After diving into Senior Bowl’s most talented position group yesterday here on DFF Devy, today I look at a more underwhelming bunch, the linebackers. Last year in Mobile, Darius Leonard, a small-school linebacker from South Carolina State, shined brightly on the big stage on his way to being drafted 36th overall by the Indianapolis Colts. 163 tackles and one breakout season later and Leonard is on his way to being named Defensive Rookie of the Year. When asked what he was looking for when scouting linebackers for this year’s Senior Bowl, Jim Nagy said, “We put an emphasis on finding fast, athletic linebackers that the league wants to play with”. Could one of these linebackers be this year’s version of Leonard?
Senior Bowl Invitees
To begin our look at Senior Bowl bunch, we’ll start with the Big-12 Defensive Player of the Year, David Long Jr. The West Virginia Mountaineer is just one of the few redshirt-juniors that earned an invite to this year’s Senior Bowl week, the only defensive player thus far to do so. Perhaps the most important part of Long’s week will take place before he even touches the field. Listed at 5’11” 220lbs, many NFL teams will question whether he has the size necessary to play linebacker at the next level. Once on the field, Long will have a chance to showcase his talents, which are highlighted by a ferocity to sniff out screens and blowing up runs in the backfield. Long will be challenged with coverages in the flats and curl zone, which could expose a weakness of his.
Notre Dame features two linebackers this year at the Senior Bowl, Te’Von Coney and Drue Tranquill. Coney has a chance to be the first linebacker drafted from the group we’ll see in Mobile if he shows improvement in his pass coverage skills. While athleticism in coverage is not an issue, breaking down routes and processing plays in the passing game is where Coney’s weaknesses stand out. While there are times he can be flat-footed as a defender, when Coney is on the move, his athleticism stands out and he is able to make plays outside the hashes. While Coney’s play features his athletic ability but lacks football intelligence, the opposite can be said of teammate and fifth-year senior Drue Tranquill. Originally a safety during his first four years for the Irish, Tranquill’s ACL tears (one in each knee) in 2014 and 2015 limited his range and forced him to make the move to linebacker. If he can test well at the combine next month, he has the chance to hear his name called during the draft.
The PAC-12 Conference features three linebackers at the Senior Bowl, Bobby Okereke from Stanford, Cameron Smith of USC, and Chase Hansen from Utah. Okereke is probably the best athlete of the linebacker group this year. He shows good potential on tape but is definitely lost at moments on the field in coverage. I’d expect him to flash on the practice field and make highlight, eye-catching plays, but also get burned at times during 11-on-11 drills. Smith had a subpar senior season this year after dealing with hamstring issues for the majority of the season. After tearing his ACL in 2015, it will be important for Smith to show he is completely healthy and passing his medicals at the combine will be a big step in the draft process. Hansen, a former safety transitioned to linebacker, shows above average pass coverage on tape but is challenged against the run. As a sixth-year senior, Hansen will turn 26 shortly after the NFL Draft, which will undoubtedly lower his draft stock.
Nice awareness and patience by #Stanford LB Bobby Okereke. Shows solid pursuit of the QB with solid closing speed to beat him to the sideline before the ball is out of the QB’s hands pic.twitter.com/MOPv8dPza9
— Jason DiRienzo (@allpurposescout) September 8, 2018
This year’s small-school linebacker to keep an eye on in Mobile is Terrill Hanks from New Mexico State. While he doesn’t flash superior athleticism on tape, Hanks does well processing plays and meeting the ball carrier in the correct gap on inside running plays. Rushes outside the tackles and outside screen plays are where Hanks’ speed is shown to be a weakness. It will be important to see at the Senior Bowl if Hanks can keep speed with speedier ball carriers that he didn’t face at the level of competition at New Mexico State.
The SEC has two linebackers this year in Mobile, Deshaun Davis of Auburn and Otaro Alaka from Texas A&M. Davis, who actually is from Mobile, Alabama originally, will no doubt have an extra sense of motivation playing in front of a hometown crowd. In three years as a starting linebacker, he amassed 261 tackles, highlighted by a senior year which included 15 TFL. Listed at just 5’11” and 233 lbs, Davis does have mobility issues in pass coverage, which might limit him to an early-down thumper at the next level. Alaka is a brick wall of a defender, his 6’3 240 lbs frame stands out on tape before you even press play. A very effective defender on inside runs and a devastating A-Gap blitzer, Alaka will be tested at the Senior Bowl on plays outside the hashes.
Saving quite possibly the best for last, Germaine Pratt of North Carolina State is my pick for the first linebacker from this group to be selected during the NFL Draft. I currently have a Day 2 grade on Pratt, which is most likely where he is selected come April, but his athletic testing at the combine will be a big determining factor on his draft position. A converted safety turned linebacker, Pratt shows plus abilities in pass coverage and has a knack for sifting through the trash in the run game in order to make tackles in the backfield.
NC State ILB Germaine Pratt is amazing. This here is a clinic on how to sift through traffic and he does so well. Dude is agile, has range, and is a natural Coverage LB. This dude is legit as all hell. Love the way he plays. If your team needs a LB, root for Pratt. #DraftTwitter pic.twitter.com/oO7a2nfa1V
— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) January 6, 2019
Names To Watch
While there isn’t too much additional linebacker talent eligible for the Senior Bowl this year not already on the roster, there are a few names in the East-West Shrine Game that I’ll be keeping an eye on next weekend. Ben Burr-Kirven of Washington produced at a high level during his senior season as a Husky. Earning PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors this season with 176 tackles, Burr-Kirven will face the same size concerns as Long Jr. The University of Washington’s website lists Burr Kirven at 6’0” 221 lbs and it’ll be intriguing to see what he measures in at in St. Petersburg.
Another Shrine Game participant that could earn a Senior Bowl invite with a stellar week of practice is Buffalo’s Khalil Hodge. The big question for Hodge during the Shrine Game will be his ability to defend the run against larger and more athletic linemen that he didn’t have to compete with in the Mid-American Conference. Hodge’s athleticism and pass coverage abilities flashed on tape and he should be able to show off those talents for coaches and scouts in St. Pete.
One last prospect who could be a dark horse for a Senior Bowl invite is Wisconsin’s T.J. Edwards. While Edwards is most definitely one of the top linebackers eligible to participate in Mobile, the fact that he isn’t on the roster of any senior showcase game leads me to believe that he declined invitation instead of being snubbed. Hopefully, he has a late change of heart to this decision as he would bolster the talent of this group that we’ll see at the end of the month.
That’s it for today’s coverage featuring the group of linebackers that you need to know about come the final weekend of the month. Make sure to return to DFF Devy throughout the spring for all your draft needs, both here on the site and on Twitter @DFF_Devy. If you have any questions, comments, or recommendations about what topics I should write about next, contact me on Twitter @BrumleyNFL. As always, appreciate you reading, and happy Draft Season!