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2017 NFL draft LB rankings: Reuben Foster and Haason Reddick are pro ready

Linebacker is becoming an ambiguous position, but there are some standouts this year.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Linebacker is now a position of ambiguity in the NFL. Less and less you see teams playing linebackers in their traditional roles, especially because of how frequently there are only two linebackers on the field. That’s a result of teams bringing in an extra defensive back to stop the pass.

That’s not to say linebacker is a dying position, and there are certainly several standouts in the 2017 NFL draft. Alabama’s Reuben Foster is the best of the bunch because of his athleticism and a skill set that will allow him to stay on the field for three downs. Foster should be able to step into an NFL starting lineup straight away.

The same can be said for Temple’s Haason Reddick, a player who has fully taken advantage of the offseason process to boost his draft stock. Players like Zach Cunningham of Vanderbilt and Florida’s Jarrad Davis also profile as good rookie starters, thanks in large part to their experience and play style.

Small school name to know: Although stats can be deceiving when evaluating a player, it’s hard to overlook what Connor Harris did at Lindenwood, recording 633 tackles and 34 tackles for loss in 48 games. That’s an average of 13 tackles a game. He was able to put those numbers together because he’s smart and knows how to read a play and rarely misses a tackle. At the least, he can come in and play on special teams.

1. Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama

Alabama’s latest laser-guided missile of a linebacker, Foster has every trait you want in a linebacker except size (he’s 6’0, 229 pounds). Foster was the unquestioned leader of an Alabama defense that is stocked with NFL players. He’s at his best when he can play on the weakside inside. There he can use his incredible range to track down the ball and close. His NFL position is either inside in a 3-4 or on the weak side in a 4-3.

Although misdirection can get him on occasion, he’s quick to read a play and has the burst to close. He’s a sound tackler, and there are times when he can come up and pop a ball carrier. Alabama would line Foster up on the edge at times to blitz. His athleticism and speed allow him to stick with running backs on routes, but he does give up space. Bigger NFL tight ends could cause him some problems.

2. Haason Reddick, LB, Temple

When a player can combine hustle with athleticism, you more often than not have a good player. That’s Reddick. He has the athleticism you want in a linebacker, but it’s his grit and determination that puts him over the top as a prospect. His toughness is what you’d expect out of a player who walked on at Temple at 185 pounds. Now he’s a 237-pound star athlete with experience playing the edge and linebacker. The NFL prefers him as a linebacker, but having a good pass rush repertoire is a bonus trait.

Reddick took off as a prospect while participating at the Senior Bowl. There, he showed off his speed and ability to track down a play. Reddick is proficient at getting off blocks, and his hustle shows how fast he can get back up to speed and get to the ball carrier. He’s a work in progress in coverage so his footwork on drops needs work, but his athleticism should accelerate his development.

3. Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt

Cunningham is a nice combination of size and athleticism for a linebacker, and he enters the NFL with experience playing inside and outside at Vanderbilt. Cunningham moves around the field with ease and can simply outrun blocks to get a tackle — of which he had 295 in college. Cunningham’s athleticism allows him to keep up with running backs and tight ends on routes, and his size (6’3 with 34-inch arms) is good enough to cover tight ends.

Where Cunningham faults is when he gets held up on blocks. As a pro, he’ll need to get stronger and figure out how to disengage quicker. He can also rely too much on his athletic ability and become too aggressive and overrun a play.

4. Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida

There might not be a smarter linebacker on the field in this year’s draft. Davis knows how to read plays before the snap and has good assignment awareness. If a team needs a green dot linebacker, Davis showed he can do it by calling adjustments and audibles. He also happens to be one of the draft’s more vicious hitters and he is never one to avoid contact.

That hard-hitting mentality can get him in trouble at times because slow developing plays counteract his playing style. Davis has experience at multiple linebacker spots, which will help him be a three-down player in the NFL.

5. Ryan Anderson, LB, Alabama

There isn’t a lot of flash and pop to Anderson’s game — he just knows his role in the defense and consistently gets the job done. He started just one season at Alabama, but got on the field in 57 games. Anderson is the sort of player who plays faster than he times (4.74 40-yard dash). Alabama used him on the edge at times, but also put him over the guard standing up. Anderson can maintain his balance through contact and has the strength to get off blocks.

Anderson was an effective pass rusher at Alabama, with 40 tackles for loss and 19.5 sacks in his career, but in the NFL his size and speed may limit his ability there more.

6. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State

If a team is looking for a rock solid, run-stopping linebacker, McMillan is that player. At just under 6’2 and 240 pounds, McMillan is a classic middle linebacker who can come up and stuff the run. When McMillan squares up his shoulders and drives through the ball carrier, he never misses a tackle. He plays with good instincts, and when he’s in zone coverage he knows how to read the quarterback’s eyes to make a break on the play.

He can sometimes get too focused on the ball carrier and get picked off on a block. As a pro, McMillan will probably never put up big sack numbers.

7. Jayon Brown, LB, UCLA

When Myles Jack got hurt at UCLA in 2015, it was Brown who stepped in and he did his job well. Basically starting for two years for the Bruins, Brown had 224 tackles and nine tackles for loss in college. He plays with a lot of speed and can quickly read a play. He should grow into an asset as a coverage linebacker because of his fluidity and smarts. As a senior, he had nine passes defended and three interceptions.

Brown isn’t the type of linebacker who will avoid blockers, but maybe he should be. He can get pushed around by blockers and either needs to learn new shed technique or get stronger. He could help immediately on special teams.

8. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, OLB, Tennessee

The biggest thing holding Reeves-Maybin back is his health. He’s had multiple shoulder surgeries, and the last one caused him to miss all but four games as a senior. It kept him out of the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine. When he’s healthy — as he was as a sophomore and junior when he had 205 tackles and eight tackles for loss — he plays like a prototypical weakside linebacker who can chase the ball down. He has good athleticism and range and has the skills to come up and tackle or drop back in coverage.

Best of the rest:

9. Alex Anzalone, LB, Florida

10. Kendell Beckwith, MLB, LSU

11. Blair Brown, LB, Ohio

12. Duke Riley, OLB, LSU

13. Anthony Walker, MLB, Northwestern

14. Ben Gedeon, LB, Michigan

15. Jordan Evans, LB, Oklahoma

16. Harvey Langi, LB, BYU

17. Ben Boulware, LB, Clemson

18. Elijah Lee, LB, Kansas State

19. Connor Harris, LB, Lindenwood

20. Marquel Lee, LB, Wake Forest