Philadelphia Eagles Draft Preview: Linebackers Edition

Dec 31, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Reuben Foster (10) lines up for a play during the first quarter in the 2016 CFP Semifinal against the Washington Huskies at the Georgia Dome. Alabama defeated Washington 24-7. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 31, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Reuben Foster (10) lines up for a play during the first quarter in the 2016 CFP Semifinal against the Washington Huskies at the Georgia Dome. Alabama defeated Washington 24-7. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports /

Who could the Philadelphia Eagles draft when they’re on the clock? This week we take a look at linebacker prospects.

The NFL draft is rapidly approaching and April 27th will be here in the blink of an eye. Between now & then, teams will be finalizing their draft boards: ranking players based on talent, production, potential, intangibles, scheme fit, etc. Over the coming weeks, we will be doing the same thing. Each week leading up to the draft, Ben Solak & I will rank the prospects of a certain position based on fit for the Philadelphia Eagles. We will discuss & debate the players before finalizing the order; in the same way, the Philadelphia Eagles personnel department is currently doing. By the time April rolls around, we will have scheme-specific rankings for each position, which will provide some clarity on the Philadelphia Eagles Big Board as a whole. Thus far, we have covered the following position groups:

Running Backs
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends
Offensive Tackles
EDGE Rushers
Interior DL

This week, we’ll go to the second level and discuss the linebackers.

Mike’s Rankings

  1. Reuben Foster, Alabama
  2. Haason Reddick, Temple
  3. Jarrad Davis, Florida
  4. Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
  5. Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
  6. Anthony Walker, Jr., Northwestern
  7. Kendell Beckwith, LSU
  8. Alex Anzalone, Florida
  9. Duke Riley, LSU

Ben’s Rankings

  1. Reuben Foster, Alabama
  2. Haason Reddick, Temple
  3. Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
  4. Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
  5. Jarrad Davis, Florida
  6. Alex Anzalone, Florida
  7. Tyus Bowser, Houston
  8. Kendell Beckwith, LSU
  9. Anthony Walker Jr., Northwestern
  10. Duke Riley, LSU

The Discussion

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BS: Alright Mike, you’re kicking us off this week, and I know exactly where I’d like to start: Zach Cunningham. I’m a big fan of his game, but you’ve got him a little lower, and I think I know exactly why: tackling.

MC: Does he do that?

I kid. Listen, I am a Vanderbilt alumnus and badly wanted to fall for this guy. But he tackles in a way that makes me think he’d be a better matador than linebacker. So…yeah…you guessed right.

His athleticism is obvious in his sideline-to-sideline abilities but it doesn’t do you a lick of good if you don’t lay a lick on someone. It’s my only problem with him. Jarrad Davis, on the other hand, doesn’t miss tackles from what I have seen. So why are we flipped on these guys OR what drops Davis for you?

BS: I’m in a bit of a similar spot, in the sense that I really wanted to like Davis–and I do. If you haven’t listened to his interview on the Draft Dudes podcast, you absolutely must. His love for the game just pops out of his words, his tone. There’s a lot to like there.

The health does worry me a little bit, but my biggest thing with Jarrad Davis is how aggressive he plays. I see him miss his run fits more often than not, bite real hard on counters and misdirections, and get swallowed up by pulling blockers. I’ve still got a solid Round 2 grade on Davis, and I fully expect him to find a starting role as a 4-3 WILL sooner rather than later. However, your defense better be predicated on attacking, and your safeties better be sure open-field tacklers, because Davis will allow one too many big plays to blow through his gap at the NFL level.

Let’s chat some Tyus Bowser real quick. An EDGE for Tom Herman in Houston, he’s been touted as the middle-class man’s Haason Reddick. I’ve got him listed here as an off-ball linebacker, whereas he doesn’t make your list at all. Are you counting him as a stacked LB, or as an EDGE; where do you have him ranked in his positional group, and why?

MC: I like Bowser. Natural instincts for finding the ball carrier. Obviously smart in his assignments and in reading offensive sets/plays. I just think he fits more as a 3-4 backer/EDGE guy than as a stacked LB in a 4-3 scheme. You could probably convince me he could stack up and provide a nice additional blitzer: almost like a Mychal Kendricks-type. I think this is more of a reach projection than where he would naturally fit. He would be great in a scheme like the Packers or Steelers employ, for example. Ultimately, his being off my list is not for lack of talent. Convince me I’m wrong…

BS: It’s an excellent point, and it comes down to a huge part of scouting that’s oft-overlooked: the Year-3 and Year-5 projection. Bowser is a guy who will get drafted, not because he was an incredible EDGE rusher in Houston’s defense (though he was pretty solid), nor because he was excellent in coverage (though he was pretty solid). He’ll get drafted because he has the athletic tools to do a ton of different things in any defense.

So why won’t he do them in Year-1? Because of Bowser’s mental game–his read-and-react, his run fits, his diagnosis of play-action–they all don’t project too favorably. Because he was lined up as an EDGE, he didn’t have to make off-ball linebacker reads that often, and when he did, he was noticeably a click slow. I’ll sip the tea real quick and say that I’ve been really high on Bowser’s athletic potential for a few months now, but this Round 1 talk to me is nonsense. He just isn’t mentally the football player he needs to be yet.

So where does he fit? Throw a dart and that’s where. His athletic profile is so diverse that he could put a hand in the dirt, play off-ball as an LB, cover move TEs and scatback RBs, and fire through A-gaps as a Mike. I like the idea of him playing a Kendricks-esque role, wherein he wouldn’t see the field too often in Year-1. After the 2017 season, Bradham’s contract is up and Kendricks is likely on the move, which leaves Jordan Hicks alone in a scant depth chart. Bowser fits that nickel LB role much better than Bradham who played the majority of nickel snaps with Hicks last year does. I imagine his price will be too high for the Philadelphia Eagles, but I’m excited to see how he’s utilized in an NFL defense.

I love how high you are on Anthony Walker Jr. Talk to me about his fit here in Philly.

MC: When I watch Walker’s tape the one word that comes to mind is “decisive.” He is fast to diagnose and fast to a gap. When he makes up his mind that he is hitting a gap, he barrels towards it like God’s own thunder.

Sometimes, this can get a team in trouble. He isn’t going to flow with a play. He could get beat in plays that the OL stretches horizontally. Chip Kelly, for example, I think would have loved to run against Walker-type backers because they are so fast to commit to a hole. In plays like this, he needs to keep himself clean and practice patience to a gap. But overall, his quick processing, decisiveness and controlled aggression are excellent traits in an LB prospect.

In pass coverage, he is quick to his responsibility: with a good retreat into his zone or speed to his man, depending on the call. He has all the look of a linebacker that is extremely comfortable at game speed. Based on his tape, I get the sense he prepares thoroughly so that he may play quickly & viciously. Curious to see what you thought of Walker and I definitely want to hear your thoughts on Anzalone because his tape was hard to unearth.

BS: I like Walker’s game–I’m just not sure the NFL will as much as I do. It’s really interesting to hear that you like his decisiveness, because my biggest knock against him was his impetuousness. It’s one thing to be quick to shoot a gap, but it’s another thing to surrender your run fits.

MC: This is what I meant when I said he can get into trouble at times with his speed to close.

BS: I think Walker would be more effective if he learned to process with a little more patience.

Walker’s sideline to sideline range does remind me a tad of Jordan Hicks though, so I do like your Chip Kelly name drop. I think he would have liked Walker, too.

Anzalone? Man. If I could pick one player to just stay healthy in this draft, it might be Anzalone. It’s tough to find his tape, like you said, in part because he’s missed so much time over the past couple of seasons. But when he’s on the field, he’s quick to diagnose, physical between the tackles, brings the wood when he hits, moves fluidly in space, carries running backs and tight ends–tell me what you want your three-down linebacker to do, and I’ll show you a clip or two in which Anzalone does it.

The name of the game is health, and the subtitle of the game is “where will he be drafted?” Again not unlike Jordan Hicks, college injuries and perceived durability may send him cascading down draft boards. If he’s there in the third, pull the trigger.

MC: This was my takeaway from his (limited) tape as well. I love the ability he shows but I hate the ability that he doesn’t. Ultimately, I agree that he would be a great Hicks-type of option to spend a middle-to-late round pick on should he last that long. Low-risk high-reward should be the motto when considering Anzalone given his health concerns.

The Big Board

  • Reuben Foster, Alabama
  • Haason Reddick, Temple
  • Jarrad Davis, Florida
  • Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
  • Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
  • Alex Anzalone, Florida
  • Tyus Bowser, Houston
  • Anthony Walker Jr., Northwestern
  • Kendell Beckwith, LSU
  • Duke Riley, LSU

    Next: Beau Allen to miss 4-6 months with upper body injury

    Writer’s note: These are our joined linebacker rankings for the Philadelphia Eagles. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter what you think, and be sure to keep an eye out next week for our cornerback rankings!