Panthers Draft Preview: Linebackers
[Ed note: With the rapid rise of former Mac Attack Intern turned NFL draft savant Josh "Casper" Norris, we're at it again. This time, former Mac Attack intern/draftnik Danny Guy will be covering the lead up to the NFL Draft for the show here on WFNZ.com, with a focus on the Panthers specific needs and breaking down the draft class by position. Have any questions, ask in the comments or interact with Danny on twitter: @danny_g13]
Grading the 2013 Draft: Linebackers
Linebacker may not be a huge concern for the Panthers, but with the release of James Anderson, and uncertainty about Thomas Davis’ and Jon Beason’s health it could still be addressed later in the draft. For that reason the focus is on several middle round guys, as well as one first rounder who fits into the wildcard category.
Jarvis Jones – 6’2” – 245 lbs – Georgia – While Linebacker is second only to Running Back as far as a need position for the Panthers, Jones is another wildcard player. Guys that if on the board would make the Panthers stop, and think about drafting them despite not filling a need. Unlike Ansah though, Jones has some medical red flags that could drop his stock. So what makes this Bulldog so special?
- Versatility: Shown the ability to play inside or outside in my opinion.
- First Step: Great first step, reacting to the ball with an explosive nature when in a pass rush stance.
- Closer: Very good closing speed, getting to ball carriers with an impressive quickness.
- Quarterback Pursuit: Sack artist. Led CFB in sacks last year with 14.5. Fights through double teams well. An elite rusher on the edge.
- Pass Defense: Reacts well to the pass when rushing, getting his hands up to disrupt passing lanes. Also has shown a good (not great) ability when dropping back into coverage.
- Motor: Exceptional effort level, always fighting to make plays.
- Frame: May not support additional weight well. This would primarily be a problem in a 3-4 as a rush backer, however if he ends up in a 4-3 should not be an issue.
- Lack of Pass Rush Moves: Tends to rely on his speed to beat blockers when rushing the passer. Does not have a wide array of rush maneuvers.
- Coverage: While he has been dropped into coverage in the past, he will have to prove he can be a consistent presence covering Running Backs and Tight Ends if he’s drafted to a 4-3 team.
- Injury Concerns: Has a condition called Spinal Stenosis that forced him to transfer from Southern California when team Doctors wouldn’t clear him for activity. Played without problems at Georgia, however the issue appears to have scared some teams at the Combine. Was not allowed to participate in the Combine, however there are now reports that the condition has been cleared up. Draft stock could fluctuate from team to team depending on how serious they feel it is.
Projection: If given a clean bill of health then his stock is sky high, to the extent that he could go as high as fourth overall to the Eagles, or fifth to the Lions. However there does seem to be concern with a spine condition that forced Marcus McNeill to end his career at the age of 28. Either way, I expect Jones to be drafted no later than 15 overall to the Saints. If he goes to a 3-4 team, I expect him to be rushing the passer on almost every down; however he also has value to a 4-3 team like the Panthers in a role like Von Miller plays in Denver.
Potential Sleepers: Outside Linebacker
Zaviar Gooden – 6’1” – 234 lbs – Missouri – With all three starting Linebacker positions seemingly under control, the main focus for the Panthers (if any at all) should be on quality depth that can come in if injuries occur, as well as contribute on special teams. Gooden fits this roll nicely, and is a good project Linebacker, that could pay off big time later down the road.
- Speed: Exceptional straight line speed, displayed with his 4.47 40 time at the Combine.
- Improvement in Physicality: Made obvious efforts to improve the physicality of his game. Is improving in driving through contact.
- Tackling: Good at wrapping up and bringing the ball carrier to the ground.
- Motor: Makes hustle plays, chasing down ball carriers from behind, and plays well sideline to sideline. Could be an exceptional coverage man on special teams.
- Change of Direction: Fluid hips allow him to turn and run in coverage. Also flexibility allows him to play sideline to sideline well.
- Over Pursuit: Can be caught overrunning plays due to his aggressive nature.
- Coverage: While he possesses the tools to be a good coverage Weakside Linebacker, his actual coverage ability is still raw.
- Reaction Time: At times can be late to recognize and react on running plays, taking him out of the play.
- Versatility: Because of his size and frame he is really only of value as a Weakside Linebacker in a 4-3 defensive front.
Projection: Early to middle fourth round selection
Chase Thomas – 6’3” – 244 lbs – Stanford – Another middle round Linebacker who has had my interest for the better part of two years now, is Stanford’s Chase Thomas. Thomas may not be the fastest, or the strongest Linebacker in this class, but what he lacks in those characteristics, he makes up for with sound fundamentals and excellent drive.
- Hands: Uses hands exceptionally well to get off blocks, freeing him up to make plays.
- Quickness: Not overly athletic, but shows good ability to split gaps quickly and get to the ball carrier.
- Coverage: Good (not great) at staying with his man when asked to cover. Shadows his matchup well for his size and limited athleticism.
- Angles: Takes very good angles to ball carriers, putting him in the correct position to make plays.
- Effort: Gives extremely high effort on a consistent basis. Makes plays in the backfield, and chases ball carriers down from behind.
- Pass Rush: When asked to rush the passer, does not display exceptional ability.
- Closer: Does not possess the closing speed that other Linebackers have.
- Athleticism: Lacks elite athleticism to keep up with speedy backs and Tight Ends.
Projection: While Thomas lacks elite athleticism, he makes plays based on effort and being in the right place at the right time. He’s a very sound football player, whose instincts and knowledge of the game should help him overcome some of his physical shortcomings. His best fit may be in a 3-4 defense as an Inside Linebacker, but he should be a valuable special teams player on any team he’s drafted to. Thomas should be drafted in the middle of the fourth to early fifth round.
Potential Sleeper: Middle Linebacker
Kevin Reddick – 6’1” – 243 lbs – North Carolina – While the Panthers have the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year manning the Mike position, depth is never a bad thing. Jordan Senn is back for another year, but I’m not sure if I would want him playing extended minutes if the unthinkable were to happen to Kuechly. Reddick’s an instinctive and sound player who could fill (some) of that void.
- Intelligence: Demonstrates a great knowledge of the game, filling assignments correctly on a consistent basis.
- Read and React: Solid at reading and reacting to the play, allowing him to use his above average athleticism to make the tackle.
- Tackling: Sound tackler, showing the ability to wrap up and bring the ball carrier down.
- Blitzer: Used as an edge rusher in Carolina’s 4-2-5 defense, and showed decent ability to get around the edge and pressure the quarterback.
- Coverage: Showed good (not great) ability to drop back into coverage and make plays. At times reacts to too slowly to make a play on the ball.
- Getting Off Blocks: Once engaged, can struggle to break free of blockers.
- Recovery: Doesn’t possess exceptional speed to recover when he’s out of position.
- Effort/Stamina: At times appears to give up on plays. This could be due to fatigue as he rarely comes off the field. Stamina could be a concern.
Projection: Reddick’s stock is a bit harder to predict. He doesn’t possess elite athleticism, but it definitely won’t hold him back. He an intelligent, and instinctive Linebacker who is in the right place to make plays more times than not. While these are traits NFL teams are sure to covet, concerns about his effort and/or stamina are sure to drop his stock a bit. At this time I feel like he’ll be drafted somewhere in the fourth to fifth round though that could certainly change by Draft day.
Overall, this LB class is a lot like this year’s Defensive End class, with some exceptional talent at the top of the draft with players like Jones, Ogletree, Brown, Mingo, and Minter but the depth just doesn’t seem to be there. A few guys in the middle rounds that could be gems though, which helps raise my grade for the position. This year’s crop of Linebackers receives an overall grade of B-.