For NFL fans who are beginning to look beyond the 2018 season to free agency and the draft, The MMQB will feature a series of position primers to get you up-to-date on the top college players at each spot. Today, the linebackers.
As otherworldly offenses continue their conquest of college football and the NFL, a defense-heavy 2019 draft class will aim to counter. And the strong crop of incoming college linebackers boasts a great deal: Two incredibly explosive Devins, three likely first-round picks and plenty of elite playmakers with NFL star potential.
Which linebackers will climb to the top of the draft in April? Here’s The MMQB’s middle linebacker primer:
Devin White, LSU
White, the winner of the 2018 Butkus Award, is the crown jewel of middle linebackers in this draft class. He’s hit 4.54 seconds in the 40-yard dash, a solid time for a 240-pound player. His ball pursuit is off the charts—when White is within striking distance, the junior launches himself full force at the ball carrier, a skill that propelled him to 115 total tackles in the regular season. Perhaps most impressively, he finishes his tackles exceptionally well, driving players into the ground; it’s rare to see White wrap up a runner then let him go. White’s relentless ball-hawking sometimes leads to him struggling against slow-developing plays and patient runners, and he needs to be wary of overcommitting to tackles. But this hard-hitting, horseback-riding linebacker is a given first-rounder, maybe even a top-10 pick.
Devin Bush, Michigan
The anchor of one of America’s stingiest defenses, Bush stands just 5' 11' but is built like a truck at 233 pounds. He’s a fierce competitor who drew headlines in October for damaging Michigan State’s midfield logo, but his victim list spans further than just field paint. One of the primary traits NFL GMs look for in a middle linebacker is leadership, and Bush has that. He’s one of Michigan’s captains, often seen pointing and directing traffic as plays develop. His frame will raise some NFL concerns, but Bush makes up for it with his tenacity and instincts. He sheds blocks effectively, plus he can drop into coverage and stick with speedy slot receivers. The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year should be a first-round selection.
Mack Wilson, Alabama
At 6' 2" and 239 pounds, Wilson’s frame and skillset line up nicely with today’s NFL. Alabama defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi often drops the junior back into coverage, where Wilson patrols the field with the awareness and fleet-footedness of a safety—instincts that could elevate him to the late first-round level. Just about every top-tier SEC linebacker can hit hard and run fast in space, but Wilson is so adept at reading the quarterback’s eyes and leaping up to tip passes. He’s an all-around talent, but when he rushes offensive linemen up to 90 pounds heavier than him, Wilson sometimes gets pushed around. Bulking up a tad could help, but he doesn’t want to lose his elite speed and agility. Wilson has not yet decided if he’ll enter the 2019 NFL draft, as he recently hinted at returning to Alabama for his senior year.
T.J. Edwards, Wisconsin
Edwards is a stockier linebacker who has been the core of Wisconsin’s defense for a few years. In 2018, he eclipsed the 100-tackle mark for the first time in his career, and his gap discipline is a major reason why. Edwards isn’t overwhelmingly quick for a modern-day linebacker, but he exhibits tremendous downhill rushing skills and a premiere ability to plug his gap. When the senior is caught in a one-on-one matchup, his muscular build helps him overpower behemoth Big Ten offensive linemen. He also has a knack for feeling out screens and short passes, and then shooting to the ball and wrapping up the carrier. In 2017, no draft-eligible linebacker forced a lower passer on throws he covered. Edwards projects as a second- or third-round pick in April’s draft.
Te’von Coney, Notre Dame
Coney is a patient linebacker who smartly lets plays develop before he attacks. When in coverage, he sits back and reads the eyes of the quarterback really effectively. On runs, he waits a beat to analyze the flow of the play before fully committing to a particular side. These traits will serve him well as a run-stuffer in the NFL, especially against more advanced offenses than he’s facing now. As a junior, Coney registered the second-highest run-stop percentage of 2019 draft-eligible linebackers, and his willingness to process the play in real time bumps up his impact. However, in open space Coney was left in the dust at times against quick playmakers like Stanford running back Bryce Love. NFL teams will want to see Coney turn to a higher gear to chase down runners in the open field.
Khalil Hodge, Buffalo
A Khalil from Buffalo … remind you of anyone? Four years after Khalil Mack made his debut in Oakland, Khalil Hodge is shaping up as a potential second-day draft choice. He has amassed 120+ tackles in each of his last three seasons at Buffalo, including 153 as a junior last season, the second-most in the nation. Hodge is an athletic freak who sniffs out tackles and discards blocks like it’s nothing. On run plays, he can spin or bounce off blocks to target the runner and close quickly — that tendency makes it so tough to take him out of a play without double teaming him, much like Mack. But Hodge’s 40 time is estimated at 4.75, and he might need to gain some more afterburners to keep up with receivers in a pass-happy NFL. Hodge will play in January’s East-West Shrine Game.
Troy Dye, Oregon
Dye is a freak athlete—at 6' 4" and 224 pounds, he’s the lankiest of the linebackers on this list, which allows him to drop back like a safety and lock down in coverage. He has elite agility and lateral quickness, and it’s easy to imagine him flying side-to-side on an NFL field. Scouts will inevitably call out his build and worry that he’ll get shoved around against NFL blockers. That being said, Dye can get low and squeeze through linemen to pursue the ball carrier. It’s difficult to pass on an athlete like this, but he isn’t quite in the top tier of linebackers.
Paddy Fisher, Northwestern
Fisher is draft-eligible in 2019, but the Texas native seems likely to stay put at Northwestern for at least another year. During his historic rookie season, Fisher led all FBS first-years with 113 tackles and stuffed more runs last season than any returning linebacker. In tight spots, Fisher monitors the line of scrimmage and snuffs out big plays before they develop, leading to his 13 tackles for loss as a Wildcat. He’s also a violent tackler who punishes offensive playmakers. He could probably use another year of Big Ten experience to polish off his pass coverage—which we haven’t seen much of—and gain a bit of speed, but the former three-star recruit has shot up draft boards.