2017 NFL Draft: Off-Ball Linebacker Tiers

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TUSCALOOSA, AL - APRIL 18: Reuben Foster #10 of the Crimson team reacts to a play during the University of Alabama Crimson Tide A-day spring game at Bryant-Denny Stadium on April 18, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

This series will go position by position to look at the tiers of where NFL draft prospects stack up to each other. Rankings are great for discussion, but so many factors such as coaching, scheme fit, and usage will affect who will actually have more NFL success. Every player in each tier could easily be the top player in the tier based on these factors. Any prospect not discussed unfortunately did not have enough adequate tape to have a full evaluation. For this edition, we will look at off-ball linebackers.

2017 NFL Draft: Off-Ball Linebacker Tiers

Tier One

1. Reuben Foster, Alabama

Foster plays with that intensity and fire you want to see. He has the speed to roam sideline to sideline and defend tight ends, slot receivers, and running backs. He also adds in the strength to take on blocks against the run and make clean tackles. Foster is a playmaker in all facets and despite a few off-field questions may be one of the safest picks in the 2017 NFL draft.

2. Haason Reddick, Temple

Reddick is a high school safety turned college defensive end who may have a career as an off-ball linebacker. The versatility speaks to his uber-athleticism which he showed off in dominating the Combine. He has speed and a grinder’s mentality off the edge but is smooth and fluid in space with coverage recognition. He is not as pure as Foster but has more versatility.

Tier Two

3. Jarrad Davis, Florida

Davis has great playing speed and is capable of moving back into coverage and shooting gaps against the run. He is never afraid to lay a boom and goes for game changing hits and tackles all the time. However, that does lead to over-pursuing at times and he is not as instinctive as his playing style suggests he would be. Still, at his peak, this is a game-changing linebacker.

4. Tyus Bowser, Houston

Bowser is a tall, long-armed outside linebacker who has played both on the edge and in space. Some project him to be a pass rusher but he spent most of his time in college playing in space and in coverage. He brings the best of both worlds, and while he does not have a distinct position, he is a stud athlete who gives versatility and can use it to thrive in the correct scheme.

Tier Three

5. Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt

Cunningham has great length and playing speed to roam sideline to sideline and make plays in space. However, he is very raw as a tackler, and has little form. He also does not have a great understanding of angles and how to minimize yards gained by taking smarter paths to the ball. These are things that can be worked out, which gives him a great ceiling, but he is certainly raw in his abilities right now.

6. Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State

McMillan is more of a pure downhill middle linebacker than most of the scheme versatile players above him. Still, he was a leader on the Ohio State defense and shows great acumen and knowledge of angles. He is not the sideline to sideline player, but in the box, there may not be any tougher or smarter players.

Tier Four

7. Vince Biegel, Wisconsin

Biegel spent time both on the edge and in space at Wisconsin. His best projection is likely a strong side linebacker who can take on blocks against the run, and put his hand down and rush the passer on third downs. He will need help learning the nuances of playing in coverage in the NFL, but near the line of scrimmage, he can see the field early.

8. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee

Reeves-Maybin is a bit undersized and may be best in the role of a nickel linebacker who can follow tight ends and running backs in coverage. He has great speed and play recognition, but also suffered a shoulder injury that ended his 2016 season early and forced him to sit out of the Combine activities. He may not be a downhill force in the box, but in a pass happy NFL he will have a role and can thrive in it.

9. Duke Riley, LSU

Riley only has one year of experience after sitting behind Deion Jones, but he took advantage. Riley is undersized but showed great awareness and ability to shoot gaps against the run. He struggles to get off of blocks, and will rely on his speed and burst to have any effect on the run. Still, he can see the field early on in nickel situations and has upside to be an every down player.

Tier Five

10. Ryan Anderson, Alabama

Anderson played most of his 2016 season on the edge. Still, he does not show great speed, bend or athleticism in that regard and may have seen his success come from the product of Alabama’s system and the talent around him. He may be best as a strong side outside linebacker in a 4-3. Still, in that regard, he is extremely raw and while he did off-ball drills at the Combine, he looked like a project in that role. He is a hard-nosed player and a great form tackler with solid playing strength, but finding a role for him in the NFL will be tougher than others.

11. Alex Anzalone, Florida

When Anzalone is on the field he is a high-intensity player who can shoot gaps and range from sideline to sideline. The question with him is how long can he stay on the field? Injuries ruined his college career, and he managed to stay healthy for a mere 18 games in four years. The juice may be worth the squeeze, but at the same time, he could be damaged goods.

12. Kendell Beckwith, LSU

Beckwith is the perfect example of an old school thumper between the tackles. He takes on blockers well and is always near the ball in the running game. Still, he is not a fluid athlete who can roam around in space. Add in an injury that may hinder the start of his career, and he becomes a riskier bet to be an early down player, with an upside that has been lowered.

13. Anthony Walker, Northwestern

Walker is a great mover who shows awareness and instincts in the passing game. He can fight through traffic, and his game acumen is his greatest strength. Still, he may be a bit small to consistently stay on the field, and when he tried to put on weight to stay in the box, it took away from a lot of his effectiveness to defend quicker players.

Tier Six

14. Blair Brown, Ohio

Brown is a fluid mover who can fly all over the field whether it be blowing plays up in the backfield or defending slot receivers and running backs. Still, he is undersized and has not played the elite competition in his college career. He has short arms making it hard for him to get off of blockers and make tough tackles in the box. His downside is a special teams stud, but his upside due to his instincts and speed is higher than others.

15. Rayshawn Jenkins, Miami

Jenkins played safety in college but is the perfect example of a player who should shift into a hybrid nickel backer role, a la Deone Bucannon. Jenkins was a liability in coverage, but he could fly around and make impact tackles in the deep parts of the field. The position change is a major projection and brings a low floor, but the “money” linebacker is needed in the NFL more than ever and he is worth a shot to take on that role.

Tier Seven

16. Elijah Lee, Kansas State

Lee is tall with long arms giving him the ability to range off the ball and make plays all over the field. However, he is extremely light for his size, and it shows when he has to step up in the box and make tackles. He struggles to get off of blocks and will need time in an NFL weight room before seeing defensive snaps in the league.

17. Keion Adams, Western Michigan

Adams is a former basketball player with great athleticism and speed to move around and make plays. However, he has played defensive end for the majority of his career. While it worked at a smaller school he does not have the muscle or the size to be effective in that role in the NFL. He is another player who would project better as a strong side linebacker in the NFL but has very little experience playing off of the ball. Adams should be looked at as a special teamer and a project to find a role in the NFL.

Tier Eight

18. Ben Gedeon, Michigan

Gedeon takes on blockers and running backs head on, and plays with an in the box toughness that reflects old school football. Still, he is a major liability in coverage, and in the pass-happy new era of the NFL will get picked on. He is a strong tackler making his floor a special teams asset, but his ceiling is not very high either.

19. Marquel Lee, Wake Forest

Lee is another downhill, run stuffer who plays tough and is ready to take on any back in the Oklahoma drill. He is a team leader and shows it with how he sets an example with toughness. However, he is not a strong athlete, and his ability to play through traffic and make lateral plays on the ball is iffy.

20. Stevan Taylor, Houston

Taylor is another physical presence who has experience at every linebacker spot. Still, like the other two in this tier, he is better in the box than he is moving laterally and when playing against the pass. However, unlike the other two, he is much more undersized and is not on the same athletic wavelength.

Tier Nine

21. Devante Fields, Louisville

Fields has some big off-field questions that start with him being kicked off of TCU and joining Louisville late into his career. He spent most of his career as a pass rusher, but he is too small and lacks the burst and bend to make a living there in the NFL. His best bet would be a strong side linebacker who can make tackles near the line of scrimmage but that is a projection at this point. He is a high-risk player who may not bring a great reward and will likely push him into the late rounds of the draft.

22. Jayon Brown, UCLA

Brown is an undersized player who is likely to project as a hybrid nickel backer who does not see the field on run downs. He is not the strongest mover or athlete, and while he consistently finds the ball and has decent playing speed his athletic profile may make his upside a special teams asset who can occasionally see the field in the nickel.

23. Harvey Langi, BYU

Langi moved between the edge and off of the ball most of his college career. He has great size and playing strength but is raw in whatever position he winds up in. He is too small to consistently play on the edge but may be too slow to stay on the field on passing downs in the NFL.

Tier Ten

24. Jordan Evans, Oklahoma

Evans plays smart and is able to take proper angles to find the football. However, he lacks athleticism and is unable to fight through traffic or disengage from blockers to consistently find the ball.

25. Connor Harris, Lindenwood

Harris a former safety and small school product who does have a great knack for finding the ball. He is very undersized and is not a great athlete, which does make you question whether his high tackle numbers were the small school competition or whether or not he really has a chance in the NFL.

26. Ben Boulware, Clemson

Boulware had the college career that many players would dream of. However, in the NFL he is too slow to play in coverage and too small to bang and make plays in the box. He plays like he wants to be an in the box linebacker, but most likely does not have that sort of talent or strength to hang.

27. Matt Milano, Boston College

Milano shows good burst to shoot gaps and is a great form tackler. However, he can get blown up by lineman and struggles to disengage or play with strength. He cannot play through traffic and is likely a special teams option and back end roster player at best.

28. Hardy Nickerson, Illinois

Nickerson has NFL bloodlines, and show the instincts of a player who has played football for his entire life. However, he is extremely slow out of his stance and in his ability to play anywhere outside of the box. Someone will take a shot because of his bloodlines, but there is a low ceiling with his current athletic profile.

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