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It’s been some time since the off-the-ball linebacker ruled the roost in the NFL. With each passing year, the emphasis has shifted towards on-the-ball pass rushers who can pressure the quarterback, the league’s accuracy and yards per attempt machines in the pocket.
The once-dreaded tweener, part defensive end and outside linebacker, has become more desirable, while the gladiator tackling machines that play either inside linebacker or one of the outside spots in a 4–3 are now looked at like running backs: You need a few, but you can find them just about anywhere.
Three linebacker prospects in this year’s draft are so good in their own ways that teams will have to use first-round picks on them. UCLA’s Myles Jack, Darron Lee of Ohio State and Alabama’s Reggie Ragland are just that worthy. And to think, if Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith didn’t suffer a knee injury in a bowl game so devastating that his ability to play at all in his rookie season is in doubt, he would be in the mix for the No. 1 pick. The return of the linebacker could be a one-year aberration, or 2016’s top prospects could bring stacking (and shedding) back.
A few first-rounders have been sprinkled in the past few drafts. There was Shaq Thompson (Carolina) selected at No. 25 in 2015, Ryan Shazier (Steelers) and C.J. Mosley (Ravens) in the top 20 in ’14, and Luke Kuechly (Panthers) and Dont’a Hightower (Patriots) in ’12. But you’d likely have to go back to the ’06 draft to find a selection of off-the-ball linebackers as deep as this year’s: A.J. Hawk (fifth overall, Packers), Ernie Sims (ninth, Lions), Chad Greenway (17th, Vikings) and Bobby Carpenter (18th, Cowboys) all went in the top 20. Still the Texans (DeMeco Ryans) and Browns (D’Qwell Jackson) might have taken the best of the group near the top of the second round.
A decade later, this linebacker class is poised to top them all. And its three headline players are unique talents. Jack is the new prototype. Lee is the future. Ragland is the throwback.
Jack doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know. That’s what jumps out when you watch the 6' 1", 245-pound prospect on film. He shouldn’t. Jack is such a skilled athlete that UCLA coach Jim Mora used him on both sides of the ball, as a linebacker and running back. So he’s not even close to a finished product on defense, which is both good and bad. Jack is certainly a projection, usually a negative in player evaluation, but there are too many positive signs that point to it being a (relatively) easy one even though he missed almost all of his final season after tearing a meniscus in a practice.
Despite being a neophyte at the position that he will play in the NFL, Jack impresses because he doesn’t display many mental errors in terms of where he should line up or drop into coverage. That an important foundation and a strong indicator that he will grow on the fly in the NFL: Jack can obviously take coaching and apply it. He definitely has some issues when it comes to sorting out play-action fakes and anticipating tendencies, but as long as he applies himself in the NFL, those issues will take care of themselves with the increased reps and classroom time that the NFL provides.
There’s one area where Jack needs no time for adjustment at the NFL level: pass coverage. He’ll instantly enter the NFL as an elite-level coverage linebacker, and he’ll draw comparisons to Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis in that area. Flip on any of Jack’s games and you’ll see him stick like Velcro to targets ranging from running backs and tight ends in the formation to slot receivers and even isolated receivers on the outside. Jack’s interception in the second quarter against Kansas State in the 2015 Alamo Bowl was a textbook example of his instincts taking over as he undercut a slot receiver.
What separates Jack from the other linebackers in this class is his build. He’s built to take a pounding from his ankles to his neck, and Jack makes use of that thickly packed explosiveness. His performance in the 2015 season opener against Virginia was a master class in being physical at the point of attack and shedding blockers. Pity Cavaliers guard Jack McDonald, who was making his first start as a true freshman. Despite being 6' 5" and 290 pounds, McDonald was knocked back two yards by Jack with 11:04 left in the second quarter.
Critics will point to his lack of big plays at UCLA (15 tackles for a loss, four interceptions, one forced fumble, one sack) but that was more about his lack of comfort with the scheme, opponents avoiding him because his coverage being too good and his lack of impact as a pass rusher. That should all be corrected in the NFL with hard work. Once he gets a year or two in a scheme, impact plays will come, even in the pass rush department. Then he’ll make an apt comparison to San Francisco’s outstanding NaVorro Bowman (3–4 inside linebacker) or Davis (4–3 weakside linebacker).
Strength, explosiveness and violence are all trademarks of Jack’s play. When you factor in his coverage and ability to play multiple positions in every type of defense, NFL teams will line up for him near the top five. And Jack doesn’t even know how to play yet.
Lee certainly has speed (4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash), versatility and playmaking ability, which will make him attractive to teams, although his slight build (6' 1", 232 pounds) will limit his effectiveness in the near term and put him in the tier below Jack. But with college offenses already using smaller and speedier players across the board as they utilize tempo and space to outflank opponents, and with NFL teams starting to trend that way in response to the changing talent pool, Lee is the future of NFL linebackers. It’s just a question of whether he can take the beating over a 16-game schedule.
Shazier, who played the same position at Ohio State and was nearly the same size (6' 1", 237) when he entered the NFL, has blossomed into a good playmaker for the Steelers when he’s been on the field, despite being an odd fit for a 3–4 defense. But two years in, Shazier has played in just 21 of a possible 32 games. That has to be a consideration when it comes to Lee, who will have to add muscle to his frame to last, but his playmaking ability will be hard to deny.
In just two seasons at Ohio State, Lee had 27 tackles for a loss (11 sacks), three interceptions and three forced fumbles. With his quickness and loose hips, Lee flies all over the field and has a unique ability to take smart angles to the ball as the play develops. He can get out of control at times, which causes him to miss tackles, and he doesn’t take on blockers very well. Like Jack, he is terrific in coverage, which might make Lee a better fit at strong safety early in his career until his physique matures and he makes the transition to full-time 4–3 weakside linebacker or 3–4 inside linebacker like Shazier.
Ragland is really a man behind his time—he’d be an easy top-10 pick in the ’70s or ’80s—but there’s still very much a place for him in today’s NFL, at least for now. Ragland is simply an old-school, run-stuffing, physical middle linebacker. He’s rarely out of position in terms of assignment, and he will make blockers feel his presence in the hole despite being slightly undersized (6' 1", 247) for his style of play.
If you want to know what kind of player Ragland will be in the NFL, just watch him against Michigan State’s pro-style offense in this year’s College Football Playoff semifinals. On the first play he took on a fullback in the hole, shed him and made the tackle. On the second, he took on a pulling guard and assisted on a one-yard gain. On the third, he stood up as an end (Alabama used him as a situational pass rusher), shed the tackle and took down the quarterback for a loss.
He’s not going to wow anyone in coverage (though he’s fine in zone), and that will concern some teams, but NFL defense still boils down to getting off blocks and making tackles. His skill set may be from another decade, but there’s still very much a place for Ragland in the league.
Jack can do it all at linebacker in the NFL, today and in the future. Lee is the type of tweener that is increasingly becoming more valuable. Ragland is a tackling machine at a time when one of the game’s fundamentals is waning in importance. Smith might be an alltime great if he can return to full strength.
The game-changing linebackers are coming back, all in different packages, all with loads of promise.