2015 NFL Scouting Combine Watch List: Middle Linebackers

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Aug 30, 2014; Charlottesville, VA, USA; UCLA Bruins linebacker Eric Kendricks (6) lines up against the Virginia Cavaliers at Scott Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Kendricks, UCLA

Eric Kendricks is one of the best-known linebacker prospects in the 2015 draft, after a stellar career at UCLA. Kendricks, the 2014 Butkus Award and Ronnie Lott Trophy winner, led major college football in solo tackles in 2012 and in 2012, and has the most solo tackles in college football since 2005. He is a menace in opposing backfields – amassing 15 tackles for loss and eight sacks in his college career – as well as a menace in pass coverage, with five career interceptions. While not an exceptionally big player at 6’0″ 230, he is tough and can mix it up in the run game as well as fly around in pass coverage and effectively blitz the quarterback. He’s played the last three years under former NFL head coach Jim L. Mora, a defensive-minded head coach, and LB coach/Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, a former NFL linebacker. Kendricks may be the most pro-ready linebacker prospect in the draft and is going to be getting a lot of attention from NFL teams, including a team run by two former NFL linebackers in Jack Del Rio and Reggie McKenzie.

The knock on Kendricks, however, is that he’s small, and some scouts believe he projects better as a weakside linebacker at the next level.  Some draft analysts have him as a first-round pick, while some have him as late as a 3rd rounder. That said, size may not matter for Jack Del Rio so much: Mike Peterson, his Mike backer for years in Jacksonville, was 6’1″ and 225. Will Witherspoon, his Mike while he was the DC in Carolina, was 6’1″ 234 and Wesley Woodyard, his Mike in 2013 in Denver, is 6’0″ and about 233. Del Rio also coached alongside the great Sam Mills, who played the position at 5’10” and 235. Still, while Kendricks has experience facing tough, often pro-style Pac-12 offenses in a defense coached by a former NFL coach, he will have to prove that he has the strength, quickness and athletic ability to make up for his perceived lack of size and straightaway speed. To do that, he will need to show well in these drills:

1. Bench Press: the bench press is hugely important for a linebacker who is perceived as undersized for the position. Without solid upper body strength, a middle linebacker is unable to engage blockers with his arms in order to distance himself from them and then shed the block and make the tackle. One of the reasons that Miles Burris even started games at middle linebacker is that he has really good upper body strength: he did exceptionally well in the Combine in this event, with 31 reps. Sio Moore also did very well in this event. Reggie McKenzie clearly values upper body strength in the linebackers he drafts. While Jack Del Rio’s prototype middle backer (Mike Peterson) was not particularly strong in this event, Del Rio likely will likely not see a strong bench number as a negative for an instinctive, quick player like Kendricks.

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  • 2. Broad Jump: an NFL player will likely never need to actually perform a standing broad jump in a game in his entire career, but the event is an important tool for scouts to measure lower-body strength and explosiveness. While upper-body strength is good for gaining separation from a blocker, explosive lower body strength is what is needed to explode into an oncoming blocker and then explode into a ball-carrier, resulting in a strong, solid tackle. Explosive leg strength is one of the most important physical assets any football player can have, but especially an interior linebacker like Kendricks. Again, Reggie McKenzie is high on the drill: both Miles Burris and Sio Moore were among the top finishers in this drill in their respective combines.

    3. Shuttle Runs: while middle linebackers rarely ever need great straight-line speed like the type measured in the 40-yard dash, the quick lateral speed and change-of-direction ability measured in the two shuttle run drills – 20 yards and 60 yards – is all-important. Both Reggie McKenzie and Jack Del Rio seem to like linebackers with strong shuttle runs: McKenzie drafted Sio Moore and Nathan Stupar, both of whom finished among the leaders in the shuttle run events in their respective combines. Justin Durant and Brandon Marshall were both centerpieces of Del Rio defenses, and both had strong showings in the shuttle runs, especially the 20-yard shuttle. Eric Kendricks, on film, shows great lateral quickness and ability to change direction and attack downhill, which would suggest that the 20 and 60 yard shuttle runs will both be strong drills for him.

    Next: Linebacker to Watch: Denzel Perryman