Reading the Defense: Linebacker Draft Preview

Identifying 2015's best every-down prospects, discussing a new kind of tweener, and more


NOTE: Sigmund Bloom, Matt Waldman and I -- along with Cecil Lammey and a host of other great guests -- will be providing live analysis of the draft on Thursday, Friday and Saturday again this year. Produced as a Google Hangout, you'll be able to join and watch the live feed (we'll tweet the direct link while we're live). We'll have all the shows available for on-demand replay on our Hangout page (video), on our podcast page (audio), and via whatever application you access your podcasts from early the following week.


I've chosen to separate the linebacker position into edge players and players who will be primarily run defenders (and coverage backers, where able). If you're starting with this installment of the preview series, click here to read an extended explanation for that decision in the edge rusher preview.

a new kind of tweener

I've written about scrapping the tweener label for edge rushers. At minimum, there needs to be a distinction between a tweener who isn't a fit for a traditional 4-3 end or 3-4 outside linebacker role. That discussion now needs to be extended to the linebacker position. 

Defenses have been forced to adjust to offenses who use multiple wide receiver and spread sets -- and then run out of those sets. Traditionally, the defense counters with a nickel or dime package, often taking its best run defenders off the field and leaving six defenders in the box. Those defenders are often undersized. It's an easy mismatch for a quarterback to exploit at the line of scrimmage.

Over the past 3-4 seasons, the counter from defensive coordinators is to find a rotation of players quick enough to cover between the numbers but stout enough to defend the run. There aren't many players who can play zone or bracket or man coverage against slot receivers, athletic tight ends, and running backs out of the backfield and still stack and shed to play the run. 

Chip Kelly's speed concepts are stressing defensive coordinators once again. With so little time between plays, defenses cannot make substitutions and the platoon system falters. Now, defensive coaches need players who can handle both roles and stay on the field every down.

That brings us to a new kind of tweener.

Well, not really. Fritz Shurmur and others have used the Big Nickel concept for decades. But it's more critical than ever now. Those Big Nickel types were generally safeties, however. Now -- like the edge rusher mashup of the best parts of a defensive end and outside linebacker -- the prototype fits both the linebacker and safety position.

And like the "edge" prototype, the players in this category are often athletes first, football players second.

We've seen players like Boss Bailey and Thomas Davis discussed as safeties versus outside linebackers in past years. I'm certain there were safeties who could've been tried at linebacker but weren't due to size stereotypes. But we're seeing a mini-explosion of these players now. Thomas Davis (who grew into a linebacker's frame), Kam Chancellor, Jonathan Cyprien, Deone Bucannon, and Telvin Smith all entered the league as long, lean talents with a workable mix of speed and power.

There are a handful of good every-down linebacker prospects this year. Some fit in the long held linebacker tradition. But there are at least two intriguing players from the new school of versatile linebacker prospects. Shaq Thompson and Kwon Alexander are both under 230 pounds. Both could be taken before the end of the second round.

Lots of personnel directors believe Thompson is a safety. Thompson is having none of it -- and he might be right. Alexander hasn't been fighting the safety vs linebacker battle much, but he's in the same mold as Thompson.

You'll hear debate about this year's edge rushers and what kind of play Leonard Williams may be. But this Big Nickel storyline is one of the more important issues to track in this year's class. Like the edge rushers, don't focus on what these players cannot do -- focus on the role a team will but them in and ask yourself whether they can thrive there.

early round prospects with every down upside

These are the seven prospects analysts give the best chance to be drafted early. There will be surprises, of course, and none of these prospects are perfect, but I think the best NFL players in this class are most likely to come from this group.

Player School HT WT
Eric Kendricks UCLA 6-0 232
Denzel Perryman Miami 5-11 236
Benardrick McKinney Mississippi State 6-4 246
Shaq Thompson Washington 6-0 228
Paul Dawson TCU 6-0 235
Stephone Anthony Clemson 6-3 243
Kwon Alexander LSU 6-1 227

Kendricks is easily the class of this group for me. He plays quickly, but in control. His coverage instincts are the best I've seen in some time, making him the most well-rounded player in this class. Matt Waldman and I watched tape of Kendricks in his Film Room series. We intentionally avoided watching his game against Virginia -- which was strikingly good -- but many of the same positives were on display in the game we watched against Texas.

Perryman isn't far behind Kendricks. He plays bigger than his frame -- there's nothing on film suggesting he lacks the size to play between the tackles. He won't be an elite coverage player, but his film shows enough foot speed and recognition to hold his own on passing downs. I'd have liked to see a short shuttle time from Perryman to help judge his change of direction against his peers but a hamstring injury limited him to a 40 yard time only.

McKinney occupied the top spot on many analyst's draft boards early in the college season. His measurables are good for a player with his size. But you don't see that athleticism on the field. He looked stiff and much better in straight line than laterally and I didn't feel like he was as powerful as his frame would suggest. I may be too hard on him here, but I'd like to see an early round pick to feel comfortable he'll get an opportunity to develop more.

Thompson and Alexander are your flow and chase players with elite upside this year. Both are bigger and more physical than Telvin Smith. Neither is quite as good in coverage or has the same top speed Smith has on the field. On-field production will depend much on the fit for both Thompson and Alexander. Should they succeed immediately as every-down linebackers, the floodgates may open for many more like them.

tracking combine and pro day measurables 

I didn't forget to include Paul Dawson and Stephone Anthony in the above mini-vignettes. However, like Shane Ray in the edge rusher section, I'm interested in how their testing marries with what I see on tape -- and therefore how much those measurables should matter.

Dawson generated buzz during the college all-star season as a player without a prototypical linebacker body who played with more than enough power and speed to succeed on Sunday. He then put up an impressively bad combine -- 4.93 40 | 1.69 10 | 28' vert | 9-1 broad -- and didn't improve much at his pro day -- 4.79 40 | 1.68 10.

But it's clear Dawson plays faster than those times. I think his instincts and lateral agility give him the recognition and footwork to play at a functional NFL speed. There are two key issues to overcome here. First, Eric Stoner showed a handful of plays in his Film Room segment with Matt Waldman that suggest Dawson may not believe he has the athleticism to make elite plays -- despite a generally violent and downhill nature. And I think Dawson is really grabby in coverage and struggles to translate his lateral agility into good zone or bracket coverage skills.

To me, that puts Dawson into the "If he doesn't get it early, he's not likely to ever get it." category.

Anthony is another interesting case study. His body type (6-3, 243) and measurables (96% short shuttle, 92% broad jump, 89% 10-yard split) suggest an elite size-speed-explosion-agility combination. But I don't see that on the field. I believe he's reading the running back by design on tape -- which some would argue is an easier key -- and he takes way too many false steps. He also grabs and catches way too much in coverage. And he didn't jump out to me in Mobile as Lavonte David, Bobby Wagner, Chris Borland and others did over the years.

I'm confident that what I see in Kendricks and McKinney and Perryman matches with their metrics. I'm not as confident with Anthony and Dawson. But I can't wait to find out.

others worth tracking on draft weekend

I doubt we'll see these players come off the board before the third day, but Ben Heeney, Jordan Hicks, Hayes Pullard, Taiwan Jones, Mike Hull, Ramik Wilson and Martrell Spaight each have supporters in the draft community. We'll find out what the NFL thinks of them soon.


Linebacker has been something of a devalued position in recent years. Platoons and rotations and a relative lack of every-down talent have conspired to push players who might have been late first - mid second picks down to the third round (or sometimes fourth). If these teams make a non-edge linebacker a priority in the first three rounds, you can trust they see them as contributors.

  • Houston ~ Rolling into OTAs with Brian Cushing, Mike Mohamed and Justin Tuggle atop the depth chart
  • Kansas City ~ Could be without Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry and seeking a defensive anchor
  • Green Bay ~ Replacement level Sam Barrington is best option and rumors Clay Matthews experiment not over
  • Minnesota ~ Anthony Barr may be only above-average talent on depth chart right now
  • New Orleans ~ David Hawthorne and Dannell Ellerbe = inconsistency and durability concerns
  • San Francisco ~ Need depth with Patrick Willis and Chris Borland retired

SMART WAYS TO PREP FOR THE DRAFT ~ There's no substitute for your own eyes. The guys at Draft Breakdown make scouting college games easy with 7-10 minute videos edited down to include every snap taken by a player in a single college game with the player highlighted for easy reference on each snap. Most prospects has a library of five games (and sometimes as many as 10-12).

Matt Waldman's Rookie Scouting Portfolio ~ I'm clearly biased, since Matt (along with Sigmund Bloom) are my closest friends in the business. But you won't find a more detailed draft guide that stays true to process. You may not agree with every conclusion Matt makes, but you owe it to yourself to consider them. You should also check out Matt's work at Football Outsiders and his new Film Room hangouts -- both include good defensive discussion.

Dane Brugler's Draft Guide PDF ~ Clean, easy to follow, packed with details and information and film study, this PDF rivals anything a long time draft lover like me enjoyed about the guides put out by Jerry Jones, Frank Coyne and Russ Lande over the years.

Sigmund Bloom's On The Couch podcasts ~ I'm continually amazed at how much depth Bloom gets out of his guests each week. This show runs nearly year-round, but the months of March and April are dedicated to draft talk you shouldn't miss. The warehouse link to the Audible podcast feed will also take you to a handful of great draft interviews by Cecil Lammey.

Josh Norris' Process the Process podcast ~ It's getting harder and harder to find time to listen to all the great audio and video content produced around the web. You must make Josh's weekly podcast a priority. It's a fresh take at how those inside the draft industry and those working in its ever more populated suburbs come to evaluate draft prospects. ~ If you’re a visual person, Marcus Armstrong’s database is for you. If you’re interested in combine and pro day results but don’t know how good a broad jump of 10-4 or a 6.97 three cone time may be, Marcus Armstrong’s database is for you. Armstrong’s unique way of presenting testing data involves a large spideweb shape, with the points representing the top results for each test of athleticism. He then superimposes a player’s own test results. What you get to see is a spider web that stretches and shrinks to show how a player compares to his peers over the years. ~ Home of the SPARQ score, aka Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction, Quickness. Formerly a standardized test developed by NIKE to distill a player’s athletic ability to a composite score, SPARQ is likely being used by multiple NFL teams as part of their draft prep. Zach Whitman, in conjunction with some astute folks at, back calculated the formula. Whitman publishes pSPARQ scores on his website for all positions and players.

Positional interviews with Greg Cosell ~ The two best series here are the podcasts with Ross Tucker and those with Doug Farrar. There will be some overlap here, but both are good listens. Farrar also has a show with former NFL defensive end Stephen White, whose NSFW player profiles on SBNation are a joy to read.

Doug Farrar's SI 64 ~ The Shutdown 50 has become the SI 64, with Doug (along with Chris Burke) profiling their top draft prospects.

Twitter follows ~ I'm hesitant because I know I'll miss somebody I shouldn't here, so the safest thing to do is subscribe to Bloom's draft list.

Follow and ask questions on Twitter @JeneBramel. Reading the Defense will be a regular feature this offseason with free agent commentary, draft prospect previews, tier discussion, links to our offseason IDP roundtable podcasts and much more. Subscribe to The Audible on iTunes or download our IDP podcast here

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