What do the four linebackers selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft all have in common except for being first round picks in the same draft and playing the same position? They all start for NFL teams ranked in the top-10 of the NFL in scoring defense and total defense.
It was a rare group of linebackers in the 2018 class and they are primed to redefine the landscape of the position as we know it in the NFL. And it’s just not the first round picks who are all primed to be stars, there’s nearly another 10 who are carving out important roles for their respective teams. This week’s 6-Pack is all about revealing how impactful the 2018 linebacker class has already been.
I hope that this column has become a staple for you each week, but just in case you are new, 6-Pack Thursday is my weekly brain dump on six football-related things that involve the NFL, College Football or NFL Draft.
Let’s crack this thing open.
Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears
The first linebacker off the board and only top-10 pick, Smith has immediately blossomed into an impact playmaker for the second level of Chicago’s defense. While he’s still adapting to Chuck Pagano’s scheme and hasn’t quite performed to the level he did as a rookie with Vic Fangio, Smith is providing Chicago with range, urgency and physicality at middle linebacker as he adjusts.
The Bears' defense is only allowing 13.8 points per game so far in 2019 and still showcases that knack for coming up with game-changing turnovers. Smith dealt with some personal matters that may have impacted his performance this season and with that now behind him, he’s poised to continue his emergence as one of the premiere young defensive talents in football.
Tremaine Edmunds, Buffalo Bills
Edmunds was drafted at 19 years old and played his entire rookie season at 20. No linebacker has demonstrated more growth from Year One to Year Two than Edmunds who is playing with much faster processing skills and confidence. A team captain as a sophomore, Edmunds is filling a critical leadership role as the quarterback of the NFL’s No. 3 defense.
Not only is Edmunds the youngest linebacker in the 2018 Class, he’s the most physically gifted. He has rare size, length, mobility and functional strength that enables him to make his share of plays based on physical traits alone. Edmunds has made a major impact in coverage this season, utilizing his burst and length to be disruptive when challenged. If all the linebackers from the 2018 Class were re-drafted with the information we have now, Edmunds is arguably the first one selected.
Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys
Vander Esch hasn’t played to the same level as he did as a rookie, but he proved enough last season to indicate he’s primed to be the face of the Dallas defense for years to come. Whether it’s been nagging injuries or inconsistent play of the defensive linemen in front of him, Vander Esch’s impact has dipped in his sophomore year.
2018 revealed a confident, fast-to-flow linebacker with great toughness and urgency. He really excelled when given chances to rush the passer and play in space. Those same flashes have been present at times in 2019 but the run defense component has declined. It shouldn’t be long before LVE picks up where he left off in his dominant rookie season.
Rashaan Evans, Tennessee Titans
While he’s still working to develop consistency, Evans’ peaks are so exciting. Arguably the most physical linebacker from last year’s class, Evans is a true tone-setter for Tennessee and he’s the type of imposing presence that likes to stick his face in a fan while eating glass.
While Tennessee’s had its struggles as a team this season, defense hasn’t been a problem. The Titans are top-10 in yards while allowing only 15.3 points per game. Evans entered the NFL without much experience as a starter, but he’s shown enough already to provide evidence that he can be a star in the NFL.
Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
Despite missing one game in 2018 as a rookie, Leonard led the NFL in with 163 tackles and made splash play after splash play to the tune of 12 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 8 pass breakups, two interceptions, 4 forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. He was instantly a dominant playmaker that invigorated the Colts defense right away and was named 2018 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Unfortunately Leonard hasn’t played since Week Two in 2019, having been sidelined with a concussion. Leonard has cleared the league’s concussion protocol and continue the dynamic start to his career. He wasn’t a first round pick in 2018, but Leonard was undoubtedly the top performer of the class as a rookie.
The following weren’t among the first five off-ball linebackers drafted in 2018, but they are filling important roles as either starters or subpackage contributors for their respective teams.
- Fred Warner, 49ers (deserved his own blurb tbh)
- Shaun Dion Hamilton, Redskins
- Leon Jacobs, Jaguars
- Ja’Whuan Bentley, Patriots
- Kyzir White, Chargers
- Josey Jewell, Broncos
- Ben Beimann, Chiefs
- Kenny Young, Rams (potentially)
- Jerome Baker, Dolphins