CFF Overview: LB - Top of the Crop
We’ve been making our way through the various position groups for CFF draft content and here we take a quick look at a few of this year’s linebackers.
While this year’s class of off-ball linebackers might lack clear Top-10 or high-first-round prospects that you’ll find among the edge rushers or receivers, there are several players who separated themselves from the pack during both grading and re-watching.
Paul Dawson, TCU
As we noted in our CFF Player Profile of Dawson, he finished the season as CFF’s highest-graded linebacker in this draft class and second in FBS. He’s a very aggressive run defender, almost always moving forward at the snap. And although this occasionally puts him at risk on play action and misdirection plays, it also allowed Dawson to rack up ridiculous numbers at the position: his 94 defensive stops and 23.3% Run Stop percentage dwarfed that of his peers.
He was also very productive against the pass in TCU’s matchup zone (check out his play covering Maxx Williams in the flat against Minnesota at 2Q, 15:00), putting his great hands on display to intercept or defense eight passes while compiling one of the highest coverage grades in this class. There might be athletic limitations when asked to play sideline to sideline or in more downfield coverage, but he was generally effective in short areas between the numbers and in the flat.
Other concerns with Dawson include his tackling, which could have been better; he missed as many tackles as another player on this list, Eric Kendricks, despite playing roughly 300 fewer snaps. He was much more adept at beating blocks than you might expect at his size, but he also faced fewer blockers at the second level than he’ll see in the NFL and relied on quickness to defeat them (e.g Ole Miss 1Q, 1:21) rather than stacking and shedding.
It will be interesting to see where Dawson goes, given the wide range of projections out there. Even with the negatives, it’s hard to argue with that production and in CFF’s eyes, he deserves consideration on Day 1 of the draft.
Signature Stat: 39 targets against Dawson in coverage yielded a 50.7 QB rating for opposing passers.
Stephone Anthony, Clemson
A favorite of several PFF/CFF analysts, Anthony finished with the third-highest overall grade in this class (fifth when you include non-draft eligible players), grading positively in all three facets. He graded negatively just twice last season (three times including his 36 snaps in the Senior Bowl): at Georgia in Week 1 and against Louisville.
Athletically he’s a very explosive straight line player, which made for effective blitzes, as evidenced by his three sacks and 20 total pressures. However, where he excelled most was in downhill run defense, where he racked up 37 stops and missed just five tackles all season (three against Georgia), one of the lowest totals at the position.
In coverage, Anthony didn’t appear to have great natural feel for zones, locking onto the QB too much at times, but he was physical there and still managed to make his way into passing lanes and get a hand on the ball several times, including at 7:34 of the third quarter against NC State. He held up fairly well tracking players in short areas, but his lateral movement might limit him against more athletic NFL players.
One factor to consider when evaluating Anthony is that he played on a very loaded defense as Clemson finished with the highest cumulative defensive grade in FBS. With a front four manned by players such as Grady Jarrett, Shaq Lawson, and Vic Beasley, he saw fewer clean blockers at the second level than he’ll likely face in the NFL. And while he flashed power stacking lineman and lead blockers (SC 3Q 13.21, BC 2Q 14:25), he more often tried to finesse his way underneath blocks, so he’ll have to improve there.
Concerns aside, Anthony is perhaps the best all-around off-ball linebacker in this class and is a player that we like quite a bit.
Signature Stat: Opposing rushers gained an average of just 3.2 yards on plays where Anthony was the primary tackler.
Eric Kendricks, UCLA
Unlike the first two players, Kendricks’ skillset is more heavily weighted toward coverage as he displayed exceptional mobility and athleticism to stick with receivers while racking up the highest coverage grade in this class. He wasn’t quite as good from an overall grading standpoint, finishing as the sixteenth-ranked linebacker with just a decent grade in run defense. And as a pass rusher, despite four sacks, 14 total pressures and good per-snap production, he seldom had to actually beat a block to get to the quarterback.
Kendricks led his peers in total tackles, but also had a somewhat high missed tackle total (17). It’s a reflection of his instincts and movement skills that he was around the ball so much, but tackling could be a concern against NFL athletes. There were times when he gave up more yards after contact trying to bring runners down than he probably should have (Washington 1Q 0:34, USC 1Q 7:37).
That size also got him in occasional trouble taking on blocks, particularly against Oregon where he got plowed by the tight end a couple of times (3Q 8:03), but generally Kendricks was adept at using finesse to beat blockers in space – he was very good against cut blocks – and as the tackle numbers indicate, he had a talent for finding the ball.
We’ll see where he goes in the draft. Whether he makes it into the first round or hears his name called early on day two, Kendricks’ size and coverage ability make him a good fit on the weakside in the NFL.
Signature Stat: Allowed 0.92 yards per snap in coverage.
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