Kansas inside linebacker Joe Dineen Jr. has a style of play that feels 20 years too late.
His gap fills are sound, he is consistently aware of the line of scrimmage and he can hold his ground against pullers. A traditional gap-plugger who can read-and-react at a fast pace, Dineen has racked up tackles at an incredible rate throughout his collegiate career.
With Kansas finishing the season at 3-9, they are not bowl-eligible and Dineen's Jayhawk career has come to an end. In his send-off game against Texas, Dineen posted 14 total tackles. Over the last two seasons, Dineen has accumulated 9+ tackles in 22 of 25 games. His grand total over that span is 275 tackles.
Even more impressive is how often Dineen is bringing the ball carrier to the ground without any assistance. He currently leads the country in solo tackles with 109, the next highest has just 87. Last season he was second in the country in that category, only trailing Cowboys rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.
So what's the issue with Dineen's game? He just doesn't fit the mold of the "modern" NFL linebacker.
In the past, the NFL valued a linebacker who could get on their keys and attack the line of scrimmage, plug gaps and tackle on a consistent basis. With the evolution of NFL offenses involving more spread ideologies and "college" offenses infiltrating the NFL, the value of this style of linebacker has decreased.
Now, the NFL looks for linebackers that have sideline-to-sideline range and can cover running backs or tight ends. Stuffing the run has become a secondary trait.
Traditionally, the term "two down" player would refer to running backs, tight ends, defensive ends or linebackers who offered little on obvious passing downs. With more NFL teams becoming aggressive on early downs, that term is nearly extinct. Game situations still arise when offenses prefer to run the ball, they've just dwindled in frequency. A former two-down player is closer to a "one down" player in 2018.
So how does a player like Dineen Jr. fit in, and how will the NFL value that ability in the NFL Draft?
Well, it's going to start with how he plays the pass. Dineen Jr. isn't totally helpless in coverage, doing a decent enough job dropping and getting to his zone. With 6 passes defended and 1 interception in his career, his ball skills aren't exceptional but can show up on occasion.
He needs development in man coverage, as his lack of short-area quickness will struggle to cover shiftier running backs. However, his long speed is solid, and he may be able to carry tight ends up the seam in the NFL.
As a pass rusher, Dineen offers some strength as a blitzer from depth. However, he doesn't have many tools to suggest any ability at taking snaps as an edge rusher.
While his pass coverage and pass rushing isn't a strength, I don't think his development is too far away from being schemed into roles that can mask any deficiencies. Whether that be as a blitzer, playing underneath zone or covering bigger tight ends, it's reasonable to think an NFL defensive coordinator can get by with Dineen on the field on 3rd and long.
If an NFL team believes they can develop Dineen Jr. into that player against the pass, then his ability to stuff the run becomes valuable. Teams will still run power and counter, and install inside zone as a way to incorporate RPO's. This is where Dineen Jr. could make his money.
There were three linebackers who I believe had similar styles of play to Dineen Jr. taken in the 2018 NFL Draft. Josey Jewell of Iowa had 133 tackles at a similar size to Dineen Jr., and he was drafted in the 4th round. Micah Kiser was second in the country in tackles with 143, and was taken in the 5th round. Christian Sam, also at a similar size to Dineen Jr, was drafted in the 6th round to the New England Patriots.
A Day 3 selection is likely where Dineen Jr. is headed despite his production and positive film throughout college.
His skillset suggests that he will stick to an NFL roster and find a role early on, whether that be situationally on defense or as a special teams player. As his career progresses, his playing time will ultimately come down with how he develops either as a pass rusher or in coverage.
Dineen Jr. is a team captain, is excellent in the classroom and a community volunteer off the field, so teams will likely value his personality.
Expect him to be drafted later on, but bank on me being higher on him than the NFL.