In preparation for NFL training camps kicking off, we at Full Press Coverage will preview 10 of the most notable players at each position around the league. In these groupings, we will examine the three best (The Now), four who are ready for the next step (The Next) and three who have to show some sign of life in 2019 (The Needy). Next up, the linebackers.
To be clear, this covers off-ball linebackers only. Pass rushing linebackers such as Khalil Mack are not included.
1. Bobby Wagner, Seahawks
2. Luke Kuechly, Panthers
The Wagner-Kuechly debate will rage on to the end of time. They have clearly been the two premier off-ball linebackers since 2012, and neither has any weakness to their game whatsoever. Their analytical stats are neck-and-neck in nearly every category with some of the top run defense production the league has seen in recent years. Both are reminiscent of Brian Urlacher with their tremendous range, speed, coverage, pass rushing and sure tackling. You cannot go wrong picking either as the best in the business.
But Wagner got the edge here for two reasons: One, his pass rush efficiency has been stronger than Kuechly’s in recent years. Two, Wagner’s coverage was just slightly better in 2018. Over the last three seasons, Wagner had 62 pressures on 192 snaps versus Kuechly’s 40 on 174 snaps, per Pro Football Focus. And in coverage, regardless of who they were covering (backs, tight ends, receivers), Wagner recorded a better passer rating allowed than Kuechly, albeit by narrow margins. Obviously, that does not mean Kuechly could not reclaim the top spot in 2019. This rivalry effectively requires a year-by-year analysis. For now, it is Wagner’s title. But said title is precarious.
3. Deion Jones, Falcons
All the talk about this position goes to Wagner and Kuechly, and deservedly so. But Jones has similarly established himself as a do-it-all linebacker for the modern day NFL. The biggest difference between Jones and the other two is his shorter resume. He has similar athleticism, awareness, play-making ability and most of all, elite coverage skills. It was clear last season how Atlanta’s pass defense needed Jones after he went down with injury. Their linebackers’ passer rating allowed jumped 30 points without Jones, while their forced incompletion percentage dropped 8.5 points (PFF). When Jones came back late last season, he clearly was not the same player yet, but still elevated the pass defense. As he now is fully recovered with a new extension, expect the 2017 version of Jones to reemerge and fully insert himself among the top linebackers in the game today.
1. Kwon Alexander, 49ers
Alexander made a lot of money in free agency recently, and the argument could be made it was based off of one great season. In 2016, he led the league in solo tackles with 12 tackles for loss, emerging as a surprise star in Tampa. The following two seasons, however, were steps back, both in terms of availability and tackling. Pro Football Focus had him at a missed tackle rate of 18 percent since 2015, the worst of any linebacker in the NFL. And now he joins San Francisco on a hefty contract, a team with promise but hurting for tackling help.
Alexander’s range makes him enticing. He has sideline-to-sideline ability, which accounts for the tackle quantity. However, he misses a number of plays, particularly between the tackles, which has negated his high athleticism. For Alexander, the next step is steadiness. It is hard to imagine him fulling living up to his new contract if he remains such a boom-or-bust player. But if he can stay within himself more, improve his tackling and harness his rangy play, the 49ers could have themselves an anchor.
2. Roquan Smith, Bears
Despite a pretty strong rookie season, Smith fell a bit by the wayside at his position, at least among fellow rookies Darius Leonard and Leighton Vander Esch. It is understandable, given how those two immediately became defensive cornerstones, while Smith was more eased into his role. But the Georgia product was the top linebacker prospect in 2018 and displayed why fairly often in his rookie season. He particularly stood out in coverage, where he could mitigate his more modest size with blazing speed and awareness. On top of that, he proved himself a productive pass rusher with five sacks and 12 pressures.
But Smith still has room to grow as a run defender. Despite high tackle numbers, his run disruption rate was fairly low and his missed tackle rate fairly high. As a big play machine in college, Smith could afford to gamble and fly into gaps. In the NFL, however, that took him out of position. The same could be said for his pass coverage where he would at times get caught guessing and miss players in his zone. Those are instinctive shortcomings that dissipate with experience. Because of his athleticism and knack for the ball, Smith is tailor-made for stardom in the modern NFL. The next step is getting the full feel for how NFL offenses operate.
3. Jaylon Smith, Cowboys
One could argue Smith took a massive step in 2018 already. Once the top linebacker prospect and a surefire top-five pick, a catastrophic knee injury torpedoed Smith’s career. Alas, it did not take a lot of time for Smith to re-find the elite form he had at Notre Dame. In just his second full season, Smith was one of the premier coverage and pass rushing linebackers in the game while also recording 44 defensive stops. Like his running mate Vander Esch, Smith was a true three-down linebacker who thrived in all phases.
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So what further steps are there for him to take? Well, Smith’s time in college showed a player who dominated every facet. He was nigh unblockable as a pass rusher and in run defense with elite range in coverage. The Smith of last year’s vintage was dominant as a pass rusher and strong in coverage, but merely solid in run defense. Like Roquan Smith, he is a gap shooter who makes his mark by flying to the ball full force. That leads to a lot of big plays, but also to getting washed out at times. And unfortunately, the thoughts of residual injury complications will hang around, given the horrific nature of the torn ligaments he suffered years ago. So for Smith, the next step from a great 2018 is a proven healthy top-five player. That is how high his ceiling appears to be.
4. Jordan Hicks, Cardinals
This pick is a reach in a way because Hicks has been one of the most effective linebackers in the sport when healthy. The issue is that he has only one 16-game season under his belt, and two in which he started fewer than half of his team’s games. Now that Hicks has signed a sizable but relatively team-friendly deal with Arizona, he is expected to be a focal point of their defense. In parts of four seasons in Philadelphia, Hicks was typically one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL. And last season, his run defense caught up. The next step for Hicks is reaching that higher echelon as a run defender, fully rounding out his sky high potential.
1. Darron Lee, Chiefs
How far Lee has fallen from the fanfare of being a first-round pick in New York. All the expectations and early playing time resulted in well-below-average play and culminated in being traded for a sixth-round pick after only three years in the NFL. His coverage was a complete liability in his first two seasons, and by improving a bit last season, Lee at least earned himself a spot in Kansas City’s competition this offseason. But even with the Chiefs, a team desperate for quality linebacker play, Lee’s spot is far from guaranteed.
So in summary, a recent first-round pick is going to be clawing for a job on a team that has little in front of him. And that battle will be happening in his fourth year in the league. In a contract year, this could be Lee’s last gasp at a starting job in the NFL.
2. Jarrad Davis, Lions
Davis is the poster child for production without efficiency. His tackle numbers have been substantial in two seasons, his pressure numbers solid. But given his high draft status, Davis has been inconsistent, if not completely unreliable, in his primary duties. He has missed a lot of tackles while also struggling mightily in coverage. In two seasons, he has allowed a completion percentage of almost 80 while also missing 36 tackles, per PFF, both placing him among the worst at his position and volume of snaps. While Davis is not on a short leash, given his age and draft status, he will have to have a strong rebound in 2019 to avoid slipping into Darron Lee territory.
3. Anthony Hitchens, Chiefs
The Chiefs have a handful of problematic linebackers on their roster now, with Lee joining Hitchens. Hitchens, a solid player in Dallas, turned into one of the worst linebackers in the NFL after signing a lengthy contract with Kansas City. For whatever reason, the downhill specialist Hitchens lost his feel for angles much of the season, as did virtually every other Chiefs linebacker. Granted, Hitchens still posted some huge tackle numbers, but they were empty numbers, to say the least. As the Chiefs are still among the AFC hopefuls, they need the Dallas version of Hitchens to reappear, and soon.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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