This is one of the lists for which fans of the New York Giants have been waiting. Given their perennial need at linebacker, and their switch in defensive schemes and philosophies, the team almost has to invest in the linebacker position in the 2018 NFL Draft.
I previously listed the Top 10 EDGE players, some of whom are destined to play linebacker in the NFL. The difference being that those players will almost exclusively play down-hill, attacking into the backfield, and chasing quarterbacks.
This time I am listing the players who will have to routinely play in space as well as come down hill or blitz.
As I have in other “Top 10” lists, I am grouping all the “off ball” linebackers together, whether they play primarily play inside or outside. For these players their exact alignment could well depend on the team that drafts them and even the down, distance, and sub-package in games — So I’m not going to get bent out of shape over it in February.
Fans have to hope that at least one of these players will be a Giant in 2018, but Dave Gettleman’s draft history shows a willingness to double-dip and select multiple players for the same position group in the same year, so could the Giants select more than one?
- Roquan Smith (ILB, Georgia) - Smith nabs the top spot in my pre-combine ranking thanks to impressive instincts, sideline-to-sideline range, great athleticism, versatility, and a track record of production and leadership. He is a tad undersized, but thanks to his smarts and athleticism, it doesn’t matter. Smith is the best “off ball” linebacker in the class right now, though he might not be the first one off the board.
- Tremaine Edmunds (OLB, Virginia Tech) - Edmunds is going to be one of the stars of the NFL Scouting Combine. He is an incredible athlete who combines EDGE size (6-foot-4, 250 pounds) with the fluid athleticism of an off-ball linebacker. He is going to intrigue just about every team in the league, and at just 19 years old, his upside boggles the mind.
- Leighton Vander Esch (Boise State) - Vander Esch is a name that is only just starting to carry a buzz around the media, but after a conference MVP season, the former walk-on has earned it. He is big and athletic, able to play in space as well as contribute downhill in the run game. Vander Esch is a former basketball player who should be able to play inside or outside in the NFL, depending on the team that drafts him. He may be a “one-year wonder,” but his final year has drawn comparisons to Brian Urlacher.
- Rashaan Evans (ILB, Alabama) - Aggression is good in a linebacker, but it took a dialing back of that trait for Evans to emerge as a top linebacker in the nation. Evans has turned from being almost recklessly aggressive to a (mostly) controlled force behind Alabama’s talented defensive line. He is fearless coming downhill, athletic enough to play in space, and as a former defensive end knows how to get after the passer.
- Malik Jefferson (OLB, Texas) - Jefferson is one of the most athletic players on this list, but has questions about his instincts. He is at his best when the defense doesn’t saddle him with many reads, instead allowing him to play in a “see ball, get ball” fashion. In those cases, his athleticism takes over and he can fly around the field.
- Josey Jewell (ILB, Iowa) - Jewell is, quite simply, a “football player.” He might be the least athletic player on this list, but he is so smart, instinctive, and fundamentally sound that it doesn’t really matter. While he can be exposed by elite athletes (such as when he matched up on Saquon Barkley against Penn State), Jewell has been a hyper-productive leader for the Hawkeyes and one of the best defenders in the nation.
- Jerome Baker (OLB, Ohio State) - Baker is the kind of “run and chase” coverage linebacker defenses have been searching for to combat hybrid tight ends, athletic receiving running backs, and the college spread concepts seeping in to NFL offenses. He is undersized compared to the “traditional” linebacker, but is very athletic, and gifted in coverage.
- Darius Leonard (OLB, South Carolina State) - Leonard is another “New Age” linebacker who uses his athleticism to excel in space. He is a long, balanced linebacker who has shown the ability to play above SC State’s usual level of competition by showing well against teams like Clemson. Leonard has also earned praise for his maturity and work ethic in maximizing his frame.
- Azeem Victor (OLB, Washington) - Victor could be much higher on this list if he interviews well at the combine. He looks the part of a classic NFL linebacker with good size and “three down” athleticism. Questions about Victor are related to off-field concerns and an arrest, as well as a suspension to start the year because of an unspecified violation of team rules. However, Victor is also active in charity, donating school supplies to children in need. If he can prove to NFL teams that he is a good young man who has made a couple mistakes, he has a good shot of earning a starting job early in his NFL career.
- Jack Cichy (ILB Wisconsin) - Cichy is another athletic off-ball linebacker who could be much higher on this list. However, he tore an ACL shortly before the start of the 2017 season, following a breakout 2016 campaign. He will be poked, prodded, and thoroughly examined by the NFL’s medical staffs at the Combine and beyond. If he can regain his 2016 form as a twitchy linebacker with skill in space and rushing the passer, a team could get a steal in the later rounds.