(Featured Image via Cincy Jungle/ USA Today)
In the past three NFL drafts, only four off-ball linebackers have been selected in the top 20, unless you want to include Khalil Mack. Anthony Barr, Ryan Shazier, CJ Mosley and Luke Keuchly make up that small handful of linebackers selected in the top 20. Two of them (Barr, Mosley) made at least a small case for Defensive Rookie of the Year this season, while another (Kuechly) won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and AP Defensive Player of the Year, the youngest player to do so. Shazier was injured for a good chunk of the year, but he has freaky athleticism that may allow him to rebound and become a solid player.
In short, what I am getting at is that teams shy away from taking an off-ball linebacker high unless he is an absolute stud. With that said, how do we construct the “perfect” off-ball linebacker out of this year’s class- someone a team would take very high? For the most part, he already exists.
Build: Shaq Thompson, Washington
Thompson is listed at 6’1″, 228 pounds. Some may argue that he is a bit underweight (he’s really not), but the addition of much more than five or so pounds would be at the sacrifice of movement. In today’s NFL, movement is much more of an asset than bulk, unless one were to play inside linebacker. In that case, one would need to pack on a few pounds, but if I were to choose a heavier candidate, I could argue that he is too large to thrive in other roles. Thompson is lean and chiseled, yet his lack of bulk does not make for underwhelming ability to handle blockers. His height/length is a bonus trait for when he is asked to be in coverage. Thompson is not too big or too small for the position in general, but Thompson’s size is especially perfect for a “WILL” role.
Athleticism: Shaq Thompson, Washington
As I hinted at before, Thompson is a wonderful mover. He can cover large tracks of land with ease, flowing from sideline to sideline hunting down ball carriers. Thompson’s burst and closing speed in short areas is a weapon for him, both as a blitzer and as a coverage player. Thompson will be able to pounce on quarterbacks in the pocket, as well as disrupt passing lanes that quarterbacks thought were open. On top of this burst and range, the Washington superstar can change direction and morph back to the ball in an instant. He gets right back into gear as if he never really changed direction at all. As the “icing on the cake,” Thompson has the strength and balance to handle any sort of block, disengage and get to the ball carrier. In every sense of the term, Thompson is an athlete. (For what it’s worth, Thompson took 61 carries as a running back in 2014 for 452 yards.)
Run Defense: Eric Kendricks, UCLA
Being a dominant run defender is less about being big than it is about understanding an assignment and executing it. Kendricks not only consistently executes his assignment with precision, he sees opportunities for critical plays and takes them. Kendricks sees any sort of gap opening as an invitation into the backfield and he takes no time in attacking. If a play is clearly flowing to his side of the field, Kendricks understands angles and run fits, enabling him to keep the rushing lanes on his side locked down. In the case that the line becomes congested, Kendricks sifts through the traffic well, keeps himself upright and fits through blockers to get to the ball carrier. Kendricks does not have outstanding open field speed, but considering his angles and awareness, his range is more than enough to cover sideline to sideline to protect from stretch-type runs.
Coverage Ability: Shaq Thompson, Washington
As an intermediate to shallow coverage piece (i.e. a curl/flat defender), Thompson is a force. His previously mentioned burst and overall range makes passing lanes tighter than they appear to the quarterback. Thompson sees a play developing and closes on it. Often times, this happens before the quarterback has even released the ball because Thompson has an instinctive nature. When asked to play man coverage, Thompson will need to adjust a bit in regards to route recognition, but he is certainly athletic enough to make a few tweaks and become a very good man coverage defender vs tight ends and running backs. In essence, Thompson is another safety on the field without the sacrifice of losing linebacker skills.
Versatility: Shaq Thompson, Washington
While Bernadrick McKinney or Paul Dawson fit here as well, Thompson does everything at a very high level and that will make him a threat on any down. In running situations, Thompson has the range, agility, stoutness and aggressiveness to pin running backs down for short gains. On third and fourth downs (commonly passing situations), Thompson can be either a piercing blitzer or a highly capable cover linebacker. Asking Thompson to rush off the edge would be a stretch, but Thompson can do most everything else a linebacker could possibly be asked to do. In fact, Thompson could even move to a strong safety role if need be, which many have suggested he do. No matter where Shaq is lined up or what he is asked to do, he can and will make a positive impact on the play.