Alabama head coach Nick Saban preaches about “the process” – buying into the program for reasons bigger than oneself, giving everything for a bigger cause, and, by doing so, benefitting as an individual. At the linebacker position at Alabama under Saban, I don’t believe anyone has displayed what “the process” is more than “Roob.” Reuben Foster bought his time on special teams his first few seasons – where there were times I legitimately feared for his and opposing players’ safety. His reckless abandon knows no limits. There is no regard for body or collateral damage with Foster. By his junior and senior years at Alabama, Foster had become a starter and leader of the defense. By the end of his time in Tuscaloosa, he placed himself among the greatest at the position all-time at the school. Foster’s side-to-side closing speed is one of the more special traits I’ve ever seen at any position. It’s closing speed that is more predatory than footballing ability. Foster’s ability to diagnose run keys and fakes is special. His ability to blitz off the edge for a player his size is special. Most safeties aren’t as good at closing as Foster is. There are little to no holes in his game. Foster’s only flaw is himself – how he disregards his body. The abandon that makes him great will almost certainly be his undoing one day if it goes unchecked – and even for an independent scout like myself, who doesn’t have to worry about paying Foster, it still gives me pause to project him as high as I would like. Even still, he’s a no-brainer top 10 player in this class. A healthy, committed Reuben Foster is probably the best linebacker I’ve scouted in four years. Foster will be as special as Foster wants to be.
The more evolved football becomes, especially at the NFL level, the more that we learn that many positions are simply constructs – areas on a field that we have ingrained ourselves into believing that are black and white. As the game evolves, players like Haason Reddick will increase in value due to their ability to be scheme versatile, three-down players. Reddick began his career at Temple as a cornerback and eventually developed his way to being the Owls’ best pass rusher. At 6’1’’, 237 he’s not going to be an every-down edge player in the NFL, but something like that looks like a Ryan Shazier / Bruce Irvin hybrid at the linebacker position. In Mobile at the Senior Bowl, he was moved inside to middle linebacker at times and thrived. In many ways, he can be all things at different times for a defense. Being one of the more gifted athletes in this class, Reddick can be trusted to do normal linebacking activities, like cover the running back or tight end in passing situations; however, his unique value comes at being a high-end pass-rushing linebacker. By year three, I think few players at his position will be as quality at getting after the quarterback as Reddick will be, and for that I’ve ranked him as a top 10 talent in class.
The value of Zach Cunningham is likely not appreciated in today’s NFL, where linebackers are taken off the field as the field is spread and covered in receivers and defensive backs, but don’t sell short the value of a three-down, scheme-versatile linebacker with the football IQ and physical ability that Cunningham possesses. He’s high-cut, he misses some tackles, he’s not the strongest or fastest player at his position in this class – I understand where the crowd who likely wants to slot him somewhere is round 2 is coming from. But I challenge you to look deeper at his tape and see the importance and timeliness of his tackles along with his impact on the game. Cunningham is hyper-competitive and ultra-instinctive. He willed the Commodore defense to be better than it was countless times. Being a leader doesn’t equal a good football player, but when a player has the tape, displays the traits, and has the football character of Zach Cunningham, I want him leading my defense. For all of those reasons, I’d take him at the back end of round 1 if I were a playoff team looking to solidify my defense.
Similar to Reddick, Tyus Bowser is going to have to learn how to transition his skillset at the NFL, but I believe he’s capable of doing so and flourishing. Whereas I trust Reddick to be able to be more of a true off-ball linebacker, I see Bowser as the more “going forward” SAM or edge player in the NFL, using his insane 6.75 three cone time to bend the edge and exert force through contact to win against offensive tackles and live in the backfield. Bowser is a different breed of linebacker; he is something in between a Sam ‘backer and an edge, but I bet on athleticism at that position translating to the next level and believe he has the “it” to put it all together. Tyus Bowser was the final 1st round grade I gave in this class, but I trust what he can become by year three. If any team in the mid-late 20s or 30s want Bowser, I endorse it.