 2015 draft class are as variable as group as you'll find. From pure edge-rushers to pass-coverage specialists to downhill headbangers, this class has it all, and it's just a matter of the best fit for each NFL team.
1. Dante Fowler, Jr., Florida
Fowler played all over the line for the Gators, a fact that tended to mask his potential effect on an opposing offense. At 6-3 and 261 pounds, he's simply not powerful enough to deal with double teams inside as a three-tech or one-tech pass rusher on a consistent basis. But what he can do—and what will have him taken very high in the 2015 draft—is disrupt from the edge to an extreme degree. Fowler racked up 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss in his 2014 season, both career highs, but the NFL team that takes him and unleashes him as a stand-up endbacker in a 3-4 base front and a LEO end on passing downs will almost certainly be rewarded with a double-digit sack artist at some point in time, especially when Fowler rounds out his array of pass-rush moves.
Draft projection: Top-15 pick
2. Vic Beasley, Clemson
Beasley amassed 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss as a junior in 2013, only to receive a second-round grade after the season. He responded by heading back to school and picking up 12 more sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in his senior campaign. And at 6-3 and 246 pounds, Beasley in many ways fits the profile of the modern NFL pass-rusher: he's fairly electric off the snap, he brings an inside counter and some hand moves to the table, and he's surprisingly powerful for his size. The key to his success in the pros as an every-down player will be to learn to be more stout against the run.
Draft projection: First-round pick
3. Shaq Thompson, Washington
Is he a linebacker, running back or safety at the next level? Thompson is less a pass-rusher and more a super-versatile athlete who gained 456 yards and scored two touchdowns on just 61 carries last season, and has the kind of quickness in space that could have him playing a lot of reps in an NFL secondary. But Thompson said at the scouting combine that he's a linebacker, and the tape shows he's right. He's an ideal archetype for a kind of linebacker the NFL values now more than ever—the true half-field defender who's just as comfortable dropping into short and intermediate coverage as he is filling the hole to stop the run. Still, he participated in defensive back drills at Washington's pro day, perhaps to prove that he's got all the skills required to make a real difference in a creative defense.
Draft projection: Early second round
4. Eli Harold, Virginia
The Cavaliers didn't win much during Harold's time there, but it wasn't on him , especially over the last two seasons, when he totaled 29.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks as a pure edge rusher. There's a lot about his game that transfers well to the next level. He has a quick first step, can rush the passer from the defensive end and outside linebacker positions, has a pretty good bull rush for a guy who stands 6-3 and weighs 247 pounds, and his relentless motor will have him competing to the end of every snap. ON the downside, Harold tends to engage too often with blockers when he should be disrupting—again, a college pass-rusher who needs more hand moves—and he needs to hit blockers lower in his stance more consistently.
Draft projection: Second round
5. Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington
Kikaha led the NCAA in sacks last season with 19, and he's totaled 32 sacks and 40.5 tackles for loss over the last two seasons. Not bad for a guy whose first two seasons with the Huskies were cut short by knee injuries. And it's the injury concerns that have Kikaha dropping in the draft, along with the perception that he's a single-direction player without much to offer in coverage. He tried to move past that at Washington's pro day by participating in linebacker drills and showing some flexibility when asked to drop back into coverage. He's an above-average technician and natural leader who will face issues with his ability to contend with bigger men. If he's in a 3-4 defense with space off the edge, Kikaha could be pretty special, but he's not scheme-transcendent.
Draft projection: Mid- to late-second round
1. Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
McKinney made the move from high school quarterback to college linebacker in a flash, racking up an impressive 102 tackles as a freshman and upping his sack totals a bit in the following two seasons. Though he can rush off the edge and has an outstanding size-speed combo (6-4, 246, 1.63 10-yard split at the combine), it's on the inside where McKinney really excels. And in space, he can be a terror with his ability to move from one place to another in a major hurry. On the downside, McKinney is still very raw in his overall technique, and he's still learning to diagnose what's in front of him. He's a project on the NFL level, but he's worth it.
Draft projection: First round
2. Eric Kendricks, UCLA
It's all in the family for Kendricks, whose father Marvin was a running back in the CFL and whose older brother Mychal is a star linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles. As you might expect, the youngest Kendricks has outstanding instincts for the position as he's quick, aggressive and accurate to the gap on running plays, he can turn and chase ballcarriers and receivers in space, and he covers pretty well. Size is a concern (6-0, 232, 31-inch arms), but as a weakside linebacker on a heavy-nickel team, he would seem to have all the attributes for NFL success.
Draft projection: Second round
3. Denzel Perryman, Miami
Perryman looks like an inside linebacker out of Central Casting from about 10-15 years ago, when it wasn't as necessary for inside linebackers to be flexible in space. That's not to say that Perryman isn't a fluid athlete at times, but at 5-11 and 236 pounds, he plays more like the middle linebackers of the recent past, who were more often tasked to stay in their lanes and whack people around. He's a strong player with closing speed, and when he hits people, they tend to stay hit. It's just a matter of the right fit for him.
Draft projection: Late-second to early-third round
4. Paul Dawson, TCU
Dawson made a big splash in the wrong direction at the scouting combine, when he ran a 4.93 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, which is not what you want from a 6-0, 235-pound linebacker. To be fair, Dawson's field speed is far more impressive, and he's been very productive in TCU's 4-2-5 defense. He made the calls on defense and led that squad, putting up 81 solo tackles, 136 total tackles, six sacks and four interceptions. He's probably too small to be a true inside linebacker in the NFL, but could make a real impact on the weak side in a 4-3 defense with Tampa-2 paradigms.
Draft projection: Third round
5. Stephone Anthony, Clemson
In many ways, Anthony is the ideal middle linebacker for the modern league—he's big (6-3, 243), hits like a truck when he's moving downhill and highly productive. He's been the Tigers' leading tackler over the last two years, and Clemson's defense is no joke. Inside linebackers are often tackle magnets, but Anthony's 25 tackles for loss in 2013 and 2014 tell you that he's about more than just cleaning up for other people. On the other hand, he lacks field speed in space, and he'll bite on misdirection and play fakes more often than you'd like.
Draft projection: Third round