In the last couple of weeks we have looked at the DE and DT positions and possible players and strategies for each. We looked at free agents and draft prospects that may fill their needs. This week, we will look at linebackers. The first article will deal with the inside linebackers and the second article – tomorrow – will deal with outside linebackers.
Before we get started, let’s talk about the state of the LB core.
The Cowboys will lose their starting SAM LB (Kyle Wilber) and their MIKE LB (Rolando McClain). They will have several returning players including Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, Mark Nzeocha, and Andrew Gachkar. While Hitchens can fill the middle LB position, I think we all agree that it would be better if he added depth and we have a starting MLB that will strengthen the middle. They need a MLB with some pop and attitude. So the Cowboys will be looking for a starting MIKE.
With that out of the way, let’s start with possible free agents. Typically the Cowboys prefer:
- No one older than 30
- Speed. They like fast LBs
- Attitude, they need someone who is aggressive and will attack runners
- Size; Needs to be a 240 to 250 LB that can drive runners backwards. They also like a taller MIKE.
- Coverage. They need to be someone who can carry the TE on the seam.
Possible Free Agents:
- Sean Weatherspoon (Arizona) – Good speed, but injury prone and he may not be the prototypical middle linebacker. Will rack up tackles, and is decent in coverage. May be too expensive. My guess is it would take 4 to 5 million a year.
- Vincent Rey (Bengals) – The right size and attitude. He can be a thumper. His price tag will probably be in the 4.5 range. He would be a good fit, but I do not think he will hit the market.
- Danny Trevathan (Broncos) – Trevathan has the size, attitude and speed the Cowboys covet. He should be someone they talk to in free agency.
- Zach Brown (Titans) – Brown was a starter in Tennessee and has good size and speed. He could be an affordable option to at least add depth, if not start.
- Shea McClellin (Bears) – Moved to inside LB this year and had some struggles. He can also play SAM, so there is versatility. He does have the size the Cowboys like, so he could be an option.
- Kelvin Sheppard (Dolphins) – Would most likely be a depth player. Split time as starter in Miami.
- Craig Robertson (Browns) – Starter in Cleveland, but probably does not have the size the Cowboys want.
Before we look at some possible prospects the Cowboys could look at to fill the MIKE position, let’s look at attributes we look at when evaluating a LB. Here are 10 traits I look at when evaluating the LB:
- Overall Quickness and Speed
- Instincts – Do they have awareness, can they quickly diagnose a play, and do they recognize patterns (routes, runs, formations)
- Aggressiveness – Do they attack or sit back and wait
- Tackling – Are they fundamental tacklers and do they knock runners backwards
- Pursuit – Can they get through traffic to make plays or do they overrun the play
- Power – Can they take on a blocker and fill a hole
- Hand Skills – Do they use hands to control blockers, shed, and tackle
- Discipline, assignment sound
- Are they play-makers – Do they create turnovers, and blitz. Can they create negative yardage and big hits
- Coverage – Can they cover TEs and RBs.
With that in mind, let’s look at the players in the draft that the Cowboys will evaluate.
Myles Jack (UCLA)
- When he hits a linemen, then linemen goes backwards
- A great combination of athleticism and attitude
- A big hitter, you go down when he hits you
- Fast, can get sideline to sideline with ease
- Good motor, always making his way to ball
- Always going forward to attack runner
- Best coverage LB I have seen in a while. Almost played a type of slot corner in some situations
- Best when he is attacking the line and hitting gaps
- Has good instincts and awareness of what is going on, but is still aggressive and decisive
- Can read, diagnose and then attack
- Pop with his hands, can shock blockers
- Tries to hurt you when he hits you
- Good open field tackler
- A freak athlete
- He is not a good edge rusher
- Needs more techniques and feel when blitzing
- Can get dumb penalties because of passion
- My apologies to Broaddus; I did not think he was a middle backer and thought he was a finesse player, but he can play all three LB positions and he brings an attitude.
- He is my highest rated inside backer and next week he will be my highest rated outside backer
- Great in coverage. Complete three down back
- For Cowboys he would be an immediate starter as middle LB. A playmaker that can help the defense have attitude and create turnovers.
- I may not recommend drafting him at 5, but dropping down to later in the top 10 and getting him would be a great move.
- I would have him as a first round, impact player (top 10 player)
Jaylon Smith (Notre Dame)
- Fast sideline to sideline. Covers a lot of ground and can beat runner to the edge.
- Can weave through traffic, stretch play out and eventually make play
- Is fluid in coverage
- Smart, know what his responsibility is and is disciplined enough to carry it out
- Can take on blockers, shed and tackle
- Really good athlete
- Has some attitude
- Has good feel on blitz
- Will bring some pop when tackling
- Understands zone coverage concepts
- Good production, always near ball
- Will run down plays from behind
- Would like to see him come forward more and not wait for runners to come to him
- He guessed at what hole the RB would take, and guessed wrong several times
- If middle LB will be his role, he will need to get stronger at point of attack
- I think his best position is Will, but can play MIKE.
- Will make a ton of tackles in the NFL. Could see him leading the league.
- Good in man and zone coverages. Probably better in man though
- For the Cowboys he would be an immediate starter and a good combo at MIKE with Lee.
- Is a playmaker that can get three to four picks a year
- I may not recommend drafting him at 5, but dropping down later around 18-20 and getting him would be a great move.
- I would have him as a mid -first rounder (top 20 player)
Reggie Ragland (Alabama)
- Good tackler. Watched four games and did not see him miss a tackle. If he gets to the runner, the runner goes down.
- Good in open field. He has a nice burst to get outside in the flat and make tackles
- Decent in zone coverage. Aware of route combinations
- Is effective when blitzing
- Really good at using hands to play off blocks and make tackle
- Very few times did I see a blocker able to sustain his block on Ragland
- Best when he is attacking the line and hitting gaps
- Has good instincts and awareness of what is going on
- Can read, diagnose and attack
- Disciplined, knows assignment and will carry it out
- I do not like his motor. There are too many plays he is jogging to get into play. Does not give it everything every play
- Does not have elite lateral speed, but he does make a lot of plays
- Was wanting more impact plays for the top rated inside LB.
- Solid, stout inside backer who is good at point of attack
- Is probably best suited for 34 inside backer
- Would be the best blitzing LB have on roster
- Would give the Cowboys size and tackling in the middle
- I do not think he is an elite athlete
- I do not think he is as good as some of the other LBs that has come out of Alabama lately.
- Will be a good NFL starter immediately that will play assignment sound.
- Big gap between him and other inside LB prospects
- I would have him as a first rounder, but do not like his motor at times. With this in mind, I grade him somewhere at the end of the first (top 30 player)
Jordan Jenkins (Georgia)
- Strong, physical and tough
- Versatile – played inside, outside, DE and DT at Georgia.
- Can get to the QB from the outside or inside
- Can tackle, will drive runners backwards
- Can make offensive linemen look bad. Quick to the hole, can shift and dart through a gap
- Is aggressive, attacks at all times. Always moving forward.
- Will take on blockers; multiple blockers most times.
- Looks to have a great size/speed ratio
- Plays big on the big stage
- Is a sure tackler
- As a linebacker he will need to show he can drop in coverage. Georgia did not ask him to do that
- Not sure what his 40 will be. Needs to show speed not just burst
- Can get caught with misdirection at times.
- When playing edge, teams let him get up field and run underneath him.
- Very versatile. He is the second best outside linebacker in a 34 or he could be one of the best middle linebackers in a 43. He probably would be a two down backer in a 43, but he could also become an edge rusher if passing situations.
- He is someone that the Combine could help or hurt. His 40 should tell us if he has the speed to play linebacker. Is other shuttle times will show us if he can play middle, and his bench press will tell if he has the strength to play DE. My guess is he will slim down and try to be a linebacker.
- He could be a high pick if his measurable are there, or he could be a mid-round pick if he does not have measurable that match a position (i.e. the 40 time of a linemen, but a bench press and weight of a linebacker). He needs measurables that match a position or he will be a tweener.
- He is my pet cat. I think he could wind up being an enforcer as a middle linebacker. Maybe not a cover LB but a run stopping enforcer.
- Even if he is not the best pure middle linebacker, he is definitely the best SAM linebacker in the draft. I think SAM and middle will be his best positions in a 43.
- For the Cowboys, he would be starting SAM, backup MIKE, and situational edge rusher. He definitely has position flex.
- He could be there when the Cowboys pick in the third (I have him rated higher than most), but if the Cowboys trade down and pick up a mid to late second, they may need to get him then.
Kentrell Brothers (Missouri)
- Active, good motor. Effort to the ball
- Good in zone coverage
- Really good at the blitz. Will keeping working to find hole to the QB.
- Uses hands well to keep blockers at bay and then make tackle
- Good instincts on run. Sees it and goes gets it
- Understands his responsibility
- Sure tackler
- Makes big plays
- Can catch, creates turnovers
- Smaller in size than prototypical inside backer
- Can be knocked back
- Shot wrong gap at times (may have been his assignment, hard to tell)
- Lost awareness on a couple of pass plays. Eyes in backfield
- Good speed, but not elite speed
- Good solid LB who is sure tackler and can play zone coverage
- Creates turnovers
- Cowboys would like his motor
- I believe he is more of a Will linebacker
- Graded as late second rounder (top 60)
Joshua Perry (Ohio State)
- Physical linebacker with good size.
- Best trait is his ability to take on blockers and shed them to make tackle
- His hands are what makes him a top 50 player. Can use them to keep blockers at bay and then go get runner.
- Played inside and outside. Has some versatility
- Good at timing blitzes from the inside
- When paying outside, is big enough to set edge
- Can weave in and out of traffic laterally to make the tackle
- Good against run. Strong can get movement backwards and disrupt line
- Long strider which cause him to have good speed/size ratio
- Most times he has good recognition on screens and misdirection
- His long strides make him vulnerable in space. He can get off balance
- Short area quickness will be a problem
- He can miss tackles on the edge
- Good instincts, but at times that can get him in trouble as he loses awareness of ball
- Susceptible to cut blocks, although hands keep him out of trouble a lot
- Natural position is the SAM, but he can also play middle. In fact, he may wind up as a middle LB over time.
- His size is an asset against the run
- Probably will never be a three down back. Will come off in third down packages. Although if he moves to the middle he does have the size and speed to carry a TE. Do not think he will ever be great in coverage.
- If available, I could see the Cowboys picking him up with their third. He could fill the SAM LB role and give them depth as a backup Middle.
- I have him rated as a top 60 player
Tyler Matakevich (Temple)
- Smart, knows his assignment
- Competitive and leader
- Will attack the hole
- Good tackler
- Has a good instinct for how to get to QB on blitz
- Will shed blockers and still plant and tackle
- Can make play on the ball
- Seemed slow. I need to see how he runs in combine
- Never really saw a play where he demonstrated burst
- Can be knocked back at times
- Shot wrong gap at times. Lost vision on a couple of run plays. Went wrong way. May not have been able to see over blockers
- Was hesitant at times, took too long to diagnose and attack.
- A competitive hard nose player you want on your team
- Has a knack for big plays
- Cowboys would like his leadership
- I believe he is more of a SAM linebacker and lacks speed for Will or MIKE.
- Graded as a low third rounder (top 90)
Dominique Alexander (Oklahoma)
- Has physical traits to be a good linebacker
- Has a knack for timing blitzes
- Willing to take on blockers and putting himself into the pile
- Has speed enough to get sideline to sideline
- Has good awareness. Reads and adjusts.
- Doesn’t really make mistakes, know his assignment and can carry it out
- Solid tackler
- Takes good angles
- Don’t like his motor. Would like to see him with higher energy.
- Not really a thumper for a middle linebacker. Plays with finesse more than power.
- Would like to see him more big plays
- Would like to see him be more instinctual. See it and go. Can be hesitant.
- Undersized for middle linebacker
- A solid linebacker that does not make mistakes but also doesn’t make a lot of big play either
- A solid contributor early on that might come in an replace a starter
- Needs more nastiness
- I believe he is more of a MIKE, probably could play Will too.
- Honestly, every time I tried to watch tape of him, Striker kept showing up
- Graded as a high fourth rounder (top 100)
Nick Vigil (Utah St.)
- Good athlete
- Takes good angles
- Has really good awareness
- Always comes forward
- Good solid hands
- Good in zone coverage
- Good motor
- Not the fastest player
- Willing tackle, but not someone you would say is a thumper
- Would like to see him more big plays
- Would like to see him be more instinctual. Reads what is going on around him, but sometimes that can make him hesitant. Would like to see him just go make a play
- Will struggle in man coverage
- Good motor. Is a high energy guy who will be a core special teamer.
- While he has good awareness, it at times makes him hesitant.
- Would like to see him be more of a hammer.
- Style of a MIKE, but not the size.
- Graded as a high fourth rounder (top 120)
I like him, he is a good developmental middle or strong side linebacker. He has attitude and is a thumper. Better against the run than pass. He can take on linemen, shed, and fill the hole. Strong and physically imposing, but not a super athlete.
He is slower than you would like and I question his short area quickness. He is stiff and struggles against quicker backs. There were several times that he was “shook” by the back. He does have a high energy level and you get the sense that he is a football guy. I did not see him get knocked backwards much but I did see him miss some tackles; again, usually against a smaller back.
I think he would be a great fit for the Cowboys as strong side linebacker if they could get him at the bottom of the fourth or top of the fifth. A TOP 150.
A little slow. At times he sheds blocks well and others he just gets blown out of the hole. He has good vision and reaction skills, but does not play with enough power for an inside backer. He does have a good motor and is always around the ball. Misses open field tackles due to poor angles. Plays assignment football. Needs more awareness on backside blocks. Not a great blitzer, and does not have any pass moves.
Overall, he’s active, smart, and disciplined but does not bring the boom or get off blocks consistently enough. I have him at the end of the fourth, top of the 5th round. He is outside the top 120.
Not much tape on him, but from the games I watched he is a solid smart and disciplined middle linebacker who can overcome some physical limitations with his awareness, tenacity, and motor.
He has the size of a prototypical middle linebacker, but he is more of a finesse type player than a brute. That does not bode well since he does not have the athleticism of a finesse player. Good player on your team because he will make sure everyone is where they need to be. He understands concepts and that helps him read plays quickly. However, he will be limited because of his physical shortcomings.
I have him rated as a 5th rounder. He is a top 150 player.
The Cowboys have a few options. They can try to keep McClain, who did get better in the year. They can also decide it is time for Hitchens to become a starter. So they have a luxury of not having to go after an inside linebacker. However, they will need to draft or get a free agent for at least one of the two positions (SAM or MIKE). The MIKE is important in the defensive scheme being run, so it needs to be a priority.
If the Cowboys can go out and get a free agent starter, they should. Why?
- Myles Jack would be better as a Will
- Jaylon Smith is hurt and may need most of next year to heal
- I do not think Ragland will do as well in the pros
- There are not a lot of other possible starters.
There are a couple of possible exceptions that could surprise. If Jordan Jenkins runs well enough (under 4.75), I think he can play middle linebacker and be a thumper. He certainly can play the SAM and be a situational DE so there is less risk. I also think that Joshua Perry can move inside and be an effective middle linebacker. Jared Wright may be a good option later in the draft for added depth. He may be able to play the SAM as well.
Good starting free agent options will include Trevathan, Rey, and Weatherspoon. Lesser known options could be McClellin (Bears) or Brown (Titans).
There are not a lot of starting MIKE’s in this draft so the Cowboys need to try to address the starting MIKE in free agency, if possible. If they fail, they need to address in the first round or they will most likely not find a starter. If they do miss on a LB in the first, then they may take a chance on Jenkins or Perry in the second or third. Otherwise they will need to draft a backup like Norris or Vigil.
I hope you enjoyed this. Check out my next Blog on the outside linebackers tomorrow at 11.