Edmunds, Smith lead linebacker prospects

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS / BASEBALL - Nate Davis

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.

BRIAN SPURLOCK/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Vir­ginia Tech’s Tre­maine Edmunds, con­sid­ered one of the best linebacker prospects in the draft, is only 19 years old.

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