NFL

2016 Off-Ball Linebacker Class: Putting Linebacker Back on the Map?

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Off-ball linebackers have been under a siege of sorts in recent years in terms of draft value. Despite the fact that they are usually the leaders of the defense, there haven’t been many of them selected in the first round. In 2015, Stephone Anthony and Shaq Thompson were the only off-ball linebackers selected in the first round and both were selected after pick No. 24.

Nevertheless, the 2016 class could be the group that breaks that trend as the class is littered with talent that transcends schemes. You have athletic linebackers who can flow sideline to sideline, the downhill thumpers and the intelligent linebackers who are never in the wrong spot.

Now, to be a top-15 type of talent as an off-ball linebacker the player has to play all three downs. He must be able to shed blockers and be a force in the run game, but he must also be able to drop and cover tight ends and running backs in the passing game.

At the moment, there appears to two linebackers who have the potential to fit that mold.

The first is UCLA’s Myles Jack, the versatile and explosive athlete who has spent time at running back and linebacker. As a linebacker, Jack is everything you want and more. He comes downhill with bad intentions and he can flow sideline to sideline and make plays out of his responsibility. What truly sets Jack apart from his contemporaries is his ability in coverage. Jack has fluid hips and great foot speed to stick with whoever he is asked to cover. UCLA has even asked him to line up against opposing slot receivers in man coverage, which goes to show just how talent Jack is.

All Jack needs to prove this year is his ability to stack and shed at the point of attack on a consistent basis. If he can do that, you will see an off-ball linebacker go in the top-15 in the 2016 NFL draft.

The other rare talent in the 2016 off-ball linebacker class is Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith. Like Jack, he combines incredible athleticism and stellar instincts to make a complete linebacker. Smith is a sideline to sideline player who closes on a ball carrier quicker than any other player in this draft. If Smith has a direct route to the ball carrier, he is going to get there every time.

The difference in Smith and Jack is that Smith is much better at getting off blocks, while Jack is more adept at coverage. it will likely come down to what teams value more as to who will get selected sooner.

After Jack and Smith, there is the Chuck Bednarik, Lombardi and Bronco Nagurski award winner Scooby Wright. He is the most productive defensive player in college football as he finished with 163 tackles, 27 for loss and 15 sacks. Wright is a very good blitzer who knows how to attack and penetrate his gap. Wright has stellar instincts that allow him to make up for his less than stellar athleticism. Because of his limited athleticism, Wright will likely be a day-two pick at best.

The next player you have to look it is Reggie Ragland from Alabama, who is known for producing talented linebackers. Ragland is a downhill thumper who will come with a bang. He stacks and shed extremely well and he loves to create contact. Despite his size and athleticism, he is better in coverage than many would expect. Ragland may be someone who rises because of his production at a big school like Alabama.

One of the most talented linebackers in this class is Ohio State’s Darron Lee. He may be the most athletic linebacker in the nation and he jumps around blocks extremely well. Lee is fantastic in coverage because of his mobility. Unlike most of the other linebackers, Lee is a very good pass-rusher who can win off the edge as well. Lee looks like a prototypical Will linebacker who could excel in a LaVonte David type of role.

The last linebacker who deserves recognition might not even be a linebacker in the NFL. USC’s Su’a Cravens may have the best instincts in the entire class to go along with a nose for the ball. Cravens isn’t as athletic as many would hope, but his aggressiveness and ability to read an offense more than make up for it. Cravens may end up as a safety in the NFL, but he could be a Will linebacker as well. Whatever the case, Cravens has the ability to truly succeed at the next level.


About John Owning

John Owning

John Owning is a NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has years of experience covering the NFL, NFL draft and NCAA football. John's work has been featured on the Bleacher Report and DraftBreakdown.com