Top inside linebacker prospects tell their stories

Posted Feb 26, 2016

Packers could use 27th overall pick on one, if available

INDIANAPOLIS – The Packers are in the market for an inside linebacker in the 2016 NFL Draft, and intriguing options certainly exist.

Two months from now, the question will be whether any of the top prospects could fall to the Packers at the 27th overall pick.

On Friday, several of them came through the Lucas Oil Stadium media center at the Scouting Combine. The top-rated inside linebacker, Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, was not available, but a trio of others – Ohio State’s Darron Lee, UCLA’s Myles Jack and Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith – all had stories to tell.

Lee is viewed as perhaps another new-age linebacker in the mold of Arizona’s Deone Bucannon, an oversized safety-type who can cover and hit but also hold his own at the point of attack.

Weighing less than 200 pounds three years ago when he came to Ohio State and began learning the linebacker position, Lee weighed in at 232 at the Combine with plenty of a coveted trait.

“I can give more speed to the defense. I know a lot of teams are looking for speed,” Lee said.

“Linebackers are changing in this league, to be honest. They’re getting smaller, the game’s getting faster. They need guys to cover.”

Pass coverage can be the toughest aspect of a linebacker’s job. Offenses more and more look for matchups with running backs and tight ends they can exploit, and Lee might be a defense’s ideal counter, arriving right on time for the current NFL game.

“It’s a perfect transition. The stars are aligned in that aspect,” Lee said. “I can’t tell you why the game’s getting faster, but the quarterbacks are getting the ball out quicker and making linebackers run. That’s what I see on Sundays.”

Jack and Smith also possess the desirable combination of coverage and run-and-chase skills, but they have injury issues that put their draft stock in question. They are upper first-round talents who don’t know how far they’ll fall due to the medical reports.

Jack was lost to a knee injury (meniscus) early last season and isn’t able to work out at the Combine, but he’s expecting to get medical clearance early next month and work out at UCLA’s pro day on March 15.

The Bruins have had two linebackers drafted high the last two years in Anthony Barr (first round, 2014) and Eric Kendricks (second round, 2015), both by Minnesota. Jack said he was “in awe” of them when he first arrived on campus and has wanted to follow in their footsteps. He learned to be a “gamer” with a high motor from Barr, and he learned the preparation side from Kendricks.

“The medical question is the only question people have, and I feel I can erase it at my pro day,” said Jack, who has reached out to former UCLA teammate and current Packers backup QB Brett Hundley as he goes through the pre-draft process. “My goal is to erase all doubt with this injury and solidify my position in this draft.”

Smith is much farther away, only seven weeks removed from reconstructive knee surgery (ACL, LCL) due to his bowl game injury vs. Ohio State. His goal is to be ready for the start of the 2016 season and still be drafted in the top 10, but that may be too ambitious given the circumstances.

“I don’t know when I’ll be back, but I’ll be back 100 percent,” he said. “It’s just a healing game.”

Smith is confident he’ll be the same player he was before the injury, and it’s a matter of convincing NFL teams to look at the bigger picture come April’s draft.

He also pointed to the success of Rams running back Todd Gurley in his rookie season coming back from a similar injury, though Gurley’s occurred much earlier than his final college game.

“It’s a long-term decision,” Smith said of drafting him. “I’m going to be around for a while playing at an elite level as an impact player.

“No doubt in my mind. It’s a matter of when I’ll be healthy again.”

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