Ranking the NFL draft prospects: Linebackers

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster is the top-ranked inside linebacker in the 2017 NFL draft.

The Journal Sentinel’s Bob McGinn assesses the top linebackers in the NFL draft April 27-29. Included is each player’s height, weight, 40-yard time and projected round.

Inside linebackers

1. REUBEN FOSTER, Alabama (6-0, 231, 4.65, 1): Started 24 of 50 games at MLB.  “Love him,” said one scout. “You talk about explosive, he and Jarrad Davis are train wrecks coming at you. He can run you down and he will kill you. He is so physical. … My problem is the mental part. He’s been in the same system with Nick (Saban) so he can regurgitate that. But he’s probably going to need somebody next to him to tell him how to play. Two years ago he led the team in MA’s (missed assignments). He’s also had stingers, shoulders, a lot of injuries. He delivers a lot of punishment and he takes a lot of punishment.” Recovering from rotator cuff surgery in January. Scored 9 on the Wonderlic intelligence test. “He likes football,” said another scout. “He can do it.” From Auburn, Ala. Was shot in the back at 18 months by his father while being held by his mother. The father finally was arrested in 2013. Has admitted flunking a drug test. Was sent home from the combine after blowing up at a hospital worker. “Look, there will be maintenance, but I think he will be OK,” said a third scout. “I trust him. I’m more worried about the shoulders.” Finished with 222 tackles (24 for loss) and eight sacks. “Probably the hardest hitter, best range and biggest playmaker of the group,” a fourth scout said. “Not a real bright guy but seems to see the game very, very well. Whether he can hold up is the main concern.”

2. JARRAD DAVIS, Florida (6-1 ½, 236, 4.63, 1): Two-year starter. “My favorite player in the draft,” said one scout. “He pours his heart and soul into the game.” Punishing hitter from Kingsland, Ga. “Safer pick than Reuben Foster,” another scout said. “Jarrad Davis is a phenomenal kid but he has had injuries.” Has undergone two meniscus cartilage knee surgeries. “Love to have him on my team,” said a third scout. “He’ll light your (expletive) up. Got better at gap responsibility and playing the ball, being more disciplined. He’s a south Georgia tough kid. Humble. Better on first and second than third down but he can play all three. I’d take C.J. Mosley over him.” Finished with 205 tackles (20 for loss) and 5 ½ sacks. Wonderlic of 23. “I’m not excited about him,” said a fourth scout. “I love the toughness but not a top athlete. Tight in the hips. Struggles to redirect. There’s some instinct issues, particularly in coverage. He can run, and he hits. Toughness and speed still win the day. I’m not minimizing that. But put him in the 3-4 and he’ll get lost. He’s a ‘will’ linebacker (in a 4-3).”

3. HAASON REDDICK, Temple (6-1 ½, 233, 4.52, 1): Former walk-on cornerback from Camden, N.J., who catapulted from late-round status to the first round in six months. “He’s skyrocketed,” said one scout. “Coming into the year he was a reject. He had a hell of a year. Productive, tough, fast.” Started 29 of 47 games at DE before playing effectively at ILB during the Senior Bowl. “I’d still let him rush outside,” another scout said. “Maybe you leave him as a ‘will’ linebacker and just let him run and chase.” Finished with 147 tackles (46 for loss) and 18 sacks, including 10 ½ in 2016. “He’s a great kid,” said a third scout. “His interview captivates you. It was awesome. He’s Alpha dog. He’s tough. Everything you want in an inside backer.” Weight dropped from 237 at the combine to 230 at pro day. “He can run like a reindeer and plays hard,” a fourth scout said. “I didn’t like his instincts and they rotated him a bunch. I don’t like it when teams do that. They can say they wanted to keep him fresh, but when you have a special player and you’re Temple you don’t take him off the field unless he is really tired. That wasn’t the case. They had a predetermined rotation. That’s always a flag. If you grade the flashes you see why people are excited. He has a high ceiling but he could be a flash in the pan.” Led LBs with an 11-1 broad jump. Wonderlic of 21.

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4. ZACH CUNNINGHAM, Vanderbilt (6-3 ½, 235, 4.67, 2): Led the SEC in tackles the past two seasons. “He’s a modern-day linebacker,” said one scout. “He’s an athlete. Goes sideline to sideline. Probably not as good as Ryan Shazier or Mosley but a step below. It’s not even close to Foster. Foster’s a great player.” Fourth-year junior from Pinson, Ala., with the longest arms (34 3/8 inches) of any LB at the combine. “Unique body type for the position,” said another scout. “Makes a lot of plays, gets around the ball, can run. The question is, how much does he love football and being around it? He’s plenty tough but his body type just doesn’t lend itself to being very, very strong.” Finished with 295 tackles (39 ½ for loss) and six sacks. Compared by one scout to Scott Fujita and K.J. Wright. “Little bit flimsy,” a third scout said. “Doesn’t have a great base.” Wonderlic of 22. “I’m not in with him,” said a fourth scout. “There’s no strength or knock-back power when he tackles.”

5. RAEKWON McMILLAN, Ohio State (6-2, 241, 4.64, 2-3): Scouts appear almost split on whether he has the speed and athleticism to play three downs. “He’s going to have to watch his weight, but at the end of the day I think he can play every down,” said one scout. “Excellent leader. Everybody listens to this guy. Football is very important. He’s a zone coverage guy. Will need some work in man-to-man. Easy mover. A perfect football guy.” Third-year junior with a Wonderlic of 28. “I don’t feel energy coming off him,” another scout said. “He’s a solid. He’ll play. Not a lot of special in him. Not as good as (James) Laurinaitis. He’ll get overdrafted.” Finished with 275 tackles (17 ½ for loss) and six sacks as a two-year starter. “He could be a starter,” said a third scout. “But you’d rather have a better athlete.” From Hinesville, Ga.

6. KENDELL BECKWITH, Louisiana State (6-2, 244, no 40, 3): A 29-game starter. Final season ended with a torn ACL in Game 10. “He’s a dinosaur with an ACL,” said one scout. “He’s going to get discounted (by the knee). He’s got the speed but he’s more of a one-dimensional run thumper.” Finished with 263 tackles (24 ½ for loss) and 7 ½ sacks. “More of a scrape linebacker,” said another scout. “Not a downhill, two-gap, blow-you-up type. Duke Riley, the other linebacker, did most of the calls. Pretty good on the edge when they rush him sometimes. Football’s football, but he has other things that are important to him. Like his horse, his car, his family.” From Clinton, La. “First and second down only,” said a third scout. “If you play zone coverage he can survive just breaking up on things. But if they get him matched up in man coverage it won’t be pretty. It’ll be like (ILB Benardrick) McKinney when Houston played New England.”

7. ALEX ANZALONE, Florida (6-3, 242, 4.65, 3): Joined the Gators along with Jarrad Davis in 2013. After both played as backups for two seasons, Anzalone wound up starting over Davis in ’15 and directing the defense. “I liked him better than Davis,” one scout said. “He’s got more (athleticism).” Suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Game 2, one of his four major injuries in four seasons. “If he passes a physical he’s a good player,” said a second scout. “Boy, is he a good looking kid physically. Super smart. He’ll run your whole defense.” Healthy enough to play just 31 games in four years, starting 10. Finished with 75 tackles (five for loss) and three sacks. “Our staff is OK with the medical,” said a third scout. “That’s why those doctors make all that money. He’s incredibly smart (Wonderlic of 26) with top of the charts football character. More like Kiko Alonso. Plays the game hard. Great athleticism.” From Wyomissing, Pa.

8. ANTHONY WALKER, Northwestern (6-0 ½, 239, 4.64, 4): Fourth-year junior. “He’ll be starting on Sundays,” said one scout. “He is wired exactly the way you want your middle backer to be wired. Better run defender than pass but not a throwaway in the latter area. Just a really solid guy.” Son of a high school coach in Miami. “Brilliant smart (Wonderlic of 29),” another scout said. Finished with 278 tackles (39 ½) for loss and 7 ½ sacks. “He embodies everything Northwestern,” said a third scout. “Tight mover. Good eyes. Can play downhill. Has speed. Run and chase guy. Strong, forceful tackler. There is a degree of tightness within his hips.”

9. BEN GEDEON, Michigan (6-1 ½, 244, 4.79, 5): Thirteen of his 14 starts (in 51 games) came last season. “Active, alert, aggressive,” said one scout. “Made a lot of tackles. Has some problems in space. Short-stepper. Needs to gather to change direction.” Played behind Jake Ryan in 2014, backed up again in ’15 before leading the team in tackles in ’16 playing inside in a 3-4. “Earns your respect,” said another scout. “Got instincts, feel, pride, intensity. Outstanding special teams player.” Finished with 176 tackles (21 for loss) and 6 ½ sacks. From Hudson, Ohio.

10. BLAIR BROWN, Ohio (5-11 ½, 239, 4.64, 6): Three-year starter with a 38-inch vertical jump. “He’s a tough (expletive),” one scout said. “He has some jolt. Just doesn’t use his hands. Better in man than zone. His eyes are inconsistent. Some question his smarts but he will hit the (expletive) out of you. Not a great interview. Can really run.” Three-year starter with 265 tackles (24 ½ for loss) and 5 ½ sacks. “At the end of the day he’s a small man,” said another scout. “He is a big hitter.” From Moreno Valley, Calif.

OTHERS: Tanner Vallejo, Boise State; Havea Langi, Brigham Young; Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee; Calvin Munson, San Diego State; Brooks Ellis, Arkansas; Jordan Evans, Oklahoma; Riley Bullough, Michigan State; Hardy Nickerson, Illinois; Ben Boulware, Clemson; Keith Kelsey, Louisville; Kevin Davis, Colorado State.

MCGINN'S DRAFT SERIESPosition-by-position analysis, rankings

NFL DRAFTRound-by-round Packers picks

RELATEDComplete Packers draft coverage

Outside linebackers

1. CHARLES HARRIS, Missouri (6-2 ½, 251, 4.81, 1): Fourth-year junior. “More about athleticism and finesse,” said one scout. “Strength is a distant three. Makes disruptive plays. Can get in and out of trouble. He’ll go around a block, back out of a block and get to a play. As far as wanting to be a steady, fundamental player at the point of attack, he is not that. He really, really did get knocked around a lot. Not as explosive as (Danielle) Hunter was out of LSU but his pass-rush savvy is considerably more advanced. Hunter would be a much better run defender.” Played behind Shane Ray and Markus Golden in 2014 before starting in 2015-’16. “He’s a relentless player who has great get-off,” said another scout. “Didn’t test well. Better football player than tester.” Finished with 136 tackles (34 ½ for loss) and 18 sacks. “The 40 time is an issue,” a third scout said. “He wins with his athleticism (vertical jump of 37 ½). His lack of power is a major concern.” Arms (32 3/8), hands (9 5/8) were average size. Wonderlic of 23. “He’s really just a DPR (designated pass rusher) right now,” a fourth scout said. “Undersized, doesn’t play the run very well. Just flash.” From Kansas City.

2. TAKK McKINLEY, UCLA (6-2, 250, 4.60, 1-2): Two-year starter at DE. “He is a tenacious, 100 mile an hour, balls to the wall guy,” said one scout. “Football is his life. He’ll work at his weaknesses. He ran a 10.7 100 meters in high school. Great first step. He can play outside backer.” Others say he should continue playing from a three-point stance. “He can’t play linebacker,” said another scout. “He’s too stiff. He has get-off, strength, quickness, motor.” Just 6-2 but has the longest arms at the position (34 ¾). “His arm length saves him,” said the first scout. Underwent shoulder surgery following the combine after playing hurt for two years. “He might not be ready until September,” one scout said. “I’m trying to figure out who takes him in the first round knowing that.” Finished with 102 tackles (29 for loss) and 17 sacks in 34 games (24 starts). “Not as big as you’d like but this guy is disruptive and slippery,” another scout said. “He gets a lot out of himself. But, the tighter quarters he’s in, the less productive he is.” From Richmond, Calif.

3. DEREK BARNETT, Tennessee (6-3, 262, 4.86, 1-2): Third-year junior started 36 of 39 games. “Interesting study,” said one scout. “Played down but outside backer for us. Great kid. Dirty tough. Has balance, agility, strength. I don’t know if he has enough length.” Arms were just 32 1/8 and he lacks speed. “Like him, but I just don’t see traits,” said a second scout. “He wins due to effort. I’ve been burned by those kinds of guys in the past so I’m a little bit gun-shy.” Finished with 197 tackles (52 for loss) and 33 sacks, two more than Reggie White’s school record. “Only wins from the edge,” a third scout said. “I don’t see any counter. I see special instincts to be able to time the snap and get off the ball. Average speed, average power.” From Nashville. “He’s ahead of everybody in know-how,” said a fourth scout. “He is a tremendous worker. You’re going to get something out of him. But I think the game’s going to catch up to him some on our level.”

4. T.J. WATT, Wisconsin (6-4 ½, 251, 4.67, 1-2): Fourth-year junior and brother of J.J., Houston’s elite DT. “Not as genetically gifted as that one but as far as making the most of what he does have, yeah,” said one scout. “He’s only played one year of outside backer but he looks like he’s been playing there his whole life. He’s strong, smart and runs well. Love the way the guy plays.” Led OLBs in the Wonderlic (29), a pair of agility runs, the broad jump and hand size (11). “He’s a true 3-4 guy,” another scout said. “Looks the part. Just not a dynamic pass rusher. His name might be getting him a whole lot more play than anything else.” Finished with 70 tackles (17 for loss) and 11 ½ sacks. “Needs to play with more strength,” said a third scout. “On the ground too much. Has tremendous ethic. Athletically really tested well.” From Pewaukee. “More of a pass rusher than a run defender,” a fourth scout said. “What are his enemies? I’d say size and strength. He’s got a push-pull thing where he kind of jolts you and as you set your feet he grabs the outside shoulder and pulls himself beyond you. That’s his signature rush.”

5. RYAN ANDERSON, Alabama (6-2, 251, 4.83, 2): Fifth-year senior didn’t start on the strong-side until 2016. “Everybody in the locker room at Alabama respects him and is afraid of him,” said one scout. “He’s a man playing. I’d take him in a heartbeat. He’s got short arms (31 ½). One of those guys that beats the measurables. (Adrian) Hubbard was a better athlete, longer, better body. He’s not even close to Anderson.” Has undergone shoulder surgery. Was arrested on domestic violence charge in 2015. “He’s like a 1970s NFL defensive player,” said another scout. “He would clothesline you if you let him get away with it. Love the tone he sets. You talk to all the Alabama guys, they’re like, ‘He’s the guy.’ Surly on the field, but in a good way.” Finished with 128 tackles (40 for loss) and 19 ½ sacks. “I question if he can play,” said a third scout. “He’s an (expletive), he’s short, he’s 4.88. Where are the special traits to say this guy’s a starting player in the league? He’s going to meet the NFL tackles. He’s not playing the weak sisters from Vandy, Tennessee or Florida.” From Daphne, Ala.

6. TYUS BOWSER, Houston (6-2 ½, 246, 4.69, 2): Came from way back in the pack with a terrific senior season followed by an impressive week at the Senior Bowl. “Very skilled and can run,” said one scout. “Got some pass-rush ability. He’s going to need some time to figure it out.” Almost never played but was a member of the Cougars’ basketball team for two seasons. “He’s got speed, power and a knack,” another scout said. “Great with his hands.” Smooth, limber athlete with a vertical jump of 37 ½. “My question going into the season was physical nature,” said a third scout. “He kind of answered that at the Senior Bowl where he was running down on special teams hitting people. He’s comfortable in space and can rush. I see him as a starter.” Missed five games last season with an orbital fracture suffered in a fight with a teammate. Two-year starter with 136 tackles (27 ½ for loss) and 21 ½ sacks. From Tyler, Texas.

7. DUKE RILEY, Louisiana State (6-0 ½, 231, 4.60, 3): Played special teams for three seasons backing up Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones at weak-side LB. “Deion was much faster than Riley,” said one scout. “He’s not the same athlete. Is he a smarter football player than Deion? Probably.” Started 13 of 50 games, finishing with 144 tackles (10 for loss) and 1 ½ sacks. “I liked him over (Kendell) Beckwith,” said another scout. “Really good instincts, good space play. You’ll always be looking for a little bit better but he’s a dependable player.” Voted LSU’s MVP in 2016. From Buras, La.

8. VINCE BIEGEL, Wisconsin (6-3, 245, 4.69, 3-4): Two scouts said they liked Biegel more than Watt. “Plays hard, technique sound and got a little edge rush,” said one. “Just a solid, overall player. I could see him getting in the second round.” The other scout said his main reservation was Biegel might not be big enough and strong enough. “Overachiever in my opinion,” said a third scout. “Good backup. Like him on my team. His pass-rush production was due more to effort and technique than skill. On the ground a lot. He’s high-effort, tough (expletive), really smart (Wonderlic of 23).” His grandfather, Ken Biegel, was a Hall of Fame head football coach at Manawa, New London and Wisconsin Rapids, where Vince grew up. “He’ll make a 3-4 team on (special) teams,” said a fourth scout. “Great kid. Stiff.” Finished with 191 tackles (39 ½ for loss) and 21 ½ sacks.

9. CARROLL PHILLIPS, Illinois (6-3, 238, 4.63, 4): Non-qualifier in 2011 after committing to Cincinnati. Began career with one junior-college season in ’13 before backing up in 2014-’15 for Illinois. Started at DE in ’16. “He can run, has some explosion and some strength for a 240-pound guy,” said one scout. “Has a hard time controlling his speed. Plays really out of control. Don’t overload him. He has a couple character concerns also so he could be off boards.” From Liberty City neighborhood in Miami. “Tough, tough area,” said another scout. “Older kid. Will be 25 this fall. He’s going to make it but I don’t think he’s smart enough to be a backer.” Was accused of burglary in 10th grade. Police were called twice to referee arguments with girlfriends. Wonderlic of 10. Started 14 of 31 games, finished with 88 tackles (25 ½ for loss) and 12 ½ sacks.

10. DEVONTE FIELDS, Louisville (6-2 ½, 242, 4.69, 4-5): Arrested for marijuana possession shortly after signing with Texas Christian. Started as a freshman and had 10 sacks. Had more legal problems and was dismissed by TCU. Played 2014 in junior college, then registered 10 ½ sacks for the Cardinals in ’15. Posted six sacks as a DE last year. “When he was a freshman at TCU I thought he was going to be something special,” one scout said. “The more I watched this year the less I liked. Needs to play more physical. Good athlete. He can run.” Finished with 165 tackles (51 ½ for loss) and 26 ½ sacks in 43 games (40 starts). Removed from one team’s draft board. “He’s a roll of the dice,” said a second scout. “He’s got the ability. I just don’t know if he’s a good enough kid.” From Fort Worth, Texas.

OTHERS: Josh Carraway, Texas Christian; Jayon Brown, UCLA; Matt Milano, Boston College; Keion Adams, Western Michigan; Marquel Lee, Wake Forest; Pita Taumoepenu, Utah; Samson Ebukam, Eastern Washington; Jimmie Gilbert, Colorado; James Onwualu, Notre Dame; Elijah Lee, Kansas State.


Unsung Hero

Hardy Nickerson, ILB, Illinois: His father, Hardy, concluded his illustrious 16-year career as a MLB with Green Bay in 2002. After generally starting for three seasons at California, the son joined his father, the defensive coordinator for the Illini, as a graduate transfer and led the team in tackles. Nickerson (5-11 ½, 230) is severely undersized and not very fast (4.8). He’ll be in a camp.

Scouts' Nightmare

Riley Bullough, ILB, Michigan State: Two-year starter. His grandfather, Hank, was the Packers’ defensive coordinator from 1988-’91. Bullough (6-1 ½, 227), a prep quarterback in Traverse City, Mich., might have a better chance at FB, where he played briefly in 2013. He’s an intense competitor but might not have enough size and talent for the NFL.

Packers' Pick to Remember

Hunter Hillenmeyer, OLB, Vanderbilt: Fifth-round pick in 2003. He made the 53-man roster but was cut two days later when injuries struck at wide receiver. The Bears immediately signed him to their practice squad. Hillenmeyer started 69 of 101 games for Chicago over the next eight years, finishing with 288 tackles and seven sacks.

Quote to Note

NFL personnel man: “All the teams that are winning – the New Englands, the Pittsburghs, the Seattles, the Green Bays – their coaches aren’t involved in the selection process. Let the coaches coach and the scouts scout. I don’t do this for a hobby. I’m a professional evaluator. They’re professional coaches.”

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