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Devin White tops linebacker depth chart heading into NFL Combine

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Will the Giants draft one of the top off-ball linebackers in 2019?

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Louisiana State vs Central Florida Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Every year the cry goes of for the New York Giants to draft a linebacker. Even after making a splash trade for Alec Ogletree, the Giants’ linebacking corps struggled mightily in 2018.

The Giants want to improve their defense, and they could use talent at every level.

The way the NFL has evolved, and the way the Giants’ defense is called under James Bettcher, it’s easier to break front seven players into “interior defensive line”, “EDGE”, and “off-ball linebackers”. The group of “off-ball linebackers” is made up of both inside and outside linebackers — players who do not routinely line up on the line of scrimmage, and might drop into coverage or play down-hill on any given play.

So, could the Giants finally address these positions with a high-leverage pick? Here is how I have them ranked before the 2019 NFL Scouting combine:

Top 5

  1. Devin White (LSU) - Far and away the best and most complete off-ball linebacker prospect in the draft. White shows the kind of football IQ, instincts, athleticism, range, technique, and strength to play in space and downhill on all three downs. The combine will help determine whether or not he is in the Giants’ wheelhouse at sixth overall. He doesn’t quite appear to have the same electric, quick-twitch athleticism which Luke Kuechley Jaylon Smith (pre-injury) had, which is what it takes for an off-ball linebacker to be drafted in the top 10.
  2. Joe Giles-Harris (Duke) - Giles-Harris doesn’t have White’s athleticism (though he might be more athletic than he showed in 2018 if he was indeed limited by the injury suffered early in the year), but he is a smart and instinctive linebacker. He consistently takes accurate first steps which lead him to the ball, and his mental processing makes up for any deficiencies in foot speed. Giles-Harris is also a defensive leader and active communicator before the snap. If he can perform well in the combine, he should see his stock rise over the home stretch.
  3. Devin Bush Jr. (Michigan) - An undersized heat-seeking missile of an outside linebacker, Devin Bush is fun to watch for anyone who likes defensive football. At 5-foot, 11, 225 pounds, he measures more like thick big strong safety than a classic NFL linebacker. However, in the modern NFL, which uses speed and alignment to stress defenses, his range, football IQ, and coverage ability are assets. Likewise, he is a good blitzer who can scream through gaps and blow up plays in the backfield.
  4. Mack Wilson (Alabama) - Wilson has prototypical size and athleticism for an off-ball linebacker, as well as a sterling “Alabama” pedigree. If he were more instinctive or played faster, he would be higher on this list, potentially challenging White for the top spot. However, there are too many instances where he is a step reacting to what he sees or stuck covering grass while players run past him. Development isn’t linear, and perhaps he can improve the mental part of his game with more experience and NFL coaching.
  5. Bobby Okereke (Stanford) - Okereke has the size and athleticism the NFL wants from its linebackers. At 6-foot 3, 235 pounds, he has a prototypical build as well as the athleticism to cover the middle of the field. He is able to quickly and accurately read and react to offenses, and the movement skills to act on those reads. Okereke is also capable of playing down hill, picking up 20 tackles or a loss and 10.5 sacks over the last three years. He needs to get better at stacking and shedding blockers and finishing his tackles.

Honorable mentions

Vosean Joseph (Florida) - A smaller “run and chase” linebacker, Vosean Joseph is athletic with the agility and range to be active against the run and pass over the big area of the field. He isn’t terribly instinctive, and struggles to get off blocks, but his athleticism could be useful in nickel situations.

Kendall Joseph (Clemson) - Another potential nickel linebacker, Joseph is a “new age” linebacker who blurs the lines between safety and outside linebacker. He is smart, aware, and plenty athletic to be a good coverage linebacker, and has the speed to be a weapon on blitzes. However, his size makes taking on blockers difficult. It wasn’t much of an issue in college, but Joseph did benefit from playing behind one of the most talented defensive lines in the nation.

Terrill Hanks (New Mexico State) - If the NFL is looking for a potential value pick at off-ball linebacker, they might want to consider Terrill Hanks of New Mexico State. The 6-foot 2 inch, 235 pound linebacker plays in space like the converted safety he is. His range and awareness in coverage are excellent, but he needs to continue to develop playing down-hill after just one year of experience as a linebacker.