Linebacker has somewhat ironically been an afterthought of many analysts in the first round the past couple of years, with it having a perceived declining value much like running back or guard. Still, teams draft linebackers high in the first round all the time, and impact players are found early at a position that sees a high percentage of snaps in the NFL. We continue our combine preview series today with 10 linebackers who have a chance to raise or hurt their stock in Indianapolis during the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine.
Catch up on our NFL Combine preview material here:
- 10 offensive linemen to watch
- 10 running backs to watch
- 10 wide receivers/tight ends to watch
- 10 edge rushers to watch
- 10 defensive tackles to watch
- 3 players that may impress, 3 that may disappoint
Jack Cichy, LB, Wisconsin
Jack Cichy, based on tape, play, and athleticism alone, would be getting first round talk alongside Roquan Smith and Tremaine Edmunds in a perfect world. In our imperfect world, he has suffered more serious injuries than he had seasons of college football. While that normally means the combine medicals are going to be big, it’s one of those cases where it might not even be enough. If Cichy is healthy enough to measure and run drills, he may be able to entice a team to take him in the draft despite the risks, so it’s a big week for him.
Leighton Vander Esch, ILB, Boise State
Leighton Vander Esch is drawing comparisons to recently enshrined Hall of Famer and RAS superstar Brian Urlacher, so no pressure to put up historic numbers in the combine, destroy drills, get drafted in the first round, and completely change the game of football.
Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech
The son of a Pro Bowl tight end and brother to a Saints running back and another VT defensive prospect in this class, Tremaine Edmunds is one of the youngest prospects in the history of the NFL. We don’t normally get to see 19 year olds compete at the combine, so that by itself makes this interesting. He’s being touted as an elite athlete with top-tier tools, and if he puts up those types of numbers coupled with his prototypical NFL size, Edmunds could market himself as the first linebacker taken.
Shaquem Griffin, LB, UCF
Griffin is one of my favorite players in this draft. With what looks to be elite athleticism (as an aside, his twin brother posted an elite RAS of 9.85 out of 10 in 2017), a motor that never runs cold, and a die hard attitude that never quits, you’d wonder why he isn’t talked about more consistently in Day 2 like his brother. And I’ll tell you, it all boils down to a single physical limitation. Though the NFL has been trending towards smaller and more athletic linebackers for years, Griffin could measure in under 215 pounds. Taking on NFL tackles at that size could be problematic, and attempting to take down ball carriers even if you get there quickly could be an issue. Some also have concerns about tackling ability as a pro, what with only having one hand.
Fred Warner, ILB, BYU
Warner has been shooting up draft boards as of late, and he’s a guy who has a lot to gain with a strong combine showing. Coverage ability is one of the most prized abilities of an NFL defender, and you rarely get it to the level that is being talked about with Warner. With a nose for the football and what projects to be good athleticism, you could see Warner continue to rise if he shows both of those traits at the combine.
Shaun Dion Hamilton, LB, Alabama
While Reuben Foster got all the hype in 2017 and Rashaan Evans is in 2018, Shaun Dion Hamilton has been a staple in Alabama’s defense. With good football IQ and coming from Alabama, you’d expect to see him rated higher than a undrafted free agent (UDFA) prospect, but it’s questions about his size (he could measure in below six foot) and athleticism that are keeping him out of much consideration. I heard him called a less-athletic Stephen Tulloch the other day and felt it was a good way to describe him. He’ll find a spot in the NFL, but the combine is the only way he’s going to show he’s draftable. If he measures like he’s projected to, it’ll be time to start making a list of teams for UDFA.
Josey Jewell, LB, Iowa
Jewell actually received a little bit of first-round hype this offseason, but any time you start comparing him to other prospects side-by-side you start to see what look like athletic limitations, and that’s simply going to limit his value in the draft. Still, I’ve heard some lately praising those very traits, and this feels like one of those sleepers who could surprise everyone with a stronger-than-advertised combine, so stay tuned.
Azeem Victor, LB, Washington
One of the top linebacker prospects entering the year, it’s tough to see which part of the combine matters most for Azeem Victor. Is it the weigh in? He’s shorter than you’d like and played at a higher weight than he probably should have in 2017. Is it the measurements? With that added weight, Victor looked slower and less explosive as he had in the past. Or is it the interviews? Victor has always been an aggressive player, but he also had academic issues to start his college career and suspension issues throughout, including a big one this past season for DUI.
Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
Of those I’ve talked to, there’s a huge gap among where people view Malik Jefferson in the draft due to sometimes questionable effort and instincts. Everyone pretty much agrees that he’s going to knock the combine out of the park, as he’s projected to run as low as the mid 4.5s, and only one I spoke to mentioned the 4.7s as a possibility.
However, I doubt even an elite showing in the measurements will help his once-first-round stock much if he can’t show better abilities in the drills and answer to his lack of comparable production in interviews.
Jason Cabinda, LB, Penn State
Cabinda is a guy I didn’t continue to watch after the first couple games. His athletic traits appear very limited, and it’s difficult to project him in a successful role in the NFL. He’s likely an undrafted free agent this season. So why mention him here? Well, Cabinda is a smart player who is known as a good leader. I expect him to kill the interview process and sell himself as a core special teamer with a high motor who is always ready to learn. In other words, just the type of player Bob Quinn is likely to bring into camp.