Alvin “Bud” Dupree – OLB
6’4” 269 lbs Kentucky
Pick 22, Round 1 (22) Steelers
While it’s debateable whether 3rd overall pick Dante Fowler and 8th overall pick Vic Beasley will be labelled as DE or LB, Pittsburgh’s defensive scheme leaves little to the imagination regarding the 22nd overall choice Bud Dupree. The former Wildcat blew the doors off of the combine posting top end scores in all major categories. His athleticism is how he wins at the point of attack as he is very raw in terms of angle, positioning and moves. Pittsburgh is generally conservative in terms of the early use of players on defense, especially rush OLBs. Think LaMarr Woodley in terms of both peak production to expect as well as how long dynasty leaguers with need to wait see returns on their investment.
Redraft: I’d pass on Dupree in all redraft league formats.
Dynasty: Obviously with any rush OLB, player value rises with the value of the big play. As such, tackle heavy leagues should probably discount Dupree as a reserve LB in deep leagues whereas big play leagues might hang onto Dupree as a LB8 of the draft, taxi squad kind of guy.
Shaq Thompson – OLB
6’0” 228 lbs Washington
Pick 25, Round 1 (25) Panthers
Shaq Thompson was a very polarizing character early in the draft. Thompson played multiple positions for the Huskies in college; inside and outside linebacker, safety and even a little tailback. However, his versatility (which should be viewed as a positive in my opinion) was almost considered a negative early in the draft process as teams struggled to “slot” him into their defense. During the draft, the Carolina Panthers seemed like a bit of a head-scratcher at the time but after review, one parallel can certainly be drawn. Thomas Davis, like Thompson, was also a smallish linebacker with coverage skills who had some experience playing safety in college. The former Husky now gets to learn for the cagy veteran as he begins his career. I expect that Thompson is a starter from week 1. I don’t think there is anyone on the roster beating him for the weak side linebacker role. He is instinctual in the running as well as the passing game, finding lanes and holes to attack the ballcarrier even if they aren’t his responsibility. He is arguably the best linebacker in the draft in terms of passing coverage. He reads quarterbacks well and regularly finds himself in a position to make a play on the ball. Only two things concern me about his game, both being size concerns; can he shed a block and make tackles in the NFL running game and can he defend against an NFL tight end? In terms of value, one might think that elite coverage skills would guarantee Thompson 3 down status for his team. Unfortunately for would-be fantasy owners, the Panthers are maybe the only team in the NFL where Thompson wouldn’t be guaranteed at least nickel snaps as Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are both quality options on third down/subpackages. Finally, while you can expect week 1 production from the former Husky, there are plenty of mouths to feed in Carolina in terms of tackles. Weakside linebackers for the Panthers in 2014 combined for a grand total of 51 combined tackles compared to the 253 combined tackles logged between Kuechly and Davis.
Redraft: Thompson is draftable in tackle heavy leagues but temper expectations. I’d consider him as a third-fourth LB at most and at least, bye week filler and insurance on Thomas Davis.
Dynasty: Thompson’s numbers will improve once 32 year old Thomas Davis’ either moves on or is phased out. However, he will always be in the shadow of Luke Kuechly as long as he is a Panther. Expect top 20 numbers at best while he’s in Carolina. One of the safest bets for playing time, I’m taking Thompson in the top 3 in tackle-heavy rookie drafts among LBs. He has a penchant for forcing fumbles and plays the pass well also. Don’t ignore him in big play leagues either.
Stephone Anthony – ILB
6’3” 243 lbs Clemson
Pick 31, Round 1 (31) Saints
Stephone Anthony rounded out the first round linebackers and will forever be connected to Jimmy Graham as the pick that came back in the blockbuster offseason trade that saw Graham become a Seahawk. I will be honest in that Anthony would not have been the selection I made here if I had my heart set on an inside linebacker. That said, Anthony is one of the players that I did think was tailor-made for a 3-4 scheme to play inside. His size is ideal for a 3-4 scheme ILB and he has elite athleticism to match. His leadership ability is definitely a plus. I like his ability to track ballcarriers to edge on outside runs and make confident tackles. His coverage skills are acceptable but could use some work. Although not featured as a blitzer in college, the tape I saw of him, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets his number called once in a while. What bothers me about Anthony is whether he can effectively shed blocks at the NFL level and whether he continues to show some of the over-commitment to plays before truly understanding where the ball is going. In terms of value, as a first round pick, you have to expect that Anthony is on the short list for snaps in the middle. Curtis Lofton is gone, replaced by former Raven and Dolphin Danelle Ellerbe. Ellerbe is coming off of a season-ending hip injury in 2014. In the other ILB spot, David Hawthorne remains but has underwhelmed since coming over from the Seahawks. My expectation is that Anthony rotates in off of the bench to start the year and needs poor play or an injury from either Hawthorne or Ellerbe to get a fulltime gig this year. Ultimately, the Saints’ defense becomes Anthony’s to run.
Redraft: Unless you have very deep rosters, I don’t draft Anthony unless he can win a job outright in camp as a likely rotation will sap his early season value. That said, I would earmark him as a priority waiver pickup at the first sign of trouble (Saints losing early in the year, after the bye week or an injury to Hawthorne/Ellerbe).
Dynasty: I’m taking Anthony 2nd overall amongst rookie LBs because the outlook is pretty positive for the former Tiger. His tackle heavy value eclipses his big play value but the kid can blitz so I would consider him a solid big play league addition as well.
Preston Smith – OLB
6’5” 271 lbs Mississippi State
Pick 6, Round 2 (38) Redskins
Smith is a converted defensive end who will work into a Redskin OLB rotation that already features Ryan Kerrigan and last year’s 2nd round pick Trent Murphy. With Brian Orakpo leaving to the Titans, Washington thought it important to continue to backfill the OLB position to keep pressure on NFC East QBs. I like Smith’s versatility as he has experience all along the defensive line as well as covering shallow zones at times. Outside linebacker will be a bit of a transition however. His length is a huge asset to him in terms of block shedding and reaching the quarterback. His tackling ability is sound but he lacks elite power/finesse to dominate in pass rush. For this reason, I think that his role will be 2nd down run support for the Redskins.
Redraft: Stay away from Smith in redraft leagues.
Dynasty: I don’t think I’d draft him in dynasty leagues either.
Bernardrick McKinney – ILB
6’4” 246 lbs Mississippi State
Pick 11, Round 2 (43) Texans
McKinney strikes me as a bit of a throwback to a time when linebackers were expected to hit more than cover. His size is prototypical for an inside linebacker in a 3-4 and he frequently challenges would-be blockers head on when the situation calls for it. His speed and strength for this ideal size is closer to average than elite. He can run with tight ends but has tight hips and might not necessarily be able to hang with running backs running routes out of the backfield. His lateral agility and ability to change direction is weak at best as well. I do like his ability to stay clean in terms block shedding and his instincts are good. Although his college numbers wouldn’t necessarily indicate as much, I think that his hand-fighting and ability to shed blocks will actually lend him to become a very dependable blitzer from the middle. McKinney doesn’t have much in terms of competition in front of him opposite Brian Cushing at ILB for the Texans. A collection of replacement level talent attempted to fill that role last year, of which Mike Mohamed, Akeem Dent, Jeff Tarpinian and Justin Tuggle remain. None should pose a threat to McKinney’s playing time. That said, I don’t think the Texans will be able to trust McKinney in subpackage play and Brian Cushing should continue to be top dog as long as he remains healthy (big if).
Redraft: McKinney is a guy I might draft last as a flier if my redraft carries a larger amount of LBs but would-be owners need to watch the camp battle. Keep tabs on him as a waiver pickup if Cushing gets hurt.
Dynasty: McKinney has some decent dynasty value as a long term ILB option but unless he can improve in pass defense, his value is capped as a two down LB. I like him coming off of the board as the LB5 of the draft for rookies.
Hau’oli Kikaha – OLB
6’2” 253 lbs Washington
Pick 12, Round 2 (44) Lions
Kikaha brings elite sack production to the Saints as an edge rusher. He led the nation in sacks last year with 19. A natural athlete, Kikaha is accomplished in wrestling and judo as well as football. Those combative sport experiences lend themselves to elite hand fighting and block shedding ability. His motor is also one of the best available in the draft; he never quits on a play. The former Husky possesses quality “bend” and body positioning that allow him to turn the corner effectively during pass rush. The downside to Kikaha is a lack of versatility. He is not a great run defender and fails to set the edge at times. Overpursuit and an inability to work effective in coverage are also knocks on his game. Finally, Kikaha is running on a twice torn ACL, giving him some medical red flags.
Redraft: I would avoid Kikaha in redraft leagues. He won’t get enough snaps to make a major difference in big play leagues.
Dynasty: Avoid him in tackle heavy leagues. Take a flier with a late pick in deep big play leagues as he does have potential to log a handful of sacks in the Saints’ defense.
Eric Kendricks – ILB
6’0” 232 lbs UCLA
Pick 13, Round 2 (45) Vikings
Eric Kendricks is the epitome of the guy who brings you all of the intangibles. Butkus award winner? Check. Record breaking tackle numbers? Check. Great character? Check. Bloodlines? Check, brother Mychal plays for the Eagles. I think I can summarize the former Bruin’s game is one word, fluid. Kendricks is outstanding at moving fluidly around the football. Be it attacking downhill towards the line of scrimmage, following plays sideline to sideline or handling coverage duties; Kendricks is fluid, smooth and rarely struggles to find his way through traffic, blockers or otherwise. His instincts and leadership are quality as someone who can lead on and off the field. The only downside to Kendricks is a lack of ideal size and explosiveness. I feel like if Kendricks can pack on a few pounds of muscle, he will be much better off in the NFL. While I don’t think that Michael Mauti or Gerald Hodges contend much with Kendricks opposite starters Chad Greenway and Anthony Barr, Mike Zimmer and the Vikings defensive coaching staff might consider moving the bigger Greenway to middle linebacker and allowing Kendricks to play Will linebacker. Either way, I expect Kendricks to be a week one starter and eventually push for nickel and subpackage snaps as early as this year. That said, like Carolina, all three linebackers for Minnesota will likely cannibalize each other’s stats to a certain degree.
Redraft: Kendricks is your best bet for redraft production out of this year’s crop of rookies but it remains to be seen how much of a cut he will take of Greenway’s typical 100-150 combined tackle season. I’d venture into LB3 territory.
Dynasty: I think Kendricks is the best option for dynasty leaguers among rookie LBs. Chad Greenway is 32 years old and likely won’t be in the way much longer than next year.
Denzel Perryman – ILB
5’11” 236 lbs Miami
Pick 16, Round 2 (48) Chargers
One of the better pure hitters in the draft, a clean Denzel Perryman is a runningback’s nightmare in the hole. The former Hurricane is a bit shorter and has shorter arms than you’d like but plays a powerful game that allows him to succeed at the point of attack by shedding blocks and maintaining position. He’s not as fast or agile as you’d like him to be in terms of changing directions and shuffling his feet to tackle a cutting runner. Perryman already has a reputation for being angry and physical on the field which should gain him credibility amongst Charger coaches early. That said, Perryman is not a player that you want in man coverage very often. The Chargers LB situation is a bit of a mess with the coaching staff losing some faith in Donald Butler last season, Manti Te’o struggling with injury and inconsistency and replacement level talent Andrew Gachkar and Kavell Conner filling in at times. I think that Perryman begins rotating in and carves out a role next year.
Redraft: Perryman is a risky play for redraft that likely only carries value with a clean camp battle win or an injury.
Dynasty: I view him very similar to Bernardrick McKinney as a value capped two down LB but Perryman has the chance to emerge as a leader for the Charger defense which should carry more weight. I’d take Perryman 4th off of the board in terms of rookie LBs.
Jordan Hicks – ILB
6’1” 236 lbs Texas
Pick 20, Round 3 (84) Eagles
Hicks brings elite measurables to the table in terms of height, weight, speed and strength. He led the Longhorns in tackles last year as a senior and has a high football IQ. He uses his speed to move from sideline to sideline and is a sure tackle. Unfortunately, his body has failed him a time or two including a torn Achilles. I think that Hicks’ fit in this defense is a part-time run defender and reserve linebacker as he tends to follow the play rather than try to make it. I think he was a tad overdrafted and Chip Kelly might have been able to get him a round later. He’s got a few linebackers ahead of him for playing time in Phildelphia; Kiko Alonso, Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans. With DeMeco Ryans getting older and Mychal Kendricks recently on the trade block, his path might not be as cluttered as you might expect next year but the former Longhorn needs to make some significant improvement to make an impact inside on this Eagles defense.
Redraft: Do not draft Hicks in redraft. He needs two injuries to happen in front of him to see significant playing time.
Dynasty: Hicks is a potential draft and stash to see what exactly is going to play out with Chip Kelly’s overhaul of the Eagles. He’s a last round flier at best.
Paul Dawson – ILB
6’0” 235 lbs TCU
Pick 35, Round 3 (99) Bengals
The number and gametape tell a different story than the combine numbers. Paul Dawson was the Big 12 defensive player of the year in 2014 with massive numbers including 4 interceptions and 20 tackles for loss. That said, his 40 time of 4.96 and other pedestrian measurable don’t speak to the production Dawson was able to achieve. Despite those metrics, Dawson plays smoothly at an around the line of scrimmage as he is able to change direction effortlessly and transition from inside to outside quickly. I like his coverage ability as well; he plays faster than his 40 time would tell you. The Bengals are no stranger to taking linebackers with character issues and Dawson also fits the bill there too. Rey Maualuga and Emmanuel Lamur are freshly resigned to the Bengals but that doesn’t mean that Paul Dawson won’t be able to make an impact. Both Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga have struggled with injuries over the past few years so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility to see Dawson get meaningful snaps this year. Unfortunately, former Packer AJ Hawk is also in the mix for playing time.
Redraft: Dawson needs more than one injury or demotion to happen before he gets significant playing time this year. Pass on him in redraft.
Dynasty: Dawson has 3 down capabilities which have to be considered in his value. Right now, I have him as the LB7 of the draft class but he could easily elevate that with strong early play. He is an ideal taxi squad stash with upside.
Jake Ryan – ILB
6’2” 240 lbs Michigan
Pick 30, Round 4 (129) Packers
I really like this pick for the Packers. After losing AJ Hawk to free agency, the Packers had a need at linebacker but waited until Jake Ryan to take one due to their strict “best player available” mantra. The former Wolverine possesses ideal size to play inside in the Packers’ 3-4 defense and has the leadership and film study habits to pick it up quickly. Ryan has experience playing outside linebacker which is a big benefit to what the Packers try to do with mixing up looks, moving players around and blitzing from different places on the field (see: Clay Matthews). He needs to shed blocks better than he does and probably isn’t going to be as good in coverage as you’d like given the tape I’ve seen. Athleticism is good based on combine numbers but doesn’t translate to the field as well as it should. Ryan’s path to playing time depends on how the Packers utilize Clay Matthews. If Matthews stays inside on early downs, expect a light rotation at best for the rookie. If Matthews goes back outside, nobody significant will challenge Ryan for playing time alongside 2013 7th round pick Sam Barrington.
Redraft: Early camp battles and preseason scheme will show what the Packers defense will do. Best to stay away in redraft as the situation will start and likely stay murky.
Dynasty: I really like the fit here and given the talent (or lack thereof) at inside linebacker for the Packers, I think that Ryan ends up as a significant piece of the Packers defense sooner rather than later. Although he’s really close to the 2nd round talent at LB4 and LB5, Jake Ryan is my LB6 of the draft class.
Best of the rest:
Ramik Wilson – 4th round (Chiefs) – Nothing but replacement talent beside Derrick Johnson. Easy path to playing time but needs to beat out fellow rookie DJ Alexander, coverage ability is very weak however.
Kwon Alexander – 4th round (Buccaneers) – A little smaller than you’d like, special teams chops. Very fast, solid in coverage, decent pass rush ability. Gets burned on big plays more than you’d like.
Damien Wilson – 4th round (Cowboys) – Good depth for the Cowboys who have two injury prone starters in Rolando McClain and Sean Lee. Poor instincts but decent tackling.
Ben Heeney and Neiron Ball – 5th round (Raiders) – The Raiders are overhauling their linebacking corps. One of these guys figures to get a primary backup role.