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2018 NFL Draft: Malik Jefferson best of Day 2 inside linebackers

Let’s look at likely Day 2 draftees at inside linebacker

NCAA Football: Texas at Baylor
Malik Jefferson
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Malik Jefferson - University of Texas Longhorns

Among the 43 linebackers in attendance at the Combine, Malik Jefferson tied for second in the bench press, finishing third in the 40-yard dash, fourth in the broad jump and tied for seventh in the vertical jump.

Overview...Jefferson is likely to return to his former position at middle linebacker in the NFL after he converted to the Rover position as a junior. He started eighteen times in the middle as a freshman and sophomore, but fought through concussion issues during the 2016 campaign. His shift to the outside in 2017 not only saw him lead his team in tackles (110), but he also garnered Big 12 Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors, to go with his All-American second-team selection.

Body Structure... Jefferson has the typical middle linebacker’s frame – thick body, especially in his upper frame, thick arms, large hands, firm midsection, tight waist and hips and good bubble. He is a bit bow-legged, which helps when trying to stay low in his pads and has strong thighs and calves to drive through ball carriers.

Athletic Ability...Jefferson has that rare combination of size and speed to fly to the ball and punish the runner with crunching hits. You would think that the way he attacks the ball carriers that he would have many more nicks and bruises, considering his “search and destroy” attitude on the field. He has excellent quickness and balance, showing the quick change of direction and lateral agility to make plays along the perimeter. He plays faster than his timed speed indicates and even when banged up, he will give total effort on the field.

Football Sense...Jefferson might get out of control, at times, but he is quick to read keys and break down plays. He has great vision, knowing instinctively when to drop back in coverage or shoot the gaps to disrupt the pocket. Because of his vision, he displays excellent ball anticipation skills and reacts suddenly on the snap, working through the crowd to get penetration or laying back to wait for the rush lane to develop.

Athletic Report

Key and Diagnostic Skills...Jefferson is a steady playmaker with the eyes and instincts to recognize the action developing and getting into position to make the play. He will get a bit reckless and over-pursue in attempts to make the spectacular play, and is then slow to recover. He does a very good job of reading keys and is quick to find the ball sifting through trash. He is not the type that will be fooled by misdirection and is generally in position to neutralize play action fakes. He simply has a great nose for the ball. On occasion, he will run himself out of position, but is quick to recover, especially vs. play action.

Playing Strength and Explosion...Jefferson comes off the snap with good explosion and knows how to use his hands to generate a punch to rock the offensive lineman back on his heels. He is sudden in his movements and has no trouble building to top speed to make plays out of his territory. He will get out of control trying to deliver the sensational hit and when he does this, his hands will get outside his frame, allowing savvy ball carriers to sidestep and avoid. He meets the blocker with good force and is explosive delivering his hits, but if he gets too high in his stance, he can be positioned.

Lateral Pursuit/Range...Jefferson has the range, hip snap and lateral agility to make plays in pursuit. He runs with good urgency and does a good job of generating outside run containment. He is a classic downhill tackler who uses his hands with force to shed and control the offensive linemen. He has the loose hips to change direction on a dime and displays the ranger to make plays along the sidelines. His only problem occurs when he gets reckless in his play and tries to punish people, losing sight at the task at hand – getting to the person with the ball. He shows very good long and short pursuit quickness, doing a fine job of catching the running back from behind and will not hesitate to run long distances to make the stop.

Use of Hands...Jefferson has above average strength, along with a violent hand punch and proper hand placement to stun and slip off blockers. He displays the large, soft hands and good extension to attack the ball at its high point and secure it for the big interception. He plays with strength and good authority, as he can deliver a good punch to stop his opponents in their tracks. He uses his hands well to protect his legs on the move and gets through traffic with no problems.

Tackling Ability...Jefferson is an explosive hitter who knows how to use his size and athleticism to stack and control. He drives hard with his legs to push the lead blocker out of the way and clog the rush lanes. He gets in trouble when he gets reckless in his play, as he will get vertical and leave his feet, but that will only result in a missed tackle. He breaks down well in space, but it is his ability to fly to the ball with suddenness and ease of movement that separates him from the rest of the middle linebacker draft class. He needs to play with better control at times, but at the Xs, he does a good job of breaking down, facing up and wrapping up, but when he gets reckless, he will revert to shoestring tackles.

Run Defense...Jefferson is best when taking on the lead blocker and clogging the rush lanes. He has the lower body strength to split double teams and uses his hands with force to stun or with quickness to shed. He is very fluid moving through a crowd and is a great impact hitter. He has the speed of a defensive back closing on running plays along the perimeter and does a fine job of impeding the ball carrier’s forward momentum with his ability to consistently attack his opponent’s outside leg. Taking on the inside run, he is quite effective playing right up the “A” gap, showing enough strength to hold ground at the point of attack. He holds ground well on plays directed right at him and is quick to fill and hit a lick. On outside runs, he has the chase speed to make plays well behind the ball and his lateral speed lets him make plays wide.

Pass Defense... Jefferson has the balance and quick feet to get good depth in his pass drops. He closes on the ball with suddenness. He is best mirroring receivers in the short area, as he has become quite adept at rerouting the opponent and disrupting crossing routes. He is like a heat-seeking missile sifting through trash to shut down the screens. He has the ability to cover the speedy backs out of the backfield and can drive hard to close.

Zone Defense...Jefferson ability to open his hips and come out of his backpedal with no wasted motion makes him one of the best zone coverage defenders in the draft at this position. He has very good timing shooting the A- and B-gaps and also shows good fluidity opening his hips to get good depth in his pass drops. He has greatly improved his route recognition and when he sees the ball, he is quick to close or go for it at its high point.

Pass Rush and Blitz...Jefferson was not used often as a pass rusher, but on the blitz, he shows the balance, quick feet and sudden burst to shoot the gaps with great effectiveness. He is a physical tackler who closes on the quarterback in a hurry. He is very capable of disrupting the pocket and he has that relentless nature shooting the gaps and the loose hits to perfectly execute the stunts. He shows good anticipation at the snap and is quick to get penetration, doing a nice job of locating the rush lane.

Compares To...Jordan Hicks-Philadelphia Eagles. He is the type of player that can set the tempo of the game and makes players around him better. His teammates know that if they let up, he is going to get all over them. He plays very close to the line of scrimmage, right up in the “A” gap and will not hesitate to attack and be physical with blockers. If he gets into the right 4-3 base alignment, he is the type of playmaker to build a defense around.

Micah Kiser - University of Virginia

Overview...One of only five Cavaliers to ever record at least four hundred tackles in a career (411), Kiser plays as if he is on a search and destroy mission, reaching the century mark in tackles during each of his three seasons as Virginia’s starting middle linebacker. Since the modern era of college football began in 1956, only thirty-six major college performers can boast at least four hundred tackles on their resume.

Body Structure...Kiser has a decent size frame that may lack ideal height, but shows a cut, athletic physique with good lower body thickness, tight waist and hips, tight abdomen, good bubble, muscular thighs and calves and low body fat. He has a broad chest with good shoulder length, but could use additional upper body strength to prevent from being engulfed by the larger blockers.

Athletic Ability...Kiser has above quickness and change of direction agility, looking fluid scraping down the line. He is not a “blow them up” type of tackler and can be engulfed by larger blockers in tight areas, but he uses his lateral movement to slip past and avoid blockers effectively. He shows a good flow to the ball, but he has to perfectly use his physical strength in order to match up to the more physical NFL blockers attacking from the middle (more of a pile-on tackler than one that steps up to initiate contact. 54.26% of his tackles came after a teammate made the initial hit; 223-of-411). He has the speed and range to cover the field coming from the outside and that quickness seems a better fit for him to apply pressure coming off the edge. He has good lower body flexibility, especially in the hips. He also demonstrates good balance on the move, along with the acceleration and burst to close on plays in front of him.

Football Sense...Kiser is a very smart and instinctive athlete. He has a nice feel for blocking schemes, knowing that he needs to avoid bigger opponents, as he lacks the brute strength and bulk to match up against offensive linemen in one-on-one battles. He makes good calls and has the vision to locate the ball in a hurry. He learns and retains plays well, having no problems taking them from the chalkboard to the playing field. He plays with his head up and does a pretty nice job of anticipating the quarterback’s moves, but can get fooled by play action when he gets out of control, at times. He gets a good break on the ball, flowing to the sidelines quickly to challenge the ball carrier and cut off the cutback lanes.

Athletic Report

Key and Diagnostic Skills...Kiser has a good feel for blocking schemes, knowing that he has much better success when avoiding blockers rather than taking them on. He does a good job of reading and reacting to keys and “sees the big picture” quickly in attempts to get around opponents in closing on the ball. He is effective in his backside pursuit, but has to be alert, as he can be absorbed by bigger blockers (thumb issue prevented him from getting good hand placement last season). He has good ability to flow to the ball when giving long distance chases. When he gets out of control, he can be fooled by play action and misdirection. He does a better job of locating plays in front of him, as he does struggle some tracking the ball in flight. While he seems tentative in zone coverage, vs. the run, he sees and reacts much more quickly. He reads off the snap well, but when trying to sift through trash, he will lose sight of the ball (height issues), at times, making him much more effective when utilized in motion.

Playing Strength and Explosion...Kiser needs to improve his overall strength, especially in his upper body, as bigger blockers have had good success locking on and controlling him, once they are able to get a piece of his jersey. He knows he is not a strong shed player, having to make most of his tackles on the move or when assisting on the play. His lack of raw strength last year could be attributed to his right hand injury issues, though. When he fails to keep his pad level down, he does struggle to play off blocks, making me feel he is better suited as a weak-side inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme rather than the center point in a base 4-3 defense. He does play with good knee bend. Despite all those tackles, you just wonder if he can be the type that will fill hard or stack at the point of attack, as he can be pinned and sealed by the bigger opponent and must work around blocks rather than take them on.

Lateral Pursuit/Range...Kiser has good lateral agility, but there are times where he struggles to get through traffic and maintain position at the point of attack. He does play with tremendous effort and displays better production in pursuit. He takes good angles to the ball and has the closing speed to give chase and make plays in front of him. You can see on film that he plays better when flowing to the ball, especially when unblocked, as he can angle and cut through to make plays on the edge and has the range to get wide in order to make those stops.

Use of Hands...Because of thumb issues last year, Kiser was not as active with his hands as in the past. When taking on and shedding blocks, he lacked that strong hand punch he demonstrated in 2015-16 to put offensive linemen back on their heels. Generally, he keeps his hands inside his framework to get under the blocker’s pads, but when he is challenged by counter moves, he will struggle to disengage and shed. He catches the ball outside his framework when going for the interception (does struggle to turn and stay on the receiver in the zone, despite good change of direction agility, though). He has dropped several catch-able interceptions that resulted in pass deflections instead and there are times he will fail to secure the ball before heading up field.

Tackling Ability...Kiser’s 411 tackles indicate he can get to the ball, but our staff uses a success rate where a 4-3 middle linebacker needs to generate at least 60% of those hits as initial stops. Kiser checked in at 45.74% for initial tackles during his career. When he keeps plays in front of him and stays low in his pads, Kiser is very effective attacking the ball carrier’s outside leg to impede the opponent’s forward progress. He has the range to maker plays on the outside and has shown a much better concept for taking angles as a junior and senior than he did in the past. Still, he seems to try to overcompensate for a lack of raw power by getting reckless when trying to shoot the gaps, failing to keep his feet vs. double team activity. He is better served playing in control, as he will revert to over-pursuing and getting too aggressive when trying to make that “home run” hit, as he struggles at times trying to get back into the action when he races out of control past the play. He is just better tackling on the outside, where he does not have to take on the big-body type blockers so much.

Run Defense...Kiser plays better on running plays when in pursuit than when trying to impact the action in-line due to size and possible strength issues. He gets bounced around some on inside running plays due to those physical deficiencies. He is quick to avoid in pursuit, but must improve his upper body strength to stand up blocks and play down hill. He is best when unblocked, as he can be pushed out of position when he fails to square up in attempts to fill the gaps. On outside plays, he has the range and change of direction agility to get through traffic in attempts to get wide to make the play. He keeps his feet better on the move and is a much better force when giving chase.

Pass Defense...Covering in the short area, Kiser gets decent depth in his pass drops, as he has the hip flexibility and quick feet to mirror tight ends and backs underneath. He has good eyes reading the pass when facing the quarterback, but struggles to track the ball in flight over his shoulder. His ball skills are just average (13 break-ups, but just one interception) on plays in front of him. He shows the awareness to locate and pick up receivers, having the loose hips needed to turn and flip. He does appear a bit tentative in deep zone coverage, but has fluidity in his short area drops, playing his man with a tight cushion.

Zone Defense...This is an area of concern, as he does not seem to get as quick of a read on the quarter-back as he does when playing in the short area. He will take some false steps coming out of his breaks and appears tentative in squaring and lowering his pads to make the hit (does not seem as confident in his positioning vs. the pass and receiver as he does vs. the run and ball carrier). He has to digest the plays longer when trying to read and react to the deep ball. His interception total indicates that he can not make plays on the ball in flight and he has to be much quicker coming out of his breaks.

Pass Rush and Blitz...When trying to bull rush and pressure the pocket from the inside, Kiser does not do a great job of containment (just two pressures in each of his last three seasons, but has posted nineteen sacks). He is better coming off the edge in back side pursuit, but needs to develop better moves (rip, swim and club), as he does not really have an array of tricks up his sleeve to counter vs. the offensive line types. With his speed, he is a better blitzer from the outside, where he does not have to worry about getting stacked and stopped as often as he does when trying to shoot the gaps. He can drop down and rush the passer coming off the edge in nickel situations, where he has more than enough speed to close, making him a better weak-side inside linebacker prospect than a classic MIKE.

Compares To...David Harris-ex New York Jets/New England Patriots...I would be more comfortable using Kiser on the weak-side in a 3-4 scheme than in the classic middle spot.

NFL: Combine
Josey Jewell
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Josey Jewell - Iowa

Overview...Jewell is a tackling machine - nothing fancy, just impact, bone-jarring types. His 435 tackles rank 30th in NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision annals.

Body Structure...Jewell has a compact frame with good chest and arm thickness, tight abdomen, thick thighs and calves. He has a bone structure that will allow him to carry at least another fifteen pounds of bulk. He has shorter than ideal arms, but generates a powerful hand punch to shock and jolt offensive linemen.

Athletic Ability...Jewell is the type of athlete that plays quicker than his timed speed. He shows just average flexibility and explosion coming off the snap and lacks the ease of movement technique needed when working laterally. He has enough functional strength to stack and control, keeping his pads low to fire off the snap and gain advantage in attempts to push back the lead blocker. He is a little tight in his hips when trying to turn and recover vs. the cutback runs, but explodes behind his tackles and makes up for that hip tightness with above average quickness. He shows good body control and balance working through trash, but is best working in the short areas rather than in long pursuit.

Football Sense...Jewell, because of size limitations, sometimes gets caught up in the pile, but is quick to close once he locates the ball. He is quick to react to keys, but there are times when he will get out of control and outrun plays. Generally, he makes good field adjustments and flows to the play well. When he guesses, he will get caught in the flow of traffic, but when he makes proper calls and reads attacking over the center, he shows good urgency to close on the ball.

Athletic Report

Key and Diagnostic Skills...There are some times where Jewell is a little slow locating the ball in traffic. He is much more consistent when he takes proper angles and he has good instincts to close on the ball in front of him, but I do question his ability to scramble to get into position on outside plays. He fights hard when working through trash, and he’s made good progress in attempts to read inside plays. He plays with better control and urgency when closing on plays in front of him. When he stays low in his pads, he does a very good job of avoiding blocks, but with his lack of height, you wonder if he will see through blockers and get to the ball quickly at the next level.

Playing Strength and Explosion...Jewell improved his strength before the 2016 season, but his frame could carry another fifteen pounds of bulk to generate more power behind his hits. He has just average arm length and adequate power, so he needs to generate a strong hand punch to jolt before the linemen can latch on to his body (struggles to shed). He has enough lower body power to drive back the runner’s body lean, but he lacks the bulk to hold up vs. combo blocks. His hand strength lets him shed smaller blockers effectively and he stays low in his pads to leverage at the point of attack, but the bigger blockers have had good success absorbing his shots.

Lateral Pursuit/Range...Jewell is a little tight in his hips, but shows a good straight-ahead charge to the ball. He takes a few false steps when changing direction, but lacks the closing speed to compensate. When he overruns a play, he shows average/functional body control and balance to recover. He reads the flow of the ball well and is very productive when he keeps plays in front of him. He gets a good jump on the ball because of his instincts, but his lack of great speed, combined with tight hips, makes him a bit of a liability in attempts to make plays along the perimeter.

Use of Hands...More of a collision-type tackler than one who can wrap, Jewell can be contained when a big lineman latches on to his jersey. He does not have the long reach to separate and shed and must keep his shoulders square and come up with his hands quickly in order to shock and jolt. He is effective using those hands to press and reroute tight ends and backs in the short area passing game. He just doesn’t have the reach to stand and battle through trash at the line of scrimmage. He is consistent at generating a punch to knock the receiver off the route, but has to show some improvement in keeping blockers off his body.

Tackling Ability...Earlier in his career, Jewell would generally take a side or drag down in attempts to tackle. He has developed better leg strength and hand punch, driving hard into the ball carriers while securing. He is not an effective tackler working in space as he is in the trenches or at the line of scrimmage, as he takes good angles to close. He showed in 2016 that he can explode through his tackles and has the ability to break down and make plays in front of him. He will hit with good pop (wrap technique needs work), showing good form when tackling, but with more bulk, he could be even more effective tackling in-line and hitting through the holes.

Run Defense...Jewell is more of a classic 4-3 linebacker, as he is slippery through a crowd and stays low in his pads to clog up the inside rush lanes. He has the decent speed to close and string out plays, but needs to be more active with his hands in attempts to shed. He could play SAM linebacker in a 3-4 alignment because of his ability to avoid traffic. He is just not as good at chasing and pursuing along the perimeter.

Pass Defense...Jewell has the functional speed needed to mirror tight ends and backs in the short passing game. He is a little stiff in his pass drops (hips), but has decent zone awareness to keep plays in front of him. He just does not have the playing speed to drop back into the deep secondary and is better served when using his hand punch to reroute underneath. He is quick to react to the receiver coming out of the backfield and does a nice job of reading fakes, but his slow turn out of his breaks posses some problems in man coverage on long routes.

Zone Defense...When Jewell locates the ball, he is quick to close. But, when working through traffic, he can get caught up in the pile. He sees the quarterback much better when playing in the second level than inside the box. He needs to open his hips quicker in his pass drops, especially when setting up in the zone. He just looks more comfortable vs. plays in front of him. He is effective breaking down and covering plays in the short area zone rather than when asked to turn and run with his man.

Pass Rush and Blitz...Jewell can get tied up some when trying to attack over the middle of the line and is used more to read and react rather than generate pressure in the backfield. He has a good burst to close on the quarterback during limited opportunities to pressure. He just struggles to shed when blitzing. When given a free lane, you can see his speed and acceleration through the holes. He could be a nice fit at the strong-side inside slot in a 3-4 alignment, but he is not the type to utilize as a blitzer coming off the edge.

Compares To...Jon Bostic-Pittsburgh Steelers.