The crown used to belong to the Miami Hurricanes, if you ask those in South Beach. Up north, they might say Penn State was the true king, despite the bevy of Nittany Lions who suffered injury-laden careers in the NFL.
But now, neither of those schools even have a case for being known as Linebacker University, so the quest to find the real LBU must begin elsewhere. In my study of the past ten draft classes, only four teams really proved worthy of consideration for the title.
Total Drafted – 8
Top 100 – 5
Top 50 – 1
1st Round – 0
Big Hits – Deion Jones, Kwon Alexander
Still Waiting – Duke Riley, Kendall Beckwith
Busts – Kevin Minter
The good news: Deion Jones is a top five linebacker in the NFL, and Kwon Alexander is probably top 20. It is not easy for NFL teams to produce two linebackers that would land amongst the top 20 players at their position league-wide, especially considering there are only about 25-30 linebackers that even matter in today’s NFL.
On top of those two studs, Beckwith looked very good as a rookie, and could be on his way to joining the Big Hits group as the 107th overall pick. With Devin White waiting in the wings as the expected first linebacker off the board next year, LSU has a real shot at having their first Round 1 linebacker since 1989.
The bad news: In terms of prospect pedigree, LSU can’t compare to Alabama, UCLA or even Ohio State, not over the past ten years anyway. They’ve only had one top 50 pick in that time span in Kevin Minter, and he’s turned out to be a disappointment who may not be in the league much longer.
White may help turn the numbers in the Tigers’ direction, but right now they don’t match up with the volume of high-caliber prospects the other top schools are offering.
Final verdict: It’s quality over quantity right now at LSU, especially when we talk about producing top 50 linebacker prospects. But the NFL is changing, and maybe teams are realizing they shouldn’t have slept on so many Tigers over the past few drafts.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Total Drafted – 8
Top 100 – 7
Top 50 – 6
1st Round – 5
Big Hits – C.J. Mosley, Dont’a Hightower, Reuben Foster
Still Waiting – Rashaan Evans, Reggie Ragland
Busts – Rolando McClain (character reasons)
The good news: Foster could be the best linebacker in the NFL in a few years if he stays on the straight and narrow, while Mosley has had a wonderful career as a top 7-8 linebacker in the NFL. Hightower’s longevity and consistency in New England was sorely missed last season, as he’s been an excellent player in Bill Belichick’s system.
Heck, you could even count average starter Mark Barron here since he moved to linebacker if you wanted to beef Alabama’s number up a little. No school in the country has produced the talent at linebacker, both in terms of quality or quantity, that Alabama has offered the NFL. And with Evans in Tennessee and Mack Wilson poised for a high draft slot next year (and Dylan Moses perhaps right behind him in 2020), the tradition looks like it will continue for years to come.
The bad news: Is there any? With the exception of Foster, Alabama’s linebackers typically haven’t been great athletes, which could eventually lead to their devaluation in the eyes of the NFL. But that didn’t happen with Evans, and it won’t happen with Wilson, who is an even better athlete.
Final verdict: When it comes to producing linebackers, Alabama has set the golden standard with first round picks three of the past five years and a top 50 pick in all but one of those classes.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Total Drafted – 9
Top 100 – 5
Top 50 – 3
1st Round – 2
Big Hits – Ryan Shazier, James Laurinaitis
Still Waiting – Jerome Baker, Raekwon McMillan
Busts – Darron Lee
The good news: It’s all about pedigree for Ohio State. They’ve produced more first round linebackers than LSU (zero) and UCLA (1) over the past ten years, while also seeing more linebackers drafted overall than LSU or Alabama. Five linebackers in the top 100 tops UCLA and ties LSU as well.
Say what you want about how minimal the impact of Ohio State linebackers has been in the NFL, but they know how to crank out draftable prospects
The bad news: Neither of their big hits at linebacker are currently playing in the NFL, and Darron Lee has been a big-time bust in his first two seasons (I know Jets fans, give it another season, I’m an idiot, I get it).
Nine drafted linebackers doesn’t mean a whole lot when you have nothing to show for it amongst the current crop in the NFL.
Final verdict: Just not enough proven talent in the NFL right now to take the Buckeyes seriously. They need Baker and McMillan to have big years in Miami, while hoping Lee somehow elevates his game in year three.
Total Drafted – 7
Top 100 – 4
Top 50 – 4
1st Round – 1
Big Hits – Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Myles Jack
Still Waiting – Kenny Young, Jayon Brown
Busts – Akeem Ayers
The good news: If only 25-30 linebackers matter in today’s NFL, UCLA has produced three of them, and all three might be top 15-20 ‘backers in the league. Jack might be on his way to stardom, while Kendricks just received a big extension for his fine work in Minnesota. Barr is currently set to make bank in free agency next season if the Vikings don’t re-sign him first.
Another intriguing development? Ravens fourth round pick Kenny Young and Titans fifth round pick Jayon Brown both have an opportunity to win a starting job for their respective teams this offseason. At the very least, both should have significant roles on obvious passing downs. If they do that and play well, suddenly UCLA could have five linebackers playing meaningful snaps in the NFL.
The bad news: The only bad news here is that UCLA isn’t Alabama. One first round pick in ten years isn’t a big deal, until you’re trying to wrest away the LBU crown from a team that produces five during that same timespan (six if you count Barron).
Final verdict: UCLA deserves way more credit than they get as a LBU candidate, but it is tough for them to take the crown with Alabama in the other corner.
So, who is LBU?
No team has produced as many quality linebackers as consistently and as dominantly as Alabama over the past ten years. They are poised to have their sixth first round linebacker in 11 drafts next April. That is insane.
But UCLA is a very close runner-up, and it’ll be interesting to see how their two day three ‘backers play this season with a chance for signifiant playing time on the table. Unfortunately none of UCLA’s current linebacker crop are on our radar for the 2019 NFL Draft, while the Crimson Tide will offer top prospects the next few years.
For fun, I ranked the top three linebackers at each school together to see where the advantage would fall. First and third place went to Alabama.
1. Reuben Foster, Alabama
2. Myles Jack, UCLA
3. C.J. Mosley, Alabama
4. Eric Kendricks, UCLA
5. Anthony Barr, UCLA
6. Dont’a Hightower, Alabama
The debate is over. The Alabama Crimson Tide are undisputedly LBU.