After sorting our way through the deep secondary group of the 2017 NFL Draft, we now shift our focus to the middle of the defense at the inside linebacker spot. The Browns are pretty set at inside linebacker with the great tandem of Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins. The Browns will likely play with just two inside linebackers most of the time, as they will likely play in nickel for the majority of snaps. But behind those two, the Browns could definitely use someone when they do need three on the field. This year’s class of inside linebackers is pretty good. It has a stud at the top with some great talent throughout. So, let’s take a look at my top five inside linebackers in the 2017 NFL Draft.
1. Reuben Foster, Alabama
Stats: In 15 games last season, he had 115 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss and five sacks.
Reuben Foster is the top inside linebacker and one of the best overall players in the draft. His greatest attribute is his explosive athleticism for a 6-foot, 229-pound linebacker. The former Alabama linebacker’s athleticism pops out on film when he flies around the field. He plays sideline to sideline with the athleticism to beat ball carriers to the edge. He can start and stop fluidly with quick change of direction. His explosion helps him close to the ball quickly and when he gets the ball carrier, he explodes to make a huge hit. His lateral movement is clean and swift. All of these athletic traits allow him to be able to play in coverage pretty well. He has the speed and size to match up receivers, tight ends and running backs in coverage. In zone coverage, he has the movement skills and closing speed to close on passes and break them up. He is not a player who will rush the passer a lot, but he showed some speed and bend on the edge in pass rushing situations. He will be able to play inside linebacker both in a 3-4 and a 4-3 defense, along with outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense.
Foster has a few areas he must work on. He is a fast player with the propensity to make big hits, which can cause him to lead with his head and not look at his target when taking on the ball carrier. In college, he was blessed with a great defensive line who helped keep him clean to roam the field. He will have to show he can take on more consistent traffic and still make plays. He has the ability to evade with his speed and good hands, but his size may be a problem when he faces the bigger NFL blockers. But overall, he is a super athletic linebacker who can play sideline to sideline and be a factor against the pass and run.
2. Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
Stats: In 13 games last season, he posted 125 tackles, 16.5 tackles for a loss, three passes defended and two forced fumbles.
Zach Cunningham has the combination of length and athleticism that teams covet at the linebacker position. At 6-foot-3, 234 pounds and 34 3/8-inch arms, he has great length for an inside linebacker. But, he pairs this length up with an impressive array of athleticism. He showed his explosive athleticism at the NFL Combine, jumping 35 inches in the vertical and 125 inches in the broad jump, which are both the fifth best jumps amongst the linebackers. His explosion allows him to close to the ball very quickly. He has good movement skills for a tall player with the impressive feet to avoid the mess around him and stay upright to continue to flow to the ball. His awareness is one of his best assets. He reads plays well and is always flowing toward the ball. He keeps his eyes always on the ball carrier, even when engaged on blocks. His movement skills also help him evade blockers to stay clean to make a tackle. In coverage, he has the athleticism and awareness to play both in man and zone coverage. He can cover receivers, tight ends and running backs. He can play inside linebacker in both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense, along with outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense.
Cunningham does has some flaws in his game. He is very long, but has not filled out his frame. He needs to add some more bulk to contend in the bigger NFL. With the increase in size, he needs to get stronger, too. With his length, he has a natural tendency to play higher, which can lead to some problems. One of the biggest is his tackling. He tends to tackle higher up on players, which can lead to him falling off tackles, letting the ball carrier to continue up field. He will need to learn to better play with his length and not play too high. But, his length, athleticism and awareness are a great combination for an inside linebacker.
3. Jarrad Davis, Florida
Stats: In nine games last season, he notched 60 tackles, six tackles for a loss and two sacks.
Jarrad Davis has good bulk and athleticism that will allow him to play the inside linebacker spots in both the 3-4 and 4-3 defense and the outside linebackers spots in the 4-3 defense. At 6-foot-1, 238 pounds, he has the size of a prototypical linebacker, including a sturdy frame from head to toe. But with this size, he pairs it with some explosive athleticism. He plays sideline to sideline, making plays on the edge, along with the middle of the field. He can react to a play and explode to the ball, closing the gap quickly. He pairs the explosive athleticism with fluid hips, allowing him to change directions fluidly. These athletic traits help him immensely in coverage. In zone coverage, he breaks on the ball with his explosive closing speed. And in man coverage, he can match athleticism with receivers, tight ends and running backs. Teams can rely on him to play every down because of his athleticism to play against the run and pass.
Davis, much like those ahead of him, does have some flaws to his game as well. Even with his bigger frame, he does not really play with the power and strength that his frame would indicate. He can get stuck on blocks and be bullied backwards, taking him out of the play. He tries far too often to get past blockers using brunt force, rather than using his elusiveness. Besides that flaw, Davis can take some bad angles to a play. These bad angles can force him to dive for the tackle, which leads to more missed tackles. But in the end, Davis has a good combination of size and athleticism, along with fluidity to makes plays all over the field.
4. Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
Stats: In 13 games last season, he posted 102 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, two sacks, four passes defended and two forced fumbles.
Raekwon McMillan is tough-nosed linebacker with the prototypical size of a NFL linebacker. He is 6-foot-2, 240 pounds with a thick upper and lower body. The former Buckeye is very strong, which helps him in a lot of different areas of the game. He is a linebacker who can survive at the line of scrimmage, staying stout amongst the bigger blockers. This allows him to keep a hole blocked and not allow the runner an open lane. His strength and power shows up in his tackling. He brings a lot of force and strength with his tackles, stopping runners in their tracks. He is a solid athlete with good straight-line speed, running a 4.61-second 40-yard dash. He makes up for his lack of great athleticism with good instincts and reads. He can read the backfield and initiate toward the play very quickly, giving him a head start to the ball. In coverage, his instincts and his ability to read the backfield help him play in zone coverage. He is best suited as a middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense or the strong inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
McMillan, however, is not an overly fluid athlete. He has stiffer hips than the other linebackers mentioned earlier. His stiffness hurts his ability to change directions quickly and to start and stop with fluidity. This weakness will hurt him in coverage, especially in man to man. He will struggle to cover receivers and tight ends because he does not have the athleticism to keep with them. His ability to read the backfield can also hurt him sometimes on play action. He can bite on the fake and get out of position. But, he will be a run defender, who can play in zone coverage and set a physical tone for the defense.
5. Haason Reddick, Temple
Stats: In 14 games last season, he notched 65 tackles, 22.5 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks, one interception and three forced fumbles.
Haason Reddick might have one of the highest potentials in the entire inside linebacker class. He is an explosive athlete, which he showed at the NFL Combine. Amongst the defensive line and linebackers, he had the second fastest 40-yard dash at 4.52 seconds, the sixth best vertical at 36.5 inches and the best broad jump at 133 inches. Playing mostly edge rusher in college, he has the speed and agility that teams covet in an inside linebacker. He has solid size at 6-foot-1, 237 pounds. His explosiveness and speed allows him to close quickly on ball carriers and to play sideline to sideline. He is a fluid athlete with great movement skills, which will allow him to play both in zone and man coverage in the NFL. He has the athleticism to match receivers, tight ends and running backs. Because he played on the edge in college, he adds pass rushing skills that most inside linebackers do not possess. The former Temple linebacker is a pretty controlled player with good awareness. He stays home to his assignment and does not often get out of position. He has so much potential because of his versatility to play at both the 3-4 and 4-3 inside linebacker spots, the outside linebacker spots in the 4-3 defense and in some instances the outside linebacker spots in the 3-4 defense.
Reddick is, however, a work in progress right now. He played mostly edge rusher in college, but his size and lack of strength will force him inside to the inside linebacker position. This means he will have to learn a new position and all that it entails. He was not asked to cover a lot, so that will probably be the biggest thing he has to work on. He has the athleticism to do it, but he lacks the technique and instincts in coverage at this point of his career. The former Temple star also must get stronger. He can get stuck on blocks when facing the bigger blockers. But in the end, Reddick’s athleticism and versatility will be extremely intriguing to NFL teams come April.