Ranking the top 11 linebacker prospects of 2017
Analyst Josh Liskiewitz runs down the list of the best LB draft prospects entering April, including Reuben Foster.
Ranking the top 11 linebacker prospects of 2017
This year’s linebacker class is very top-heavy, as there will be as many as four selected in the first round. Beyond the top tier there is a significant dropoff, as there are really questions as to the every-down viability of the rest of the class. This being said, the class has a good mix of strong run defenders and skilled coverage players, meaning teams should find plenty of value with Day 3 targets.
[Editor’s note: A player’s ranking within the draft class for each particular category is noted in the corresponding box.]
1. Reuben Foster, Alabama
Foster’s all-around athleticism is complemented nicely by his instincts, both against the run and pass. He led the country in run-stop percentage in 2016, making 52 run stops while missing just five tackles. Also a strong player in coverage, he gave up an average of just 6.6 yards per catch last season. Foster of course made headlines by being kicked out of the combine after an argument with a hospital worker during medical checks, which will likely make his off-field the biggest concern about him for many teams. Those issues aside, he is a complete player and could still be selected in the top 10.
Reuben Foster Led all FBS linebackers in run-stop percentage in the 2016 season.https://t.co/tsD4vxMDgv
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) March 17, 2017
2. Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
Cunningham has the combination of athleticism, size, and physicality needed to be an excellent every-down linebacker in the NFL. He excels at taking on blocks, and finished fourth among all FBS inside linebackers in 2016 in run-stop percentage despite missing 13 tackles. He also displays impressive skills in man coverage, as he has the speed and strength to stay on the hip of tight ends even on downfield routes. He should also be selected before the end of Day 1.
"Outstanding thumper that loves taking on and destroying blocks from linemen"
Zach Cunningham profilehttps://t.co/KUiEvQ2BkO
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) March 5, 2017
3. Jarrad Davis, Florida
Davis created quite the buzz earlier this week by running a 4.56 40-yard dash and jumping a 38.5-inch vertical at his pro day. This athleticism shows up frequently on film, as he is an explosive player in all phases. His biggest issue is tackling, as he tends to play out of control and miss too often, as represented by his ranking of 209 in tackling efficiency among FBS inside linebackers in 2016. His inconsistencies put his value on day two, but because of his athleticism he could very well hear his name called toward the end of the first round.
PFF scouting report for Florida ILB Jarrad Davishttps://t.co/xy5YOrHtHa
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) March 9, 2017
4. Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
Running a 4.61 40 at the combine was critical for Raekwon McMillan, because his play in coverage at Ohio State is likely to leave some NFL teams worried about his viability on third down. He finished his college career in style with 25 stops in his last four games, and is a very good tackler who consistently wraps up. While some teams may like his leadership and production enough to take him early on Day 2, his average change of direction and playing speed, combined with his struggles against blocks, suggests he is a better value toward the end of Day 2 in the third round.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of Ohio State's Raekwon McMillan in the draft? https://t.co/EcZ1Dr5j7X
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) February 25, 2017
5. Blair Brown, Ohio
Brown is an outstanding tackler who consistently defeats blocks despite his size because of his instincts. He consistently blows run plays up because of his ability to read blocks and beat them to the point of attack, and ability reflected in the fact he finished third among FBS inside linebackers last season in run-stop percentage. While his short-area quickness and aggressiveness serve him well against the run, his speed and size issues are very apparent in coverage. While he is likely a two-down run defender at the next level, he is still worth an early Day 3 pick because he is so proficient against the run, and his competitiveness suggests he can develop into an top contributor on special teams as well.
6. Jordan Evans, Oklahoma
Evans is a frustrating player to watch on film because he is an excellent athlete but doesn’t finish nearly enough plays because he lacks physicality. He is frequently in position to make plays because he uses leverage well to defeat blockers and can win with speed, but he missed 12 tackles last season and finished just 108th in tackling efficiency at the position. His athleticism serves him well in coverage, which will likely be his primary responsibility at the next level.
7. Jayon Brown, UCLA
At 6-foot-0 and 231 pounds, Brown lacks the size to consistently hold up against blockers at the next level, but he plays at a high speed in all phases (despite what his average 4.70 40 time suggests) and was a very productive player at UCLA. Last season he did not give up a touchdown while picking off three passes and breaking up another three. While there is cause for concern on whether his game can translate on first and second down, his strong play in coverage should be highly valued considering today’s game.
UCLA LB Jayon Brown "has the fluid athleticism of a safety in coverage…can transition effectively with burst."https://t.co/4wmdTJO2gl
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) March 29, 2017
8. Anthony Walker, Northwestern
Walker isn’t afraid to get physical with blockers and is capable of winning at the line of scrimmage, but his tackling leaves something to be desired. He missed 53 tackles over the past three seasons, and despite his solid all-around athleticism, was also not an effective player in coverage. His athletic and strength profile suggests he could develop into an effective player at the next level, but there are too many flaws in his game to warrant a high selection.
9. Calvin Munson, San Diego State
Munson lacks the speed and instincts to play in coverage, but he was an effective blitzer in San Diego State’s scheme. His physicality at the point of attack suggests he can be better than his 75th-place finish in run-stop percentage last season might indicate, but his 80 total pressures in three seasons suggest he’ll have some next-level usage as a blitzer.
10. Ben Gedeon, Michigan
Gedeon tested well at the combine, but does not show the same athleticism on film. 30 of 37 balls thrown into his coverage between 2014 and 2016 were completed, and he failed to successfully defend any of them. He can be a solid contributor in the run game because of his willingness to take on blockers and ability to stay square to the point of attack, and he should also be able to help on special teams.
11. Alex Anzalone, Florida
Anzalone is a good athlete but is too easily controlled by blockers at all levels. He also tends to stop his feet and miss tackles; he finished just 240th in tackling efficiency among FBS inside linebackers last season.
Linebacker class superlatives
Best run defender: Reuben Foster, Alabama
While there are a number of outstanding run defenders in this class, Foster’s combination of run-stop percentage and tackling efficiency put him at the top of the class in this skill. While not as physical against blockers as some of the other prospects, his instincts and burst allow him to consistently win one-on-one matchups and make plays in the backfield.
Best thumper: Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
Cunningham has an innate ability to take on and shed blockers at the line of scrimmage, and does so quickly enough to consistently make defensive stops. Few inside linebackers prospects since Brandon Spikes have had his level of competence in this skill.
Best tackler: Blair Brown, Ohio
Brown’s consistent base and ability to stay square to his targets make him an excellent tackler. He missed just three total tackles in 2016, and led the country in tackling efficiency.
Best in coverage: Jayon Brown, UCLA
Brown has the movement skills and instincts of a safety on the back end, which could make him a high priority early on Day 3. His 50.4 QB rating against was best in the country last season among inside linebackers that were targeted at least 25 times.
Best pass-rusher: Reuben Foster, Alabama
His pass-rush production is the cherry on top. His athleticism and anticipation makes it difficult for blockers to get properly set for his attacks; on 93 pass-rushes in 2016, he posted an impressive 20 pressures.
Josh Liskiewitz | Analyst
Josh joined PFF as an analyst in 2015. During the season, his primary focus is college football (mainly the Big Ten). He is also heavily involved in PFF's NFL draft coverage. Prior to joining the team, he worked for six years with GM Jr. Scouting, an independent draft scouting service.