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Rating the top inside linebackers in the NFL Draft with an eye on Chiefs’ needs

Analyzing the Chiefs' needs in the 2017 NFL Draft

Terez A. Paylor, Chiefs beat reporter for The Kansas City Star, breaks down what the Chiefs need and who they might pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
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Terez A. Paylor, Chiefs beat reporter for The Kansas City Star, breaks down what the Chiefs need and who they might pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Included in measurables are height, weight, age they turn this year (if available) and 40-yard-dash time. Grades and rankings are based on film study (at least six games worth, whenever possible) and proprietary reporting. Quotes are harvested from conference calls, individual interviews and television broadcasts. Grades are intended to convey a general sense of the draftee’s value, and where he might be selected.

1. REUBEN FOSTER, Alabama

Measurables: 6-0, 229, 22, N/A

Bio: Two-year starter who had 115 tackles (13 for loss) and five sacks in 15 games in 2016. Also had eight quarterback hurries, zero interceptions and two pass breakups. Won the Butkus Award as the nation’s best inside linebacker.

Strengths: Team captain in 2016. Lost at least 15 pounds for the 2016 season and ripped it up. Ferocious hitter with elite burst and acceleration, quick feet and terrific sideline-to-sideline speed; often looks like the fastest defender on the field. Plays with an edge and displays quick-twitch athleticism. Flies to the ball going forward; is already an effective blitzer. Throws his body around willingly and packs a punch when he hits you. Does a nice job avoiding the trash up front (flashes a swim move over linemen) and is always around the ball. Has some pop in his hands. Has the athleticism and instincts to thrive in both man and zone coverage while potentially matching up with tight ends and running backs. Fiery competitor who plays his tail off and is into it on the field. Perfect fit for a 3-4 teams as a run-and-chase inside ‘backer or for a 4-3 team as a run-and-chase “Will.” “Athletic, fast and tough,” one scout said. “Great feel and instincts. Has size, durability and off-the-field concerns.” Former NFL general manager Phil Savage, who is now the executive director of the Senior Bowl, agrees. “This is an extremely explosive linebacker, a tackling machine,” said. “Can play sideline-to-sideline; there’s no concern about do you have to substitute for him on third down. He’s a four-down player in the NFL because he can also play special teams, especially early on as a rookie. So there’s a lot to like.”

Weaknesses: Undersized for the position and lacks ideal bulk. Has also suffered multiple concussions and stingers during his career so long-term durability is a concern, given his full-bore playing style. Can be overpowered when walled off by big linemen. Was kicked out of the Combine for arguing with a doctor. Tested positive for a diluted urine sample at the Combine, which he blamed on over-hydrating due to an illness. Did not workout at his Pro Day or the Combine due to a shoulder injury, so there are really no test results on him. Would have a 7.1 grade were it not for those issues. “Yeah, there are some red flags there,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “I think the Combine incident has been wiped clean by almost every team. I think that was way overdone, and the kid should not been sent home. That’s my opinion. And most people in the league believe that. As far as the diluted sample at the Combine, that’s always really disappointing. It has to be taken into consideration. I think the shoulder is apparently going to be okay from a re-check perspective. I don’t see him sliding all that far. I think he’s a top-20 pick all day long in any draft. He still might be a top-10 pick.”

Grade: 6.9

Games I watched before grading him: Southern California 2016, Arkansas 2016, Texas A&M 2016, Louisiana State 2016, Auburn 2016, Florida 2016

2. HAASON REDDICK, Temple

Measurables: 6-1, 237, 22, 4.52

Bio: Two-year starter who had 65 tackles (22  1/2 for loss) and 10  1/2 sacks in 14 games in 2016. Also had one interception and four pass deflections. Was arrested in March 2015 and charged in connection to a bar fight, but avoiding trial by agreeing to a diversionary program. Had a formal interview with the Chiefs at the Combine.

Strengths: Outstanding tester who was among his position’s top testers in the 40, vertical (36  1/2 inches) and broad jump (133 inches). Took a physical jump from 2015 to 2016; was more powerful/explosive as a senior, as his burst off the ball and pop in his hands were significantly improved. Edge rusher in college who showed comfort off the ball in a nice Senior Bowl performance. Explodes off the ball when trying to get upfield and can win when twisting inside or with a speed rush. Generally has good eyes on the edge. Physically tough and plays hard; chases in pursuit and always gives you an honest down. Light on his feet and covers some ground when dropping, even shows some ability to play the ball. Many analysts put him on the same level as Reuben Foster as a prospect. “I think the interesting thing is that Haason Reddick has made up so much ground in this process that the two of them are considered pretty closely together at this point,” Mayock said. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, Jr., agrees. “He’s red-hot right now,” Kiper said. “He’s one of the top-10 players in this draft.”

Weaknesses: Is best suited to be a 4-3 weakside ‘backer or a 3-4 inside ‘backer due to his size but will need time to train his eyes at the latter position, as he rarely did it in college. Can also get engulfed by longer tackles when rushing the quarterback, and needs to work on his hand fighting and develop an assortment of moves to complement his speed rush.  Can also be engulfed by size when setting the edge. Needs to do a better job wrapping up in the backfield.

Grade: 6.9

Games I watched before grading him: Notre Dame 2015, Memphis 2016, South Florida 2016, Cincinnati 2016, Highlight tape 2016

3. JARRAD DAVIS, Florida

Measurables: 6-1, 238, 21, 4.62

Bio: Two-year starter who had 60 tackles (six for loss) and two sacks in nine games in 2016. Also had zero interceptions, five quarterback hurries and four pass deflections. Did not perform drills at the Combine due to a high-ankle sprain that caused him to miss four games in 2016.

Strengths: Good athlete with bulk, explosion and good sideline-to-sideline speed. Has the athleticism to stick with tight ends and running backs in coverage. Packs a punch when he hits a ball-carrier; violent tackler. Ultra-confident and possesses a nasty, aggressive temperament. Looks great going forward and running to the ball when he’s decisive. Can duck through creases on blitzes and make plays. Relentless motor; gives it all he’s got. Some analysts think he has more natural linebacking ability that Haason Reddick. “Davis has a little more thump to him in terms of his toughness,” Brooks said. “He can roam sideline to sideline, make plays.” Kiper likes him more than Zach Cunningham. “More of an inside guy who can get some heat on the quarterback. I’d give him a slight edge.”

Weaknesses: Can be overwhelmed by size in the phone booth; had some difficulty stacking and shedding big linemen in 2015 but was much better at it (and more aggressive) in 2016. Can be fooled by play-action at times and needs to improve his play recognition so he can improve his angles and gap discipline, but again, his instincts were better in 2016. Needs to do a better job of breaking down and tackling in space.

Grade: 6.8

Games I watched before grading him: Louisiana State 2015, Alabama 2015, Massachusetts 2016, Vanderbilt 2016, Alabama 2016, Highlight tape 2016

4. ZACH CUNNINGHAM, Vanderbilt

Measurables: 6-3, 234, 22, 4.67

Bio: Three-year starter who had 125 tackles (16  1/2 for loss), zero sacks and one quarterback hurry in 13 games in 2016. Also had zero interceptions and three pass deflections. Declared after his redshirt junior season. Had a formal interview with the Chiefs at the Combine.

Strengths: Was among the Combine’s top testers in the vertical jump (35 inches) and broad jump (125 inches), which are indicators of lower-body explosion. Has above-average athleticism and sideline-to-sideline speed. Uses his outstanding length/levers (34  3/8 -inch arms) to jolt oncoming linemen when stacking and shedding, which he does willingly and seems to enjoy. Reliable downhill run defender who plays the game with his eyes, takes good angles to the ball and is generally gap sound. Scheme-versatile and can play either inside spot in a 3-4. Some 4-3 teams could see him as an option any linebacker spot in their scheme. Has some special-teams chops. “Very athletic, very rangy,” Kiper said. “I believe he probably will go second round.”

Weaknesses: Long-strider who is a bit high-cut and straight-linish. Not a quick-twitch guy. Needs to clean up his technique a bit; occasionally takes some false steps when diagnosing the run. Not a punishing tackler; is more of a wrap and drag guy. Needs to do a better job breaking down in space. Doesn’t always sense down blockers. Hasn’t had much production as a pass rusher or blitzer. Doesn’t always chase hard in pursuit. Not natural in coverage; has enough athleticism to be solid in zone and carry some backs and tight ends up the seam but isn’t fluid, per se, and can be grabby.

Grade: 6.8

Games I watched before grading him: South Carolina 2016, Georgia Tech 2016, Florida 2016, Georgia 2016, Missouri 2016, Highlight tape 2016

5. RAEKWON McMILLAN, Ohio State

Measurables: 6-2, 240, 20, 4.61

Bio: Two-year starter who had 102 tackles (seven for loss), two sacks and two quarterback hurries in 13 games in 2016. Also had zero interceptions and four pass deflections. Declared after his true junior season.

Strengths: Is young for a prospect. Team captain in 2016. Possesses the bulky frame and strong hands necessary to stack and shed vs. the run, and he still might not have his grown-man strength yet. Packs a punch; reliable tackler who jolts linemen. Reads his run keys and is disciplined on the back side. Also has some juice as a blitzer. Has some edge to him and plays hard from down-to-down; doesn’t stay on the ground. Profiles as a 3-4 inside ‘backer or 4-3 strong-side ‘backer. “A little bit bigger, has some thump to him,” Jeremiah said. “Ran in the low 4.6 — think he ran 4.61. Showed he’s got a little more athletic ability than maybe we gave him credit for. He could fit 3-4, 4-3, but he’d be in the mix there.”

Weaknesses: Range doesn’t quite match timed speed. Not a quick-twitch guy and is a bit tight in the hips. Didn’t see him much in man coverage and might have some limitations there. Needs to keep training his eyes; can be manipulated by run fakes. Must also be more gap sound and continue to improve his technique.

Grade: 6.7

Games I watched before grading him: Oklahoma 2016, Wisconsin 2016, Penn State 2016, Michigan 2016, Clemson 2016, Highlight tape 2016

OTHERS TO WATCH

Kendall Beckwith, Louisiana State; Blair Brown, Ohio; Connor Harris, Lindenwood; Duke Riley, Louisiana State; Anthony Walker, Northwestern

GRADING SCALE

7.5-7.1: Top 10 pick

7.0: picks 11-20

6.9: 21-32

6.8: Top half of the second round

6.7: Bottom half of the second

6.6: Top half of the third

6.5: Bottom half of the third

6.4: Fourth-round pick

6.3: Fifth-round pick

6.2: Sixth-round pick

6.1: Seventh-round pick

6.0: Priority free agent

5.9: Non-prospect

2017 NFL DRAFT PREVIEW: INSIDE LINEBACKERS

What Chiefs GM John Dorsey says: “In this year’s draft, I think there are some very talented individuals. I think that not only spans from the top, but it goes down into the fourth and the fifth rounds as well. So, I think there are some pretty good players in this draft at that particular position.”

Chiefs’ need at this position: Medium. The Chiefs’ interior run defense was substandard last season, even before star inside linebacker Derrick Johnson was lost for the year due to an Achilles injury. Johnson is optimistic he’ll be ready for the first day of training camp, and the Chiefs have four young players they like at the position, including Justin March-Lillard, Ramik Wilson, Terrence Smith and special teams-maven D.J. Alexander. But the Chiefs could use another body to fortify this position in the draft, though — for the millionth time — they don’t value this position as high as other teams and might not be willing to invest a first-round pick in one, unless the player is special.

QB: With no consensus on draft’s top QB, Chiefs could have plenty to choose from | rankings

RB: Chiefs could draft big-play threat from loaded crop of running backs | rankings

FB: Chiefs try Lindenwood’s Connor Harris at fullback during local pro day | rankings

WR: Curtis Samuel showed he can be more than a receiver at Ohio State | rankings

TE: Mizzou’s Sean Culkin eager to prove he can do more in the pros | rankings

OL: Pro day performance caps fun two days for Missouri Western’s Travis Anderson | rankings, to come

DL: Former Park Hill star Ondre Pipkins hoping for NFL shot | rankings

EDGE: K-State’s Jordan Willis has worked his way into first-round discussion | rankings, to come

ILB: K-State linebacker Elijah Lee is betting on himself in NFL Draft | rankings

CB: Confident, deep crop of rookie corners should be enticing for Chiefs | rankings, to come

S: Pitt State’s Deron Washington carries on NFL dream for family | rankings, to come

The Terez A. Paylor All-Juice Team: 2017 (to come) | 2016 | 2015

Terez A. Paylor’s mock drafts: 4.0 (to come) | 3.0 | 2.0 | 1.0

Terez A. Paylor, tpaylor@kcstar.com

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