On January 24, hoards of NFL decision makers, scouts, and media will flock to Ladd-Peebles stadium to get a close-up look at the next crop of NFL talent. For the linebacker position in particular, what the group lacks in star power, it makes up for in intrigue. From a national champion to Division II hopefuls, there are certainly prospects to watch down in Mobile, Alabama and potentially a few that could see themselves rising up draft boards come April.
Haason Reddick – Temple – 6’0”, 230 Pounds
Reddick arrived at Temple University as a walk-on defensive back before being moved to defensive end midway through his freshman season. In 2016, Reddick finished tied for third in the nation with 22.5 tackles for loss and finished his career as Temple’s second all-time leader in that category. At his current size, Reddick lacks the build to be an every-down edge rusher at the next level but makes up for his lack of size with his elite athleticism. He was a Swiss Army knife for the Temple defense as a senior, rushing the QB from the edge, shutting down opposing mobile QB’s as a spy behind the line of scrimmage and occasionally dropping in coverage on 3rd downs which netted him his first career interception in Temple’s AAC Championship victory over the Navy Midshipmen.
Senior Bowl week will be crucial for Reddick as he attempts to prove his versatility to NFL decision makers. While his size is a limitation, his athleticism is a trait coaches will want to utilize. Being listed as an ILB in Mobile can really be beneficial for him. If he can display the ability to key and diagnose, get downhill as an off-ball linebacker, and hold his own in coverage throughout the week, he will open many more doors on draft day as a versatile weapon that NFL defensive coordinators would love to employ.
Jordan Herdman – Simon Fraser – 6’1”, 235 Pounds
During his time at Simon Fraser University, a Canadian school playing at the Division II level in the NCAA, Herdman set the all-time Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) record for tackles (428) and was twice named the GNAC Defensive Player of the Year. Herdman is a very exciting player to watch on tape, despite below average size for the position, he plays with an energy and tenacity that can definitely translate at the next level. He displays very good mental processing skills in reading his keys and getting after the ball. His best overall trait is his ability to defeat blocks. He consistently displays the ability to get downhill, shock the blocker, and use his extremely quick, powerful hands to disengage and then demonstrates the body control to adjust to the ball, while also showing the lower body explosion and power to stand up runners from a stationary position. Additionally, Herdman displays very quick feet dropping into coverage, good awareness of routes entering his area, and the ability to click and close on routes underneath.
During his week in Mobile, Herdman biggest obstacle is proving to coaches and scouts that he can compete at a considerably higher level of competition. Personally, I think the traits that Herdman demonstrates on a consistent basis will translate to the next level, and in a linebacker group light on bigger names, I expect Herdman to stand out this week.
Ben Gedeon – Michigan – 6’1”, 247 Pounds
Gedeon is probably the biggest name of the linebacker group on the North squad as he is the only player from a Power 5 conference. In his first season as a full-time starter, Gedeon made a big impact on a star studded Wolverine defense totaling 106 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks. Gedeon was a three-down linebacker for Michigan, playing both in base and nickel packages. He demonstrated good ability to read his keys and find the ball in traffic while flashing the ability shoot his hands and keeping his body clean. However, he needs to do it on a more consistent basis and be more violent at the point of attack. One of the areas Gedeon needs to show improvement is his pursuit and angles to the sideline. He would occasionally flash the ability to close on the ball on the outside but with below average foot speed, his mental processing, and angles would need to be near perfect at the next level. One area where Gedeon showed above average ability is his effort and awareness in zone coverage. He is quick in his drops and is very active in space. He consistently displayed good awareness and ability to read and match routes through his zone and consistently displayed good effort to force tight window throws in man coverage despite only adequate foot speed and change of direction.
The key for Gedeon in Mobile will be consistency. He has flashed all of the required traits for a linebacker on tape but if he can do it against a higher level of competition and on a more consistent basis, Gedeon can convince coaches to find him a role as a situational linebacker or key reserve and special teamer.
Connor Harris – Lindenwood – 5’11”, 243 Pounds
Harris is another very impressive prospect coming from the Division II ranks. As a four-year starter at Lindenwood, Harris set the all-time NCAA record for tackles, notching a whopping total of 633, was a three-time All-American and won the small school national defensive player of the year award in 2016. As a converted high school safety, Harris has an excellent ability to move in space and may be one of the best overall coverage linebackers in the draft. Harris consistently showed the ability to mirror running backs in the flat and on the wheel, match tight ends down the seam, and get to the deep third in Tampa 2 coverages. He also displays very good feet, quick hips, and very good ability to turn and run and mirror receivers downfield. In the run game, Harris shows a good ability to key and diagnose a well as very good closing speed to the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage and out on the edges on sweeps and quick screens.
Going into Senior Bowl week, there are two things I think Harris needs to prove. First and most obviously, is the ability to compete at a higher level of competition. Similar to Herdman above, Harris is making a big jump in competition from the Division II to the Senior Bowl. The other thing that Harris needs to show is the ability to disengage from blocks. This was not necessarily a deficiency in his game but with his athleticism, he was able to avoid blocks quite often at the Division II college level. Showing that he can win the physical battle at the point of attack and separate with his hands will really help his draft stock moving forward.
Alex Anzalone – Florida – 6’2”, 241 Pounds
Rated as a five-star recruit at linebacker coming out of high school, Anzalone struggled to live up to his billing at Florida through four injury-plagued seasons. After playing in 22 games as a reserve linebacker, Anzalone took over the starting role in 2015 but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury just two games into the season. In 2016, he started the first eight games before breaking his left arm in a loss to Arkansas mid-way through the season. When watching the tape, one of the first things that will jump out at you is his hand usage. Anzalone does a great job firing his hands into the chest of blocker to keep his body clean down and stay alive to make a tackle. He also displays good mental processing and discipline maintaining his run fits, coming down to set a strong edge with force responsibility or leveraging his gap from the backside. He displays good awareness and effort in zone coverage and has a knack for disguising and timing blitzes.
Coverage drills will be important for Anzalone down in Mobile. He wasn’t asked to match up man-to-man often at Florida. I thought he showed above average movement skills but he will need to show that they can translate in coverage. Secondly, one other area of interest for Anzalone will be his pursuit and angles to the sideline. He made some big plays outside the numbers at Florida but there were other times where he could’ve been better in this area. If Anzalone can deliver in these areas, I think he has starter potential at the next level.
Ben Boulware – Clemson – 5’11”, 235 Pounds
Coming off a defensive MVP performance in the National Championship and being crowned the 2016 Jack Lambert Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker, Boulware is probably the most well-known linebacker on either roster. A two-year starter at , Boulware followed up a very impressive junior season with an even more impressive senior campaign as one of the few holdovers from the 2015 Clemson defense. The beast that Boulware will battle all draft season is his athleticism. Aside from athleticism, however, he displays everything else that you want from a linebacker. He is a fierce competitor, ultimate team leader, and engine starter for a defense. Boulware’s best trait is his awareness and mental processing. He is constantly calling out signals pre-snap for the defense and is very disciplined in his run fits. It is obvious watching him that he understands where every player is supposed to be. There are multiple times in every game where you will see Boulware doing the dirty work, taking on blocks, fitting his gaps or setting the edge, funneling the runner back into the rest of the defense so a teammate can make a play. He also displays good pass rush ability, he has a natural feel for timing blitzes, solid ability to bend around the edge, a good swim move, and active hands to keep his body clean. He shows good mental processing and effort in coverage as well but lacks the movement and change of direction skills to really be effective in this area.
The key this week for Boulware will be for him to continue to put his best traits on full display. He has already shown the ability to play against some of the top competition in the country and on the big stage. It will be crucial for him to continue to play within his game and not try to do too much.
Duke Riley – LSU – 6’0”, 227 Pounds
A one-year starter at linebacker, Riley put up some impressive numbers as a senior, posting 85 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and 1 interception after starring for three years in a reserve role and leading the team in special teams tackles for two straight years. For a linebacker with a smaller stature, Riley was very aggressive against the run. He was very gap sound versus both zone and gap schemes and wasn’t afraid to come downhill to take on a pulling blocker or fullback on lead plays. The downside to his aggression is that he lacks the play strength to consistently disengage from blockers. He also struggles defending perimeter runs. He has a tendency to get lost in traffic and, despite his above average overall athleticism, doesn’t have the foot speed to make up for lost ground. What makes Riley intriguing at the next level, though is his ability in coverage. He displays good balance and short area quickness to click and close, while also displaying ball skills to make an impact at the catch point. He is also very alert in coverage and has shown the ability to match routes through his zone.
Throughout the week in Mobile, it will be important for Riley to stand out in coverage, as that is where he will provide value on an NFL roster outside of special teams. One area for development for him will be his discipline in coverage. While you never want to discourage a player from trying to make a play on the ball, there were times in college where Riley was too aggressive covering up and matching routes underneath which left voids in the zone for the quarterback to hit an intermediate route behind him.
Harvey Langi – BYU – 6’1”, 249 Pounds
NFL decision makers will be anxious to see Langi back at linebacker after spending his senior season at BYU as a defensive end. While not overly productive in his lone season starting at linebacker in 2015, Langi does have the size and power that is coveted at the position. Langi has a long, lean build with longer arms than expected for someone his size. He plays with good pad level and can get downhill quickly, packing some raw power behind his pads and can really dismantle a play when he is able to find the ball. He also displays good lateral movement and discipline to leverage his gap versus the zone run game. Langi’s issues typically revolve around his decision making and overall athleticism. He is slow to read his keys and find the ball which is also reflected in his lower level of production. He also has a tendency to get sucked down on play action. In coverage, he is able to drop quickly and flashes the ability to turn and run. However, his change of direction and lack of ability to stop and start quickly will limit his ability to stay on the field at the next level.
Senior Bowl week will be very important for Langi, who must prove to scouts that he can quickly reacquaint himself with the linebacker position. His ability to read and react in the run game will be crucial for his draft stock given his below average ability in coverage.