Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Top Inside Linebackers for 2015 Draft

by Derek Rampulla

1) Eric Kendricks, UCLA Bruins
Height: 6'0          Weight: 232
40 Yard Dash: 4.61 Seconds
10 Yard Split: 1.64 Seconds
Bench Press: 19 Reps
Career Stats: 480 Total Tackles, 10 Sacks, 26 Tackles for Loss, 5 INTS, 3 Forced Fumbles

The inside linebacker position isn't one that is usually picked very high in the draft, but the importance of having one (or two for a 3-4 defense) cannot be underestimated. Just look at the state that the Niners are in after losing Patrick Willis and Chris Borland this offseason. This year has a change to see a couple of guys go in the first round, and Kendricks is the most likely from this pack. He is a great combination of playing the run and defending against the pass. He was a four year contributor on UCLA's defense, and thus has had the ability to to really hone his craft and work on the weaknesses in his game. I actually think that Kendricks plays a bit better in pass protection than he does defending the run. He has great sideline to sideline quickness and can cover a lot of ground very quickly. When he diagnoses the play, his burst allows him to immediately make the play. This strength to his game is compounded by his high football IQ which helps him recognize the play and break on the ball as it the play is developing. Kendricks's sack total is one of the best for middle linebackers in the class and demonstrates his ability to maneuver near the line of scrimmage. He has good instincts and footwork to work his way through the congestion near the line of scrimmage and make a play on the quarterback. The ability to bring the heat from right up the middle is highly coveted by defensive coordinators as it is quick and forces quarterbacks to throw off of platform. Kendricks is a solid player against the run, but I think that for the NFL he is going to have to get stronger. He is a pretty good tackler, but against some of the bigger backs and tight ends he didn't always make the tackle on contact. Another area that he is going to have to work on is shedding blocks, especially on runs that come directly at him. This is always something that is an issue for incoming linebackers, but it is one trait that can separate the good linebackers from the elite. He reads his keys very well and knows where to make the play, but if he can get stronger he could really elevate his game.

2) Denzel Perryman, Miami Hurricanes
Height: 5'11          Weight: 236
40 Yard Dash: 4.78 Seconds
10 Yard Split: 1.68 Seconds
Bench Press: 27 Reps
Career Stats: 243 Total Tackles, 3 Sacks, 22 Tackles for Loss, 2 INTs, 6 Forced Fumbles

Perryman is the other linebacker that has been in discussions to be the top inside backer drafted this year along with Kendricks. Perryman is more of a throw back to the traditional, "thumper" who anchors down the middle linebacker position. He is an absolute beast of a hitter and can dominate opponents in the run game. He isn't the tallest linebacker, but he carries his weight well, is built like a fire hydrant, and hits guys like a Mack truck. He is kind of the opposite of Kendricks in that he plays a lot better against the run than he does in pass protection. He has good mental makeup to play middle linebacker in terms of being able to diagnose plays and blocks which allows him to be in the best position to make a tackle. What I really like about him is how his upper body strength allows him to shed blocks and not get held up by the offensive line. Even when he doesn't make the tackle, he gets himself in a great position to funnel the running back through another lane where the play can be made or forces them to go east-west which ends up costing them yards. When it comes to him making the tackle, bet your bottom dollar that he won't miss. He doesn't have the greatest speed to chase guys down and gets beat by the faster receivers, but if he has a line on a guy he WILL make the tackle. As you can see from his forced fumbles number, he also is a very powerful, jarring hitter who can knock the ball loose. Perryman does tend to struggle a bit in pass protection, as he doesn't have quite the same speed as Kendricks or McKinney does. His lack of top end speed made him a bit of a liability covering running backs out of the flat or tight ends/slot receivers. There were quite a few times this year where Perryman got burned on vertical routes where he was a couple of steps behind his man. He also doesn't have quite the top end speed to make all of the sideline to sideline plays. His burst isn't bad, but he should really improve his overall speed to be a more complete linebacker. There is no doubt that he has all the physical tools to be an enforcer for a defense for years to come.

3) Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State Bulldogs
Height: 6'4          Weight: 246
40 Yard Dash: 4.66 Seconds
10 Yard Split: 1.64 Seconds
Bench Press: 16 Reps
Career Stats: 243 Total Tackles, 7.5 Sacks, 19.5 Tackles for Loss, 0 INTs, 1 Forced Fumble

But if you really want to talk about physical tools, look no further than McKinney. There are not too many men his size who can also move with his speed and quickness. However, his surprisingly low bench press total is a bit of a concern and does show itself on his tape. When coming up against a blocker, McKinney doesn't always have the strength to hold up or shed his man to make a play. It isn't just offensive lineman, but some of the better tight ends that he saw were also able to move him around and open lanes for their running back. Power and his endurance are both areas where he is going to make significant improvement before the season starts. This also affects his tackling consistency. He can usually get to the play, but he missed quite a few tackles last year when he had his man dead to rights. McKinney has shown the ability to put it all together, but his ability to do that on a consistent basis will help his transition to the pros. The good news is that he has the body and frame to add mass without sacrificing his speed and agility. For his size, McKinney is also deceptively fluidity and quick feet to burst towards the ball. Against the pass, he is able to get into position and moves towards the ball well. He closes the gap quickly against zone coverage but also has shown the ability to play some man coverage. He can cover some of the better tight ends and holds his own against running backs. His quickness also makes him a good pass rusher who can get to the quarterback or cause disruption in the backfield. McKinney's totals probably would have been higher if he had been able to make the tackle when the play presented itself. A lot of people are expecting him to be taken towards the end of the first round, but I could see his intriguing ability making him a selection towards the middle of the first.

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