In previous drafts, off-the-ball linebackers were not always considered to be premium picks because some would come off the field in their teams' various sub packages. Recently that has changed with colleges producing several LB prospects who enter the league not only as every-down players but immediate starters.
Take last year for example. Five inside linebackers were selected within the first 36 picks — and each of them made a huge immediate impact on their teams. Roquan Smith (Bears), Tremaine Edmunds (Bills), Leighton Vander Esch (Cowboys) and Darius Leonard (Colts) all recorded over 100 tackles as rookies, and both Leonard and Vander Esch went to the Pro Bowl. Rashaan Evans, the former Alabama linebacker who went to Tennessee as the 22nd overall pick, started 14 games and recorded 53 total tackles. The Titans think they have a star in the making in Evans.
The 2019 draft might not have quite the same depth as last year, but there are at least a few players who should make immediate rookie impacts.
When I evaluate linebackers, obviously they have to have the physical traits as far as height, weight, speed, strength and tackling ability. But they also have to be instinctive, meaning they anticipate before reacting. A linebacker without top instincts is "just a guy."
With that let's take a closer look at PFW's top six off-the-ball LB prospects in the 2019 draft:
Tranquill makes plays all over the field. He started off his career as a safety and then moved to linebacker in 2017. Going into the draft, the question is not about if Tranquill can play but rather can he get by the medical? He has had two ACL surgeries, as well as having a foot problem that led to missed time last season. His combine workout was excellent, but it still will come down to his medical grade. If he passes, he can be a rookie starter at "Will."
Like with Tranquill, put on Okereke's tape and you will see a guy who flies around all over the field making plays. He may be slightly undersized, but Okereke is strong and explosive and shows very good play speed. He recorded 96 tackles in each of the past two seasons, and there is not really a weakness to his game. He is very effective when used to rush the passer on blitzes, with 7.5 combined sacks from 2017-18. Look for him to get drafted on Day 2.
Originally, I had Joseph rated higher, but he didn’t run as well as anticipated. He doesn’t have a lot of size (6010 – 230) and his speed is average for the position, clocking a 4.72 at the Florida Pro Day. What Joseph does have is very good instincts and the ability to slip blocks. He is a very consistent player, from defending the run to rushing the passer, playing in coverage and in pursuit. He may lack great size, but he is strong and can hit. His best position at the NFL level will be at "Will" linebacker in a 4-3 scheme.
Wilson doesn’t have the speed or quickness of the top two linebackers in this class, but he is also a little bigger. Like many players who come out of Alabama, Wilson had to wait his turn to become a regular. For that reason, he was only a one-year starter. Wilson has good (not great) instincts, and he is not slow reacting. Despite his size, he is not what I would call a big hitter, but he shows he can get rid of blockers quickly. The player Wilson reminds me of is former Alabama and current Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland.
Bush is only 5’11, so by any standards he is short. But he has 32” arms, which are very long for a player of his height and helps compensate. On the field, Bush is all football player. He has top instincts and makes plays all over the field. At the combine, Bush ran a 4.43, which is exceptional for the position. He is a full-throttle player on every down and has to be accounted for by the offense. He’s another guy who will start from Day 1 and be very productive.
White is very similar as far as size and overall athleticism to Roquan Smith, but he's a little faster than the No. 8 overall pick a year ago. They both have exceptional instincts. I feel White is a playmaking machine who is equally good vs. both the run and the pass. He is also very effective when used to blitz. As a tackler, he seldom misses. He will be an immediate starter wherever he lands.