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In the second installment of our position previews, we’re taking a look at off-ball linebackers, a key position in Vic Fangio’s defense which will mix in zone coverages and aims to take away the middle of the field.
When Fangio mentioned at the NFL Combine that the team needed to “add a player or two at the position” it came as a welcome acknowledgment that the Denver Broncos just haven’t been good enough at inside linebacker.
The increased value at the position in the Mile High City really comes down to cover skills, which is why we focused on the best athletes and cover linebackers in an intriguing 2019 class. It’s a top-heavy group that lacks a bit of depth in the middle rounds, but has plenty of meat on the bone by late day two and early day three.
As the draft is quickly approaching, here’s who the Broncos should be keying in on.
The dream scenario
Devin White, LB, LSU
LSU’s two-time captain plays like a bat out of hell, with masterful speed downhill where he can make big plays happen in the blink of an eye. He also plays bigger than his 6-foot, 237-pound frame, consistently harassing opposing backfields, as his 26 TFLs in the last two years can attest.
That said, White is far from a polished player. He’ll take bad angles, and can be too reactionary to play-action fakes which will put him out of position.
But what really stands out about White, despite his lack of polish, is his athleticism and ability to make plays when he’s seemingly out of the picture, a truly special quality and a big reason why he could be selected before the Broncos 10th pick, a feat not many inside linebackers are worthy of.
That athleticism is also what makes him so appealing for Fangio, as White has ample range in coverage and can turn and run with anyone. Under the tutelage of one of the greatest linebacker coaches of all time, White could become an elite talent and would be a slam-dunk pick in early round one.
The other option in round one
Devin Bush, LB, Michigan
The other Devin in this draft is also a contender to be taken 10th overall, and while he might not have as many highlights plays as White, Bush is the much safer and NFL-ready prospect of the two.
The Wolverine checks off a lot of boxes for Fangio’s ‘D,’ with big-time athleticism, sound instincts, and a finisher’s mentality when he’s tackling in space.
He doesn’t play as big as White, but he’s also less mistake-prone and can make his fair share of plays in the opposing backfield thanks to his instincts and timing.
Everything he does is measured, not overextending or overrunning plays, though it would be nice to see him flash a bit more recklessness and ferocity.
In coverage, he can run with the best of them and has plenty of range. If his hand usage can be improved when taking on blockers, Bush could easily be the NFL’s next great undersized LB.
Day two options are in the eye of the beholder
Mack Wilson, LB, Alabama
Wilson is the forgotten man in the top three, losing ground due to an inconsistent season finale and some unimpressive testing numbers which have created a large gap between him and the Devins.
That said, Wilson is the most gifted cover backer of the top-three, making incredible interceptions and showing natural fluidity to drop in zone and some pretty special ball skills.
He’s also plenty athletic sideline-to-sideline, and when he’s engaged, will lower the boom and fly downhill to make plays.
However, he needs to be more consistent on a play-to-play basis and against the run. He just didn’t make as many flashy plays as his talent would warrant, but there’s upside there, making Wilson a solid value in early round two.
Terrill Hanks, LB, New Mexico State
We fell in love with Hanks at the Senior Bowl, as his cover skills in one-on-one drills made him look like a cornerback, and then he started flying downhill with bad intentions, destroying anything in his path.
Hanks’ raw tools are as enticing as anyone of the top three studs, he’s just extremely raw and doesn’t play his best if he needs to read and diagnose. However, if his assignment is clear—like in man coverage—he can be a superstar. To put things into perspective, his Senior Bowl performance and college tape are significantly better than Darius Leonard’s a year ago.
His reckless approach and elite man-cover skills—he was often used in press coverage in the slot at NMSU—make him very intriguing if coached up, with the potential to be a steal in round three.
Don’t let his 4.98 40 deceive you, he pulled a hamstring on that attempt, Hanks’ athleticism shouldn’t be questioned.
Drue Tranquill, LB, Notre Dame
Tranquill is the first of three converted safeties here and was hard to miss when watching the Irish’s outstanding 2018 defense.
Tranquill’s just natural, he gets to his spots with ease, is a physical and sound tackler, and quite talented in coverage. He showed safety-like speed at the combine with a 4.57 40 and tested at a high level in everything else, including an impressive 31 bench reps.
There aren’t many knocks on Tranquill’s game, he would be a nice value in the top 100.
Germaine Pratt, LB, NC State
Pratt is another converted safety who really stood out when watching Bradley Chubb’s tape a season ago. Pratt plays with an edge and isn’t afraid to shoot gaps, always trying to make plays around the line of scrimmage.
He’s shown some growth in his game as far as his instincts go and is also competent in coverage, even getting flexed out wide from time to time, where he showed himself to be more than capable.
His range and fluidity in coverage leave something to be desired, a concern in Fangio’s defense, but after running a 4.57 in Indianapolis, there’s enough there to be encouraged he can become more natural dropping in zone, especially considering he was mostly asked to shoot gaps and attack downhill for the Wolfpack
Blake Cashman, LB, Minnesota
Cashman has been a big riser since his outstanding performance in Indianapolis which opened people’s eyes to his high-end production in the Big Ten.
The Gophers’ standout is just sound, won’t miss many tackles and plays an instinctual brand of defense. He’s also competent in coverage and has some significant upside after proving he’s more athletic than the tape would suggest.
He’s a hard-nosed tackler and playmaker when attacking downhill. He’s, in some ways, reminiscent of Bush in how he doesn’t overrun anything. Cashman could prove to be a strong pick in round three even if he doesn’t always flash his outstanding athletic skills on tape.
Vosean Joseph, LB, Florida
Joseph is a really intriguing prospect, at times flashing first-round type talent, while looking lost in other games. His athleticism stood out with the Gators, though he’s lost ground to others due to injuries that have prevented him from doing athletic testing.
At only 230 pounds, Joseph is undersized but ultra-physical and can be devastating while hunting ball carriers downhill, making plenty of plays around the line of scrimmage. He’s a natural athlete whose instincts and cover skills need some polish.
If Denver were to swoop him up in round three, he’d come with some risk but could also prove to be a steal down the road if developed.
Bobby Okereke, LB, Stanford
A personal favorite, Okereke is a talented cover backer with nice movement skills who was one of Stanford’s best defenders the past two seasons. He’s versatile and can impact the game in a variety of ways. Fangio’s Stanford connections could prove vital in getting better insights on him.
He isn’t for everyone due to his lack of physicality against the run, but in this scheme, could prove to be a valuable starter for years to come. Early round three might be a bit too rich, but he shouldn’t drop out of the top 100.
Day three gems
Chase Hansen, LB, Utah
The final safety convert on our list, Hansen is old and will already be 26 when the 2019 NFL season kicks off. The former Ute plays like a box safety, looking to destroy anyone who dares run in front of him. He has DB-like movement skills, with some intriguing upside in coverage.
He really stands out when playing around the line of scrimmage and as a blitzer, handling the switch to linebacker with ease. His stock has leveled off due to his age and his slender 220-pound frame, but he could be a valuable special teamer with some potential to fit in as an every-down backer in Denver.
Drew Lewis, LB, Colorado
Lewis is a really impressive and instinctual player, with the requisite athleticism to fit in Fangio’s scheme. He consistently stood out in college and thrived in the Pac-12 despite a lack of great size.
He tested well at his pro day, running a 4.5 flat, and is a true playmaker who impacts the game in all phases. Lewis has really flown under the radar but could be an ideal fit in Denver and might just be the next great undrafted Buff.
Gary Johnson, LB, Texas
Johnson was the only linebacker to test in the same range as the Devins, running an absurd 4.4 40 himself. The tape just wasn’t very impressive as he primarily played close to the line, didn’t show great instincts and is still raw in coverage. However, the upside is there, and he’s already pretty strong shooting gaps. Johnson is also a stout run defender and has some upside as a sideline-to-sideline backer.
We might be a little low on him here, but he wouldn’t be worth selecting before day three.
Ben Burr-Kirven, LB, Washington
Burr-Kirven really stands out on paper with his excellent production and testing results. He’s a responsible linebacker with good instincts and deceptive ability to make plays downhill around the line of scrimmage.
Like Bush and Cashman, he’s so keen on not overplaying anything that he doesn’t always showcase his high-end athleticism, so while he tested well, he doesn’t look like the phenomenal athlete that the numbers would suggest he is. He’d be an intriguing day three pick.