NFL draft off-ball LB rankings: Reuben Foster leads a solid but not spectacular group

We define the “off-the-ball” linebackers as the more traditional inhabitants of the position — think Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, Luke Kuechly and the like. It’s not as if they couldn’t or can’t rush the passer, it’s just that their job was not doing that full time. This is the position that often helps patrol the middle of the defense and clean up the play in run support and pass defense from a variety of techniques.

So you’ll notice that this group does not include Temple’s Haason Reddick, a fine prospect who could be asked to play in an off-the-ball role in the NFL but who was primarily a down rusher in college. He was included in the “edge rusher” preview, so factor that in when you look at this position on the whole.

Alabama LB Reuben Foster is our top-ranked off-ball linebacker in the 2017 NFL draft. (Getty Images)

There might not be an Urlacher or Kuechly — the rare player who is as effective in coverage as they are against the run — in this draft. But there are some strong three-down linebackers who should readily make a Day 1 impact. Leading the way on our list is Alabama’s Reuben Foster, a terrific playmaker with rare drive and instincts but a few deficiencies in coverage and character questions to answer, especially after a bizarre NFL scouting combine incident in which he was sent home after a fight with a medical worker.

But assuming he clears his name following that, Foster should be in good shape to be one of the first linebackers selected in the draft. There’s still concern also about Foster’s torn rotator cuff, which is not yet fully healed, but we still believe he could go in Round 1. He’s followed by a few more players we like a lot, including Florida’s Jarrad Davis and Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham, who could come off the board in the first 40 or 45 picks, perhaps even landing in Round 1.

With a lot of versatile players who could factor in here but whom we lumped in with the “edge” group, this collection might not seem outstanding to the naked eye. But there is a nice collection of take-on tacklers, coverage ‘backers and blitzers, even with some injury-prone players giving this unit a shaky status heading into draft weekend.

Positional grade: C-plus

This is always a tough position to grade because some teams play only two “starting” linebackers with most teams going with nickel defenses as their base and perhaps only keep five or six linebackers active on game days, depending on special-teams assignments and other factors. So if you consider that linebackers might only truly make up maybe one quarter of a defense, with extra reinforcements going to help out the secondary and defensive line, it should not be surprising if the draft results reflect that. This year’s class appears to be a little but more sure in terms of injury concerns compared to last year’s class, which pushed down Jaylon Smith, Myles Jack and Reggie Ragland down into Round 2. Likewise, we don’t see the 2016 class being as strong as the 2014 crop that landed Anthony Barr, Ryan Shazier and C.J. Mosley in the top 20. It’s a decent collection of talent but not a truly special one.

Shutdown Corner’s Top 10 Off-the-ball linebackers for 2017

1. Reuben Foster, Alabama — 6-foot-0, 229 pounds — Explosive hitter and playmaker with passion and instincts, but Foster must be managed carefully with character concerns and health worries
2. Jarrad Davis, Florda — 6-1, 238 — Another injury-prone player, Davis has terrific instincts and athleticism and could be a Day 1 impact player if healthy (Full scouting report)
3. Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt — 6-3, 234 — Missed tackles show up on tape, but with the number of tackles he did make it’s clear he’s athletic and very instinctive (Full scouting report)
4. Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State — 6-2, 240 — Tough, two-down thumper who racks up the tackle but isn’t as effective playing in space
5. Kendall Beckwith, LSU — 6-2, 243 — Torn ACL is a concern, but he’s on pace to contribute this season and could be a fit in alost any scheme with his striking ability
6. Duke Riley, LSU — 6-0, 232 — Active, undersized weakside candidate and special-teams contributor who appears to have a pretty high floor and will work hard
7. Vince Biegel, Wisconsin — 6-3, 246 — Try-hard rusher must adapt his game a bit more but has the makeup of a winner and an eventual contributor
8. Anthony Walker, Northwestern — 6-1, 238 — Rocked-up, intelligent hitter who was better as a sophomore than as a senior, but there’s potential to unlock
9. Alex Anzalone, Florida — 6-3, 241 — Injuries have been a consistent issue since he arrived in Gainesville, but he showed good smarts and athleticism when he’s been able to perform
10. Jaylen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee — 6-0, 230 — Injuries have been a constant in his career, but he has great athleticism and special-teams ability when healthy

Sleeper
Harvey Langi, BYU

The rare Utah-to-BYU transfer, Langi also made another career-changing move — from linebacker in 2015 with the Cougars to more of an edge role in 2016 — that hurt his effectiveness. Langi played more as a defensive end with the team moving to a 4-3 front and was asked to do things that were out of his comfort zone. He was actually relatively new to linebacker, having started as a running back in college football, and he even stepped in at the position last season for an injured Jamaal Williams, rushing for two TDs against UMass. We like Langi best in something of a hybrid LB-pass rush role in the NFL. He’s athletic, smart and plays with his heart on his sleeve. Turn on the Poinsettia Bowl against Wyoming, and you can see what we mean. Langi also had a pretty solid week at the Senior Bowl that opened some eyes and tested fairly well at the NFL scouting combine.

At times, Langi can be overaggressive and is a bit of a guesser, having lacked the instincts that are developed over seeing thousands of reps at a certain position. Here’s a play from 2015 that shows Langi playing in a more traditional linebacker role — and where he aggressiveness must be reeled in a bit — against BYU in 2015, blitzing in on the quarterback but unable to make a play that ends up a touchdown:

BYU’s Harvey Langi blitzes but can’t bring down the Utah QB in 2015. (Draftbreakdown.com)

But with Langi’s athleticism, good build (6-foot-2, 251 pounds) and desire to do whatever the team needs, we think he can be a valuable subpackage defender, special-teams ace and perhaps even a lead blocker as a fullback. He showed pretty good traits in coverage and has the makeup of a do-it-all performer on the next level. He turns 25, having served a two-year LDS mission, and has been a bit banged up over the years. But we think there’s a home on an NFL roster for a creative, smart team willing to invest in his intriguing skill set.

Small-school wonder
Connor Harris, Lindenwood (Mo.)

Harris first came on our radar at the Senior Bowl, and though he made a tough first impression — he measured in at only 5-foot-11 and with 30 1/8-inch arms — he more than made up for it with his play, following a terrific career at the D-II level. The 2016 Cliff Harris Award award winner (the top defender in Divisions II, III and NAIA) models his game after former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who retired shockingly after one year in the NFL, and has similar dimensions. The feeling here is that Harris would be regarded similarly to Borland — the 77th pick of the 2014 NFL draft — had Harris received more than one D-I scholarship offer (that one came from Kansas).

But Harris still figures to be a Day 3 pick following an incredible career and 2016 season in which he was a three-way player. First and foremost, Harris is a linebacker, and he collected 184 tackles with seven passes defended and two interceptions. He also punted (19 punts last season for a 38.6-yad average, with six inside the 20 last season) and kicked extra points (12-of-12). Oh, by the way, Harris also served as a running back and Wildcat QB part time, rushing for a career-high 188 yards in a game in 2014.

The three-year captain has physical shortcomings, must get stronger and needs to show he can stand up to big-time competition. But he absolutely can carve out as a role as a reserve linebacker and special-teams ace to start his career and outwork more talented players and stay longer along the way.

Other 2017 NFL draft position rankings:

Quarterbacks
Running backs
Wide receivers
Tight ends
Offensive tackles
Interior offensive line (centers and guards)
Interior defensive line (nose tackles, 4-3 defensive tackles, 3-4 defensive ends)
Edge rushers (4-3 defensive ends, 3-4 outside linebackers)

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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