More than any other position on the field, the linebackers are evolving to counter how today’s NFL offenses attack. The days of Levon Kirkland and Jeremiah Trotter attacking downhill are far behind us and linebackers are now required to have range and the ability to win in space.
The valuation of the position is also on the uptick with more and more off-ball linebackers selected high in the draft each year. In what was perceived as strong crop of linebacker prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft, several of them made big impacts in their rookie debuts. Let’s examine the top performers.
Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers
12 tackles, TFL, PD, QB hurry
With Reuben Foster serving his suspension, much was expected of Warner in his first taste of NFL action and he did not disappoint. Cashing in arguably the best rookie linebacker performance of the week, Warner was a field general that played fast with outstanding instincts on Sunday.
Coming out of BYU, Warner’s traits were easy to identify when studying his tape but the challenge for him was transitioning to a full-time off-ball role in the NFL after spending most of his time as an EDGE defender in college. Warner had a tremendous preseason which transitioned to Week 1 and Warner’s playmaking ability was on display.
I came away most impressed with how quick Warner processed his keys and committed. The 49ers ultimately fell to the Vikings but the future pairing of Warner and Foster has the makings of the next Patrick Willis – NaVorro Bowman duo roaming the second level in San Francisco.
Fred Warner introduces himself to the NFL and shows why fast, smart ILBs are all the rage. Warner IDs the run immediately, and the pulling center can't get over in time to block him. When the 49ers have both Warner and Reuben Foster at the same time, it'll be hard to run on them. pic.twitter.com/6Q2SXLPxkI
— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) September 10, 2018
Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
9 tackles, fumble recovery
There were some concerns that Indianapolis reached for Leonard with pick No. 36 but he’s quickly silenced those thoughts after a stellar first game. Leading the Colts’ defense in snaps played on Sunday, Leonard was all over the field against Cincinnati.
Coming from South Carolina State, Leonard’s transition to the NFL was expected to take time but he’s a Day One starter and appears to be a player the Colts can build around on defense. For a roster in need of core building-blocks, Leonard fills a big need.
Leonard played fast on Sunday. He found the football quickly and pursued with intent. He illustrated comfort in space, took great angles and even performed well in coverage. Indy’s defense has a long ways to go but Leonard looks to be part of the solution moving forward.
Genard Avery, Cleveland Browns
4 tackles, sack, 2 QB hurries, forced fumble
I’m still trying to figure out how Avery fell to the fifth round. In terms of size, athletic ability, versatility and urgency, he meets all of the desired qualities the NFL is looking for. He was an impact defender at Memphis and so far he looks to be one in the NFL.
Avery did a bit of everything on Sunday against the Steelers. He primarily played on the edge and rushed the passer but he was still tasked with dropping into coverage and performing like a true off-ball linebacker. His versatility gives defensive coordinator Greg Williams scheme diversity and Avery took advantages of his opportunities.
The same urgency we saw at Memphis was on display against Pittsburgh. He pursued with intent and made splash plays in his debut. Truth be told, his strip-sack late in overtime should have led to a rare Browns victory.
Genard Avery deserved better than a tie after forcing that takeaway.
— Jessica Benson (@Local24Jessica) September 9, 2018
Tremaine Edmunds, Buffalo Bills
7 tackles, sack, TFL, 2 PDs, QB hurry, forced fumble
The Bills defense has lacked speed on the second level for years. After Sean McDermott spent years in Carolina enjoying the likes of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, upgrading the linebacking corps was a priority. In Edmunds and 2017 draft choice Matt Milano, Buffalo has it’s off-ball duo to build off.
Edmunds became the youngest linebacker to ever start an NFL game on Sunday but he certainly didn’t look like it. While he had a few reps where he fell for false keys and vacated space he was responsible for in coverage, his growth as the game progressed was evident.
At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Edmunds is an imposing physical presence with rare mobility for his size. Taking advantage of his physical traits, Edmunds made splash plays for Buffalo on Sunday and was probably the lone bright spot after a historically poor team performance.
His range, physicality and length enabled him to win in coverage and pursuit. It’s exciting to think about the player Edmunds can develop into as he improves the mental side of the game.