As I enter the final grading process based on game tape, I’ve come to realize that this year’s inside linebacker class is very even at the top. A case can be made that one of four players will be the first one taken in April. Based on schemes and current depth charts around the league, it’s tough to come up with a clear cut top guy at the position. Below are the four names I think are in the running. Each of them earns a top grade a different aspect of the position that, again based on schemes and depth chaerts, will be weighed differently across the 32 war rooms.
Top Athlete: Alec Ogletree – Georgia – 6’3/232
The former safety has been receiving criticism from my end for a long time. Each time I watch the talented but underachieving Bulldogs defense on tape, Ogletree jumps out at me in two ways. One good, one bad.
Top end speed, agility, and reaction. Closes a 5-10 yard window quicker than anyone in this class. An easy, fluid mover in coverage with fast-twitch hips. Physical tackler that knows how to finish a play when he has his weight under him. Struggles mightily against oncoming blockers. Minimal physical presence. Gets locked on to with ease and cannot free himself. A liability against the inside rushing game. The decision makers will fall in love with Ogletree’s top tier speed and quickness they see on film. As much as I think he can’t handle the inside game at the next level, I’m confident some coach will be assured he can work with him. He can be a top 15 guy. He won’t be near there on my board, but in a speed game, I can understand the infatuation.
Top Versatility: Kevin Reddick – North Carolina – 6’2/246
Watching Reddick on tape is a chore. He is all over the field. He does everything from controlling the inside running lanes to putting his hand in the dirt outside the tackle on passing downs. He can do it all at a high level.
Quick and savvy. Moves towards the action right away, rarely fooled. Can dance around blocks to miss contact as well as take linemen head on to plug the hole. Creates a nice impact upon engagement. The best blitzing linebacker in this class, whether from the inside or out. Agile hips and feet. Does not bring that athleticism when he drops in to coverage. Tries to read the quarterback too often, loses track of the receivers around him. Will overpursue at times, creating massive cutback lanes. A big no-no inside. Teams love to bring in rookies that can fill multiple roles. Reddick is an inside linebacker but will have no issues playing outside. He is a huge mismatch for backs to block when he blitzes. He can be too strong for some, and too quick for others. Reddick is a guy always around the ball that will go higher in the draft that many think. He does too many things very well.
Top Physical Presence: Kevin Minter – LSU – 6’1/245
LSU is always stacked with defensive talent. However this year a lot of their prospects are based on upside that need time to physically develop. Minter, however, stands out on tape with his NFL-ready body and power with surprising quicks and pursuit ability.
Big time presence against blockers and ball carriers. Often the guy that send the joly to an opponent. Creates tremendous power from his lower half. Stays low and balanced. Has more lateral range than you initially think. Stable athlete that can play strong inside and out. Can retreat in to deep coverage fast. Not the most instinctive linebacker. Fooled by counters, playaction. Takes a lot of false steps, playing a lot of recovery football. May not be a three down linebacker.
Minter will be sought after by teams looking to beef up with run defense. He will have no issues making an impact there right away. He can take on, and get rid of blocks. He can finish a play. He can play fast enough to defend the outside game as well. However with the NFL becoming such a passing league, that impact against the run may not be as important as it was 5-6 years ago.
Top Instincts/Football IQ: Manti Te’o – Notre Dame – 6’2/255
The love for Te’o got a little out of hand by the media, and therefore public opinion, during the 2012 season. At no point was he a top 10 prospect, let alone top 5. His story has been well documented but I am keeping my evaluation based off of game tape.
Consistently moving in the right direction as the ball is being snapped. Gets himself and others in to position. Had a lot of control of a very good Notre Dame defense. Great tackler that uses the combination of power and form. Strong hands that can get rid of blockers. Improved his range and ability to swivel his hips in coverage. Explosive in a five yard window. Still lacks the speed you want out of a three down linebacker. Heavy feet. Won’t reach the sidelines fast enough.
Te’o is going to be a good linebacker at the next level. Physically, he does well enough. Mentally, he is very intelligent and diagnoses with the best of them. The problem, however, is he will be learning a new scheme with new players against faster competition. That mental advantage may not be there right away. Put that on top of his lack of top tier speed and quickness could force his grade down a significant amount.