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2019 NFL draft: 7 sleeper linebackers, safeties that can help the Lions

A look deeper in the 2019 NFL Draft.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

For this week’s theme, we focus on gap integrity, and the Detroit Lions defense’s ability (or inability) to close those gaps on defense, especially against the run. The run defense has looked much better with the addition of Damon “Snacks” Harrison, as the Lions were most recently able to shut down the daunting Carolina Panthers rushing attack, and hold the Bears in check twice, but stopping the run still remains a concern.

With guys like Snacks, A’Shawn Robinson and Da’Shawn Hand occupying blockers in the trenches, it’s up to the Lions’ linebackers and box DBs to maintain gap integrity and fill in the necessary gaps to shut down the run game.

Previous reading:

My plan is to extend off of Kent’s draft articles and throw in some extra, possibly under-the-radar names. I’ll start with linebackers and work my way into safeties.

Linebackers

T.J. Edwards (Wisconsin) | 6-foot-1, 242 pounds

Edwards is one of my favorites, and one of my top linebackers in this class that wasn’t covered in Kent’s article. His football IQ and understanding of offenses are among the best in this class. In the run game, Edwards is quick to diagnose plays and shoot gaps. He has some pop in his hands and is generally able to shed blocks fairly well.

In pass coverage, Edwards is instinctive with a good feel for routes developing in front of him in zone coverage. He may not test well and might have his fair share of struggles playing man coverage in the NFL, however.

I really like the idea of Edwards in a Lions uniform, specifically as the MIKE. This would allow the Lions to move Jarrad Davis over to possibly share weakside duties, along with using his speed and relentlessness as an occasional pass rusher—a role that he’s shown some success throughout his young career.

Joe Giles-Harris (Duke) | 6-foot-2, 240 pounds

Giles-Harris is a guy that I hyped up quite a bit earlier in the season and highlighted him during Week 2 of my NFL Draft Watch series (RIP). I may have overestimated his athleticism on second watch, but his instincts in pass coverage and ability to quickly diagnose plays are what stand out the most with JGH.

Testing will be important for Giles-Harris, because I think there are few flaws to his game. In terms of filling gaps and playing the run, Giles-Harris is very disciplined and positions himself well laterally and attacking the gaps, but he could use some work sifting through traffic and around blockers to get to the ball carrier.

It’s early, but Giles-Harris is currently top-six on my off-ball linebacker list and likely has a shot at hearing his name called somewhere between the second and fourth round. This LB class is pretty thin near the top, but there will be a ton of names to choose from in the middle rounds of the draft, which is where I think the Lions should spend their resources on the position if they choose to draft one or two.

Dakota Allen (Texas Tech) | 6-foot-1, 235 pounds

Allen has had a very intriguing college career to date with some serious ups and downs. Some of you may know him from the hit show, Last Chance U. Allen is a straight-A student with a 4.0 GPA and is the beloved captain of the Red Raiders defense. As a redshirt freshman, Allen was an integral part of TTU’s defense and amassed 87 total tackles and two interceptions in 12 games played. During the following summer, Allen was charged with a second-degree felony burglary of a habitation charge, which he admitted to and was immediately expelled from the university.

Allen’s charges were eventually dropped in exchange for community service and other requirements. The crime was deemed completely out of Allen’s character, but he owned up to his mistakes and transferred to a small school and played out his sophomore season with East Mississippi Community College. Heading into the following year, Allen received multiple offers to return to the higher ranks, including one from his former team, and decided to re-join the Red Raiders squad, where he was immediately voted team captain and earned back the respect from his teammates.

On the field, Allen is a heat-seeking missile and loves to hit. He plays hard, is relentless in pursuit and is extremely aggressive in the run game. That aggressiveness doesn’t often turn into recklessness, though. He’s shown great discipline and diagnoses well against the run. Allen struggles at times with his angles and sometimes takes the longer path to the ball carrier, which can make a huge difference, especially since he doesn’t appear to be a great athlete.

Kendall Joseph (Clemson) | 6-foot-0, 225 pounds

Joseph is another undersized linebacker who relies mostly on his athleticism and burst to make plays, but also does a nice job of diagnosing plays and is quick to react off the snap. His explosiveness and lateral speed are big pluses to his game, but finishing the play has been a big problem for him. Joseph’s tackling technique leaves much to be desired. He was pretty horrendous at wrapping up in 2017 and often elects to dive at the ankles. There isn’t much 2018 tape out there on him, so that’s probably the first thing I’m going to look at when it’s available to see if he’s improved in that area of his game.

A versatile weapon, Joseph has been used in coverage and as a blitzer and mostly does an okay job. Due to his size, I think his coverage ability is going to be important for him, because he’s going to struggle taking on blocks in the run game. He should be able to find a role in the NFL whether it’s as a pursuit/coverage linebacker and/or special teams ace.

Bobby Okereke (Stanford) | 6-foot-3, 234 pounds

Of the 10 linebackers I’ve watched so far, Okereke is near the bottom of my list. He has some positive traits that teams are looking for more and more in today’s NFL, which include his impeccable closing speed, explosiveness and rare ability to line up in man coverage.

However, there is a lot of ugliness that comes with his tape, too. Okereke is basically non-existent as a run defender and is too easily erased from the play. His feel for the run game and plays developing in front of him is lacking, and he often decides to just jolt into blockers without a real plan while ball carriers run right by him. He has no go-to moves when it comes to shedding blocks, and decides to lay on blockers rather than fight to disengage.

Safeties

Brandon Jones (Texas) | 6-foot-0, 205 pounds

Brandon Jones played a lot of deep safety for the Longhorns but is a guy that I believe has the traits to play in the box as well. Matt Patricia is a coach that loves to move his defensive backs around and Jones would be a nice fit, as he can play all over the field.

A versatile safety, Jones has desired size for the position and should test well, too, which leads me to believe that he’ll go in the Day 2 range. Jones is rangy with good long speed, and wraps up well in the open field. He does a decent job of attacking downhill in the run game, but could use some work up at the line of scrimmage consistently filling the correct gaps.

J.R. Reed (Georgia) | 6-foot-1, 194 pounds

Though Reed isn’t quite the athlete that Brandon Jones is, he makes up for it with good instincts, quick processing, sure tackling and brute physicality. Reed is also a guy that played mostly deep for the Bulldogs, but I think his skillset translates closer to the line of scrimmage at the next level.

Reed is capable in coverage, and thrives in zone, where he’s able to use his quick feet and knowledge of routes developing in front of him to quickly close the gap and make plays on the ball. My biggest concern with Reed is his inconsistency as a tackler. He tends to go for big shoulder hits and arm tackles rather than wrapping up, which can get a little frustrating to watch.

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