Saturday, April 25, 2015

2015 NFL Draft: Inside Linebackers

In this post I'll be looking at some of the inside linebackers up for grabs in this years draft. This is another group that I love watching and another that I think is somewhat under appreciated in general. A great inside linebacker can be one of the best pick ups that any team makes. They can be hard hitting run stoppers, out of the blue interceptors, and a nightmare on the blitz for pocket passing quarterbacks. Inside linebackers are the beating heart of the defense and for me - along with a great pass rushing defensive lineman - would be one of the first acquisitions I would want to make when building a defense from the ground up.

So what am I looking for as I watch them?

1) Run support,
2) Pass coverage,
3) Lateral speed,
4) Pass rushing,

One is mainly to do with coming downhill quickly to support the run game. It's ok for a runner to gain a few yards, but what I'm looking for is a linebacker that can consistently help the defense to bottle up running backs for limited yardage. Point two is fairly self explanatory and refers to the ability of the inside backer to play both man to man and zone coverage. Some players are good at both, some good at one and not the other, and as such teams will have to take that into account with their selections.

Point three is a bit misleading when you first read it so deserves a better explanation. I'm not talking about the ability to run side to side. More I'm referring to the ability of the player to run sideline to sideline, which is a big difference. Some of the most effective inside linebackers are the ones that can read the play in front of them quickly and make plays all across the field within that ten yard zone from the line of scrimmage to the first down marker, and sideline to sideline. Just go and watch some old clips of Mike Singletary playing for the Bears if you still have any queries and you'll quickly see what I mean. Watching him run down wide receivers from behind (I'm not even kidding or exaggerating) is something truly amazing to watch.

Finally point four should be obvious, the ability to rush the passer on blitzes, particularly the ability to take on blockers and defeat them. This isn't such a huge issue as this isn't really the prime reason why you recruit inside backers, but it's a huge advantage if they can help the pass rush by being a serious threat up the middle that teams have to account for. And as always with these lists, it's ordered the way it is because that's how the list I'm working from is ordered. You'll need to read the specific text about a player to find out what I think of them. Starting with:

Paul Dawson, TCU
Erm, so why is Dawson touted as a 2nd round backer? I fail to see it personally. He was not overly athletic, he's a little slow to react, his pass coverage is incredibly sketchy and generally he just seemed to be meandering around waiting for the ball to come to him as opposed to going to find it. He did not look like the sort of impact player that you would expect for a second round pick. To me he's a later round guy, bordering on undrafted, who has some utility as a back up player and a work in progress for the future, but by that point he'd already be gone so it's safe to say I'd pass.

Eric Kendricks, UCLA
This is more what you would expect out of a second round pick, possibly even a late first rounder. Quick, great instincts, a sure tackler and superb in the pass game. Didn't play a huge amount it seemed on third downs but given the quality of his coverage in both zone and man I could see Kendricks being a three down backer in the NFL. To me he's a great pick up. He's not an elite level inside backer at this stage and still needs some work, but he's broadly there in terms of talent. He can be a bit grabby at times in man coverage, but seems to understand where the line is between physical coverage and a holding penalty. I think if I had a late round first pick I'd probably be willing to use it on Kendricks depending on what else was available. Certainly from the second round onwards I think he represents good value.

Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
So uhm, why is McKinney so highly rated? Like Dawson, I don't understand him either. He did nothing that I could see. He's 6'4" and 246 pounds, who did ok at the combine, which I'm just going to hazard a guess and say is the main reason why scouts like him so much. On the film for Miss State he did very little of note. He looked a lot slower in pads, he made little contribution to pass coverage and always seemed like the last person to arrive at the ball excepting the defensive backs. Might he develop into something better given his size? Well I guess he could. But you'd be better off probably trying him at a different position given his size. As an inside backer I don't see it. I'd pass.

Stephone Anthony, Clemson
Very quick, proved deadly when a gap opened up in the middle of the O-line for him to exploit. Pass coverage was ok without being amazing. He has the speed to close in zone coverage but in man coverage he could get a little grabby and rough down the field, which is a penalty waiting to happen in the NFL. Overall he did a great job of shutting down running backs when he came down hill. The problem with Anthony is that his instincts are not great. He buys fakes hook, line and sinker. Because of his speed he ends up rapidly taking himself out of position and sometimes effectively running himself into a spot that makes blocking him easier.

All things considered then at his best I think Anthony probably begins to find his value at the end of the second round, but I also think he could be very much a hit or miss player. He might even be both, hitting on some plays and missing wildly on others. So the question you then have to ask yourself is how tolerant are you of that miss potential? Against Georgia for example he made some really good plays with his speed, but for large portions of the game he also looked outclassed and at times was reduced to being a spectator. As such I'm of two minds about Anthony. I think he'll draw a lot of praise when things go well but I'm not sure I personally could live with the lows. This is one of those players that I would want to take a more extensive look at if I was a GM/Coach, but simply don't have the time to now as a blogger. For that reason I tentatively and slightly reluctantly say pass.

Denzel Perryman, Miami
A lot of people seem to be going crazy for Perryman. People are talking about him as a late first round pick in some circles. I think that's crazy. Perryman is ok and sometimes he makes some great run stuffing tackles, but he has very limited coverage skills, generally not great instincts, was not really a great sideline to sideline runner and against the toughest opponents seemed to be a very limited contributor. Certainly not a a late first round pick. I'd put Perryman more in the fifth to sixth round region, a back up guy who plays a bit of special teams and you hope develops over time into a consistent starter, even if it's only a two down starter (which isn't a bad thing).

Taiwan Jones, Michigan State
You get some good, some bad with Jones and it's up to you to decide if you want the good and can live with the bad. The good is that Jones played in a one gap system and he understands his role in the offense. He knows which gap he has to defend and he will plug it, even against guards. He reads screens well and gives maximum effort on every play. If you run a four man front and just want a gap sound, run stuffing linebacker then Jones is 100% your guy. The problem is that Jones is quite slow and not a huge amount of use in the passing game. He can't cover man to man, he's too slow to close in zone coverage, and he lacks the burst necessary to get to the quarterback on blitzes. That means Jones will probably be a two down backer in the NFL, brought in to play the run then coming off for passing downs. For me that moves his value to somewhere around the fourth to fifth round (because he is a very good run stopper).

Ben Heeney, Kansas
Simply put, Heeney is probably not strong enough to survive in the NFL. He's quick, but that's because he only weighs 231 pounds so he's getting down to the bottom end of what is considered desirable size at the inside linebacker spot in the pros. And without a solid base of strength he gets muscled out of the play far too easily. His speed allows him to make the occasional play, but that's really not enough for the NFL. His pass coverage is also pretty weak. For me I'd have to pass.

Hayes Pullard, USC
Was largely a spectator in the run game. Had a tendency to just stand there and wait for the running back to come to him (or for other team mates to make the tackle) as opposed to coming down hill and closing the running lanes and delivering hits to the backs. Did ok in pass coverage it seemed though. Had a decent feel for holding the hip of a tight end and eliminating them from the play. For that reason I think Pullard might have value as a seventh round/undrafted guy, initially trying to win a spot as a third down linebacker for passing situations who can overtime try and develop a more aggressive demeanour against the run.

Jeff Luc, Cincinnati
Meh. Has a bit of speed but didn't seem to do much. In pass coverage he looked confused as to what was going on and could frequently be found running to finally cover his assignment once the ball was already in the air heading to the other side of the field. He made a few thumping tackles, but by and large did nothing that made me think "I'd part with a pick for this guy". Maybe as an undrafted camp body, see if your linebackers coach can't make something out of him?

John Timu, Washington
Considering Timu is 6'1" and weighs in at 246 pounds, he certainly seems to get man handled quite a bit. There were a couple of times where he struggled to bring down quarterbacks running in the open field which is clearly not ideal. He doesn't seem that quick either. And yet despite those problems he does have really good instincts. He reads what is in front of him, often makes the right choice, and then charges off to make the tackle. So there is a dilemma with Timu; those instincts are great but he needs a bit more speed to make the most of them, which would suggest cutting off some weight, but then if you do that is that going to make it even harder for him to make tackles?

For that reason I see Timu as an undrafted project, possibly as a weak side "Will" linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. Mentally he's there, but physically he can't always take advantage of that footballing brain. So he'd be an off season project, dump maybe as much as 10-15 pounds off him, then see how it gets on. Might be a practice squad player for a bit but if someone can tap the obvious potential that resides in his brain then he could be a good little player.

Bryce Hager, Baylor
So let's say you took 10 pounds off of Timu, what would that look like? He'd look a lot like Bryce Hager as it happens. Might even match Hager's 4.6 second 40 yard dash time. And that's really Hager's selling point, the fact that he's reasonably quick and has decent instincts to find the ball and take down the ball carrier. Not the strongest guy in the world and probably finds his best spot in the NFL as a weak side backer in a 4-3 scheme, but not a bad pick up I suspect for the seventh round/undrafted region. Will have to work hard to earn his spot but has a kernel of talent to work with. As a back up, potentially a third down guy just to start with, he could make a few plays.

Cole Farrand, Maryland
As an undrafted guy I actually really like Cole Farrand. I've definitely got a soft spot for Maryland this year. At 6'3", 245 pounds Farrand has a lot to work with physically. He wasn't an outstanding linebacker by any means (there's a reason he's down here) but he was quite tough, hunted the running back well and was a decent tackler in the open field. He played some ok coverage on top of that. I just think as an undrafted guy you can't go too far wrong with Farrand. He's cheap, has good size and the basic traits of a good linebacker, either playing inside (in any defense) or on the strong side of a 4-3. A bit of a project that probably needs to cut a little weight, but with long term potential if handled correctly.


And that's it for your inside linebackers. Just 12 guys on this list, but the draft is closing in on us. Safeties next, which I accept might come too late for the draft itself, or at least the first day of it. I'll do free and strong safeties together. Thanks for stopping bye, hopefully I'll see you again soon, and please share this post around if you enjoyed it. It really makes a difference.

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