The 2015 NFL Draft is approaching with the buzz building every day. Last week, I started my top five positional rankings for the NFL Draft, showcasing the corners and safeties. In today’s rankings, I look at my top five inside linebackers. Here are my top five linebackers from last year’s NFL Draft. The inside linebacker is usually the quarterback of the front seven and has a lot of responsibilities. This year’s inside linebacker class is not very deep, but the top five contains a lot of potential impact players. The top five include some of the more productive defensive players in all of college football. So let’s take a look at my top five inside linebackers in the 2015 NFL Draft.
1. Eric Kendricks, UCLA
UCLA’s Eric Kendricks is my top inside linebacker because of his ability to play well against the run and pass. In his senior season last year, he was third in Division 1-A in tackles with 149 tackles, while also notching 11.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, three interceptions, five passes defended, a forced fumble and a touchdown. He was a true stat sheet stuffer for UCLA.
Kendricks is a very smart linebacker who can make swift decisions and get to the ball quickly. He seems to be by the ball all the time and has the IQ to be in the right place to make the play. He has the ability to change directions and move in space very well. He is one of the best tacklers in the draft due to his great technique of going low and using his legs to take the ball carrier down. He can get around blocks with his elusiveness and solid technique. In coverage, he has the ability to cover man-to-man because of his athleticism to keep with the slot receivers and tight ends (As you can see below). His knowledge and ability to move in space makes him very good at zone coverage and reading where the quarterback is going with the ball. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein says, “Eric Kendricks plays with plus instincts against the run and pass. He has the athleticism and demeanor to be an impactful, productive outside linebacker in a 4-3 for years to come.”
Kendricks biggest obstacle is his lack of size and strength. He is only 6-foot, 232-pounds, so he is a little undersized as a linebacker. This could hurt him in man coverage versus bigger tight ends, where he could be outmuscled in coverage. His lack of strength and size can hurt him at the line of scrimmage when he is trying to fight through blocks of offensive linemen. But I believe his instincts and fluid athleticism will help him negate those shortcomings.
2. Paul Dawson, TCU
Paul Dawson of TCU is another linebacker who was very productive at the college level. As a senior last year, he was sixth in Division 1-A in tackles with 136 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, six sacks, four interceptions, nine passes defended, two forced fumbles and a touchdown. He was a playmaking linebacker for the Horned Frogs.
Dawson is a ball hawk with the ability to diagnose a play and get to the ball quickly. He moves well in space with good change of direction. He gets to the ball very quickly even though he ran slowly at the NFL Combine. He plays sideline to sideline with the ability to track the ball carrier down. He is very good in zone coverage because of his agility, intelligence and ball skills. When a ball is thrown toward him, he can make the catch with his good hands (As you can see in the video). He can cover man-to-man using his technique and athleticism to stay with the receiver. He also shows good blitzing ability to get to the quarterback. NFL Network’s Mike Mayock says, “I love Paul Dawson as a football player. The tape doesn’t lie. That kid is as quick and instinctive of a linebacker as I’ve seen in years.”
Dawson is a smaller linebacker at 6-feet, 235-pounds and does not have great strength or length. He can get caught in blocks because of his lack of strength and short arms to keep away from the blocker. He is not the best tackler in terms of technique, sometimes missing tackles because he dives at ball carriers rather than wrapping up for the tackle. There are also character issues that teams must answer before drafting him. But as a linebacker, he is a player who is seemingly always around the ball.
3. Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
Mississippi State’s Benardrick McKinney has great size and athleticism for an inside linebacker. In his junior season last year, he had 71 tackles, eight tackles for loss, three sacks, four passes defended and a forced fumble. He is a player who could develop into a better NFL player than college player.
McKinney is a big, strong linebacker at 6-foot-4, 246-pounds, who can get through blocks to make a tackle on the ball carrier. He is a linebacker who can play tough at the line of scrimmage versus offensive linemen. He has good length to keep off of blocks and rip away to make a play on the ball carrier. His size, strength, and athleticism allow him to be a solid pass rusher, as well as the ability to play man-to-man versus tight ends. He is a good tackler with strength to wrap up the ball carrier (As you can see below). Matt Miller of the Bleacher Reports says, “Benardrick McKinney could play any linebacker spot in a 4-3 defense and offers unreal athleticism combined with instincts and production at the “Mike” spot.”
McKinney is not a fluid player in space, which will hurt him in pass coverage. He does not move his hips well, so in zone coverage he can struggle changing directions to get to the pass. He also will not be able to guard receivers because of his lack of agility. He does not have great instincts like the previous two linebackers on my list. His athleticism and size, though, make him an interesting prospect.
4. Denzel Perryman, Miami (FL)
Denzel Perryman of Miami (FL) might be the toughest linebacker in the 2015 NFL Draft. As a senior last year, he had 110 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, five pass breakups, one interception and three forced fumbles. He was one of the most productive players in college at the linebacker position.
Perryman is a tough hard-hitting linebacker with very good instincts. He is best against the run using his IQ to read the play. His ability to quickly diagnose a play allows him to get to the ball carrier at the best angle and bring him down (As you can see below). He can rip away from blocks and get past blockers using his strength. When he is at the ball carrier, he has good technique to give out big hits. ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Jr. says, “The more I’ve watched the tape of Perryman from the 2014 season, the more I like him. He just does so many things well in terms of attacking the line of scrimmage and taking on blocks.”
Perryman is a smaller linebacker at 5-foot-11, 236-pounds with questionable agility. He struggles to move his hips to change directions. In zone coverage, he will struggle transitioning his hips to defend down field. He also will struggle in man-to-man coverage because of his lack of his size versus tight ends and his lack of agility versus slot receivers. He is just not a fluid athlete in space. But, he will be very productive against the run because of his instincts and strength.
5. Stephone Anthony, Clemson
Clemson’s Stephone Anthony is one of the best athletes at the linebacker spot in the 2015 NFL Draft. In his senior season last year, he had 75 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, an interception, four passes defended and two forced fumbles. He ran the third fastest 40-yard dash time of all the linebackers at the NFL Combine, running 4.56 seconds.
Anthony is a player with prototypical size for an NFL linebacker at 6-foot-3, 243-pounds. He has very good speed to go sideline-to-sideline and chase down ball carriers. His size and speed along with his aggressiveness gives him the ability to play at the line of scrimmage. He can read the play quickly and break on the ball fast (As you can see in the video). He has the potential to cover because of his athleticism, but he must improve his technique. The Bleacher Report’s Matt Millers says, “Athletic linebackers with NFL size are rare in this draft class, but Clemson’s Stephone Anthony has both. He also had one heck of a senior season followed up by an eye-opening Senior Bowl.”
Anthony struggles in coverage because of his stiff hips. He does not have fluid change of direction ability to play well in zone coverage. He has the athleticism in terms of speed and size, but his agility may hold him back. He is sometimes too aggressive or out of position, for instance, against play action passes. He must improve his patience and not be too aggressive. But overall, he is one of the more interesting linebackers because of his great size and speed combination.