By Justin Rasile
1) Myles Jack, UCLA Bruins
Career Stats: 179 Total Tackles, 1 sack, 15 TFL
Height: 6’1 Weight: 245
Bench: 19 Reps
Forty: We can only dream
Far and away the most athletic player in this year’s draft. At 6’1 and 245 pounds, we can only imagine what his 40-yard dash would be. I would speculate that it would be in the low 4.4s but let’s not get caught up in that. Jack is a football player. His speed, athleticism, and ability to translate that quickness into strength are matched by few prospects over the past few years. If it weren’t for his meniscus tear and potential lingering knee problems, we would be talking about him as one of the top two players in this year’s draft. Jack can meet a running back in the hole and drive him back for that tackle for loss and then on the next play he can cover a slot receiver or tight end and run with them, literally being their shadow. If he wanted to, he could have been a first round running back as he scored eleven offensive touchdowns and looked fully competent in doing so. That over-usage at UCLA could potentially be part of his troubling knee issues but in the NFL teams will simplify what he needs to do to prolong his longevity. The former UCLA Bruin is the prototypical linebacker that coaches are looking for in this day and age. He will be that three down linebacker that won’t ever come off the field and can even play a hybrid safety role that can cover up for some slower middle linebackers that should come off the field. It may not look like Jack has the most eye popping stats (the injury his final year played a hand in that) but he did have 4 interceptions and 19 passes deflected and if you put on his game film, he immediately pops off the screen. He can be molded into whatever your team needs and that is a special attribute. He can blitz off the edge and has some very nice natural bend and amazing quickness or he can drop back and cover up for the lack of secondary talent you may have. The knee can be an issue and if these diagnoses are true, he may have some rough years ahead of him. But as long as the knee checks out, no team should be worried about this future All Pro linebacker.
2) Darron Lee, Ohio State Buckeyes
Career Stats: 146 Total Tackles, 11 Sacks, 27 TFL
Height: 6’1 Weight: 232
Bench: 17 Reps
Following that trend of athletic linebackers is just that, a trend and trends can have a history of playing themselves out (the Broncos won the Super Bowl with a dismal passing performance). Although we are seeing quarterbacks throw the ball at ridiculous rates you can’t be just a good cover linebacker. You need to be able to get down and dirty and deal with the mass of human bodies floating around at the line of scrimmage if you want to be successful at that position. This is where my second ranked outside linebacker slides in. Darron Lee was a high school quarterback and made his transition to linebacker only a few years ago. I have my doubts as to whether he will be able to hold up in a man’s game. His cover skills are fantastic and correlate to when he played cornerback in high school so that is only another plus for him. But he is on the smaller side for linebacker, especially without containing a mean streak in his game, and it still remains to be seen if this newfound athletic linebacker will pan out. Lee played the majority of his snaps outside of the tackle box and I worry about his instincts. The great characteristic about Lee is that he a freak athlete. His 4.47 forty-yard dash was phenomenal and better than a decent amount of corners that declared for this year’s draft. He did also have 11 sacks and 27 tackles for a loss so he has that ability to rush the passer if that is something that your team needs. I have faith that Lee can become an excellent linebacker/ safety hybrid. He just needs to be coached very well and needs to play more pissed off because when he is running downhill around full speed, this kid can knock somebody’s head off. I just want to see him stand up with a grin on his face after he lays down an earth shattering hit. Then I will know that he belongs in this league.
3) Su’a Cravens, USC Trojans
Career Stats: 207 Total Tackles, 10.5 Sacks, 34.5 TFL
Height: 6’1 Weight: 226
Bench: 16 Reps
Mr. Su’a Cravens. This former USC Trojan was somebody who caught my eye last year while watching last year’s stud defensive tackle Leonard Williams. He was flying around and sticking his nose into everything while he was playing safety. This past year he played a bit of a hybrid safety/ linebacker role which I believe will only help him down the road, especially if he continues this transition to linebacker. He would be an above average coverage linebacker instead of a mediocre safety. Players that aim to decapitate a ball carrier will always be favorites of mine and Cravens satisfies that fill for me. He is a tough nosed player that wants to be involved in every tackle. His best year was in 2014 mainly because his 2015 tape was full of playing alongside freshmen defenders, including 7 at one time. The Trojans were a young team and Cravens took on a leadership role but I also believe he was trying to do a little too much to cover for his inexperienced teammates. This is not an excuse in the least but rather me trying to justify his sometimes poor play last year. There are things he does need to get better at, mainly getting off blocks. Cravens would engage the blocker and then either wait too long to shed the block or he can’t disengage quick enough and this caused him to miss a decent amount of tackles. This is ability to engage and disengage is such an underrated part of playing a defensive position but one that is crucial for a player learning a new position. A good coach will be able to help the Trojan with this little blocking issue though. Oh and he definitely does remind me of another Trojan great, Troy Polamalu, in his style of play. Hopefully Su’a has Troy’s phone number so that he can learn from a perennial pro bowler.
4) Tyler Matakevich, Temple Owls
Career Stats: 493 Total Tackles, 7 Sacks, 40.5 TFL
Bench: 22 Reps
Each and every year there are some small school kids that you fall in love with and Matakevich is one of those guys for me. The 2015 All American attended a small school in Temple but helped lead the team to a magnificent season and a bowl game against Toledo. Production is something that he can hang his hat on as he had almost 500 tackles in his very distinguished four-year career. Yes, he may be a bit slow and small but he is a physical player nonetheless and that is necessary for a linebacker. He drives his feet when wrapping up and is very technically sound in doing so. The nastiness that he has makes you want him on your team as he can strike fear into the eyes of offensive players when laying booming tackles on offensive players. His athleticism is underrated as he can chase down opponents and drop into coverage and not look lost or like a liability. Coming from a small school with small size will knock his draft process a little bit but he is a football player and that’s more than needs to be said for me. My favorite quote from him in an interview was “Nobody will outwork me in the film room”. Seems like he has the right mentality going to play in the big leagues. Matakevich understands that he has an uphill climb if he wants to make an impact in the NFL but if he has the right mentality and an above average intelligence that I believe he possesses; he can make his dreams come true.
5) Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Career Stats: 284 Total Tackles, 4.5 Sacks, 23.5 TFL
The more we hear about Jaylon Smith’s knee, the more we hear how bad it is. The possibility of nerve damage immediately raises red flags and should make teams extremely worried. If it weren’t for that injury, he and Myles Jack would be duking it out for the top linebacker spot but it is something that has to be considered now. In my opinion, Smith is the second best linebacker in the 2016 NFL Draft. He shares that rare blend of size and speed that coaches are drooling over and offensive coordinators have nightmares about. Jaylon Smith shows that he can rush the passer as well as stuff running backs in the hole. Granted, if he were actually going through the draft process I believe teams would find some more holes in his game. One that I’ve noticed is that he played at a pretty low weight, 223 pounds, and with him not being able to fully workout he is going to continue to lose more weight. By the time he can actually start working out again, I think he is going to need at least two years to get back to where he was. Will a team give him enough time to fully recover (if he ever does)? Besides the physical part of recovering from his injury, he needs to be fully okay mentally by the time he steps back onto the gridiron. The knee worries me though, as well as it should worry everybody. If he falls to the third round Smith would be an absolute steal if he comes back fully healthy. All of the interviews that I’ve seen with him and hearing everything that I’ve heard, he sounds like such a genuine and nice human being so this makes his injury one that is even tougher to swallow. Time will only tell for this prospect but we all have our fingers crossed for you Jaylon!