Preseason Top 5: Pac-12 Linebackers

A study on Pac-12 linebackers is a study on athleticism v. defensive cognition.

Cameron Smith is my LB1. He's an unbelievable processor who regularly makes plays in the backfield because he was in the huddle and heard the play call -- it's the only explanation. He's not a bad athlete, but it isn't his calling card, and he can get in trouble in space.

Take Cameron Smith's head, and put it in any of the following LBs listed, and they'd beat out Smith for LB1.

Troy Dye, Bobby Okereke, Drew Lewis: everybody loves these names and gets excited by the flashes. But there are serious processing concerns -- not necessarily speed of processing, but the marriage between eyes, mind, and body to execute a job based off of what's happening in front of them. I love elite athletes as much as the next guy -- but I'm here for the tape, and the tape reveals if you know how to do your job within the defense.

And a lot of these guys don't have it yet.

1. Cameron Smith, Senior, USC (6'1 250)

Folks, I wanted to like Cameron Smith more than I did. That's kinda gonna be a theme for the entirety of this post.

Smith's definitely one of the sharpest linebackers in the field this season. Even across the last few classes, Smith keys on plays as quick as anyone I've ever seen. He can beat offensive linemen to their spots with ease, in that the moment they move in front of him, he's already racing them to their landmarks. He's all instincts, and his instincts are fantastic.

As suck, despite the big frame, Smith's best plays come as a pursuit WILL, because he's so gosh darn difficult to seal off. He can get slippery in tight spaces and re-set his hips to make tackles in the backfield; he can work through the garbage with good field vision to track the running back and reset his pursuit angles. In space, with no linemen in his way? Forget it. Mesh point trickeration and backfield motion can't fool him.

The issues come in that Smith is not agile, whatsoever. He has the short-area burst to be a good tackler in traffic, but when you're asking him to stay connected in pass defense or track a runner into the boundary, he's a top-heavy runner who can't sink his weight and redirect. This inability to change directions really hurts him when his instincts fail him: Smith can go jumping at shadows early in reps that have multiple pullers/read options. He's easy to manipulate because he's so geared at getting to the play early--in part because he knows he needs to, given his athletic limitations.

What to watch for in 2018: Block deconstruction. Smith will not play WILL in the NFL -- he's too big and not quick enough -- unless he undergoes a significant transformation in body type. As it stands, he physically profiles much better to SAM responsibilities, which means he must improve his block deconstruction abilities. It's currently a mixed bag: he's not afraid to hit, but he comes too upright into contact and isn't sure what to do with his hands. With how quick he is to key, better block deconstruction could make him a truly disruptive player at the next level.

2a. Ben Burr-Kirven, Senior, Washington (6'0 222)

Okay, so the elephant in the room: Burr-Kirven is 222 pounds. Which is less than 225 pounds, which is less than 230 pounds, which is a decent/still kinda small weight for a linebacker, which get the point.

I will note that our 2b is Troy Dye, the much ballyhooed 'backer out of Oregon, who is undoubtedly a superior athlete when compared to Burr-Kirven. Dye is also 224 pounds, which is less than 225 pounds (et cetera), so the same limitation questions we have for Burr-Kirven we should also have with Dye.

Burr-Kirven gets the nod over Dye because he is significantly more physical a player than Dye is, which allows Burr-Kirven to make more "linebacker" plays. Given height difference (BBK is 6'0, Dye is 6'3) you'd imagine teams will try to add weight to Dye to help him survive at LB, while Burr-Kirven will transition to a box safety role. But, physicality is physicality no matter which was you slice it. And Burr-Kirven is not afraid of 320+ pound linemen. Not in the slightest.

Burr-Kirven has great phone booth athleticism that allows him to win in tight quarters. He has the burst to run down every boundary play and the flexibility to wrap around and underneath linemen who climb to him. He's not afraid to convert his speed into power and shoot hands against offensive linemen, to create enough displacement to slip through the cracks. He'll never be a guy to work through over the top of a block, but he can disengage from contact and slip around with excellent frequency. That's huge.

Pass coverage is where the real money will be made for BBK. His awareness and playmaking ability in short zones will translate to the next level regardless of the label under which he plays. He can get connected with most athletes at the intermediate level and has a great feel for the space behind him, which lets him play with his eyes in the backfield and read the quarterback. He'll bait QBs too, looking to jump routes. Smart player.

What to watch for in 2018: Form tackling. Burr-Kirven plays in top gear, which is fun, but also means he's out of control at times. When he comes into contact at full speed, he often looks for the lunging tackle because he can't gear down quickly enough. He needs to better understand how to play only at a speed he can control, especially as a fill defender in the alley, so that he can drop his hips and square up ball-carriers for a more consistent tackle rate.

2b. Troy Dye, Junior, Oregon (6'3 224)

Listen, if you put a gun to my head and asked me who will get drafted higher in the 2019 Draft, I'd say Dye 100 out of 100 times. It ain't hard to see that Dye is gonna test out of his mind -- BBK will be good, but not elite -- and teams are gonna fall for him.

Same gun, but who's the better pro come 2022? Honestly, it's like 52/48 Dye (hence the 2a/2b designation here) but as of this moment in time, Burr-Kirven plays a better game. Dye's a class behind him and now has an extra year of Jim Leavitt's defense under his belt, so there's some growth to project. And when I see it, I'll adjust the rankings accordingly.

Dye's allergic to dirt. His number one objective on most plays, it would seem, is to keep his jersey clean. He plays behind his teammates and lunges into the gap for desperate arm tackles instead of trying to fill it against blockers. He's a tackle machine in that he's super long and rangy and flexible, yes -- but also because he doesn't try to make any other play. Sometimes he comes downhill and recruits his hands to win a gap, but it's almost always when shooting against zone flow; on power concepts, he simply doesn't take on pullers. He's not a cog in the grander scheme yet.

When contact is inevitable, he doesn't recruit his hands or really contextualize his approach. There are flashes, but they're sparse. Accordingly, Dye will run himself out of position to avoid contact. He's so desperate to play in space that, if you show him a potential space play, he'll run and chase it.

As a coverage 'backer, Dye is exciting in that his height/length/speed ratio projects really nicely to handling tight end bodies -- but without an increased willingness to play with physicality, he's gonna get bullied at the next level. As it stands, backs can't outrun him to the corner and scrambling QBs can't escape him when he's reading from zones. His sideline to sideline range is his best trait.

What to watch for in 2018: Thickness. Dye looks like a WR playing LB out there. Let's say his willingness to hit and attack and fill drastically increases. The next domino then to fall would be developing a frame that can better take on that contact. He's currently spindly and not tough to displace. Added lower body mass will help him anchor and explode into much larger offensive linemen.

4. Bobby Okereke, RS Senior, Stanford (6'2 234)

Folks, I wanted to like Bobby Okereke more than I did.

Okereke -- not unlike Burr-Kirven and Dye -- has instant explosiveness to attack the ball-carrier. He might have the best burst of the three, as a matter of fact.

What he doesn't have, however, is a downhill mentality -- and accordingly, a lot of that burst goes to waste. It shows up on blitzes, on quick plays to the boundaries, when the field is open in front of him. When faced with bodies and mess in front of him, when tasked with bursting into an offensive lineman to fill and disrupt, the burst vanishes. In its stead, a timid player, who sees it coming and waits for it to arrive.

Shame, that.

Okereke regularly ends up displaced a few yards beyond his original alignment for no other reason than he just doesn't want to close down into contact. I don't understand it. He'll clearly ID a climber, put his hands up to receive the contact, and set a base like Mr. Incredible trying to catch the train in the first 10 minutes of The Incredibles. Except here the train is a 300+ lb offensive lineman, and Bobby is not a superhero. He gets wiped downfield.

Okereke can also get suckered by action into the boundary, similarly to Dye -- they both prefer playing into the sideline. As the strong side backer, he'll fly into the edge even when the actual EMLOS in unblocked and clearly able to make the play. Okereke's reads tend to be true and on time, but he can get moved off his spot a bit too easily with jet motion and option reads.

What to watch for in 2018: Change of direction ability. Okereke can profile as an NFL WILL, but I'd love to see him do better work staying connected on routes down the field. I like his zone awareness a lot, but he has a galloping stride that can leave him susceptible to quickness when he's in pursuit. Better man coverage reps help round out his profile for the modern NFL.

5. Drew Lewis, Senior, Colorado (6'1 230)

Honestly, just take the Dye/Okereke mold and just put it on Lewis. This is where we are right now. These slightly thin, super rangy, can carry TEs in space linebackers who just hate dealing with contact. Honestly, Lewis might have the best tape taking on blockers of any of the three 'backers in this mold. He's not afraid to drop his hips, uses his hands to bench press, and come downhill to fit between the trees with velocity.

The issue is he has no idea where he's supposed to fit.

He takes on blocks with incorrect leverage more often than he does correct leverage. It's literally a coin flip with which shoulder he closes down and whether or not he knows what he's doing when he arrives. He's not thick, so even when he comes with intention to anchor, he's regularly walked back and is forced to play over the top of blocks.

Now his tackle radius is nice, and his burst/fluidity is even better. He makes a ton of plays in space and can work through tricky angles because he has really nice freedom in the hips. When he knows where he's going, he can fly from sideline to sideline and run with anyone down the field in coverage. The physical profile as an NFL WILL is there; the processing is the question mark.

What to watch for in 2018: Discipline. Lewis can flow to the boundary, yes -- but he doesn't track the near hip and often over-pursues. Lewis can cover down the field, yes -- but he gets handsy and is too quick to look back to the football. And Lewis can fill downhill and play with physicality, yes -- but he often leaves his defense out to dry when he does so. He needs to learn how to play on an 11-man defense; not as a one man show.

Keep an eye on

Chase Hansen, RS Senior, Utah (6'2 220)

A converted safety playing his first year at linebacker, Hansen has already spent a ton of time up at the line of scrimmage as an overhang defender, and that's the role he'll fill in the NFL. Things happen quicker for linebackers in terms of zone responsibilities and fits against the offensive line. If Hansen can demonstrate the ability to play at the breakneck pace, his athletic ability and coverage strength will shine. Name to star.

Notable omission

Rick Gamboa, RS Senior, Colorado (5'11 240)

Rick is a between-the-tackles player in an outside-the-tackles world, man. He loves to play in the mess of the trenches and has a thick build with stopping power, but his athletic profile lacks all requisite benchmarks for NFL play. He can't cover, he can't get into the boundary, and he really struggles to tackle -- stubby frame. I don't see how he translates well into the NFL