A few years ago, the title of this article could have looked quite different. Maybe something like, "Are linebackers still worth a first round pick?" would have been a relevant topic for discussion. We were under the impression that the position was dying, being replaced by safeties who could match up in man coverage against big slot receivers/move tight ends, NFL offenses' newest toy at the time.
But instead of being replaced, linebackers have simply evolved. Instead of run-defending, in-the-box thumpers, athletes are now being valued at the position more than ever before. Size is great if you have it, but plenty of undersized linebackers fill the ranks of the league's best at the position. Deion Jones, Telvin Smith, Reuben Foster and others all would have been laughed at as linebacker prospects in the 1990s/early 2000s, but now they are the prototype for a position that is still highly valued - if your skill set fits the bill.
Four off-ball linebackers were taken in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, the most since 2006, when there were also four taken. Three came off the board in round one of the 2017 draft, giving us seven first round linebackers in the past two classes. What did they have in common? All of them, with the exception of Rashaan Evans and Foster (didn't complete athletic testing, but I think we all know he would have been elite), blew away their Combine or Pro Day with impressive results.
Even in the 2016 NFL Draft, when Darron Lee (another elite athlete) was the only linebacker taken in the first round, Myles Jack and Jaylon Smith both came off the board early in the second. The duo surely would have been top 15 picks if not for health concerns, as both fit exactly what the league looks for at the position.
The long and short of it is, if you want to be an NFL linebacker these days, you better be a great athlete. Coverage skills are at an all time premium for linebackers, and range to get sideline-to-sideline in the run game/short perimeter passing game is absolutely crucial as well. Everyone on offense can catch these days, so everyone on defense that isn't on the line of scrimmage needs to be able to cover.
Do we have that prototype in 2018? Early projections seem to award that mantle to LSU junior Devin White, the 6-0, 240-pound human missile that had to choose between linebacker and running back when he arrived in Baton Rouge. Right now, White is in most draft pundits' top 10s, with some lists even putting him in the top five.
White certainly has some splash plays that make you salivate, and his range is impressive, but he's not on the level of Foster or even Georgia's Roquan Smith, at least not yet. His athletic tools might be the closest thing this class offers to a first round prospect, but his mental processing, block deconstruction and instincts all remain in question. White was neutralized with ease too often last year, and spent an increasingly large amount of time on the ground as well.
Alabama's Mack Wilson plays with more of a consistent edge than White, with the same level of athletic tools. The problem is that he's slighter in frame, has less in-game experience, and is even more of an unproven commodity.
Wilson has been a third down cover/blitz linebacker for Alabama for awhile now, but last year's college football playoff marked the first two games he has ever started in college. He was solid against Clemson, making a couple great plays in coverage, but against Georgia he flashed first round ability, especially late in the game.
If you're looking for two prototypes for what the NFL typically values at the position, both White and Wilson fit the mold. The question will be how far they come mentally and technically at their positions, where both showed plenty of room for growth in 2017.
The other linebacker worth noting in this regard is Northwestern redshirt sophomore Paddy Fisher. At 6-4, 245 pounds, Fisher looks more like your traditional two-down linebacker, but has instincts and movement skills in coverage that are surprising.
I don't think he's an elite athlete, but he might be good enough to warrant first round consideration. His mental processing and instincts are currently well beyond Wilson or White, despite the fact that last year was his first action at the collegiate level.
If I'm an NFL scout, my search for a first round-caliber linebacker begins with these three. Notre Dame's Te'Von Coney, Michigan's Devin Bush, Miami's Shaq Quarterman and Stanford's Bobby Okereke all have some intriguing traits, but I don't think any have a first round pedigree in their future.
The search for a fourth consecutive strong linebacker class is on. Will the current favorite in White take the leap he needs to in his second season as a starter? Could Mack follow Rashaan Evans' trajectory into the first round as a one-year starter? Or will Fisher thrust his way into the limelight and upset the two more popular prospects to be the first linebacker off the board?
The battle for LB1 will be a fun one to watch this season.