2018 Draft: Pre-Combine, Top 10 Linebackers

My thoughts on the Raiders’ team needs, ranked, can be found below:

To the surprise of many (my mentions let me know about it, anyway), “linebacker” isn’t the top need on my board.

The consensus, per Raiders’ Twitter, is prioritizing linebacker over anything else. Some fans may have begun looking elsewhere (interior defensive linemen, perhaps), but it stills feels like the overwhelming majority want the second level addressed as early as possible.

The linebacker from Georgia is penciled into the 9 or 10 spot in 95% of mock drafts that I read. He’s a player, and the fit is obvious. It’s too good to be true.

As fans are aware, Raiders General Manager Reggie McKenzie simply doesn’t prioritize the linebacker position early on the draft. Additionally, the Raiders have a few young linebacker’s currently on the roster, some of which soaked up large volumes of playing time last season. McKenzie may want to see some of those selections through (as questionable as that may sound). That, coupled with the veteran presence of NaVorro Bowman (Jon Gruden has a “soft spot” for older players, and Bowman’s name has already been mentioned a time or two by new staff), it’s likely that Oakland sidesteps the need in the early rounds once again.

The good news for those fans who already have the angry tweets loaded up and marinading in their drafts, ready to bless the timeline when the Raiders inevitably pass on Roquan Smith, there are options throughout the draft that I’m interested in.

Here’s how I’d rank the top ten linebackers, pre-Combine and testing, as the title alludes to. I’m going to try and keep each blurb brief, as my goal is to circle back around on as many of these players as I can, after Indianapolis, and do a full breakdown/final evaluation.

1) Roquan Smith, Georgia

The consensus.

I know there’s plenty of hype, justifiably so, for the Virginia Tech linebacker, but Smith is just a different level of talent (I’d argue that Edmund’s ceiling may be higher, however). Roquan Smith is a better player than Reuben Foster, minus the consistent power on the field (if we want to nitpick), plus the high-end character and intangibles that you look for in a potential leader on defense. Think Deion Jones (just don’t pass on him this time):

2) Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech

Young, with stupid-high upside.

Sitting at a legit 6’4″, 230-plus, we’ll see Jamie Collins-type comparisons (or even Brian Urlacher, I guess). End of the day, Tre Edmunds is just a playmaker, and one that’ll experience – or is experiencing – that “Haason Reddick-rise” throughout the process. Expect that to continue.

While he is still a little raw and learning the intricacies of the position (you see some frustrating stretches of play at times), they just don’t make players like that look and play like him very often.

3) Rashaan Evans, Alabama

Tremaine Edmund’s ceiling is incredible, but I think there’s a legitimate argument for Rashaan Evans to be the best linebacker not named “Roquan Smith” this year.

He sat behind some notable talent at Alabama, but finally got his shot and ran with it. Although, I suppose some may suggest the lack of playing time is a concern for his prospect? You know how this goes.

At 6’2″, 232, he possess ideal size and necessary athleticism that teams covet. He has to be one of the more improved players in the country, and his stock is hot and getting hotter (wouldn’t surprise if he sneaks into the top 32). Circle his name in Indianapolis, as well.

4) Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State

One-year starter with serious production. Looks better coming downhill vs. the run, but can get it done in coverage. Big-bodied at 6’3″, 240-something. Might have just as much upside as the Virginia Tech linebacker. For such limited time as a starter, you have to come away impressed with his overall feel for the game, and simply his ability to be around the ball.

The most linebacker/highlight video and music ever:

5) Tegray Scales, Indiana

I have a Day 2 grade on Scales at the moment, despite the “lack of size” (he stands around six feet tall).

Instinctual, productive player. Check out his 2016 effort. He’s tough, and just flies around. For me, all the boxes are checked; I’m not one to get too hung-up on 6’0″ vs. 6’2″ at the position, as we’ve seen the impact players like Deion Jones have on Sunday’s (I’ve also touted players like Darron Lee in the recent past, maybe stubbornly so). The league is changing. If the Raiders go mid- or late-round linebacker again, this is who I want on my team.

6) Jerome Baker, Ohio State

Speaking of “undersized linebackers”, Ohio State has another name to note in the mold of Darron Lee and/or Ryan Shazier.

Jerome Baker was a top three linebacker heading into the season, I think, and it feels like his name is hardly passed around anymore. His athleticism is apparent when he’s working in coverage; with that build, he’s almost like a safety out there. Baker can work out of the slot – the versatility is a plus. You do worry about him playing downhill, and disengaging from blocks. Weigh-in at the Combine will be notable (currently listed at around 225).

7) Malik Jefferson, Texas

Now, we just touched on some standout athlete’s at the position that top this list, but Malik Jefferson might be the freakiest of the bunch. He turned in a 4.3 forty with a nearly-40 inch vertical at The Opening. He plays linebacker. He’s switched positions while at Texas (inside/outside), and the production never quite matched the hype. There are a lot worse ways to spend a Day 2 selection.

8) Darius Leonard, South Carolina State

Not a player that was on my radar prior to Mobile.

Looks similar to Jerome Baker with his safety-like build, so there’ll be the same questions entering the league. We’ll hear about his level of competition as well, I’m sure.

Again, this is more and more what the “modern day linebacker” is beginning to look like, and the buzz was starting to build leading up to the Senior Bowl where he had his moments (he should do well in Indianapolis, if you’re starting to notice a trend here). We know he’s athletic, but that really only takes you so far on Sunday’s if you’re dealing with size and strength concerns.


9) Jack Cichy, Wisconsin

Would’ve been a top three option at linebacker in 2017 if he declared, just like he would’ve been top three in this group for 2018 if he didn’t get banged up again, sadly. When Cichy’s on the field, his ability and impact is obvious; looks smooth in coverage, for those who would ask. Problem is, to no fault of his own, it’s been difficult to stay available. Team’s could be looking at a steal assuming that health is on his side going forward.

10) Fred Warner, Brigham Young

Interesting usage at school; lined up all along the front, even played on the edge at times. Another athletic player in that “hybrid” safety/linebacker role who can legitimately work out of the slot. Those chess pieces are valuable. There’s still more work to do on Warner, from my end, but I didn’t get the sense that he was much of a hitter, taking his size into consideration. I’m also curious how the league will deploy him, given his mixed usage coming out.

Catch me on Twitter: @StillRyanFive