Edmunds, Smith lead linebacker prospects
The top linebacker prospects entering the NFL draft:
1. Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech (6-5, 253 pounds): Good luck finding opponents who gained extra yardage against Edmunds, who tends to either stop forward momentum outright with his massive frame or easily reverses it. He doesn’t necessarily deliver crushing hits with regularity but does effectively wrap and tackle and wastes little time doing it. Despite his size, Edmunds is a very rangy player and will string plays out or run down ballcarriers. He recorded 301⁄2 tackles for losses (TFLs) and 10 sacks — don’t be surprised if he regularly comes off the edge in the NFL — over the past two seasons yet is also capable in pass coverage. The scariest part might be he’s only 19, so there’s no way to know what kind of force he might become as he continues to physically mature and master the game. Son of former Pro Bowl Dolphins TE Ferrell Edmunds. One brother, Trey, is a running back for the Saints, while the other, Terrell, is a draft-eligible safety who also played for the Hokies. Projected: potential top 10
2. Roquan Smith, Georgia (6-1, 236): Should be an impact player on Day 1. You won’t see many backs turn the corner on Smith, who quickly shuts down angles specifically and plays in general. He’s also effective snuffing out intermediate passes. Given those skills and his size, he’ll likely fit best on the weak side in a 4-3 front but won’t likely come off the field very often. He can also get to the quarterback and was especially effective on delayed blitzes up the middle for the Bulldogs. The Butkus Award winner in 2017 as the nation’s best linebacker and also the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, Smith had 61⁄2 sacks and 14 TFLs as a junior. Has a reputation for being smart and a strong leader. He played wide receiver in high school, another indicator of his athleticism. Projected: potential top 10
3. Rashaan Evans, Alabama (6-3, 234): In many ways, his game is similar to Smith’s. Some NFL teams might prefer Evans’ superior size, which probably makes him a bit more scheme diverse, but Smith is the better athlete. Evans had six sacks and 13 TFLs in his senior season despite dealing with a nagging groin injury. Improved pass coverage was a personal point of emphasis in 2017. He also shows up on special teams. Projected: Round 1
4. Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State (6-4, 256): His performance at the scouting combine, where he excelled in drills and posted 4.65-second 40 speed with a 391⁄2-inch vertical leap, might have solidified him as a first-rounder. Smooth, instinctive athlete who appears comfortable whether closing on the ball, blitzing or dropping into coverage. Forced four fumbles last season. Playing eight-man football in high school — 419 people live in his hometown of Riggins, Idaho — doubtless contributed to his comfort level while covering big areas and tackling in the open field. Models his game after Panthers star Luke Kuechly, but Vander Esch’s frame could make him even more versatile, especially for teams that favor 3-4 fronts. Projected: Round 1-2
5. Malik Jefferson, Texas (6-3, 236): The Big 12 defensive player of the year in 2017, his fluid movement and strength led to 110 tackles last season. Athleticism allows him to attack effectively when he’s aimed in correct direction but can work against him when he fails to correctly diagnose a play. Projected: Round 2-3
6. Jerome Baker, Ohio State (6-1, 229): Skews small but athleticism offsets that to a degree. Would be nice to see him make more impact plays. Probably not ready to start right away but has the upside to eventually be a three-down player. Projected: Round 2-3
7. Shaquem Griffin, Central Florida (6-1, 227): When he was 4 years old, his left hand was amputated because of a birth defect. With the aid of a prosthetic device, he managed 20 reps on the bench press at the combine. It was enough to make him a viral star even before he posted a stunning 4.38 time in the 40. Griffin quickly earned the respect of NFL players — his twin brother, Shaquill, is a Seahawks cornerback — and will further inspire once he reaches his next destination. The feel-good component aside, no one should forget that Griffin, the American Athletic Conference defensive player of the year in 2016 (92 tackles, 111⁄2 sacks), is a baller. His real limitation could be an undersized frame. Projected: Round 3-4
8. Josey Jewell, Iowa (6-1, 235): Didn’t test well at the combine (4.82 40), which doesn’t help with his size. But his game and production (nearly 400 tackles the past three years) have drawn comparisons to Dallas’ Sean Lee. Jewell’s instincts and intelligence must continue to compensate for his physical shortcomings. First-rate nickname: The Outlaw. Projected: Round 3-4
Teams in need of linebackers
1. Steelers: Their once-promising season went south after Ryan Shazier’s injury in December. The rangy Shazier might never return and certainly won’t in 2018.
2. 49ers: The future (and freedom) of Reuben Foster, a 2017 first-rounder, is very much in doubt. For a team that wants athletic three-down backers such as Seattle’s, Smith must look very attractive.
3. Chargers: One way to upgrade the AFC’s worst run defense would be to plug in a more athletic linebacker and/or one more reliable than injury-prone Denzel Perryman.
4. Colts: Already among his numerous problem spots, general manager Chris Ballard must further consider recalibrating the position as the defense switches to a 4-3.
5. Lions: As he looks more for 2017 first-rounder Jarrad Davis, new coach Matt Patricia might also decide he needs the versatility and interchangeability players such as Edmunds and Vander Esch provide.
Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, considered one of the best linebacker prospects in the draft, is only 19 years old.