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April 17, 2018

Eagles 2018 NFL Draft preview: Linebacker

Leading up to the 2018 NFL Draft, we'll be taking a look at each of the Philadelphia Eagles' positional groups. We'll determine if the Eagles are likely to select a player at that position with one of their six picks, as well as note some players who make sense. Today we'll look at linebacker.

Previous draft preview positional analysis

Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end
Offensive tackle | Interior offensive line | Defensive end | Defensive tackle

There's a sense that the Eagles are light on depth at the linebacker position. I couldn't disagree more. For a team that has three linebackers on the field for less than one-third of their defensive snaps, the Eagles presently have a surplus of linebackers.

They were able to re-sign Nigel Bradham, they have Jordan Hicks returning to the lineup this year, Mychal Kendricks is still on the roster, they added free agents Corey Nelson and Paul Worrilow, and they still have some younger linebackers who could elevate their game, such as Nate Gerry, Kamu Gurgier-Hill, and Joe Walker. How exactly are they not deep at linebacker?

SAMNigel Bradham Nate Gerry 
 MIKE Jordan HicksPaul Worrilow Joe Walker 
 WILL Corey NelsonMychal KendricksKamu Grugier-Hill 

That said, linebacker could still be a position of long-term need, as many of the linebackers on the roster have questionable futures with the team.

• Hicks is very clearly an injury risk, as he has not been able to stay healthy throughout his career, both in college and in the pros. He's also in the final year of his deal, so it will be interesting to see what the Eagles' long-term plans are for him.

• Nelson and Worrilow both signed one-year deals. 

• Kendricks is on the trading block for the 47th year in a row. The feeling here is that 2018 is the year he is finally dealt.

And, so, linebacker could be a position of interest to the Eagles in the 2018, especially since Doug Pederson noted that this linebacker class is a strong one

Here are some linebackers who may make sense for the Eagles in the 2018 NFL Draft:

Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State (6'4, 256)

The Eagles are certainly right to do their due diligence on Vander Esch, but I'd be very surprised if he made it to pick No. 32. At 6'4, 256, Vander Esch is a big, three-down linebacker with outstanding athleticism.

From a height-weight-speed perspective, Vander Esch is as impressive a defensive prospect as there is in this draft.

Though he's a bit of a one-year wonder, Vander Esch filled up the stat sheet in 2017, recording 141 tackles (8.5 TFL), 4 sacks, 2 INT, 5 pass breakups, and 4 forced fumbles. A highlight reel: 

There are conflicting reports about whether a Vander Esch neck injury has teams concerned about his long-term future in the league. If so, maybe he falls to the Eagles at pick 32. If not, he'll be long gone by the time the Eagles pick.

Round projection: 1

Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State (6'2, 235)

Leonard is an interesting prospect who fits the speed profile Jim Schwartz looks for in his linebackers. At the Combine, Leonard ran a 4.7 40, which isn't good, but his time was hurt by a pulled quad during his first run. While he's undersized at 6'2, 235, he has long arms and big hands:

Had he not pulled his quad, Leonard may have been a standout at the Combine. 

In 2017, Leonard was the MEAC Defensive Player Of The Year, racking up 124 tackles (14.5 for loss), 3.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 2 INTs, and 2 blocked kicks. A highlight reel:

Round projection: 2-3

Fred Warner, LB, BYU (6'3, 227)

Warner is among the better linebackers in this draft in coverage, which is what Jim Schwartz prioritizes in his linebackers. He doesn't have huge tackle numbers (86 and 87 in 2016 and 2017, respectively), but he makes plays in the passing game, as he had 4 INTs and 11 pass breakups the last two seasons.

In the highlight reel below, watch how many plays he makes on the perimeter in open space against wide receivers with the ball in their hands.

Warner plays a lot more like a safety, but he has the size and aggressiveness of a linebacker. Presently, most draft sites have Warner projected as a fourth- or fifth-round pick, but I think he's being severely undervalued. The Eagles may need to pick up a third-round pick to be able to draft him.

Round projection: 3

Dorian O'Daniel, LB, Clemson (6'1, 223)

O'Daniel is an undersized linebacker at just 223 pounds, but he is a playmaker. In 2017, he filled up the stat sheet, making 88 tackles (11.5 for loss), 5 sacks, 5 pass breakups, 2 fumble recoveries, and 2 INTs, both of which he returned for scores.

Here's a highlight reel from 2016. As you can see, O'Daniel does not play like he's undersized: 

The Eagles have recently brought in a pair of safeties and converted them to linebacker, in Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nate Gerry. Jim Schwartz seems to prefer athleticism to size, and O'Daniel has the speed and coverage skills he covets at the linebacker position.

O'Daniel is also thought of as one of the premier special teams standouts in this draft class, just as Mack Hollins was a year ago. He can contribute on special teams from Day 1, with the chance to become a starter at linebacker down the line.

Round projection: 4-5

Jermaine Carter, LB, Maryland (5'11, 228)

Carter did not receive an invite to the Combine, and is ranked as the 41st best linebacker prospect by In the past, the Eagles have brought players in for visits, built relationships with them, and as a result were able to sign them as undrafted free agents. That could be the Eagles' strategy here.

Carter was a good player for Maryland, but he is short (5'11), and doesn't make up for his lack of size with stellar athleticism (4.69 40 at his pro day).

That said, Carter has been a productive player in Maryland's defense. His last three seasons:

 Jermaine CarterTackles (TFL) Sacks INT FF 
 2015103 (14) 
 2016 101 (9)
 201790 (6.5) 3.5 

Here's a highlight reel, which appears to have been posted by Carter himself:

As you can see, Carter takes pride in being a big hitter. In my view, he's a late-round or undrafted free agent target.

Round projection: 7-UDFA

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