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2018 NFL Draft scouting reports: Inside linebackers

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Misone looks at the men in the middle of the defense and who stacks up as a legitimate NFL prospect.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s inside linebacker crop in the 2018 NFL Draft is one of the more solid groups in recent years. I feel there are more sleepers in this draft than we will see at any other position excluding wide receiver.

There’s a lot of speed in this year’s group. Even with the speed, there are only a few good coverage linebackers in this years draft. The ability is there but the execution is lacking. For the most part, there are a lot of raw linebackers in this class. Still, the ability to read and react is at an all-time high. There are some exceptionally good run defenders and some real tackle machines. One interesting thing about this year’s inside backers is there are quite a few that excel at blitzing.

As is the case every year, I will use my scale to determine individual and overall grades. I have laid out charts to help identify what an overall grade means and where that player falls on the scale. However, a player’s overall grade doesn’t necessarily mean that he will be ranked higher than another player as the ceiling of a player has to be taken into consideration as an athletic player’s overall can get a boost that an average athlete can’t.

The Grades

Overall Meaning Grades
Overall Meaning Grades
50-60 Career Backup/ST D-
61-70 Needs to Devvelop 1-3 yrs D
71-79 Instant Starter/Yr One Contributer C
80-89 Rookie of the Year B
90-100 Rookie All-Pro A

Grades Breakdown

Grade Meaning
Grade Meaning
1 Terrible
2 Bad
3 Poor
4 Needs Attention
5 Below Average
6 Average
7 Above Average
8 Very Good
9 Game Changer
10 Elite

***ALL PLAYER COMPARISONS ARE BASED OFF OF SKILL SET AND BODY TYPES, NOT A PREDICTION OF CAREERS***


Texas LB Malik Jefferson

M. Jefferson

Skill Rating
Skill Rating
Run Defense 8
Block Shed 5
Pass Rush 6
Zone Cover 7
Man Cover 6
Speed 8
Strength 7
Tackle 6
Awareness 6
Motor 9
OVERALL 68

Jefferson excels in coverage. He is often in the right place to make a play on the ball. He is also a really good chase-and-tackle backer. I question his consistency of finishing the tackle. He does a really good job of getting to the backs off the edge but does not always seal the deal. He plays fast and sometimes will overplay the game speed and overrun the play. His ability to recover is very impressive. He is a decent blitzing LB and is likely going to only get better. He has the ability to really put pressure on the quarterback and is not an easy cut. He is a physical player that will stick his nose into any back’s chest no matter the size. His biggest struggle on tape is getting off of blocks, but if you don’t put a hat on him he can be very disruptive.

Player Comparison: New York Giants LB Alec Ogletree

Boise St. LB Leighton Vander Esch

L. Vander Esch

Skill Rating
Skill Rating
Run Defense 9
Block Shed 6
Pass Rush 6
Zone Cover 6
Man Cover 5
Speed 8
Strength 6
Tackle 7
Awareness 7
Motor 10
OVERALL 70

Vander Esch is fan favorite. He has received a lot of praise in the draft community and his story is one of the better stories in the draft. He’s a true underdog story that people love to root for. However, none of that plays a role in how he grades on film. Lucky for him, he grades pretty well. His size really shows up when taking on the blocks of linemen. He’s not the best at shedding from the LB group, but he definitely holds his own. Vander Esch does a really good job putting pressure on the QB and he plays with a high motor. He’s not much of a coverage player, and is a true box defender. You don’t want to get him outside of the box too often. He’s a run stuffer with some pass rush ability.

Player Comparison: Former Green Bay Packers LB A.J. Hawk

Iowa LB Josey Jewell

J. Jewell

Skill Rating
Skill Rating
Run Defense 10
Block Shed 6
Pass Rush 5
Zone Cover 6
Man Cover 4
Speed 6
Strength 6
Tackle 8
Awareness 7
Motor 10
OVERALL 68

This year’s premier tackler. He will instantly upgrade any run defense because of pure effort, field awareness and pursuit. It’s ultimately his bread and butter. Jewell is a bit undersized for what you want from your MLB, but he has the toughness that you love. Outside of his toughness, he is a true on the field leader. He lacks athleticism and coverage ability making him more of a two-down extraordinaire, but what he does he does well. He’s not as good of a blitzing LB as some of the other guys in this year’s class — in a large part because of his lack of size, speed, and strength to get off/avoid blocks — but he is exceptional at disguising a delayed blitz to get to the QB on third and long plays. He plays the game like one of the smarter players in this year’s class.

Player Comparison: New Orleans Saints LB Manti Te’o

Georgia LB Roquan Smith

R. Smith

Skill Rating
Skill Rating
Run Defense 10
Block Shed 6
Pass Rush 7
Zone Cover 7
Man Cover 6
Speed 9
Strength 6
Tackle 9
Awareness 8
Motor 10
OVERALL 78

The prototype. That’s about the best way to describe Smith. He is exactly what you want out of your MLB in today’s NFL. He has the speed, the instincts, the toughness, the motor, the ability to cover. He has it all. Speaking of his coverage ability, he is the only backer I scouted this year that could eliminate the back out of the backfield, the tight end, and the slot receiver. He covered them all and did well against them all. There are a few consistency things to clean up, and at times he can get a little grabby — which they are sure to call in the NFL — but overall he was either really solid or above average. There is no linebacker in the draft that plays sideline-to-sideline better than Smith. You would like to see him get a little stronger to shed blocks a little more consistently, but he isn’t bad at it either. My biggest knock on Smith is for a player as talented as him, you would like to see him create more splash plays.

Player Comparison: Former San Francisco 49ers LB Patrick Willis

Virginia LB Micah Kiser

M. Kiser

Skill Rating
Skill Rating
Run Defense 8
Block Shed 7
Pass Rush 6
Zone Cover 7
Man Cover 5
Speed 7
Strength 7
Tackle 7
Awareness 6
Motor 8
OVERALL 68

Kiser is bit underrated. He is the classic do-it-all player. He’s just solid in pretty much every aspect. You would like to see him be better in man-to-man coverage as too often he gets lost on head fakes and stutter steps, but that is probably the biggest knock on him. He can sit in zone all day and do just fine. He’s also one of the better block-shedding linebackers in the draft. He does a great job of keeping his up-field shoulder free and consistently disengages when the ball carrier is approaching. His run defense is superb, and I can really see him being a consistent 130-tackle player in the right scheme. His physicality when he hits a player can be felt just from looking at film — he’s a violent tackler (hitter) — and he plays with a lot of awareness. Kiser is one of the bigger sleepers in this year’s draft and easily my second favorite linebacker behind only UCF LB Shaquem Griffin. I could have very easily made a case for his overall grade to 10 points higher.

Player Comparison: Former San Francisco 49ers LB NaVorro Bowman

Memphis LB Genard Avery

G. Avery

Skill Rating
Skill Rating
Run Defense 9
Block Shed 8
Pass Rush 6
Zone Cover 7
Man Cover 5
Speed 8
Strength 7
Tackle 8
Awareness 7
Motor 8
OVERALL 73

Avery is one of my favorite linebackers to watch. He plays with great speed, physicality and awareness. He is a superb run defender, and really good in coverage. He could use some work in man coverage and loosen his hips. Still, you will see him line up over the slot as he has the ability but needs to work on a few details. But in zone, he is a beast that plays with the quarterback’s head. He might be the best at disengaging blocks. He has a strong thick upper body that is very powerful which allows him to rip free and strongarm linemen. His speed shows up on film when he’s playing sideline-to-sideline as well as when he is chasing down plays 30 yards downfield. I would like to see him not get too aggressive so often as it can and has resulted in him overrunning plays. He also needs to tighten up on his tackle form as he will likely allow better backs to wiggle free.

Player Comparison: Seattle Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner

Washington LB Azeem Victor

A. Victor

Skill Rating
Skill Rating
Run Defense 7
Block Shed 8
Pass Rush 8
Zone Cover 7
Man Cover 5
Speed 6
Strength 7
Tackle 7
Awareness 7
Motor 7
OVERALL 69

Victor is a wild card. On one hand, he appears to be just really solid all around. He’s not the greatest athlete you'll find at the position, but he can do it all. He's a fairly smart LB and can often be seen making extremely accurate pre-snap reads. However, he's maddeningly inconsistent. And you have to wonder if you can truly trust him on a week-to-week basis. Victor can be finesse or can bring the thunder. He's certainly not the biggest MLB prospect, but he plays like he is at times. His size doesn't seem to limit his ability. His motor isn't always there, and it shows up on film. He's an intriguing prospect because of his potential, but as i always say... Potential gets coaches fired. Production gets extensions. I like Victor a lot nonetheless. He has second-round potential, but he needs to show the same effort more often. He is a straight up baller.

Player Comparison: Tampa Bay Buccaneers LB Kwon Alexander

Virginia Tech LB Tremaine Edmunds

T. Edmunds

Skill Rating
Skill Rating
Run Defense 9
Block Shed 8
Pass Rush 6
Zone Cover 6
Man Cover 4
Speed 8
Strength 8
Tackle 9
Awareness 7
Motor 10
OVERALL 75

Edmunds is too damn big to always be around the ball like he is. He’s a huge kid that runs like a gazelle. His motor and effort is hardly — if ever — in question. He plays fast and physical and makes tackles all over the field. He is not much of a coverage linebacker. He is also only 20-years old and is the youngest player in the draft, so part of that you have to believe will come with age considering his physical abilities. However, it’s far from a guarantee and should not be banked on. What you can bank on is an immediate upgrade to your run defense. It’s hard to move the ball on the ground with him on he field especially if you are running to the edge. It is players like him that caused the saying, “get north and south”, because if you don’t then you likely have already lost. It’s impressive watching him fly all around to make tackles. He is very raw and will need some coaching up to refine his game, but in the meantime you can just put him on the field on running downs and let him run wild and wreak havoc. He also will be a special teams dynamo!

Player Comparison: Houston Texans LB Benardrick McKinney

Alabama LB Rashaan Evans

R. Evans

Skill Rating
Skill Rating
Run Defense 8
Block Shed 7
Pass Rush 7
Zone Cover 7
Man Cover 6
Speed 8
Strength 6
Tackle 7
Awareness 7
Motor 8
OVERALL 71

Fast, physical, nimble, strong, smart. It all comes to mind with Evans. Something about Alabama linebackers. I don’t know what they are feeding them down there, but they need to keep at it. The linebacker position has been the most successful position to transition from the collegiate powerhouse by far, and Evans looks poised to keep that going. His football IQ is off the charts. You have to love his pre-snap reads. He makes a lot of plays before the ball is even snapped. He is the best of the top linebackers at this. Much like Roquan Smith, he is the prototype of what today’s NFL looks for in a MLB. The speed and athleticism allows him to cover virtually anyone lined up inside the numbers. He won’t be mistaken for a corner, but he definitely can get the job done. But the most impressive part of his game is his ability to rush the passer. He is not the biggest or strongest, but he knows how to get there when his number is called. He needs to get bigger and stronger. Also needs to apply his impressive motor on a more play to play basis. You can see him all over the field in really big games though the effort doesn’t appear to be the same against lesser competition.

Player Comparison: Baltimore Ravens LB C.J. Mosley

Michigan LB Mike McCray

M. McCray

Skill Rating
Skill Rating
Run Defense 7
Block Shed 8
Pass Rush 8
Zone Cover 7
Man Cover 5
Speed 6
Strength 7
Tackle 7
Awareness 7
Motor 7
OVERALL 69

McCray is one of the most underrated players in the draft regardless of position. He is going to be a draft steal for someone in the middle rounds. Injuries are what has sapped his stock. None are recent, however, which is good news. But there is essentially nothing he can’t do. I honestly believe if not for the injuries sapping some of his athleticism from early on in his career, we would be talking about a potential first-round prospect. Therein lies the problem: injuries stole some of his explosiveness. He is still a very productive and skilled player. He will excel in rushing the passer, coverage, and playing the run. He’s a very intelligent player who shows you on a week to week basis that he has an extremely high football IQ. He is long with long arms and can engage linemen like a defensive end to get loose for the tackle. Even with less athletic ability than what he once had, he still displays the ability to play in any system. He positions himself to make a lot players.

Player Comparison: Former New England Patriots LB Jerod Mayo


The order in which I rank my top ten does not reflect the order or round I think they will go in. My rankings are who I like most from 1-10, but I also offer the range I think they ultimately go in regardless of my ranking.

Top Ten Inside LBs

Rank Player School Projected Rd.
Rank Player School Projected Rd.
1 Roquan Smith Georgia Top 15
2 Tremaine Edmunds Virginia Tech Top 20
3 Rashaan Evans Alabama Late 1st Early 2nd
4 Genard Avery Memphis 3rd Rd
5 Malik Jefferson Texas Early 2nd Rd
6 Micah Kiser Virginia 3rd Rd
7 Leighton Vander Esch Boise St. Early 2nd Rd
8 Josey Jewell Iowa 3rd Rd
9 Mike McCray Michigan Late 4th rd
10 Azeem Victor Washington 5th rd