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2018 NFL Draft: Tremaine Edmunds leads deep LB class

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Editor's note: NFL.com analysts Lance Zierlein and Chad Reuter will provide overviews for eight position groups in the 2018 NFL Draft (April 26-28 in Dallas), concluding today with linebackers.

When you ask NFL or college football fans to list their favorite linebackers, many of them will mention outside 'backers that focus on rushing off the edge. Second-level defenders that play between the tackles, however, are often the leaders of the defense. Outside linebackers that can cover pro receivers and tight ends are becoming more important each season as the passing game stretches the field.

This year's draft is not loaded with great interior or cover linebackers, but there is enough talent to find good starters in the second and third round, as well as strong depth on Day 3 (Rounds 4-7).

Teams with greatest need for LB

1) Buffalo Bills: The Bills need to find a starter at MLB following the departure of Preston Brown departed, and they should be looking for an upgrade opposite Lorenzo Alexander, as well. Plus, Alexander will turn 35 this summer and is due to become a free agent after the season.

2) Tennessee Titans: The Titans lost inside linebacker Avery Williamson this off-season, and both Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo are scheduled to become free agents after the 2018 season. Kevin Dodd might take one outside spot eventually, but finding more difference makers on the second level is crucial for the defense's future.

3) San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers should have already been looking to upgrade their roster of outside linebackers. With the team stating that Reuben Foster's status with the club is under "great scrutiny" in the wake of the domestic violence charges filed against him, this becomes even more of a priority spot.

4) Indianapolis Colts: The team is shifting from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, and it needs athletic linebackers that can cover a lot of ground. I won't be surprised if the team picks three 'backers in this draft.

5) Dallas Cowboys: Jaylon Smith should become an excellent NFL linebacker, but the team needs more bodies alongside him. Neither Anthony Hitchens nor Kyle Wilber were retained to play the strong side. Sean Lee is a plus starter when healthy, but he's struggled to stay healthy throughout his career.

Top 5 players at the position

1. Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech: Edmunds can play the run, cover outside, and rush the passer if asked. He takes on blocks and can avoid them, as well. He's an athletic freak, but also a heady, tough football player. Teams needing help on defense might end up regretting it if they pass on him early in the first round.

2. Roquan Smith, Georgia: Teams needing speed in their linebacker corps should place high value on Smith. He's more than a "sideline-to-sideline" defender, as he's seemingly able to run from bench to bench in pursuit of ball carrier. He lacks bulk to take on NFL offensive linemen, but is adept at avoiding the big guys to make a tackle. Smith will lead a defense for years to come by slamming running backs in the hole and wrangling slot receivers to the ground.

3. Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State: A tall, athletic defender, Vander Esch slips blocks inside very effectively and also gets outside to chase the ball much more quickly than you'd expect for a player of his size. He has the potential to be a Derrick Johnson-like middle linebacker in a couple of seasons.

4. Rashaan Evans, Alabama: An Alabama linebacker has been picked in the top 50 selections in five of the last eight drafts. Evans will make that six of nine, although his decision to pass on running the 40-yard dash for scouts could hurt his stock. Teams looking for a speedy A-gap blitzer and downhill player in the run game might see enough to take a chance on him even without the 40 time, though.

5. Lorenzo Carter, Georgia: Carter could be considered an edge defender, as he has the agility and length to bring down quarterbacks. However, I like his toughness taking on blocks outside and his ability to move in coverage, in addition to his willingness to attack plays behind the line of scrimmage. He's versatile enough to play in any scheme, so it's possible a 4-3 team will look to pick him up in the top 50 picks.

Most overrated

Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Oklahoma: Okoronkwo was a very good college player, but teams aren't sure how well his game projects to the next level. He lacks the pure speed and height of a typical NFL edge rusher (where he excelled in college), but does not have great speed or agility to handle coverage responsibilities. Okoronkwo is a hard-working player who has a shot to make it in the NFL, but needs to find a perfect fit.

Most underrated

Josey Jewell, Iowa: I don't expect Jewell to be picked in the first two rounds, making him a bargain for a team looking for a defensive leader. While he doesn't have exceptional straight-line speed, Jewell's tape and NFL Scouting Combine workout displayed good short-area quickness to adjust to oncoming ball carriers. I suspect he'll lead his new team in tackles for six or seven years.

Boom or bust

Malik Jefferson, Texas: Jefferson is an explosive straight-line athlete with the potential to be an excellent off-ball defender. Though he played inside for the Longhorns, NFL teams see him as a Will 'backer who can chase plays and attack the backfield. Scouts have concerns about his instincts and work ethic, but my guess is that he'll be a better player in the pros than he was in college.

Sleeper alert

Darius Leonard, South Carolina State: Despite playing at the FCS level, Leonard has gained steam as a potential second-round choice due to his tenacious play and very good athleticism. The half-brother of former Clemson linebacker Anthony Waters eschewed the Tigers' preferred walk-on offer to go to SCSU. He's proven that he was worthy of a scholarship out of the box, overwhelming lower-level competition with speed and power. He won't shrink against NFL competition, either.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @chad_reuter.

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