The Patriots.com/Patriots Football Weekly staff has been breaking down the prospects for the 2015 NFL Draft by position. Today we take a look at the linebackers.
The linebacker position in any draft class is always somewhat dependent on how you classify the edge talent – OLB or DE. But there are certainly guys with NFL-caliber linebacker ability in the 2015 class of impact defenders. Teams looking for well-rounded off-the-line linebackers will find options. Those looking for outside linebackers focused on getting in the opponents backfield are also well represented this spring.
Top of the crop
If you label him a linebacker, Florida's Dante Fowler is certainly to top dog at the position and one of the most potential-filled defensive players in this year's talent pool. The former Gator has all the tools to be an aggressive, violent impact defender at the next level. That's why his name will be called in the first handful of picks come Thursday night in Chicago. Clemson's Vic Beasley is a little lower down the potential meter but will be a first round talent on the edge. The top group also includes DE types like Missouri's Shane Ray and Kentucky's Bud Dupree as well as Virginia's Eli Harold. If an inside linebacker type is the choice then the best this class has to offer is Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney. He's a big, athletic beast who likes to thump against the run and can offer a bit as a rusher in certain situations. In the ever-evolving world of NFL inside linebackers McKinney has the tools to fit in nicely and could slide into the late part of the first round this week.
With Jerod Mayo having restructured his contract the Patriots have one of the top trios of starting linebackers in the NFL. But the group could certainly use some depth help. A couple guys who seem to fill the bill of the role that guys like Dane Fletcher previously held in New England – athletic inside guys to fill-in as backups while bringing special teams ability – include Kansas' Ben Heeney and Baylor's Bryce Hager. Washington's Shaq Thompson is an elite athlete seemingly lacking an NFL position, but he might be the perfect defensive toy for Bill Belichickto find a use for in his never-ending pursuit of hybrid safety/linebacker types. Probably won't happen, but might be fun to watch. Oklahoma's Geneo Grissom is another versatile option who has the size and ability to play the run and the pass on the outside, while Oregon's Tony Washington is a late-rounder with special teams potential and athletic backup ability.
Keep an eye on
Fowler certainly looks like a guy who could have a rookie impact and land in the Pro Bowl quickly. Thompson is a jack-of-all-trades who needs to find the right fit with the right coach in the right scheme. If that happens, watch out. We'd be remiss if we didn't include Utah State's Zach Vigil, a favorite of PFW boss Fred Kirsch. Clemson's Stephone Anthony certainly seems to have major upside as an undersized playmaker with good speed and playmaking ability. And let's not forget Harvard's Zack Hodges, an Ivy League talent with the size and versatility to be a versatile backup with developmental upside.