One of the positions that has Raider Nation entirely on edge is space linebacker.
To be clear, space linebacker for me is a linebacker that is not considered a pass rusher. Each scheme whether it is a 3-4, or a 4-3, or any of their variations, utilizes these linebackers differently. Most importantly, small differences in skill sets can make the ideal fit for a player change. There is actually a perfect candidate for this point in this draft and I will spend significant time on him.
Traditionally the Bengals have used a scheme that resembles a traditional 4-3. Unlike what Ken Norton Jr. ascribed to based on his time in Seattle which was a 4-3 Under, a traditional 4-3 does not make huge distinctions between the two outside linebackers. For Norton, he needed his strongside outside linebacker (Sam) to be able to line up over a tight end and either beat him or cover him. It is these types of differences that separate the prospects and change their ideal fits.
Due to this, I will make a point to discuss whether or not I believe each guy is a scheme fit and where he would fit the scheme. Lastly, it is my humble opinion that the Raiders are designing their defense to play in a big nickel format and I do believe Bowman will resign. This means having a safety skill set in the slot. Based on Guenther’s preference for pairing a smaller free safety with a freakish strong safety, Gilchrist is the most likely candidate to be the primary slot defender. This is important because it allows the Raiders to focus on larger, run-stopping linebackers rather than coverage types.
The Value Guy
Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
6’3″, 234 pounds
42 games, 150 tackles, 23.5 TFL, 15 sacks, 5 PD, 2 FF, 2 FR
There is so much hype surround Roquan Evans and Tremaine Edmunds, that even a hyper-talented guy like Evans gets overlooked. One could argue that Evans is the best linebacker in this draft. Although I do not agree with that assessment, any team who draft Evans as the third space linebacker is getting themselves a value player. This is a top 15 talent who likely will be selected in the late parts of round one and have a bit of a Ray Lewis type story.
What makes Evans special is his pursuit. At Alabama, he was set up to succeed with the scheme occupying all of the blockers and allowing Evans to pillage what is left. Many will likely view him as a weakside outside linebacker, but in today’s NFL, he could certainly grow into being a middle linebacker. Ideally, you would want Evans in a situation where he does not have to take on blockers and can read and react. He does have some ability to rush the passer, but I would prefer to see him used exclusively as a blitzer, not a pass rusher.
Ideal Scheme Fit
Honorable Mention: Micah Kiser
The Enigma Guy
Azeem Victor, LB, Washington
6’1″, 240 pounds
34 games, 198 tackles, 14 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 TD, 10 PD, 3 FF, 2 FR
Had Victor not broken his leg last year against USC, he would have likely come out of college in the 2017 draft. In that draft, he probably would have been an early mid-round pick, but now reports are he is staring down the barrel of being an undrafted free agent. The reason for this is the fluctuations in his weight. Last year Victor played significantly smaller than he did in 2018 and it clearly showed.
As with all GIF guys, which Azeem is a team getting? Will they be getting the slow, plodding, guy who struggled to get to plays? Or are we getting the slim, dynamic rocket that was a heat-seeking missile all over the field? Most likely it will be somewhere in between, but Azeem will have to modify his game in order to make sure he has a career in the NFL. Azeem will have to learn to take on blockers and shed them rather than be a run and hit weakside linebacker.
Not a scheme fit
Honorable Mention: Mathew Thomas
The GIF Guy
Leighton Vander Esch, LB, BSU
6’4″, 256 pounds
28 games, 188 tackles, 13 TFL, 5 sacks, 3 INT, 6 PD, 4 FF, 1 FR
The fun thing about watching physically dominant guys play in lesser talented conferences is seeing them utterly destroy all that stands in front of them. That pretty much sums up any take of Vander Esch. In three years playing for Boise, this guy amassed some insane tackle numbers and proved to be a playmaker by forcing fumbles. I would have loved to see him stay for another year at Boise and rack up another 12 games of experience, but he profiles nicely for almost any team.
What I love most about Leighton is his ability to attack the play. Whether it is the fact he seems to have a metaphysical connection to the football at all times, or when he takes on guys larger than him and disposes of them with ease, Leighton is just fun to watch. Vander Esch is definitely climbing up draft boards and it would not shock me if he went at the end of round one. His moderate experience will require him to learn and grow into a leadership position on the field, but with the proper coaching, he can be a shot caller in the middle of any defense.
Definite scheme fit at MLB
Honorable Mention: Darius Leonard
The Anderson Guy
Malik Jefferson, LB, UT
6’3″, 236 pounds
34 games, 231 tackles, 26 TFL, 13 sacks, 5 PD, 1 TD, 2 FF, 1 FR
There are a couple things that I love to see from space linebackers that I want in the middle of my defense. The first is a propensity to make form tackles. Nothing drives me crazier than seeing arm or shoulder tackles from stout linebackers. The second thing I love to see is a guy who excels at spying a quarterback and being a green dog blitzer. That sums up Malik Jefferson.
Jefferson is not the biggest guy. He can definitely grow and fill out his 6’3″ frame, but he has anold-schooll mentality. He is a patient linebacker that focuses on the read and identifying what is happening in front of him. With his size, some may assume he is a coverage linebacker. That is not a big part of his game. Where Jefferson excels is the old school part of the 4-3 middle linebacker position. He flows from sideline to sideline, he always looks for form tackles, and he is a very good spy defender and delayed blitzer. Assuming he had a season or two to learn behind Navarro Bowman, he and Marquel Lee could grow into a very solid linebacker tandem to replace Bowman and Whitehead.
Ideal scheme fit, inside or out
Honorable Mention: Josey Jewell
The Stud Guys
This will be the one place I break down two players.
Roquan Smith, LB, UGA
6’1″, 236 pounds
38 games, 252 tackles, 20.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 3 PD, 3 FF, 3 FR
What makes Roquan special is not his outrageous athletic ability, or his old school tackling mentality, or his insane stats. It is the fact that he led a pro style defense and made all the calls. His coaching staff at Georgia have raved about his football IQ and his ability to lead a group of players. The reason why this guy makes so much sense for the Raiders at the 10 spot in the draft, is because he is years beyond his age when it comes to the intangibles.
All of that being said, Roquan has elite physical traits. His 40 yard dash was solid and he shows on film a tremendous burst to the ball. He is the poster child for a sideline to sideline defender and when in short coverage defending a crossing route, he has the speed to follow it through. His ability to follow and mirror a running back in the backfield is a big bonus for a 4-3 team looking for an inside linebacker. Overall, Roquan is a better prospect than Reuben Foster because he led an NFL defense and he is also less likely to get busted with serious quantities of marijuana.
Ideal scheme fit. Start at weakside LB, develop into a middle linebacker
Tremaine Edmunds, LB, VT
6’5″, 253 pounds
32 games, 213 tackles, 33 TFL, 10 sacks, 1 INT, 5 PD, 3 FF, 1 FR
Within Raider Natio,n there is a debate of whether or not Roquan Smith is a better prospect than Tremaine Edmunds. Many people will point to Edmunds’ age, he is 19, as a reason for him having a higher upside than Roquan. The problem with this, they are not similar enough prospects to declare who is inherently better or worse. In reality, they will grade out very similarly for the vast majority of teams. However, personal preferences and scheme differences will determine where he goes. It is very likely that the Niners will take him due to their scheme.
Edmunds really is an ideal fit for a 4-3 Under defense. Basically, the defense the Raiders ran under Ken Norton Jr. which is also the scheme the Niners are currently running, would put him in the perfect position to succeed. Edmunds has a rare combination of size and speed, which makes him the perfect guy to take on a tight end every play. In the Niners scheme, the strong side linebacker is lined up over the tight end almost every play. It is his job to either cover him or beat him depending on the play. Edmunds can do both jobs very well.
What flashes on tape with Edmunds beyond his ability to blitz, is his ability to cover. He could absolutely develop into a tight end blanket that eliminates that player from the game. The Seahawks used a combination of their strong safety and strong side linebacker to do that. With Edmunds, teams like the Niners or Seahawks could isolate the tight end with Edmunds on every play.
The problem for the Raiders is not that Edmunds could not fit what they do. Rather, the Raiders simply would not maximize their investment in Edmunds by asking him to do what their strong side linebackers normally do, which is take on blocks and shed them. Edmunds is a tremendous prospect, but I do not think he is the best prospect for the Raiders.
Sorta fits, but far from ideal
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