NFL Scouting Combine preview: Linebackers
With the NFL Scouting Combine about to begin -- and the NFL Draft just about two months away -- we'll take a daily look at the collegiate talent available at positions where the Patriots might be looking for help. Today we take a look at some of the best linebackers hoping to make a good impression in Indy.
NFL SCOUTING COMBINE PREVIEW
Until we know what the future holds for Dont'a Hightower, the outlook at this crucial spot in Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense remains in limbo.
If the Patriots can keep the man who turned the tide in Super Bowl LI -- either with a long-term deal or on the franchise tag -- then they seem set. Hightower headlining a group that includes Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Shea McClellin should be enough to make another run.
If Hightower finds greener pastures elsewhere, though, this position could suddenly become their No. 1 need on draft weekend.
Either way, the Patriots will continue the information-gathering process on players at this spot when the combine begins. Here's a quick overview of a few of the best.
REUBEN FOSTER, LB, ALABAMA
Tale of the tape: 6-foot-1, 230 pounds
The Good. Foster is the consensus No. 1 linebacker in this year's draft class. He's a violent hitter who won't hesitate to meet guards and centers at the point of attack, and he's more than serviceable in coverage.
The Bad: He was the Butkus Award winner last year as well as a first-team All-American and All-SEC choice so there's not a whole lot to pick apart here. Still, his aggressive style in college led to more than his fair share of impact collisions, and there could be some concern about his durability in the NFL.
The Fit: An All-World Alabama linebacker in the middle of the field for the Patriots? Seems like they'd find a way to make that work. He wouldn't be Hightower, but he'd be a three-down player they'd rely on to cover some ground in coverage.
Available at No. 32? Nope.
JABRILL PEPPERS, LB, MICHIGAN
Tale of the tape: 6-foot-1, 205 pounds
The Good: A Swiss Army knife type who at the next level could play as a linebacker/safety hybrid, compete in the slot and return kicks, Peppers is one of the more dynamic athletes in the draft.
The Bad: Peppers didn't exactly fill up box scores while at Ann Arbor. With just one career pick and 10 pass breakups in college, he was not a ball-hawking no-doubt first-rounder.
The Fit: Peppers is a tough projection in some respects because he did so much in college -- he even played some running back -- that it's hard to gauge how effective he can be when focused on one position. If he were to land in New England, it's easiest to envision him in a role similar to the one currently filled by Patrick Chung.
Available at No. 32? Could very well be. Pro Football Focus, ESPN's Mel Kiper and NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah have all mocked Peppers to the Patriots.
ZACH CUNNINGHAM, LB, VANDERBILT
Tale of the tape: 6-foot-4, 230 pounds
The Good: Cunningham is an athletic sideline-to-sideline player with a nose for the football. In today's NFL where big linebackers are highly sought-after -- especially big linebackers who are tackling machines in the running game but can also effectively drop into zone coverages -- this two-time First Team All-SEC choice will probably be a first-round commodity.
The Bad: There seem to be some concerns about Cunningham's build. He somewhat thin for a traditional three-down linebacker, which could be an issue when plowing into 300-pound guards on a regular basis at the next level. Missed tackles have also been cited in assessments of Cunningham's game, but when you're flying around as often as he was -- he led all Power-5 linebackers with 56 solo run stops, per PFF -- you're bound to have some misses.
The Fit: He's not nearly as sturdy as the linebackers the Patriots have spent recent first or second-round picks on -- Hightower was 265 pounds at the combine and Jamie Collins was 250 -- so the fit doesn't seem to be ideal. On the other hand, given some of the issues the Patriots had in coverage at the linebacker level last season, and given the shift toward sub packages, maybe the Patriots will be willing to give Cunningham a shot.
Available at No. 32? It's not out of the realm of possibility, but there are a handful teams out there that might need a linebacker -- Miami, Detroit and Oakland come to mind -- and could scoop him up before the end of the first round.
HAASON REDDICK, LB, TEMPLE
Tale of the tape: 6-foot-2, 235 pounds
The Good: Reddick is a sudden athlete who arrived at Temple as a defensive back and eventually worked his way into one of college football's most productive edge rushers. He finished last season with 22.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks.
The Bad: He doesn't have the frame of an NFL edge defender, which is why coaches had him working as an off-the-ball linebacker at the Senior Bowl. He showed some promise there, but he's lacking in experience at the position he'll probably play as a pro.
The Fit: Well before Belichick's head coaching days in New England, the Patriots took an undersized pass-rusher and turned him into an off-the-line guy who won three Super Bowls. Can Reddick's career follow a similar path to that of Tedy Bruschi? It'd be asking a lot, but it was an interesting comparison made recently by ESPN's Todd McShay. In general, the Patriots like their linebackers to be versatile so Reddick's instincts rushing quarterbacks and dropping into coverage should help him in that regard. The only question is how quickly can he transition to an off-the-line role after spending so much time on the edge with his hand in the dirt.
Available at No. 32? It looks that way now. But should he post some eye-popping numbers in Indy -- and his tape suggests he might -- he could rise quickly.