NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein will reveal the top CFB players to watch in 2018 at six different positions with an eye toward their NFL potential, concluding today with linebackers.
This was a challenging list to put together for a number of reasons. For one, we're combining players that play very different roles on the field into one list of linebackers. The 3-4 outside linebacker types are grouped with the "traditional" linebackers to form this list. So, you may come away surprised by some of the players who are either not on this list or who are ranked lower than you expected.
All in all, after studying last season's incredible linebacker class, this year's group felt a little underwhelming once I finished watching the tape.
Zuniga looks the part, but lacks the production (nine career sacks) that most would expect from a player making this list. I will admit that Zuniga is a projection addition based on his NFL-caliber length, strength and explosive potential off the edge. Zuniga is a college defensive end who has the agility and athleticism to transition into a 3-4 OLB role at the next level. He has the physical attributes and talent to become a quality edge rusher, but he needs to add to his toolbox as a rusher in order to fully develop those attributes. The flashes are inspiring, and I see the production matching the potential in 2018.
I know the production is there for Smith, but I didn't think his tape was all that exciting. Smith has good size and solid instincts to help him get more head-starts on the play than most inside linebackers you will see. For perspective, however, Smith falls short of former Iowa LB Josey Jewell (a fourth-round pick of the Broncos) in the instincts and production categories. Yes, Smith is bigger than Jewell, but I would like to see Smith show greater physicality and desire to impose his will on opponents in 2018.
Many Michigan fans expected Winovich to hit my defensive line list, but scouts I've spoken with believe that he will end up transitioning into a role at 3-4 outside linebacker in the pros. Winovich is labeled as a "try-hard" player by scouts, and that is certainly an accurate description of his playing style, but he's also skilled with his hands. He has a deft feel for working around blockers in an efficient manner. He has decent get-off as a rusher and does a good job of getting early shoulder turn so tackles can't move him up and around the rush arc. His 19 tackles for loss last season (8.5 sacks) are indicative of his desire to make impact plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Edwards is a legitimate thumper inside the tackle box. That's not to say that he's lost on the move because he does have adequate pursuit speed, but he won't blow scouts away with his athletic traits. However, he will impress them with his consistency of production for all three years as a starter. You know what you are getting from Edwards every single game. He does have one surprising element to his game -- his ball skills. When he drops back into coverage, he has made challenging catches with his sticky hands on the way to seven interceptions over the last two seasons.
Banogu started off at Louisiana-Monroe in 2015, where he made the All-Sun Belt Newcomer team as a redshirt freshman and then sat out 2016 per transfer rules as he joined TCU. In his first season with the Horned Frogs, Banogu tallied 16.5 tackles for loss, including 8.5 sacks, en route to becoming a first-team All-Big 12 selection. Banogu's NFL bread will be buttered with his talent for getting after the quarterback. He's still raw as a rusher, but his initial quickness and ability to beat blockers both inside and outside will make him an appealing prospect to NFL scouts if he can improve upon what he has built so far at TCU.
After basically watching from the sidelines his first two seasons, Durham burst onto the scene in 2017 as one of the top playmakers on Texas A&M's defense with 10.5 sacks. While the Aggies will play him at defensive end, he has experience standing up as a linebacker off the edge and will likely be labeled as a 3-4 edge rusher at the next level. Durham has good upfield burst as a rusher and attacks offensive tackles with smart hands that help him access the blocker's edge effectively. Once he opens his path to the quarterback, he has one of the best closing bursts in the SEC. Durham still has work to do when it comes to beating blockers at the point of attack as a run defender.
Allen is long and very athletic with the ability to stalk quarterbacks and running backs who are making a dash for the perimeter. However, his ability to threaten the edge with his plus burst upfield off the snap really gets NFL evaluators excited. Allen has posted back-to-back seven-sack seasons, but his production in that area could be much greater if he improves his hand use and adds a quality counter move to his repertoire for when his speed rush is nullified. The tape shows a player who needs to get much stronger in order to hold up at the point of attack against the run. Despite some holes in his game, his talent and traits will be coveted.
While we have seen Alabama recruiting and incorporating more speed into their edge positions along the defensive front, there is clearly still room for thumpers like Jennings. At 6-foot-3 and 266 pounds (school measurements), his playing style is more like Courtney Upshaw's than Tim Williams'. Jennings is a banger who leaves a mark when he makes a hit. He lacks consistent edge speed as a rusher, but does display an aptitude for bull-rushing tackles. His NFL frame and ability to support the run make him a quality 3-4 strong-side linebacker prospect.
Dye is much taller (6-4) and sleeker than your average 4-3 linebacker. He uses his long legs and play speed to track the ball all over the field. Dye led the Ducks in tackles last season with 107 -- 42 more than the next-closest teammate. He's recorded 26 tackles for loss, including 9.5 sacks, in his first two seasons. Dye really separates himself from some of the other linebackers who are not on this list with his athletic talent and ability to range in pass coverage. He has the lateral quickness to stay ahead of climbing blockers as well as the burst to shoot gaps and make tackles in the backfield. He can get glued to blocks at times and will need to add more functional upper-body strength.
Walker will finally get his chance to be a starter as he enters his senior season, but he is definitely on the radar of NFL scouts. Walker carries 251 pounds with ease on his athletic frame and he possesses the athletic ability to drop into coverage or even bump to inside linebacker from time to time. Walker will be scouted as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but he might have some hybrid potential as a 4-3 strong-side 'backer. He needs to improve his play strength and add more sophistication to his pass rush, but his 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in limited playing time last season bode well for his expected production as a starter this year.
Big things are expected from Bush this season after his first-team All-Big Ten performance as a sophomore. Michigan allows him to roam in the middle of the defense, but he might be best-suited to play weak-side linebacker in a 4-3 defense thanks to his lack of size (5-11, 232, per school measurements) but plus pursuit speed. Bush plays with a good feel for sifting through the traffic when he's pursuing ball carriers and he's very adept adjusting his pursuit angles when needed. However, he will need to be careful about running under blocks and opening running lanes. With seven passes defensed last season, he also showed off his coverage potential, which is a very important play trait in today's game.
It's time to find out if Wilson will be the next high-impact inside linebacker to come out of Alabama. Wilson was thrust into the starting lineup by season's end due to injuries and proved he was up to the task in the national semifinal and national championship games. His playing style is similar to what we saw from 2018 first-round pick and former Tide LB Rashaan Evans, including his speed and aggression. Wilson made four interceptions in limited playing time, which is quite impressive. His instincts are still a work in progress. He needs to learn when to attack blocks and when to slip them.
White follows in the footsteps of former Tigers Deion Jones and Kwon Alexander as a speedy playmaker with the ability to run and chase from sideline to sideline all game long. White's increase in playing time as a sophomore led to a huge spike in tackle production and impact plays. He has rare acceleration ability for a linebacker his size (6-1, 240, per school measurements) and mirrors running backs from gap to gap if they start bouncing it outside. White is a voracious student of the game and is always looking to improve. The areas where he needs the most improvement are tackle technique and consistency as a finisher.