No shortage of standout LBs at NFL combine

Ryan Wood
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Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland

INDIANAPOLIS - The NFL scouting combine officially started Tuesday with orientation and medical exams at Lucas Oil Stadium, but Wednesday is when the fun really begins.

At least it does for the media.

Starting Wednesday, coaches and general managers will be scooted through the East Club Lounge. Prospects also will make their way through the room, starting with offensive linemen, running backs and special-teams players Wednesday. Quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends will meet with the media Thursday, defensive linemen and linebackers Friday and defensive backs Saturday. On-field workouts begin Friday and will be televised on the NFL Network.

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Here’s a look at five intriguing defensive prospects who will partake in the combine activities this week:

Reggie Ragland, ILB, Alabama

Ragland enters the draft with no shortage of accolades. He was a unanimous first-team all-American at Alabama last season, the SEC defensive player of the year, a Dick Butkus Award finalist.

Here’s another one: He's the top pure inside linebacker prospect on the board.

Ragland is the type of linebacker who could make Ray Nitschke smile. He won national championships at Alabama in his freshman and senior seasons, serving as a defensive captain last fall. After recording 93 tackles, including 10½ for loss, and 1½ sacks as a junior, Ragland decided to return for his senior year instead of declaring for the draft early. He improved those numbers last fall, finishing with 102 tackles, 6½ for loss, and 2½ sacks.

A blend of instincts, toughness and athleticism makes Ragland a safe projection for the NFL. He’s a different player than Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews — Ragland doesn’t have near the pass-rush ability — but can provide the sideline-to-sideline range that made Matthews successful in the middle of the Packers' defense.

Ragland’s coverage ability will be scrutinized, though he did have seven defended passes last season. It also will be important for him to run well in Indianapolis, and his weigh-in will be monitored closely after he hit the scales at 259 pounds at the Senior Bowl.

Darron Lee, LB, Ohio State

In just two seasons, Darron Lee became one of the Big Ten’s top defensive playmakers. Lee replaced Ryan Shazier — a linebacker who drew plenty of interest from the Packers during the pre-draft process two years ago — and started all 15 games for the Buckeyes as a true freshman in 2014.

He helped guide Ohio State to a national championship in 2014, earning freshman all-American honors with 80 tackles, 16½ 1/2 for loss, 6½ sacks and two interceptions, as well as Sugar Bowl MVP honors in Ohio State’s national semifinal win against Alabama. In 2015, Lee was named second-team all-Big Ten with 66 tackles, 11½ for loss and 4½ sacks.

Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee

Lee is virtually the opposite of Ragland. While Ragland excels with his strength against the run, Lee is a hyper-athletic but undersized linebacker who covers like a safety. Ragland was born to play linebacker; Lee played quarterback, receiver and defensive back in high school while also returning punts and kicks.

Lee played outside linebacker in Ohio State’s 4-3 defense, but he could fill an inside linebacker spot in a 3-4 scheme. He profiles as a similar prospect to Arizona’s Deone Bucannon or Carolina’s Shaq Thompson, an undersized linebacker who can flat-out cover the pass and chase ball carriers.

While most linebacker prospects are hoping to post a good time in the 40-yard dash, Lee’s more important drill will be the bench press. He must add strength for the next level.

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Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame

There isn’t a better cautionary tale for the dangers of high-profile prospects playing in bowl games than Jaylon Smith.

Smith, the Butkus Award winner, was one of the best players in college football last season. A consensus all-American, Smith exceeded 110 tackles in each of the past two seasons. He had 115 tackles, nine tackles for loss and one sack last fall. Smith was on his way to becoming a top five pick — maybe No. 1 overall — until tearing up his knee against Ohio State early in the Fiesta Bowl.

Now it’s uncertain where Smith will be drafted, though it’s still a near certainty he’ll be taken somewhere in the first round. Smith’s game is not unlike how the Packers used Matthews as an inside linebacker for the last season and a half. He’s equally talented rushing the passer, defending the run or dropping into coverage. Smith, at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, has tremendous range as an inside linebacker, but also can be disruptive on the edge.

Mississippi defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche

Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Ole Miss

If talent were the only factor, Nkemdiche would be a top-10 pick in this year’s draft. Maybe top five.

The consensus top high school prospect nationally in 2013 did nothing to diminish that acclaim on a college field. Nkemdiche had six sacks and 16 tackles for loss in three seasons, earning multiple second-team all-American and first-team all-SEC honors last season. But Nkemdiche comes with significant red flags off the field.

In December, he broke his fourth-floor hotel window and fell out. Police found marijuana in the room, and Nkemdiche was charged with possession. The off-field incident heightens the importance of his interviews with teams this week. Yes, he’ll have some explaining to do. If he interviews well, Nkemdiche could be drafted well before the Packers get a chance.

At 6-foot-3 and 296 pounds, he’s versatile enough to play multiple positions on both odd and even defensive fronts. He has a special blend of power and athleticism that can allow him to rush the passer from the interior, a rare and important trait in today’s NFL.

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Noah Spence, OLB, Eastern Kentucky

Spence is another explosive athlete who would be a lock for a much higher spot in the first round if not for off-field red flags.

A five-star high school prospect, Spence started his career at Ohio State and played in 11 games as a true freshman. He had just one sack in his first season, but exploded for 7½ sacks and 14 tackles for loss as a sophomore in 2013. He was destined for a huge junior season at Ohio State, but he was permanently banned from the Big Ten after multiple failed drug tests.

Spence, who later admitted to using Ecstasy, needed a soft place to land. He found a home at Eastern Kentucky, a small school where he could remake himself into a first-round prospect. He certainly did that on the field, finishing last season with 11½ sacks and 22½ tackles for loss.

At 6-foot-3, 254 pounds, Spence’s burst off the edge makes him one of the most dynamic pass-rushing talents in the draft. But he’ll have to interview well this week. and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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