Draft Prep: The “cream” of the linebacker draft class
This is considered a very strong “EDGE” draft. The only problem with that is what I mentioned in my previous article detailing the various linebacker roles in the Steelers system: what kind of EDGE player are the Steelers looking for? OLB/EDGE or DE/EDGE?
The linebacker class is not as deep as the corner or safety positions, but both are available, plus a few good inside linebackers as well. The Steelers will likely need to look at using their first round pick on one of these players if they want a top-tier prospect.
This is the greatest area of need that the Steelers have right now. Between the OLB/EDGE players and the ILB players, there are many solid potential Pro-Bowl level prospects that this group is absolutely huge: there are 10 players who I think belong in the top-tier of this position. There are some EDGE names that you aren’t going to see in here, specifically Taco Charlton and Tanoh Kpassagnon. Some folks consider them EDGE players, but for the purposes of classification, they are more DE/DL players. The will be broken down in the near future with the rest of the defensive linemen.
Let’s look at this year’s linebackers, listed in no particular order. (I will note the prospect’s primary designation after each name as OLB or ILB.)
Myles Garrett – 6′ 4″, 272 lbs. (OLB – More Joker than SAM)
From the perspective of if this player is a fit for the Steelers, well, the answer is that it doesn’t matter. They have no shot at Garrett falling out of the top five. Period.
Garrett stands above the rest of a very talented group. He was a top performer in every single test he took at the combine. His NFL.com profile compares him to Julius Peppers:
“Elite edge rusher who possesses rare explosiveness and the fluid movement skills and agility of an NBA shooting guard. Good size, but he’s never likely going to be a hold-your-ground run defender, and might be best suited as an outside linebacker. However, his ability to explode into the backfield through a gap or around the edge gives him disruptive potential on every snap”
If you can remember how dominant Peppers was when he first came into the league, that’s what you’re looking at with Garrett. Still, he’s not perfect, and he needs to work on his rush moves. But he is the best defender in this draft.
Solomon Thomas – 6′ 3″, 273 lbs. (OLB – Either)
I think Thomas fits more as an outside linebacker, rather than a defensive end or EDGE rusher. As a DE, he’s small, or what we call a “tweener”. But as an outside linebacker he has the attributes. When Thomas beats a block, it’s clear that he beat his opponent. He’s has a really powerful bull rush, and has really good hands. His pass rush is not “predictable”: he changes things up.
He’s good. Really good.
An AFC director of scouting had this to say about him on Solomon Thomas’ NFL.com profile:
“He’s damn good. You have to figure out where you will play him, but he won’t stop. He’s going to be really productive.”
If he falls out of the top ten, which could happen, I would move heaven and earth to try and trade up to get him. But that’s not really the Steelers modus operandi. Don’t even dream about it being a possibility.
Haason Reddick – 6′ 1″ 237 lbs. (ILB – Mike)
Reddick is a fast riser who has seen his draft stock shooting up consistently even before the combine. He’s being projected as an EDGE player, but he’s not going to be that in the NFL. Here is why – Reddick is essentially Ryan Shazier. Their measurements are nearly the same, and I believe Reddick will have to play ILB in a 3-4 scheme.
Since the Steelers already have this player (Shazier) I would pass on Reddick, as much as I like him.
If you don’t believe me that he’s Shazier, go to his NFL.com draft profile page and look at this NFL Comparison player: Ryan Shazier.
Derek Barnett 6′ 3″ 259 lbs. (OLB – Either)
Derek Barnett is another player who has almost no chance to fall to the Steelers, but comparatively speaking, he has a better chance of being there at 30 than Thomas or Garrett. Though he’s not as fast or as strong as the latter two, only the best tight ends can block this player; he tends to toss them aside like yesterday’s lunch. He has great field awareness and is fluid enough in his movement to drop into coverage when needed.
Reuben Foster – 6′ 0″ 229 lbs. (ILB – Either)
This is the last of the “Cream” that I think won’t be available to the Steelers. Foster is a top 10 talent, and the only real question about him is what was going on at the combine with his medicals that caused that little freak out. Ultimately he got sent home, so he doesn’t have combine numbers, and I haven’t been able to find numbers from the Alabama Pro Day, but he is considered the best pure linebacker in this year’s draft.
Here is what an NFC director of scouting had to say about Foster on his NFL.com draft profile:
“He’s not a MIKE linebacker. I think he’s a pure run-and-hit WILL linebacker with good cover talent. I have a higher grade on him than I had on Reggie Ragland. Better pro potential to me.”
The biggest concern with Foster is his medicals. He has a history of stingers, and it’s what teams see there that will determine if he goes top 10, or drops. The Steelers should have the same concerns with Foster, but he fits exactly what they need right now from an ILB, someone to move into the WILL ILB position.
Takarist McKinley – 6′ 2″ 250 lbs. (OLB – Either)
McKinley is the definition of high motor: relentless. He never takes a play off. An AFC scout said this about McKinley on his NFL.com profile:
“He was my sleeper headed into the season, but that went out the window with the season he had this year. I think he’s a second rounder who needs time but he’ll probably get over drafted. He’s going to be a productive pro.”
Takk has moved up boards, but he’s slipping a bit because he needs shoulder surgery. That will probably lead to his draft stock dropping.
There is some mystery about McKinley right now as well, as he tweeted a few cryptic tweets out this week, specifically this one:
Turns out, he was referring to going to a softball game. He followed that tweet up a few days later with this one:
The bottom line with McKinley is that he is an impressive prospect. He is still really raw and yet ended up having impressive production, specifically with tackles for loss and sacks. His motor is non-stop, and if he can learn what he needs to, he could be an elite NFL player.
Charles Harris – 6′ 2″ 253 lbs. (OLB – Either)
Charles Harris was a rising prospect, but he’s one player whose draft stock took a tumble after the combine. Make no mistake, Harris is still a solid player, and his numbers weren’t way off, but he may have scared a few teams away with a poor showing.
An NFC regional scout said this on Harris’ NFL.com profile:
“Don’t get caught up in his numbers this year. He just didn’t mesh with what they asked him to do. He’s also got to be coachable and I think he may have fought the changes a little too much. What I saw in 2015 is what I think he’s going to be.”
If I’m the Steelers, I think there are better options.
Tim Williams – 6′ 4″ 244 lbs. (OLB – Joker)
Williams is a polished pass rusher and can win both inside and outside. Some feel he is the ideal 3-4 OLB. There are real questions as to if Williams can be a three-down player at the next level. He wasn’t at Alabama, which suggests he is a pass rushing specialist only.
Still, I don’t think his combine numbers will knock him down the board. What will hurt Williams is his off-field issues (failed drug tests and a handgun charge). He has been open about his issues, and would like to have teams write these things off as “the bad decision of youth”.
Carl Lawson – 6′ 1″ 261 lbs. (OLB – Joker)
Carl Lawson is a tough, powerful player and a lot of teams will really have a high draft grade on him. Other teams won’t. He also has a bit of a history with injuries, which may make some teams wary.
He proved his strength at the combine by popping 35 reps on the bench to top everyone at his position. He is extremely well-built and very muscular. He can play with his hand on the ground or standing up, but might struggle in coverage.
His NFL.com draft profile describes Lawson this way:
“Linear player with natural power and aggressiveness, but a lack of flexibility could hamper his potential as an NFL rusher. Lawson’s twitch shows up, in short, controlled bursts, but he struggles to finish if the play isn’t right in front of him.”
I think the Steelers are clearly interested in Lawson, based on the personnel that were present at the Auburn Pro Day.
Derek Rivers – 6′ 3″ 248 lbs. (OLB – Either)
And his name is Derek Rivers. Rivers performed better than expected at the combine, which increased his already spreading word of mouth. He has shot up draft boards. His NFL.com profile thinks he’s likely to be a backup rather than a starter, but that was written pre-combine. Draft guru Jon Ledyard tweeted this at the combine:
Vince Biegel has no plan of attack. Dawuane Smoot/Derek Rivers only pass rusher here winning the edge.
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) January 24, 2017
In an article that Ledyard wrote for “Inside the Pylon” he thinks Rivers is “in the 20-40 pick range come draft weekend”.
If he’s there at 30, and if the Steelers want him, they better snatch him up then and there. I don’t feel he’ll make it back around to the Steelers in the second round. While being taken at 30 seemed like a stretch for Rivers, at this point it’s even plausible he is gone before the Steelers pick.
If they want him, they’re going to have to use their first round selection on him. Plain and simple.
To be continued
Since this is a major area of need for the Steelers, I think they will draft multiple linebackers this year. Therefore, there will be several more articles forthcoming which breakdown the various prospects Pittsburgh could have interest in, particularly in the later rounds.