Preseason Top 5: SEC Linebackers

Photo: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 linebacker class has been rumored to be a stacked group, but a lot of the highly-billed players are still in need of significant development. After studying tape of a plethora of the SEC’s finest linebackers, I put together the five players I believe are the best draft-eligible prospects in the conference, including one currently receiving top five hype.

Devin White, Junior, LSU

I really wanted to buy into White as the top 5 player he’s been rumored to be, but the tape instead revealed a developmental linebacker with some great traits. Some have compared White to Roquan Smith, but the LSU junior isn’t that explosive or as strong a tackler.

White is still rangy however, possessing sideline-to-sideline speed that will certainly interest teams at the top of the draft. He’s physical as a tackler and at times in the trenches, but he cannot get off blocks and doesn’t yet process quickly enough to beat blockers to spots. White’s issues are fixable, and he’s reportedly a high character kid who plays with great effort, but if he doesn’t learn to trust his keys and play more consistently physical, the NFL could wait on him longer than people think.

Mack Wilson, Junior, Alabama

Much like Rashaan Evans a year prior, Wilson was thrust into action late in the season after injuries decimated the Alabama linebacker corps. As a result, he looked quite raw and unprepared for such a test, at least when defending the run. Wilson isn’t there as a mental processor or as a physical aggressor in the trenches, which limits his early down impact.

Athleticism and range won’t be a question with Wilson, but he needs to be quicker to the trigger and to trust what he sees all over the field. His natural instincts are apparent in coverage, where Wilson has already made a mark at Alabama. Four interceptions highlighted his nose for the football, as Wilson showed a great feel for route combinations and excellent reactionary skills to the opposing quarterback’s body language.

Right now Wilson looks like a third down specialist and special teams ace, but his junior season will obviously be the most telling for his development. He played his best football in the national championship against Georgia, and certainly has starter traits to build on. Getting stronger and more mentally adept will be the biggest keys to Wilson’s success in 2018, when he will be relied upon as one of Alabama’s leaders despite beginning 2017 as a backup.

Dre Greenlaw, LB, Arkansas

This spot came down to Greenlaw and Leo Lewis, and in the end I went with the linebacker closer to being able to make an impact at the next level. Lewis has lots of intriguing traits, but his focus, physicality and processing wane far too often for my tastes.

Greenlaw is far from a specimen, but he should do enough to check the boxes physically and athletically. His mind and quick feet typically put him in the right spot, but Greenlaw must commit to more tackles and finish more of the attempts he does make. The tools are there and he’s sharp above the shoulders, he just has to trust what he’s seeing enough to play fast all the way through the rep.

He also has to become more adept and gap-sound at taking on blockers and not compromising his assignment to escape them. I don’t think it’s a lack of physicality, but Greenlaw doesn’t seem to understand that dancing a few yards around a blocker isn’t a sustainable strategy for maintaining gap assignments. He needs to arrive to the fight with a vengeance more often, finishing more plays the way he starts them.

Jordan Jones, Senior, Kentucky

Jones definitely looks like an NFL player on tape, but calling him a preferable NFL starter may be pushing it. If you’re looking for special traits or high-impact play on the second level, Jones probably isn’t your guy.

The senior has the size and intensity NFL teams want, triggering downhill quickly at times and making some impressive stops near the line of scrimmage. Jones has solid mental processing skills and plays assignment sound football without many lapses in judgement, but his range and athleticism are big question marks as he heads into his final season at Kentucky.

Too often Jones was maneuvered around in space by even average opposing athletes, as the tight-hipped linebacker struggled to alter directions quickly. His feet just aren’t quick enough to match more elusive, explosive players, limiting his abilities in coverage

T.J. Brunson, Junior, South Carolina

Brunson has a lot of the same issues White faces, but not quite the same level of athletic upside. He’s not going to stack-and-shed blocks, nor will he be quick to the trigger to play downhill, making him very much a work-in-progress.

Brunson won’t back down from anyone, he just has to process quicker and arrive at the point of attack with more finality. Too often he creeps up to take on pullers, rather than trusting his keys and getting there in a bad mood. I’ve seen him work off contact, but he’s almost always stuck at the second level due to issues processing the scheme in front of him. False steps are too frequent, as are some lapses in coverage.

The movement skills are there for Brunson to be a top 100 selection, but he’s got to make strides in the mental, physical and reactionary aspects of the game. Can linebackers that aren’t naturally instinctive cultivate those skills enough to thrive against NFL speed? This season should reveal Brunson’s ability to reach his potential.

Also add to watch list: Leo Lewis, Mississippi State. Deshaun Davis, Auburn. Otaro Alaka, Texas A&M