NFL Draft Rankings 2014: Inside Linebackers

In the spirit of full disclosure, I would like to start this by saying that inside linebacker is my favorite position in football, and were I more athletically gifted it’s the position I would have wanted to play. Luke Keuchly is one of my favorite players and it’s not just because he is ridiculously talented. Ray Lewis is another favorite, and no matter what you say about him it’s hard to deny that he was one of the greatest to play the position. So watching a middle linebacker and evaluating them is something that I truly enjoy doing, more so that some other positions.
In any case, before getting to teams and rankings, I would like to say that I believe the Middle Linebacker is the most important position on the defense. People have called it the “Quarterback of a Defense” and while terms like that are subjective, I do think that the middle linebacker plays one of the most important parts to a defense. They are responsible for the middle of the field, they go after the running back on his plays, but they also need to be able to cover tight ends that try to work the field, at least until the safety can take them. In any case, middle linebackers have to be able to rush the passer, pursue the runner, and drop back into coverage on any given play. They are typically the ones to change a play at the line of scrimmage if need be and also end up making the tackles behind the line of scrimmage while the defensive line occupies the defensive lineman. Given how quickly most offensive plays happen, patrolling the middle in close to mid range is vital to a defense’s success. And having a strong middle linebacker makes a significant improvement to any team’s defense. Now then, before I get to the rankings and team needs, let me just go through some basic reminders.

How it works-

I will start each of these posts by examining which teams need the players in question. By in large this is only going to be teams that are in need of a new starting player, not necessarily a backup.

For each player I will provide analysis, statistics from the 2013-2014 season, and a general idea of where I believe they will be taken in the draft.

Things to keep in mind-

The rankings that I post here are based on my observations of the player’s statistics, game tape, and any rumors that leak out to the general public. I make no claims to have insider knowledge into the draft process or any teams overall plan this is merely my own ranking system if I were evaluating these player for any given NFL team.

As with any ranking system, it is all relative. Scouting reports by professionals can differ greatly for the same individual for the same game. So my rankings by no means the definitive order.

I love football. I love the NFL, and college football, and I love sharing what I love with other people. And that is the ultimate point in creating these rankings: To share what I know about the players who will be a part of my favorite football event of the year, namely the draft. Whether you love the draft process as I do, just want to know a little bit more about some of the top college players outside of those at Wisconsin, or are simply interested in who your favorite team could be looking at in May, I want these rankings to be informative.

Now let’s get to it.

Teams looking to draft an inside linebacker in 2014:
Minnesota Vikings: While the Vikings recently signed Jasper Brinkley, back when Brinkley was the primary option for the Vikings, everyone said that he was unsuitable for the task, and that has not changed. Brinkley is capable enough playing downhill, but asking him to move into coverage is a recipe for disaster. And beyond Brinkley, all the Vikings have at the position is Michael Mauti, who I am a personal fan of, but he has only one season in the NFL and is a major injury risk, given that he had ACL surgery twice during his time at Penn State. Entering the offseason it may have been passable to have Erin Henderson play, but with his release following a DUI arrest, MLB is once again a big need for Minnesota. I have my own doubts about their willingness to take one at #8 overall, but if they move back into the first round, something they have done the past two years, then I would say the possibility would significantly increase. Of course the Vikings have other issues that need to be addressed, so no guarantees, but I would expect the Vikings to draft at least one come May.
Houston Texans: I talked about the Texans’ LB issues a week ago, and they are just as true for middle linebacker. Having Brian Cushing is all well and good, and he is a great linebacker when healthy, but health is not something that can be relied upon when the subject is Cushing. And beyond him, the Texans’ ILB corps is Mike Mohamed and Jeff Tarpinian. Both of them are 26 and have a combined total of 34 career tackles. That number would be low even for one situational player in one season. This is two guys over three years apiece. So I have a good hunch that the Texans will draft an ILB in the first couple of rounds. Certainly not first overall, but perhaps in the second or the later rounds. In any case, expect the situation to be addressed.
Denver Broncos: This is the first team I have mentioned that actually has a decent chance of selecting a MLB in the first round. The Broncos have quite a few holes to fill defensively, alleviated somewhat by the addition of DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib, but that does nothing to change the fact that their current starting MLB is Jamar Chaney, who has 158 career tackles over 4 seasons with Philadelphia and Atlanta, though he only played one game for Atlanta last year. And although he was fairly highly touted coming out of college, he has yet to capitalize on his talent. Perhaps that will change in Denver, but in case it does not, it would behoove the Broncos to shore up the position, especially since theoretically one Chris Borland should be available right around #31 overall. But we will get to that.
New England Patriots: After losing Jerod Mayo, the Patriots are currently anticipating Jamie Collins stepping in and starting in the 4-3 next season. Collins has only played for one year, and was able to record 43 total tackles. Collins is only 24 years old and he played well for the Patriots on special teams, so the Patriots might be comfortable with Collins getting starting experience, but if a talented MLB is available when they draft, it may not be a bad idea to look into them, or at the very least do so later in the draft. Bill Belichick is a cautious man, so finding a potential backup or improvement is definitely possible in case the Patriots have any lingering doubts over Collins. Then again, the Patriots sometimes seem to prefer to go after somewhat strange draft picks, so anything is possible when dealing with Belichick.
Washington Redskins: So Washington did just go out and sign two inside linebackers, so I could see how some would object to this placement. However, Akeem Jordan has been in the league for seven seasons now and has only eclipsed 70 tackles in a season once, despite playing in 75% of games every season but his rookie year. Meanwhile, Darryl Sharpton had a breakout season last year with the Texans after Cushing went down, but before that he had only 74 career tackles and has yet to play a complete season in the NFL after 4 years of service. So while some Washington fans may be assuaged by their recent additions, I am not. Perhaps Dan Snyder and the offensive minded Jay Gruden look elsewhere with their pick in the second round, and I can not say they would be wrong to do so. That being said, I would be interested in taking a younger middle linebacker during the draft, and I would say that regardless of my personal love for the position.
Indianapolis Colts: This is another tricky call. The Colts have three players listed at the position, D’Qwell Jackson, Jerrell Freeman, and Kelvin Sheppard. But here’s the deal. Jackson is 30 and was given a 4 year contract, and I have doubts that the Colts will keep him throughout the duration of the contract. Excluding certain players, linebackers over 30 can regress quickly. Jackson has been phenomenal during his time in Cleveland, but there have to be questions about how long he can continue to produce and what level he will be at during the contract. Jerrell Freeman is great, he will be 28 at the start of next season and has played 2 full seasons for the Colts, recording at least 126 total tackles each season, so my concerns do not revolve around Freeman. Sheppard, meanwhile, has only seen minimal playing time during three seasons with Buffalo and Indianapolis. And at age 26 he has room for growth, but how much he will get with Jackson filling the spot next to Freeman is debatable. Basically what I am assuming in saying this is D’Qwell Jackson will have some almost inevitable regression over the next years, and Sheppard not growing enough to step in once Jackson leaves. So this is primarily a prediction for the future, drafting someone in the later rounds to develop underneath Jackson and Freeman. But with limited draft picks, the Colts could turn elsewhere in the draft.
Inside Linebackers:
#1. C.J. Mosley, Alabama
Height: 6’2, Weight: 234 lbs.
2013 Stats: 108 Total Tackles, 9.0 TFL, 5 Pass Deflections
NFL Combine: 4.40 20-yard Shuttle, 35.0 Vertical Jump
Mosley is a guy that would have been a first round pick a year ago, but decided that he wanted to stay for the additional year. Hard to blame him, being on an Alabama team that had just won the National Championship, but ultimately his stats fell short of what they were a year ago. His tackles and TFL totals went up by one a piece, but he had 0 sacks this year, and 4.0 last year. In addition, this year was the first time since playing for Alabama that he did not record an interception during the year. But do not let that fool you, Mosley is still a near lock for the first round, barring some stupid off-field decision or serious injury. He is easily the best middle linebacker in the draft, and some people project him as capable of playing outside as well. I agree, he definitely has the talent for it but I place him as an inside man. He has been a first team All-American pick the past two years, and brought home the Butkus Award (Best Linebacker) and Bednarik Award (Top Defensive Player) this past year. Looking at stats and accolades, Mosley is has a good chance to start for a team right off the bat.
My top inside linebacker did not run the 40 at the Combine, but most people clocked him in the 4.5-4.6 range during his pro day, a good time for a linebacker prospect. At the Combine Mosley did participate in some of the on-field drills, and with a few exceptions, I was impressed. During his 3-Cone Drill and drills knocking down pads I did not see hustle, he appeared to be jogging through the drill for periods of time. But the work in coverage was much better than that. He shifted direction easily, and was able to flow from side to side with minimal effort. He did drop a few balls when they were thrown to him, but he is a linebacker not a receiver so that is not a huge concern for me. All in all he looked good, he showcased athletic ability in the coverage aspect of his game, a nice complement to all of the pass-rushing ability evidenced on the field.
One of the most important games that I wanted to watch was against Auburn, primarily because of how much Auburn relies on the read-option, which is the current fad in the NFL, and I will guarantee that NFL evaluators will be keeping a close eye on that game as well. Basic comments on his talent: He pursues the ball well, and has a good sense for where the ball is going to end up, not just where it is, which is ideal for any defender. Mosley is a sure tackler as well, wraps up the ball carrier efficiently and is able to bring people down without wrapping them up if he is partially occupied on a block. So the read-option. It was shaky at the start, and he was directly responsible for the first touchdown Auburn scored, but as the game progressed, so did he, and his reads got much better. Anticipation is key with the read-option, but also keeping an eye on the ball, and that is precisely what Mosley did. Despite early game struggles, he improved vastly and by the end of the game I did not see him get fooled again. Excellent demonstration of in-game adjustments.
Mosley is easily the best inside linebacker in this year’s draft. The biggest knock on him is size, he is slightly underweight for the position, but he makes up for it in his technique and speed, so that is not much of a concern at this point. The bigger issue as far as size is concerned is whether or not he can match up with the 6’5 and taller tight ends that will be working across the middle. Few middle linebackers match tight ends in size anyway, and I think Mosley’s instincts will serve him will in coping with that aspect of the game. My gut says that Mosley should be taken in the middle of the first round, he is not as good as Luke Keuchly was coming out of Boston College but he is still a great player. Everything just depends on how positions are valued in May. If, say, there starts to be a run on cornerbacks/safeties in the middle of the first then Mosley could fall. But from a talent perspective, it is about right for him in a talented draft class.
Final Decision: Middle First Round
#2. Chris Borland, Wisconsin
Height: 5’11, Weight: 248 lbs.
2013 Stats: 111 Total Tackles, 8.5 TFL, 4.0 Sacks
NFL Combine: 4.83 40-yard Dash, 27 reps Bench Press
First off, this is not my Wisconsin bias. This is legitimately where Chris Borland belongs, and I am not alone in that belief. Just taking a look at his stats shows that over the three seasons he has spent as a starter for the Badgers Borland has never failed to reach 100 total tackles. From a statistical standpoint Borland’s best season was back in 2011, with 143 tackles, 19.0 TFL, and 2.5 Sacks, complete with 2 INTs, 7 passes deflected, and 5 forced fumbles. While Borland has not reached those numbers since, his tackles have held firm above 100 and his sacks have increased to 4.5 and 4.0 the past two seasons. Another intesting note, Borland currently shares 2nd place in the NCAA record books for forced fumbles. Only person ahead of him is Khalil Mack, and coming in second to Mack is still quite an accomplishment. I think teams might be concerned about his declining pass deflection numbers, as it might be an indication that his height is limiting him, but these stats do not show how many times teams passed in his vicinity. Even with that, Borland’s stats show an exceptional playmaker for the past three years.
So for his combine, I will start with the bad part of it. The bad part of Borland’s Combine has to be the 40 yard dash. He ran a 4.83, which is slow for a linebacker. Last year everyone freaked out when Manti Te’o ran a 4.78, and Borland was slower than that. In fairness Te’o still had a decent rookie campaign so the 40 is not everything, especially not for a linebacker. Still, it is worth noting. On to good things. He was fifth out of the linebackers in the bench press, granted he was probably aided by his short arms but still, 27 reps is impressive regardless. And the rest of the measurables checked out pretty well for Borland, but the most impressive was easily the on-field drills. He looked crisp and efficient moving around the field and was able to change directions with ease. His top speed might not be impressive, but he moves faster in game time.
There are certain buzz words that coaches like to use when talking about players, like “Gritty” and “Tough”. And usually those words are used to describe intangible qualities that a player has, things that make them better despite some limitation they might have. Borland is one of those player. Size alone, Borland is too small to be an NFL linebacker. But he plays the game differently than other people. He is tough, he is constantly going, and he plays hard. These are the things that make him a playmaker, and which ultimately put him at my #2 spot. Borland is a playmaker. Watch his tape, and it jumps out at you. He chases down Braxton Miller, he stands up Carlos Hyde at the goal line, he jumps back up after he misses a tackle to run the guy down. Borland sees the field so well, it allows him to position himself perfectly to make a play on the ball. That’s a special quality. Borland might not have the prototypical size, but when you watch his tape, it is not hard to see why Borland is shooting up draft boards.
Borland has been steadily climbing draft boards since the season ended, a combination of excellent performances at the Senior Bowl, Combine, and Pro Day. Former Badger Russell Wilson has done wonders to shatter the stigma against short players, and Borland is benefiting from that right now. Teams do not seem as scared of drafting a shorter player because they know that there are more important qualities. Qualities that Russell Wilson has, and qualities that Borland has as well. I see him as a Round 2 prospect, personally I would take him later first round, but I think that ultimately teams will stay their hand unless someone really falls in love with him, which is certainly possible.
Final Decision: Round 2
#3. Shayne Skov, Stanford
Height: 6’2, Weight: 245 lbs.
2013 Stats: 109 Tackles, 13.0 TFL, 5.5 Sacks
NFL Combine: Did not participate
Skov is now two years removed from major knee surgery, and after last season, I think he has regained most of his form. Statistically, Skov had his best year last year, finally surpassing 100 tackles, and setting career highs in TFL and force fumbles, while coming up 1 sack short of a career high. Stats are one of the reasons I have Skov below Borland, Skov has not exhibited the same consistency as Borland over his career, but Skov has still put up impressive numbers, and this year he led a talented Stanford defense in tackles and was a finalist for the Butkus award, ultimately given to C.J. Mosley.
Skov did not participate during the NFL Combine, so I have nothing to say about it.
Skov actually compares favorably to Borland in his playing style. This is another tough, aggressive guy who does not give up on a play until the whistle is blown. The main difference as far as I can see if that Skov is more skilled in pass rushing and run stoping, whereas Borland is more of an all-around kind of player. Skov has great anticipation and can time the snap effectively enough to get a running start as he is charging into the gaps of the line. He can get stuck on linebackers if he does match up with them, but he has good enough speed to evade them or get past them more often than not. Skov has great playmaking ability, and assuming that he holds up physically, whichever team drafts him will get a high energy player that could contribute right away on special teams.
As I said previously, Skov and Borland are fairly similar players, with Borland having a slight edge over Skov. Borland was more productive and is a more complete player, but that does nothing to diminish the career Skov has had at Stanford. He was able to start as a freshman and has been a fantastic player for the Cardinal ever since. Given his injury history there are durability concerns, but if he can get past that, his instincts and play recognition will serve him well at the next level. He has the size to be an excellent linebacker, the main question is whether or not he can improve his coverage game and stay healthy enough to make a bigger impact on a defense. Skov is easily a Day 2 prospect, whether that is round 2 or 3 remains to be seen, but I would have him ranked somewhere in the 2nd Round.
Final Decision: Round 2
#4. Preston Brown, Louisville
Height: 6’1, Weight: 251 lbs.
2013 Stats: 98 Tackles, 12.5 TFL, 4.5 Sacks
NFL Combine: 4.86 40-yard Dash, 23 reps Bench Press
In some ways this was Brown’s breakout year, at least in terms of statistics outside of total tackles. His total tackles dropped to 98 from 109 a year ago, which is not a terrible change, but he did more than double his career TFL and sack numbers this season, with new career highs of 12.5 and 4.5, up from 5.0 and 1.5 respectively. Throw in 3 forced fumbles this past season and ultimately what you have is a linebacker with talent that really only just showcased what he is capable of. Brown’s track record is not as impressive as others on this list, but nevertheless, this was an impressive season for Brown and teams will certainly be intrigued with what he can offer.
Brown was unable to follow up a solid season with a good Combine however. His speed at 4.86 is closer to Borland’s and that leaves something to be desired, but he also recorded only 23 reps on the Bench. Essentially in all of the drills Brown ended up close to Borland’s numbers, but based on physical ability Brown should have been able to exceed what Borland put up. Furthermore, during the on-field drills, Brown appeared to be jogging from time to time, not utilizing his maximum capabilities. Ultimately those are confirmations of some of the rumors surrounding Brown, that he lacks the work ethic required to make the most of his abilities. That is not a deal breaker for most teams, it is just something to keep an eye on.
On tape, Brown is best when he is working downhill, rushing either the quarterback or the running back, and looks shaky in pass coverage. For that reason Brown might be best suited to be the secondary inside linebacker in a 3-4, which would allow him to blitz and require less from a coverage standpoint. In any case, at times Brown charges in full tilt, and when he does his talent flashes, but he does not do it consistently, and he pulls up from time to time on plays. Based on the tape, Brown’s motor can run hot and cold, and it becomes even more imperative for whatever team drafts him to make sure that there are veterans around to push Brown’s limits.
Bottom line, Brown has talent to exceed the statistics he put up, the main issue is his own work ethic. Unlike Skov and Borland, Brown does not play up to his talent level, and as such, he is a bit of a risk for an NFL team. I think he fits best in a 3-4 system, and should be drafted sometime in the third to fourth round, depending on how interviews go during the pre-draft process. Personally I am going to slot him into the third round, which is typically where more higher risk-reward prospects end up being selected. Brown has less upside and perhaps less risk than one Tyrann Mathieu, so I will say that Brown ends up in the latter half of round 3.
Final Decision: Round 3
#5. Christian Jones, Florida State University (FSU)
Height: 6’3, Weight: 240 lbs.
2013 Stats: 56 Tackles, 8.0 TFL, 2.0 Sacks
NFL Combine: 4.74 40 yard Dash, 115.0 Inch Broad Jump
From a statistical perspective, Jones has had an interesting career, one where the statistics seem to go up and down but never coalesce together to form that one breakout season. A year ago he totaled 95 tackles, easily a career high for him, but he did not have a single sack or forced fumble, although he was able to record two of them. This year his tackles plummeted down 40, but he got 2 sacks and an interception, and ultimately all of his stats, from pass deflections to sacks and TFL shift all over the place, but if I were to single out one breakout season I would probably have to say last year, which is unfortunate for him then that his numbers took such a drastic hit this year. Jones is another example not unlike Brown where the talent is present, but the numbers do not reflect it.
Going to the Combine, Jones once again mirrors Brown. At times it looks like he could be doing more, and he appeared to be overworking his feet, moving them unnecessarily. In addition, his change of direction ability leaves something to desire, he noticeably has to slow down before making his change, there is no fluidity in his shifts. That being said he did well enough on most of the drills, speed wise he certainly did better than Borland and Brown, but as I have said before, speed is not the most important attribute in a linebacker.
When I watch Jones on tape, I am concerned with one major flaw I can see. He hesitates. Not just on option plays, on most plays. He never seems to know precisely where he needs to be or where the ball is going, and that is a big issue. Physically he is fantastic, he utilizes his athleticism well when he gets to the ball or when the ball comes to him, and when he knows his assignment he goes right after it. But far too often I see him look lost on these plays and that is the main issue Jones will have to overcome. Brown has issues with his motor, Jones has issues reacting to developing plays. He will need to improve his instincts if he wants to succeed at the NFL level, because right now he gets by with physical talent.
That is the main reason that I have Jones on the board at #5. He has great versatility, he can line up at MLB, OLB, and DE depending on how Florida State wants to use him, but I think MLB in a 3-4 system would suit him, at least until he can get his feet under him. Lack of instincts to me is a more serious issue than lack of work ethic, a work ethic can be easily solved if the right people are put around him, lack of instincts, not so easily done. But he has talent. So I’ll slot him in the 3rd round as well, similar risk-reward situation as Brown, but I would say that Jones carries higher risk, but also higher reward.
Final Decision: 3rd Round
That does it for Middle Linebackers, next week I will post my top 5 cornerbacks along with analysis.
By Mike Veldhuis