The Minnesota Vikings have selected a linebacker in the first two rounds of each of the last two drafts to create one of the top linebacker groups in the league.
Anthony Barr, selected in the first round of the 2014 draft, and Eric Kendricks, second round selection in 2015, are the starters on the strong side and middle, respectively. They are locked into the starting lineup.
The weak side starter is yet to be determined, but the leading candidate is free agent signee Emmanuel Lamur. He played the first four years of his NFL career with the Cincinnati Bengals, including a pair with Mike Zimmer as the team’s defensive coordinator.
His competition will be 11th-year veteran Chad Greenway, third-year veteran Brandon Watts, second-year seventh round draft pick Edmond Robinson and free agent signee Travis Lewis.
Greenway saw his role reduced last season and he had one of his better years in a while. He re-signed with the Vikings for one more season to retire as a Viking.
Watts is probably the longest shot to make the team. He has impressive athleticism and done well as a special teams player. He drew the ire of Zimmer as a rookie for his inability to play hurt.
Robinson is still a project, but he showed flashes as a rookie. Having played collegiately at Newberry, the Vikings knew it would take time for him to develop against the better competition and speed of the NFL on a weekly basis.
Lewis was signed away from the Detroit Lions during the early stages of the free agent process. He is an athletic weakside linebacker with some coverage ability, but his greatest asset is his special teams play. He could be a main contributor to the special teams coverage units.
All of them are likely to make the team, along with backup middle linebacker Audie Cole. Cole, a fifth-year seventh round draft pick, was re-signed by the Vikings. He is a special teams standout and has moments in spot starts in his first four years in the NFL.
Need level: Low
Here are the top five linebackers as well as an underrated, overrated and sleeper prospect. (Positions based on NFL.com’s list)
No. 1 – Myles Jack, UCLA. He is an elite linebacker with the athleticism to make plays all over the field. He is projected to be a top 10 pick and possibly top five.
No. 2 – Reggie Ragland, Alabama. He is a strong, physical downhill run stopper. He is the top true inside linebacker in the draft. He has a tough demeanor that looks for contact. He has the ability to pass rush up the middle and has enough coverage skills to play in multiple situations.
No. 3 – Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame. He is the most talented linebacker in recent memory, let alone this draft. The problem is the major knee injury he suffered in the bowl game. Teams have drawn concern about his availability this season and beyond. If he can get the explosiveness back, he will be a steal of a draft pick. But, if he doesn’t, he may not be in the league long.
No. 4 – Darron Lee, Ohio State. He is a fast and athletic linebacker that reads plays well. He needs to improve his tackling ability and in coverage against the pass, but his speed and production for the Buckeyes are tough to overlook.
No. 5 – Scooby Wright, Arizona. He is a football players. The measurables don’t look good, but the film does. He was a highly productive leader for the Wildcats. His football-IQ, competitiveness and toughness will carry him in the NFL.
Overrated – Jordan Jenkins, Georgia. He has edge-rusher size and a high football-IQ. A team with a 3-4 system will find him intriguing, but he is not a great pass rusher nor athlete. He may be a tweener that really doesn’t fit into a system.
Underrated – Su’a Cravens, USC. He has speed, athleticism, toughness, competitiveness and enough size to be a star. He has position flexibility, but should excel on the weakside because of his background as a safety.
Sleeper – Antwione Williams, Georgia Southern. He has size, fluid athleticism and a highly productive track record. He looks the part of an NFL inside linebacker and will eventually be a very good player. He just needs to adjust to the level of competition and speed.