Last year, four inside linebackers were selected in the first round of the draft and a fifth 'backer was off the board only four picks into Round 2. Four of those 'backers — the Bears' Roquan Smith, the Bills' Tremaine Edmunds, the Cowboys' Leighton Vander Esch and the Colts' Darius Leonard — had superb rookie seasons, with Leonard being named Defensive Rookie of the Year. All but Edmunds and Evans were in contention for the top rookie honor, and only Evans didn't lead his team in tackles.
Smith started the final 15 games of the Bears regular season after playing only eight snaps in the opener because he was late getting to training camp following a contract holdout and subsequent hamstring pull. Still, he led the Bears with 122 total tackles, in addition to 5.0 sacks and an interception. It was quite a remarkable season for the eighth overall pick who looks like a future Pro Bowler. The only reason Smith didn’t receive more rookie accolades is the level of star power on the Bears defense. Regardless, turn on the tape and Smith jumps out because of his instincts and playmaking ability.
The next inside linebacker selected was Edmunds, whom the Bills moved up to select at No. 15. Edmunds started every game, finishing with 121 total tackles, as well as two sacks and two picks. Like Smith, Edmunds will be a future Pro Bowler. Early in the season, Edmunds struggled some in coverage, but by years end, that was a strong point in his game.
Vander Esch was the 18th overall selection in last year’s draft, and if it weren't for a college neck injury that scared some clubs off, he might have gone earlier. Like the others, Vander Esch led the Cowboys in tackles with 140, and he also recorded two interceptions. Vander Esch wasn’t originally on the Pro Bowl team but was added as an alternate after starter Luke Kuechly pulled out of the game. With his athleticism, instincts and big play ability, Vander Esch will be a future super star in the league.
After Evans, the fifth inside linebacker selected in last year’s draft was the South Carolina State product, Leonard, who had the best season of the bunch. Leonard finished the year with a whopping 163 total tackles, seven sacks, two interceptions and four forced fumbles. Smith and Vander Esch were Pro Bowl alternates, but Leonard received the honor on the original voting, and as I mentioned above, he was also named Defensive Rookie of the Year.
I don’t remember a draft class with that many outstanding rookies at a single position. But this year's draft might give us some more superb inside linebackers. The combine testing showed that the top two players in the LB class actually fared better than the guys last year. Testing doesn’t equal production on the field, but it is a start, so it will be interesting to see how these players perform in 2019.
The player generally regarded as the best inside linebacker in the incoming class is LSU’s Devin White, the Tigers' leading tackler last season with 123 in addition to three sacks. White is built similar to Smith, measuring 6-0 and 237 pounds. But White's testing was better than Smith’s in all areas with a time of 4.42 in the 40, a 39.5” vertical jump, a 9’10” long jump and agility times of 7.07 (3-cone) and 4.17 (20-yard shuttle). Those are all outstanding times for a player at that position.
Based on White's tape, I think that he and Smith have similar games: Both are very instinctive, as well as being excellent blitzers and coverage guys.
Michigan linebacker Devin Bush is a little shorter than White at 5-11 and 234 pounds, but he might be an even better athlete. Bush ran 4.43, had jumps of 40.5” and 10’4” and agilities of 6.93 and 4.23. On tape, Bush is a heat-seeking missile, making plays sideline to sideline. Bush missed the last two games with an injury, so his tackle numbers are down a little, but he jumps off the tape with his range and hitting ability.
No one in last year’s group put up the athletic numbers of the 2019 class at the combine, but their play on the field will be hard to match. Just comparing times, Smith ran a 4.59, Vander Esch timed 4.65, Edmunds was the fastest at 4.54 and Leonard was rather pedestrian at 4.70. But he slightly pulled a quad on his only attempt and didn’t run at his pro day because of the injury.
It will be interesting to see what White and Bush, in addition to Mack Wilson from Alabama and Florida's Vosean Joseph — neither of whom tested in Indy — will do once they get on the field this fall. They might not play up to the standards of the 2018 class, but I’m sure they will give last year’s group a run for their money.