Linebackers are somewhat like the running backs of a defense. If you're defensive line is good enough, an average linebacker can play well enough and it takes really atrocious linebacker play to make a noticeable difference in the quality of an overall defense. On the flip side, having an elite linebacker on your defense can completely change the makeup of the unit. Guys like Luke Keuchly and Bobby Wagner are missiles against the run and their ability in coverage can lock down the middle of a field for a defense, making the job's of corners much easier. For the Eagles, they need very disciplined linebackers for Jim Schwartz' Wide 9. The defensive line is so spread out and focused on uphill penetration, there is a lot of stress being put on the linebackers to maintain gap integrity because any kind of undisciplined play can result in massive mistakes against the run. Luckily, this linebacker class has a lot of nice players on every day of the draft, including a player with game changing potential.
- Myles Jack, UCLA: One of my favorite players in the draft, Jack represents a potentially transformative defensive player. He is generational athlete at the linebacker position as he is explosive, fast and incredibly fluid in space. He isn't undersized though. Measuring in at 245 pounds, Jack has an ideal build for an NFL linebacker. He is much more than an athlete though, as he is incredibly intelligent and instinctive. UCLA loved to play him all over the field, so the sample sizes of him showing NFL linebacker type plays is a bit smaller, but he can certainly do it (See UVA game). He is incredibly fluid in coverage both in the middle of the field and in man coverage. On top of all of that, he has potential to be a very effective blitzer in the NFL. The only major concern with Jack is how well his knee holds up after a torn meniscus back in December. All reports indicated he was fine until recently, so I am hesitant to acknowledge their validity. On top of that, these rankings are based on what I absolutely know about a prospect (Tape/Athletic testing) and I am far from a doctor.
- Reggie Ragland, Alabama: Reggie Ragland's perception has taken a hit since the offseason started, but I am still a very big fan. He might not having Jack's blazing athletic ability, but he is one of the smartest players in the class, period. He is incredibly disciplined attacking downhill and also very physical. He is a major hitter who acts as an intimidator in the middle of a defense. He is not dynamic in coverage, but he is far from a liability and his mental processing helps him compensate for natural range against the pass and the run. He is not going to be a game changer like a healthy Myles Jack, but Ragland would offer a very dependable presence in the middle of a defense.
- Josh Perry, Ohio State: The "other" Ohio State linebacker, Josh Perry, is the one who actually deserves the hype his compadre, Darron Lee is getting. Perry is not a freak athlete like Lee, but he is a true NFL linebacker. He has outstanding size at 6-4, 255 pounds and has a lot of juice coming downhill. He is intelligent, physical and brings the wood as a tackler, so he makes his impact felt in the running game. He is sound in coverage, though I would not put him in the middle of a 4-3 defense and ask him to cover lot of ground on a regular basis. He is best suited playing strong side linebacker or playing inside of a 3-4 where he is a bit more protected. Perry is a bit more limited than Ragland, but what he does he does incredibly well.
- Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame: Nothing is more upsetting in this draft than Jaylon Smith's devastating knee injury in his bowl game. A lot of people much smarter on the subject project that Smith will likely never be the same player he was at Notre Dame, but I am sticking to my rules and just ranking on the absolutes. Smith is a freaky athlete who can fly around in coverage and make absurd plays against the run. He is very inconsistent and plays with a certain lack of control, but he can *create* defense like turnovers and plays in the backfield. His playmaking ability is rare at the linebacker position and if he can get healthy, god willing, he will be a terrific NFL player. All hopes to him making a full recovery because it would be a travesty to see a man robbed of his NFL future and the league robbed of who could be a dynamic player.
- Leonard Floyd, UGA: Leonard Floyd has been a somewhat polarizing player this draft season. The former Bulldog is getting mocked in the top ten as an edge rusher, which makes no sense to me because even Georgia moved him away from rushing on the edge this season. However, if you evaluate Floyd as purely an off ball linebacker, he becomes an incredibly attractive prospect. He is long, physical and incredibly athletic for his size. He is not the strongest, but he has not problem attacking the line of scrimmage. Most impressive is his ability to cover in space. On top of his complete linebacker ability, his experience as an edge rusher makes allows him to function as a blitzer as well. He is a moveable chess piece on a defense and if used properly, he could be an outstanding NFL player.