With the NFL Scouting Combine only a couple of weeks away, I would like to provide my early player rankings by position for the 2014 NFL Draft. This will be a brief look at who I believe are the top five players at each position. Granted, the draft landscape can change rather rapidly depending how well these players do in the Combine and pro day workouts.
Last week, I highlighted my top five cornerbacks, safeties, and tight ends in this year’s draft class. Today, I want to take a look at the heart of the defense and give my top five inside linebacker prospects.
1. C.J. Mosley, Alabama
2. Chris Borland, Wisconsin
3. Yawin Smallwood, UConn
4. Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA
5. Shayne Skov, Stanford
Mosley is the unquestioned top inside linebacker prospect of this draft class. He’s a field general that is tough against the run and has the athletic ability to excel in pass coverage. He’s a day-one starter for any team that drafts him and a player that could go in the first 20 picks of the draft.
At 6-foot-2 and 232 pounds, Mosley needs to add weight to hold up better against offensive linemen in the NFL, but overall, his game is solid and he’s a versatile linebacker that can line up on the inside or outside.
After Mosley, the talent at linebacker drops off a bit, but there are a handful of day two prospects that could be impact players at the next level. In my opinion, Borland and Smallwood are the next best inside linebackers in this class, and really, you could have either one ranked second.
However, I went with Borland as my second best inside linebacker because he makes a few more plays than Smallwood on the field and is a bit more explosive. Borland could even challenge Mosley for the top spot at the position if he was taller than six foot.
There is plenty to like about the Wisconsin prospect’s game, however. He’s tough, smart, and plays with excellent instincts. He’ll be a great find for a team on day two of the draft.
Smallwood is a savvy linebacker that reads and reacts to plays just as well, if not better, than any other linebacker prospect in this class. Smallwood may not always wow you on the field, but he is a reliable player that is hardly ever out of position. He can also rush the passer and is great in pass coverage.
With the next group of inside linebackers there may be some jostling in the coming months. Right now, I have Zumwalt and Skov. Both are tough players that play with a high motor and give it their all on the field. They’re both great in the box and against the run but have limitations in pass coverage.
Zumwalt appears slightly more athletic and isn’t a complete liability in pass coverage, whereas Skov lacks speed and isn’t quite athletic enough to hang with tight ends and backs in the open field. This will really hurt him at the next level and drop him on plenty of draft boards.
If Skov can post a good 40 time at the Combine and show people he’s a better athlete than he appears on film, then he may solidify himself as a solid second or third round pick. He’s a heck of player and is as tough as they come, but it’s just the physical limitations that have many concerned about how well he’ll transfer to the NFL.
The two guys that I think could really break into the top five at the position, especially after the Combine, are Florida State’s Christian Jones and Iowa’s Christian Kirksey. They were both speedy outside linebackers in college and project well on the inside in a 3-4 defense.
Jones is a bit grittier and flashes playmaking ability on occasion, but he needs to be more consistent on the field.
Kirksey is perhaps the most athletic linebacker prospect in this draft. At Iowa, he was frequently matched up against receivers in the slot and performed well in this role. He really excels in coverage, something plenty of NFL teams will like about him, and he has tremendous upside, let alone great sideline-t0-sideline pursuit.
The former Hawkeye is a guy that could really climb up boards after the Combine. Don’t be surprised if he even surpasses Zumwalt and Skov when I reevaluate my player rankings closer to the draft.
Look for these players and plenty more at the position to impress with their workouts as the NFL Combine gets underway in Indianapolis on Feb. 22-25th.
Check back here at Lombardiave.com for the next position’s top five draft prospects. Also, look for a more in-depth position-by-position breakdown later in the spring as we get closer to the NFL Draft in May.