INDIANAPOLIS — Alabama puts at least one elite linebacker in the NFL Draft almost every year now. The Tide had a backer in each of the first three rounds in 2017, the second in 2016, and the first in 2014, all to go along with a bunch of highly picked linemen.
The list of Bama linebackers to get drafted after playing for Nick Saban is long: Rolando McClain, Courtney Upshaw, Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Mosley, Reggie Ragland, Ryan Anderson, and Reuben Foster have all been top-two-round picks. So was Mark Barron, drafted seventh overall as a defensive back in 2012 but who is for all intents and purposes a linebacker.
Bama’s first-round linebacker this year is Rashaan Evans. Nobody should think at this point that Alabama linebackers are merely Ray Lewis-sized thumpers who mash into fullbacks and stuff the run, but Evans is committed to standing out with his speed and versatility. He views Hightower, a two-team Super Bowl winner with the Patriots, as a model.
“Dont’a’s really kind of paving the way for guys like me to show that Alabama guys are as versatile as anybody else in the draft,” Evans said at the NFL Combine on Saturday.
Evans is hard to project because he played all over in college.
Alabama liked to move him around. That speaks to Evans’ strengths — he specifically cites Hightower’s multi-position career as a thing to emulate — but it means there’s not a ton of tape on Evans as a middle linebacker. That’s his likely pro position, especially after he weighed in at about 6’2 and 232 pounds at the combine. He’d be on the smaller side for an edge rusher, but he has the speed and agility to be an ideal inside backer in the NFL.
“I feel like the game is changing a lot,” Evans told me during an interview session at the NFL Combine. “Linebackers are now having to kind of walk out and line up on receivers and be able to have more versatility. I think that’s a good thing for a guy like me to be able to do so many, multiple positions. It just lets them know that they have a lot more chances to change up different schemes and be able to fit me in wherever they need me to fit in.”
Evans spent much of his Alabama career as a Will linebacker, lining up on the weak side away from tight ends. He moved to the Mike position on the inside for the Tide’s College Football Playoff run at the end of the 2016 season, because starter Shaun Dion Hamilton got hurt. He was primarily back on the weak side in 2017, though an avalanche of injuries to Bama’s other linebackers led him to work some in the middle, too. When he was at the Sam spot during the ‘16 Playoff run, he (No. 32 in red) looked plenty tough enough for it.
It might turn out that it doesn’t matter where Evans plays, or where he’s listed on depth charts. He has real sideline-to-sideline speed, and his next team will deploy him plenty in coverage no matter where he lines up. Evans says he’s comfortable covering not just tight ends, but speedy slot receivers. He did that at least sometimes in Tuscaloosa.
But Evans’ speed will play in all situations. On back-to-back plays in Alabama’s Sugar Bowl semifinal win against Clemson on New Year’s Day, he showed how he uses it.
On the first, he blitzed from the left edge and still was the first Bama defender in on a tackle on a screen pass to the opposite side of the formation:
On the next, he showed why he could yet be an outside linebacker in the pros. He embarrassed Clemson’s right tackle with a spin move and forced a throwaway:
NFL tackles are harder to beat than that. But Evans is a better runner than most of his future peers, and that’ll make him an asset whether he plays inside, out, or (most likely) both.
“I’ve always told each team that I meet with, I always want them to understand that I’m an unselfish player,” Evans says. “Whatever it is that you need me to do, I can do it, and I can do it at a high level and do it with an IQ to actually play it. That’s the No. 1 thing I always want teams to take into account whenever they’re evaluating me.”