Tuesday was an eventful day for NFL Draft news, as there was a slew of underclassmen declarations and postseason award announcements.
The biggest news of the day came in the late-afternoon and could have easily slipped past the common viewer, but it could have lasting effects on the linebacker class as a whole.
Alabama’s junior linebacker Mack Wilson tweeted out a congratulations to LSU’s Devin White for being named the recipient of the Butkus Award, given out annually to the best linebacker in college football.
The interesting part wasn’t the congratulations, it was that Wilson then added “I’m coming for it next year.” This insinuates that Wilson won’t be entering the 2019 NFL Draft, opting to stay in school for his senior season.
As it currently stands, Wilson has not officially announced his intentions to remain at Alabama. Situations can change as players gather more information about their draft stock, such as receiving an encouraging grade from the NFL Advisory Board. However, it’s likely time to start planning for a draft class that does not include Mack Wilson.
Prior to yesterday, I had Wilson as my top overall draft-eligible linebacker. I believe it would be a mistake for him to remain at Alabama and risk serious injury during his senior season. If he were a projected mid-to-late round selection, I could see the value of remaining in school. Wilson isn’t that, he has the potential to be the first linebacker off the board. But this is just an outsider’s opinion, as I can’t say I’ve ever been in his situation before.
With Wilson likely out of the picture, Devin White becomes the clear-cut favorite to finish as the top draft-eligible linebacker. White is a very good linebacker prospect, as he’s has a natural build and range. He plays with physicality, consistently bringing juice behind his tackles.
White’s game isn’t limited to just physicality and athleticism, as he has shown timing and some bend as a blitzer. He’s developed nicely in coverage in his senior season, showing the necessary swiftness and awareness in space.
Despite his strengths, White doesn’t come without concerns. He struggles with block destruction and disengaging. He isn’t always the first linebacker to make his reads and when he falls behind by a step, his inability to get off blocks can result in him getting bullied.
This is a roundabout way of saying I’m not yet sold on Devin White as a Roquan Smith, Tremaine Edmunds, Rashaan Evans or Leighton Vander Esch level of prospect. It’s possible that White achieves that status, but it may take a stellar bowl performance and athletic testing to do so.
Mack Wilson and Devin White provided threats to each other for the top linebacker spot, but I am struggling to find a worth adversary left in the crop with no Wilson.
There’s a large group in that remaining second tier, likely led by Michigan’s Devin Bush. Playing with similar physicality and intensity as White, Bush is a bit smaller but slightly more dynamic. Bush can also struggle to get off blocks, as his lack of length can get him swallowed up a bit at times. He is at his best when he’s given a clear read and can fill or shoot gaps at an elite pace.
Along with Bush in that deep next tier includes players such as Ben Burr-Kiven, Kendall Joseph, Joe Giles-Harris, Te’Von Coney and others. Among them, Burr-Kiven has the Rose Bowl ahead of him, and Joseph and Coney will be matched up in the College Football Playoff semifinals, providing them all an opportunity to separate themselves from the pack.
So what exactly does this all mean for their stock? As the clear-cut top draft-eligible linebacker and likely the only candidate to finish with a first-round grade, Devin White’s stock is on the rise. Any team that is targeting the linebacker position early on will be looking at White to be the answer. It’s entirely possible that teams enter a bidding war for White as early as the top 10 if they don’t see another viable option worthy of a first round pick.
Another byproduct of Mack Wilson’s decision will have to do with that second tier of linebackers. One of them will likely separate themselves between now and the NFL Draft. There will be teams in the market for linebackers in the back-half of the first round, and one of them may be destined to reach for the position after missing out on Devin White.
This means that among a group of players I currently see as more of Mid-Day 2 prospects, one or two of them may finesse their way into a first round selection.
Mack Wilson may eventually decide to declare for the 2019 NFL Draft and shift the power of the linebacker class back to normal. Without him, the class will undoubtedly be weaker than in year’s past and result in numerous draft reaches.
The race for LB2 may have just become the most valuable and intriguing narrative to follow between now and draft day.