2018 NFL Draft Watch: FBS Linebacker Overview
The PFF team is going position-by-position to preview the 2017 college football season as it pertains to the 2018 NFL draft. There’s still a lot of football to be played and the evaluation stage is still very young, but a number of prospects are already on the NFL’s radar and you can read up on over 300 of them (to go with PFF signature stats on over 2,200 total prospects) in our first ever Preseason NFL Draft Guide.
We’ve already taken a close look at the offensive positions of quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers, and this week we’ve switched over to the defensive side of the ball and a look at the edge defenders and interior defenders. Today we look at those linebackers you should know heading into the 2017 season:
There is no consensus linebacker who looks like a first-round lock at this point, but there is certainly talent at the position. Ohio State’s Jerome Baker is the kind of athletic, undersized linebacker the NFL is looking for in coverage while Louisville’s Stacy Thomas has to prove that last year’s breakout year was no fluke. It’s unfortunate that Wisconsin’s Jack Cichy is out injured for 2017 as he’s been outstanding when on the field the last two years, including an 88.8 grade last season. Even with no clear first-rounders, here’s a deeper look at our top five linebackers and their strengths and weaknesses.
PFF Edge stats to know
- Wisconsin’s Ryan Connelly played only 146 snaps against the run, but his run stop percentage of 16.4 percent topped the draft class.
- Washington’s Keishawn Bierria rushed the passer only 30 times, but he came away with 16 total pressures (two sacks, one QB hit, and 13 hurries), good for a class-best pass rush productivity of 41.7.
- Iowa’s Josey Jewell had the fourth-highest percentage of positively-graded plays against the run and he forced an incompletion on 14.0 percent of his targets, also good for fourth among draft class linebackers.
Can make a big jump
- Micah Kiser, Virginia: Kiser is usually found flying all over the field, and that works both for him and against him. He ranked 15th in the draft class in percentage of positively-graded plays against the run, but also ranked 32nd in highest-percentage of negatives. Cutting down on the negative plays, combined with Kiser’s size and athleticism, will make him an attractive prospect next spring. Keep an eye on him getting after the quarterback where he notched seven sacks, two QB hits, and 21 hurries last season to go with a national-high six batted passes.
- Malik Jefferson, Texas: The hype has always been there for Jefferson who came to Texas as a top recruit and stepped right into the starting lineup. His athleticism is evident, but the production has yet to match, and he could take a big step this year if he can just tie up his tackling. He’s missed 23 of his 134 career tackle attempts (by comparison, Kiser has 21 misses, but on 239 career attempts) and Jefferson ranked 146th in the draft class in tackling efficiency last season. However, the rest of his game has promise, and making more of the expected plays will help him live up to his potential.
Sleeper to know
- Tremaine Edwards, Virginia Tech: With size, speed, length and only one year of extended play, Edwards is primed to build upon last year’s solid 77.6 overall grade. He did his best work in coverage where he closes quickly on the ball and has a large tackle radius and he projects as a versatile box player the NFL covets. The average gain on an Edwards’ tackle was only 3.30 yards last season, ninth-lowest in the draft class.
- Rashaan Evans, Alabama: While Evans has spent most of his time as more of an edge rusher in Alabama’s system, he’s likely moving to more of a traditional linebacker role this season. So far, the production has been excellent on his 482 career snaps as he has 12 sacks, seven QB hits, and 22 hurries on only 175 pass-rushes, well below a season’s worth. Expect Evans to be a moveable chess piece on Alabama’s defense as he shows off his athleticism in multiple roles this season.
Non-Power 5 watch
Shaquem Griffin, UCF: Every story about Griffin has to start with his having only one hand, making anything he does on the football field that much more impressive and inspirational. His speed stands out both in coverage and when getting after the quarterback, and both skills will be useful in a pass-heavy NFL. He covers ground well in zone coverage and his six pass breakups tied for second among the nation’s linebackers and he picked up 12 sacks, five QB hits and 11 hurries on his 206 rushes last season.