The demands of linebackers and the valuation of the position is changing. Over the last two drafts, seven true off-ball linebackers were selected in the first round, indicating an increased need for the position and the quality of prospects in recent years.
An early look at the ACC’s linebacker crop doesn’t reveal any slamdunk first rounders but there are some quality prospects with appealing traits. Let’s examine my top five linebackers in the ACC entering the season.
1. Joe Giles-Harris, RS Junior, Duke (6'2, 240)
Duke's team MVP and first-team All-ACC linebacker in 2017, Giles-Harris is among the top defensive playmakers in the conference. Across two seasons as a starter for the Blue Devils, Giles-Harris has racked up an impressive 232 tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, six pass breakups and two interceptions. He’s primed for another big season in what could be his last in Durham.
A rangy linebacker, Giles-Harris is a quick processor that takes good angles in pursuit. He plays with a high level of urgency and is a secure tackler. A three-down player, Giles-Harris excels in pass coverage where he is capable of winning in both man and zone coverage. He sharply reads the backfield and works into throwing lanes in zone while also capable of carrying running backs and tight ends into space alone in man coverage.
The primary concern with Giles-Harris is becoming more consistent filtering through traffic and playing through blocks. While he isn’t lacking the play strength needed to stack and shed blocks, working off of them quickly and disengaging needs work. There are also times where he is hesitant to commit in pursuit and doesn’t readily trust his keys, which enables blockers to get an angle on him.
Giles-Harris offers a blend of impressive physical and on-field traits that makes him one of the ACC’s best defensive players at any position.
2. Michael Pinckney, Junior, Miami (6'1, 220)
While teammate Shaq Quarterman receives most of the hype when it comes to the Miami linebacking corps, Pinckney is an impressive prospect in his own right. In two seasons for the ‘Canes, Pinckney has tallied 129 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, two interceptions and four pass breakups.
Despite being on the smaller side, Pinckney’s range, play speed and physicality is a good fit for today’s NFL where offenses challenge defenses to defend every blade of grass on the field. Excelling in space, Pinckney can be trusted to close down distances in a hurry and is a sound coverage linebacker. If there is a window to close, Pinckney has rapid closing speed and attacks with a high level of urgency. If he can be kept clean, Pinckney makes impact plays and is a secure tackler.
While Pinckney isn’t necessarily lacking in terms of play strength, his smaller stature does create issues when he is tasked with playing into the line of scrimmage. He’s much more effective in a pursuit-style role then being tasked with stacking blocks and playing downhill.
If Pinckney can bulk up and not lose his athletic ability, it would serve his draft stock well in what should be a standout season for Pinckney and Miami’s defense as a whole.
3. Germaine Pratt, Senior, NC State (6'3, 235)
Serving as a rotational and subpackage player in 2017 playing behind seniors, not starting any games last season didn’t preclude Pratt from making a major impact on the Wolfpack defense. Pratt was still NC State’s fourth leading tackler and secured game-clinching interceptions against Louisville and North Carolina. Expected to earn a starting role, Pratt is a breakout candidate for 2018 and he has my attention when it comes to his NFL upside.
Projecting nicely to a pursuit-style role, Pratt executes with a high level of urgency, quick processing skills and has terrific range. Able to cover ground and rapidly shut down distances, Pratt has the athletic ability and burst to make an impact in a wide radius. A converted safety, Pratt has a natural feel for defending zones with the upside to remain in phase with running backs and tight ends in man coverage. His ability to win in space and on passing downs is exciting. Pratt is a sound tackler that does well to wrap up at the the thighs and drive his legs through the ball carrier.
When it comes to areas that Pratt needs to improve, the primary area is functional strength. While he has positive moments playing off contact and keeping his hands active, stacking blocks and not getting worked out of gaps is problematic. His ability to play into the line of scrimmage is inconsistent and adding strength is critical.
Given it’s defensive line talent last year, all eyes were on the front four but Pratt’s impact was still notable. He has a prime opportunity to burst onto the scene during his senior season.
4. Kendall Joseph, Senior, Clemson (6'0, 225)
Playing behind one of the Nation’s best defensive lines, Joseph has been an unheralded playmaker for the Tigers’ defense over the course of the last two seasons. Racking up 202 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and two interceptions in his two season’s as a starter, Joseph is primed for a big senior year as on of four projected senior defensive starters for Clemson.
My favorite thing about Joseph is how sharp his mental processing skills are. He illustrates strong read-and-react skills and rarely takes the cheese for false keys. He plays with obvious preparation and has a strong feel for dissecting misdirection and counter plays. His football IQ shows up in pass defense where his feel for coverage spacing and zone awareness is excellent.
Joseph excels as a space player that closes windows, knives through gaps and excels in pursuit. He does well to break down in space and come to balance as a tackler while also a capable candidate for duties in man coverage.
The concerns with Joseph stem from his squatty frame and how it impacts his ability to play though blocks. While he offers a low center of gravity, offensive lineman have no issues blasting him out of gaps. Joseph is reliant on his ability to read plays quickly and get ahead of blocks or using his quickness and the expense of working out of his run fits. Bulking up and showcasing more play strength is critical during Joseph’s final year.
While Joseph might lack the ideal physical traits of an ideal NFL linebacker, the way he wins projects well to a pursuit-style and coverage linebacker role in the NFL.
5. Shaq Quarterman, Junior, Miami (6'1, 240)
The middle backer of the much-hyped Hurricanes defense that features the infamous turnover chain, Quarterman is a buzzy prospect. He looks the part and showcases ideal athleticism for a MIKE linebacker. He’s even racked up an impressive 167 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, six sacks and six pass breakups across his two seasons as a starter. A consensus four-star recruit, Quarterman immediately became a starter and has started all 26 games of his career.
And while Quarterman has some appeal, his tape is littered with concerns that need to be ironed out. Quarterman is guilty of frequently under-pursuing and is regularly caught running in circles. Generally speaking, his angles are off.
When playing downhill or laterally, Quarterman takes on blocks with his shoulders and lacks the technique with his hands to stack and shed blocks. His pad level gets high and blockers have their way with him. His struggles to play through contact and poor angles get him caught in the crossfire and stuck in traffic. As a finisher, Quarterman has a tendency to duck his head which leads to whiffs. He doesn’t appear comfortable in coverage and is late to work into throwing widows.
Becoming a more polished linebacker with better mental processing is critical for Quarterman to showcase.
Others to keep an eye on:
Ben Humphrey, Duke
Tre Lamar, Clemson
Josh Brown, Florida State
Brant Mitchell, Georgia Tech
Chris Pearch, Virginia
Oluwaseun Idoqu, Pittsburgh
Zach McCloud, Miami