4 takeaways from linebacker combine workouts

Steve Palazzolo breaks down the biggest storylines coming out of Sunday's LB workouts in Indianapolis.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

4 takeaways from linebacker combine workouts

The NFL combine continued Sunday afternoon with the linebackers taking the field. The top of the class was supposed to be filled with three-down options, but injuries to this season’s stars—UCLA’s Myles Jack and Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith—has raised a number of questions. Smith’s case, in particular, has been a hot topic this week, as many teams have showed concern over his injured knee, enough to perhaps knock him off a number of draft boards entirely. Jack, on the other hand, has a much better prognosis, and should be the top linebacker off the board.

Here are the other top stories from Sunday’s workouts:

1. Leonard Floyd: linebacker, edge rusher, or both?

Floyd has the look of a pure 3-4 edge rusher, but his game evolved in 2015 as Georgia used him in more of a traditional linebacker role. He dropped into coverage nearly as much as he rushed the passer (156 snaps in coverage, 183 pass rushes) while posting the third-best pass-rush productivity among the nation’s 3-4 outside linebackers, at 17.7. Floyd’s lanky frame was a question mark coming into the week, but 244 pounds at nearly 6-foot-6-inches was a good start. He then went on to rank second in the vertical jump, third in broad jump, and fifth in the 40-yard dash (4.60), all good indicators that he’s plenty athletic for his long frame.

The question now is whether or not Floyd enters the NFL in more of an Anthony Barr-like role, as the Minnesota Vikings’ linebacker was also thought to be more of an edge player when he came out in 2014, but has played well in more of a traditional linebacker role while rushing the passer as a movable chess piece in sub-packages. Teams playing in a 4-3 scheme should feel comfortable enough trying Floyd in a similar manner, while 3-4 teams likely saw enough to trust him as a pure edge player in their respective systems. Floyd finished with the fourth-highest overall grade among all edge defenders in 2015 (+47.2), ranking 12th-overall as an edge rusher (+28.9) and seventh against the run (+18.4).

2. Most of the top coverage linebackers in the league are athletic, but athleticism does not mean a linebacker is good in coverage.

One of the most important points to remember about the linebacker workouts is that running fast and showing explosiveness is not synonymous with being good in coverage. However, when sorting through the league’s top coverage linebackers in 2015, few ran as slow as 4.75, so there is something to a threshold of sorts (more research to come on this matter). On the other hand, it’s easy to get caught up in the top end times, but when they don’t match up with how a player plays on tape, the “buyer beware” warning should be applied.

Two linebackers who fit this description are Ohio State’s Darron Lee and LSU’s Deion Jones. Lee dominated the event, including a 4.47 40-yard dash time that led all linebackers, but a two-year coverage grade of -3.5 is concerning, even if he was challenged quite a bit in a slow role for the Buckeyes. Lee did most of his damage as a blitzer the last two seasons, certainly a great place to use his athleticism, but for those looking for a 3-down coverage linebacker, he still has some developing to do.

As for Jones, he ran a 4.59, good for fourth among linebackers, but similar caveats apply to his game after ranking 128th out of 143 linebackers in the draft class in 2015. Jones abstains from contact more than you’d like to see from a linebacker, while a number of coverage busts led to a -7.3 grade in coverage. While Jones made one of the best plays that we saw at Senior Bowl week when he deflected a crossing route while playing cover-3 (a weekly killer in the NFL for defenses), his 17 missed tackles and other bad plays are difficult to ignore.

3. Ohio State’s Joshua Perry is one of the most underrated linebackers in the draft.

As teammate Darron Lee gets all of the hype, Perry simply outplayed him the last two seasons. His +30.3 overall grade in 2014 ranked fifth in the entire nation, while his +20.3 mark ranked 18th in 2015—and he showed well in workouts to top it off. Coming in at 6-foot-4-inches, 254 pounds, Perry ran the eighth-fastest 40-yard dash of the linebackers (4.68), and that matches up well with a two-year coverage grade of +21.2. Perry isn’t always the prettiest tackler, but he’s missed only nine of his 203 attempts the last two seasons, while also posting a strong +23.1 grade in the run game. Perry is a dependable player on film, and adding a strong athletic profile into the mix should grab the attention of NFL teams.

4. Washington’s Travis Feeney grabbed the NFL’s attention.

Among the other “winners” of the day’s workouts, Feeney came in at 6-foot-4-inches, 230 pounds and put on a show. He ranked second in the 40-yard dash (4.50) and broad jump, while topping all linebackers with a vertical of 40 inches. Feeney is similar to Floyd from a body type and style standpoint, as he played both on the edge and in coverage at Washington, and teams may have a similar decision to make about his usage in the NFL. Last season, Feeney notched seven sacks, nine QB hits, and 21 hurries on 200 pass rushes, while grading at +8.0 in the run game and +0.5 in coverage. His impressive day will have teams finding a role for him at the next level.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • Alec Scott

    Yeah. Flat speed is a very overrated metric for projecting a coverage linebacker. I remember in 2014 the Steelers picked Shazier ahead of Mosely because he wowed at the combine thinking he would be better in coverage.
    After 2 years in the league he is the one dimensional player and Mosely plays basically every defensive snap.
    Now Mosely wasn’t slow by any means with a 4.62 at 235, but it just shows speed isn’t everything.

    • Tim Edell

      Mosely had a much much better rookie year as he struggled badly in coverage in year 2.

      • Alec Scott

        I agree. But he still had a better coverage grade than Shazier in a down season. So the point remains.
        PFF pegged Shazier as one of the most one dimensional players in the NFL this season. Even though he is probably the league’s fastest linebacker.
        Keuchly is the best and he was fast (4.59) but not what you would consider crazy fast. Navarro Bowman is also one of the best coverage backers (before the injury) and he was a 4.7 guy.
        My only point is that there isn’t really a strong correlation between coverage skills and straight line speed. Although some analysts would have you believe that is the case.