(A series looking at some of the top players at various positions leading up to the NFL Draft, set for April 27-29)
Offenses are getting faster.
Defenses have to either catch up or risk being left in the dust.
That explains the off-season buzz generated by Haason Reddick, a defensive end at Temple who projects as an outside or inside linebacker in the NFL.
"This is today's answer defensively to all those guys who run fast on offense, 'We're going to get quicker, folks,'" was how NFL Network and NFL.com analyst Mike Mayock assessed Reddick, who turned in an official 40-yard dash time of 4.52 at the NFL Scouting Combine.
NFL Network and NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah was likewise impressed.
"You gotta cover a guy like (Mississippi's Evan) Engram who ran a 4.42 and all those fast tight ends?" Jeremiah pondered at the Combine. "You have to have athletic inside linebackers and that's exactly what Reddick is."
Added Mayock: "Think Lawrence Timmons, somebody that can run, blitz, cover and be on the field for all three downs."
The NFL is always on the lookout for such players.
Reddick (6-1 1/2, 237 pounds) played running back and safety in an injury-plagued high school career and walked on at Temple. His 2016 season included 65 tackles, 10.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for a loss (tied for third in FBS). Analysts raved about his performance during Senior Bowl week, where he played inside and outside linebacker, and at the Combine, where he worked out with the defensive lineman and produced a position-record broad jump (11'-1") in addition to his attention-getting performance in the 40. Reddick wore No. 7 at Temple, a single-digit designation afforded at Temple only if you are "voted by players and coaches as one of the toughest players on the team," Mayock said.
Mayock called Foster "the most active inside linebacker I've seen since Luke Kuechly," and insisted "as a football player in this draft, he's a Top 10 guy." But there's more to consider than football with Foster (6-0, 229), who was sent home from the Combine, reportedly for physically threatening a hospital worker during medical evaluations. Foster had 115 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss and five sacks in 2016, but he never forced a fumble or intercepted a pass in four seasons at Alabama (two as a starter). That aside, Mayock raved about Foster's physicality. "The hit when he arrives, are you kidding me?"
"He's polarizing," Jeremiah insisted. "Some people love him, have him as a top first-round pick. Others see him in the second round." Cunningham (6-3 1/2, 224) was seen making a lot of plays the last two seasons at Vanderbilt (a combined 228 tackles, 33 tackles for a loss and four-and-a-half sacks in 2015-16). Said NFL Network analyst Charles Davis, "This guy is fitting a little bit more the prototype of what we're having as an inside linebacker with his ability to run sideline to sideline." Cunningham, a redshirt junior, didn't intercept a pass in three seasons at Vandy. And according to Mayock he needs to "clean up some of the missed tackles."
Although limited to nine games as a senior in 2016 due to an ankle injury, Davis (6-1, 238) was still voted second-team All-SEC by the conference's coaches. He is described in Dane Brugler's 2017 NFL Draft Guide as having been "interchangeable at the different linebacker positions in the Gators' defense." NFL.com's Lance Zierlein maintains Davis has "the athletic gifts to go along with the character traits teams are looking for." Davis is said to have struggled at times with over-aggressiveness, both on the field and in trying to stay on the field. Brugler said Davis "doesn't have a passive bone in his body, unfortunately several of those bones have been bruised or sprained over the years due to his violent play."
He only started for one season at LSU. But for a couple of his recent predecessors, one season was enough. "That's the tradition now at LSU with these undersized linebackers," Jeremiah said. "Kwon Alexander (now with Tampa Bay), one-year starter. Deion Jones (now with Atlanta), one-year starter. And now Riley, that undersized, athletic player. Those first two guys have been pretty darn good pros." Riley (6-0 1/2, 232) made the most of his one season starting, posting 93 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, one-and-a-half sacks, two passes defensed and an interception in 2016, when he was named a defensive captain and voted LSU's team MVP.
The 2016 Draft, ILB
Number drafted: 36 (including OLB)
Picks by round: 2 in the first; 7 in the second; 4 in the third; 7 in the fourth; 4 in the fifth; 6 in the sixth; 6 in the seventh
Highest pick: Darron Lee, Ohio State, Round 1, 20th overall by the New York Jets
Impact pick: LSU's Deion Jones went in the second round, 52nd overall, to Atlanta. Jones wound up becoming one of four rookie starters on a remodeled defense that helped take the Falcons all the way to Super Bowl LI.