Khalil Mack – OLB
6’3” 251 lbs Buffalo
Pick 5, Round 1 (5) Raiders
The Oakland Raiders pulled the trigger on the first true linebacker in the draft, taking former 2-star high school recruit Khalil Mack. Coming from Buffalo, Mack wasn’t highly touted until this year but early in the draft process, it was clear that Mack was the real deal. Multiple mock drafts had him easily within the top 10 and many saying that even Houston’s 1.01 pick was in play. Mack’s playing style is one of a player who can both the most athletically gifted as well as the smartest player on any given defense. He is smart enough to diagnose plays quickly in order to shoot gaps and attack the ball. He is also athletic enough to move sideline to sideline, shed blocks and tackle hard. Mack possesses the best set of pass rush moves and ability of any linebacker in the draft. Downsides of the former Bull seem to be a tendency of the play up or down to his competition. He produced one of his best games against Ohio State but didn’t always have it against competition from the MAC. In addition, he can be prone to over-pursue and might be washed out of plays if he is not careful. Mack has drawn many comparisons to former 2nd overall pick Von Miller and I expect his early career to mirror the former Aggie. Mack should start week one at strong-side linebacker and occasionally will put his hand in the dirt on 3rd down where Tuck slides inside on the defensive line. I have little doubt that Mack is a three down LB for the Raiders but his tackle opportunities will not be as plentiful or consistent as fantasy owners would like.
Redraft: Mack is a safe redraft pick as he should easily start week one, however tackle heavy leagues will want to consider him as no better than a spot starter on individual fantasy teams. Big play leagues can bump Mack up to an upper to mid LB2 for individual fantasy teams.
Dynasty: Mack is the LB3 of this draft class for tackle heavy leagues for me due to playing SAM but is easily the LB1 of the draft in big play leagues. If Von Miller is a high scorer in your league, you want Khalil Mack.
Anthony Barr – OLB
6’5” 255 lbs UCLA
Pick 9, Round 1 (9) Vikings
Mike Zimmer puts a stamp on his new defense early. Anthony Barr was touted by some as equal to, if not better than, Khalil Mack. I am not one of those people but Barr is easily one of the top 3 pass rushing options in this draft. The former Bruin is a pure athlete with experience at running back and receiver before being converted to outside linebacker by UCLA coach Jim Mora Jr. Barr possesses elite burst and quickness in pursuit that will make him a terror in the backfield for opposing teams. He also possesses the strength to bull rush when he is leveraged properly and the length to find the ballcarrier in the backfield. However, his athleticism can be offset by poor technique; either with his hands or with his body position. I am hoping that Mike Zimmer’s staff can also teach Barr another move or two as his pass rush can be considered vanilla at times. All that said, Barr’s reputation is one of a player that hits quarterbacks and takes them out of games. I am sure that Zimmer is looking forward to having a younger, more athletic James Harrison as his strong side linebacker. On the downside, Barr’s defense against the run is far from stellar. It wouldn’t surprise me if Barr is not a 3 down player early on. He is also only 20 pounds lighter than current tweener end/linebacker Emerson Griffen. It’s not a for sure bet that Barr stays as a linebacker but I believe that he is most likely going to be a SAM LB.
Redraft: I think Barr’s defense against the run (or lack thereof) will ensure that he is not worth consideration in tackle heavy redraft leagues. Big play leagues might consider him for sack numbers but far down the line.
Dynasty: I wouldn’t take Barr any earlier than LB7 right now but he could be considered earlier in 32 team leagues where you need production now. He simply carries too much risk in terms of tackle opportunity. Watch his run defense in the preseason to see him you can bump him up a spot or two.
Ryan Shazier – OLB
6’1” 237 lbs Ohio State
Pick 15, Round 1 (15) Steelers
I think Ryan Shazier is the most complete linebacker in the draft and if he were slightly bigger, he would be considered a top 10 talent. Shazier displays rare athletic gifts in his speed and ability to change directions. His combine and pro day workouts in the cones, shuttles and 40-time give you a sense for how fast and agile this kid is. He is nimble enough to shoot gaps and attack the ballcarrier without losing speed. I think that Shazier is also the finest cover linebacker in the draft. He can turn and run with most tight ends in the league as well as most sideline to sideline to track down running backs out of the backfield. I think his fit is at weak-side inside linebacker in Pittsburgh and the Steelers should not have to worry about leaving him on one-on-one coverage. That should boost his fantasy value by having him on the field for three downs. He also has surprising pass rush chops for a guy who was trained as a weak-side linebacker in a 4-3. If Pittsburgh nose tackle situation is good, then he could perform as well in “A” gap blitzes similarly in the 3-4. As I mentioned earlier, his size is considered a knock on him and the worry is that he can be neutralized too easily if his linemen don’t suck up enough blocks. He may not be able to shed NFL blocks. Pittsburgh normally sits their draftees on defense for the majority of their first year so Shazier might see the pine for a fair amount but the cupboard is also very bare next to Lawrence Timmons so he may be the exception to the rule.
Redraft: There is risk of Shazier sitting for a few games while he get acclimated to Pittsburgh is there but when he is playing, I’d be comfortable rolling Shazier out as a later LB2, earlier LB3 in all formats.
Dynasty: It’s a close one-two at the top of my dynasty LB rankings for rookies but I think that Shazier is a shade behind the number one guy. That said, he has potential to become your fantasy team’s LB1 a year or two from now.
CJ Mosley – ILB
6’2” 234 lbs Alabama
Pick 17, Round 1 (17) Ravens
Mosley is a career linebacker with experience that very few linebackers have, playing the position through high school and into college. Coming from a championship-winning Crimson Tide defense that has boasted many first-round draft picks in the last two drafts, Mosley is a heady, instinctive linebacker who can be the leader of a defense. At Alabama, he has manned both strong-side and weak-side inside linebacker spots for Nick Saban’s 3-4 defense previously and has amassed multiple awards throughout his collegiate career. He possesses sideline to sideline range in tracking down ballcarriers to the outside as well as deceptive strength for his size to shed blocks and make plays. He is not the coverage linebacker that Ryan Shazier is but Mosley is more than adept at playing zones as well as running with many NFL tight ends. The downside to Mosley is a few injury concerns. He has battled hip and, most recently, shoulder problems. He was cleared but every team during the draft process but those nagging inuries may be a chronic problem throughout his career. What stand out the most about Mosley to me are the intangibles. The workout warrior mentality, the film room study, the on-the-field leadership and being the quarterback of the defense are all things that great linebackers in the NFL are or do. The former Crimson Tide linebacker may not own the Raven defense year one with Daryl Smith still in the fold but he will start week one and soon enough, Mosley will be running the Raven defense.
Redraft: Mosley is your best redraft option for tackle heavy leagues amongst rookies. I would be confident plugging him in as an LB2.
Dynasty: Mosley is my pick for the top rookie LB in all but big play leagues. He has the potential to be an all-pro for Ravens.
Marcus Smith – OLB
6’3” 251 lbs Louisville
Pick 26, Round 1 (26) Eagles
Smith is a guy that I thought was overdrafted. I still think that Philadelphia could very possibly have gotten Smith in the early second but then again, that may have been the premium placed on 3-4 OLB talent given the lack of suitable players. The former Louisville Cardinal has experience as a defensive end as well as an outside linebacker. He has excellent balance and agility to move quickly against pass blockers attempting to get in his way as well as bend to get around them. Smith plays a little weaker than a guy of his size should and doesn’t use his arms/hands to his advantage enough. I saw an example or two of good backside pursuit and edge discipline but didn’t see enough tape of him to see whether he is great on both of those points. His run defense is a liability and he won’t be on the field for three downs. At best, he is working as a pass rush specialist as part of a rotation early on in his career.
Redraft: Smith should not be targeted in any redraft leagues.
Dynasty: I would pass on Smith in dynasty leagues as well.
Kyle Van Noy – OLB
6’3” 243 lbs BYU
Pick 8, Round 2 (40) Lions
Kyle Van Noy is an interesting prospect to me. He strikes me as a guy that you can be comfortable starting at any 4-3 linebacker spot and have success. He isn’t the fastest linebacker in the world but he is game-fast enough not to be a liability. He is stronger than you think which should give the Lions some confidence that plugging him into the gaping hole that they have at strong-side linebacker isn’t a bad decision. Some might say that he carries some off-the-field baggage in terms of character concerns but I view his recommitment to BYU after his DUI arrest despite being given an out and losing one year of football as a plus in my books. He seems to have straightened out at this point. Van Noy is a player that can run sideline to sideline if need be and track receivers out of backfield and tight ends off of the line. He’s not a great pass rush threat nor is he the best at gap awareness at all times but he is player that you can be comfortable with that in he won’t be overmatched physically for the most part nor is he an outstanding liability in coverage. I view Van Noy as a competent linebacker in most facets of the game but a master of none. As I mentioned before, the hole for the Lions in terms of linebackers exists at SAM LB with veterans Stephen Tulloch at Mike and DeAndre Levy at Will. I don’t think the Lions trust Van Noy at Mike over Tulloch nor do they think that Levy could hold up on the strong-side.
Redraft: Van Noy has a path to playing time in year one but his position will be the limiting factor of his fantasy potential. I’d stay away from him if he lands at SAM LB but the other two LB spots in Detroit yielded top 15 LBs last year. Draft accordingly.
Dynasty: Van Noy is a guy that I can see changing positions in a year or two and making a big impact once he does given his versatility; similar to a Nick Roach. If you can stash him on a taxi squad or you have deep rosters, I’d draft him as the LB6 of this draft.
Christian Kirksey – OLB
6’2” 233 lbs Iowa
Pick 7, Round 3 (71) Browns
I don’t really understand the pick of Kirksey by the Browns. At first glance, he looks remarkably similar to the player they are trying to upgrade from in Craig Robertson. The Browns need another inside linebacker to pair with freshly signed free agent pickup Karlos Dansby and I’m not so sure that Kirksey is the guy. He is vastly undersized for the position although the Browns defensive line may be one of the better units in the league to keep an undersized ILB clean. Kirksey is a rangy linebacker who moves well laterally and will do well in open space. His quickness is a major asset for him and will be his predominant weapon as he will not be able to shed blocks at the pro level unless he gets stronger. He posted only 16 reps (2nd worst among LBs) at 225 lbs at the combine. I didn’t see much tape of him blitzing to comment on his ability but I don’t think that it would be a wise decision for the Browns to send this kid on too many blitzes anyways.
Redraft: If Kirksey can win an inside linebacker job out of camp, he carries late LB2 to early LB3 value. I personally don’t see him winning out of camp, maybe a takeover after the bye if the Browns defense is struggling.
Dynasty: I’d be ok sitting on Kirksey as he does carry some decent upside as a potential starting inside linebacker for the Browns. I have him as the LB5 of this draft. Be prepared to sit on him for a year or two.
Preston Brown – ILB
6’1” 251 lbs Louisville
Pick 9, Round 3 (73) Bills
I like Preston Brown as a two-down run stuffing linebacker in the NFL. He is attacking, instinctual and violent. He is athletic enough to shoot gaps and wrap up and strong enough hit hard and shed blocks. I see his fit being Brandon Spikes understudy in Buffalo as both LBs seem very similar to me. Both understand defenses and how to call them and yet both are not linebackers that you are comfortable with in pass coverage. Tight hips and an inability track tight ends and running backs on routes with see both of these guys as coverage liabilities. Brown is big enough to play strong side if he had to but he would routinely get eaten up by opposing tight ends if he did. That said, he may be the fall back plan if Manny Lawson and Keith Rivers can’t hold up throughout the season. Neither are really the pictures of health.
Redraft: Brown doesn’t carry any value in redraft leagues barring injury to Brandon Spikes or Kiko Alonso.
Dynasty: Situation damages Brown’s early value more than anything as either Spikes or Alonso needs to get out of his way before he can make any sort of impact. Even if Brown gets to the field, he isn’t playing on 3rd down. I have him as the LB8 of the draft.
Chris Borland – ILB
5’11” 248 lbs Wisconsin
Pick 13, Round 3 (77) 49ers
I really like this pick for the 49ers. Borland seems to fit the identity that this team has adopted. He is massive hitter that will crush opposing ballcarriers if he gets to them clean; a downhill pursuit guy that understands where gaps will be and how to attack them. At 5’11”, he gives up some height and length but not weight. This kid is built out of stone and he makes plays on the ball. Very few linebackers made more splash plays than Borland did over his college career. 15 career forced fumbles in college is very impressive stat. His place on the 49ers would obviously be at inside linebacker; likely competing for the spot vacated by injured all-pro linebacker Navorro Bowman as well as backing up Patrick Willis, who seems to be nicked up more often than not. The 49ers would not be wise in utilizing Borland in too many man coverage situations as the former Badger does not have natural hips to move and adjust in coverage. He also will give up too much in length to a 6’6” tight end. His arms are also very short which will make it much more difficult for him to shed blocks when he is engaged by a blocker. The 49ers seem intent on building competition for job beside Willis as evidenced by their signing of another player to watch, Shayne Skov of Stanford. Those two will compete with reserve linebacker Michael Wilhoite.
Redraft: Borland needs to win an ILB job out of camp to hold any redraft value. I see him making a decent run at it but ultimately failing to do so. If he does land the job, I see him putting up mid LB2 numbers.
Dynasty: Borland has a less murky path to playing time than most other linebackers that will play off of the line of scrimmage but he is far from guaranteed the spot and Bowman will likely come back in 2015. I still like him as the LB4 of this class but it is a very far cry from LB3 (Mack) to LB4 (Borland).