Could the Lions Improve Their Inside Linebacker Depth This Draft?
The inside linebacker is one of the most important positions in football. Most of the time inside linebackers are thought of as the leader of the defense. The Lions inside linebacker, Tahir Whitehead, has proven to be a decent player so far into his career. The 5-year pro is pretty good against the run, however he tends to struggle in pass coverage. In the 2017 draft it is possible the Lions might try to add a linebacker that they can trust to keep on the field for all 3 downs, and play well.
2017 Draft Class- Inside Linebacker Prospect Options
Choosing three linebackers to focus on in this article wasn’t an incredibly difficult task. There aren’t a ton of great inside linebacker prospects, so these guys stood out ahead of the pack. All three of them certainly have the potential to be drafted in the 1st round of the 2017 draft. If the Lions do decide take an inside linebacker early, some options for them are Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham, Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan, and Alabama’s Reuben Foster.
Zach Cunningham- Vanderbilt
Cunningham differs from the other two linebackers in this article in that he wasn’t rated as an elite recruit out of high school. Even though he received offers from schools such as Texas, Auburn, and Oregon, he chose to play his college ball at Vanderbilt. His decision to take the road less traveled is looking like it is going to work for Cunningham.
Listed at 6’4″ and 230 pounds, Zach Cunningham isn’t necessarily built like your average NFL linebacker. He could potentially try to add weight before the draft, and it should be doable for him considering he has added weight every year he has been in college (but then again don’t we all?). He had a very solid season in 2015, but as a redshirt junior he has really started to emerge as an elite inside linebacker prospect.
When watching Cunningham the first thing you will notice is his athleticism. He has very good speed, strength, and explosiveness. Something else that works in Cunningham’s favor is his length. He uses his long arms to disengage from blockers which allows him to make plays. Another thing he does well is that he is quick to identify the offense’s play. The Vanderbilt linebacker is also very good in pass coverage. His speed and athleticism allow him to run with anybody he is asked to cover. And his long arms make it easier for him to swat balls away.
Cunningham doesn’t have a ton of weaknesses in his game, however nobody is perfect. The main thing that Cunningham needs to improve on is to be more consistent finishing tackles. Sometimes he comes in too high when engaging the ball-carrier which can lead to missed tackles.
NFL teams will love Cunningham’s speed and explosiveness as well as his ability to stay on the field and perform well in coverage situations.
A couple of good games to check out Cunningham’s ability for yourself are: vs. Ole Miss, November 19th; vs. Tennessee, November 26th.
Raekwon McMillan- Ohio State
Raekwon McMillan entered Ohio State as a 5-star recruit and the best inside linebacker at the high school level. He didn’t disappoint. The linebacker came in and contributed as a freshmen and has improved every year since.
At 6’2″ and 243 pounds, McMillan is a burly man, which is basically what you look for in an inside linebacker. McMillan had his breakout season in 2015 when he recorded 119 tackles. He has continued to play well as a junior this season, which is why he is considered a very good draft prospect.
McMillan gets his work done in a slightly different way than Zach Cunningham. He relies more on his instincts and football IQ to make plays. The Buckeye linebacker is quick to diagnose plays and his great instincts take over from there. He is a very physical linebacker and is very good at taking on blockers and shedding them. Also McMillan is a reliable player in zone coverage, he anticipates throws well and then closes on the receiver to break up the pass. He has the physicality needed to take on tight ends in man coverage.
What hurts Raekwon McMillan is that he isn’t an elite athlete. Because of this he sometimes struggles in space. Also he may struggle if asked to cover quicker players such as running backs or receivers at the next level.
What NFL teams will like about McMillan is that he is an elite run defender and isn’t bad in coverage either. He can be trusted to play all three downs in most situations.
Some suggestions to watch Raekwon McMillan play are: vs. Nebraska, November 5th; vs. Michigan, November 26th.
Reuben Foster- Alabama
Foster’s story as a high school recruit is a rather entertaining one. Like McMillan (but a year earlier), Foster was also the best inside linebacker at the high school level and rated a 5-star recruit. McMillan originally committed to play football at Alabama. But he then flipped his commitment to Auburn, and he got a tattoo of the Auburn Tigers logo on his arm to prove his dedication to the program. Then right before national signing day, when players have to actually sign documents for the school they decide to attend, Foster again flipped his commitment back to Alabama. Foster turned the tattoo into a tribute to his cousin who was shot and killed, and who also was a former player at Auburn.
Foster is another athletically built player. The senior is listed at 6’1″ and 240 pounds, so he has the size to play the inside linebacker position for an NFL team.
The Alabama linebacker is sort of a blend of Cunningham and McMillan. He has very good athleticism and also the power to be a dominant against the run. He reads plays well and does a great job of taking on blocks and getting off of them to get to the ball-carrier. Foster plays with great awareness and has an excellent feel for the game. He uses his awareness and athleticism to his advantage in pass coverage. He can be trusted to perform well in coverage so he never needs to come off of the field.
The biggest weakness in Foster’s game is that sometimes he overpursues ball-carriers. Another weakness is that he occasionally lowers his head while tackling which is a dangerous thing to do (unless you like broken necks or missed tackles). But lowering his head is something that can be fixed.
Foster is probably the best inside linebacker prospect for the 2017 draft. This because he is a complete linebacker who has both the physicality and strength needed to be a great run defender, the athleticism and awareness needed to play well in pass coverage.
A couple of good opportunities to watch Reuben Foster and the rest of the Alabama Crimson Tide are: vs. Texas A&M, October 22nd; @ LSU, November 5th.