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The Best Value on Draft Day Is the Modern Linebacker

Front offices across the NFL have begun their search for the next Alvin Kamara. They’d be better served looking for the defenders who are perfectly built to stop him.

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In NFL meetings all over the country, a common question has come up over the last few months: Who is this year’s Alvin Kamara? This is how the draft process—and discussions around it—often work. Each year, teams unearth gems like Kamara, Dak Prescott, or Keenan Allen in the mid-to-late rounds. And each year, the mad scramble to discover what everyone else has been missing begins in earnest.

The trouble with this line of thinking is that it presupposes that every draft class includes a Kamara-like talent just waiting to be discovered, if teams would dig deep enough to find him. Rarely is that the case. Kamara finished his rookie season in New Orleans with a 6.1 yards-per-carry average, 1,554 yards from scrimmage, and 13 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns. Since the merger, only two other players have reached those marks in a single season: Barry Sanders in 1997 and Adrian Peterson in 2012. Both were named MVP. Campaigns like Kamara’s simply don’t happen very often, let alone for a rookie. Venturing to find a player of Kamara’s ilk in the third round of the draft is the football equivalent of going on a quest to uncover the Fountain of Youth. Sure, it could exist. But good luck stumbling upon it.

Kamara may be the most dangerous iteration of the NFL’s pass-catching backs, but he’s hardly the only one. Most of the league’s best offenses are dependent on backs who can torment overmatched linebackers in coverage. The 2017 Patriots threw a combined 143 passes to the trio of James White, Dion Lewis, and Rex Burkhead, all of whom could line up at any receiver spot on the field. Eagles rookie Corey Clement singed New England with four catches for 100 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl LII. And a key reason that Todd Gurley lifted his game to an MVP-level last fall was the damage he did as a receiver. The way backs are being utilized in today’s NFL has made linebackers who can cover and negate matchups in the receiving game paramount to defensive success.

Rather than embarking on a treasure hunt to find the next Kamara, front offices should embrace a more worthwhile pursuit entering the 2018 draft: searching for players who might have a chance to contain him.

Deion Jones
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

One year before the Saints drafted Kamara with the 67th overall pick, the Falcons selected LSU linebacker Deion Jones with the 52nd pick in the 2016 NFL draft. Jones spent much of his college career behind current Buccaneers linebacker Kwon Alexander on the depth chart; when he finally got the chance to start as a senior, he flourished. Jones finished his final season in Baton Rouge with 100 tackles, two interceptions, and three pass breakups. Pre-draft assessments acknowledged his impressive production, but also noted that Jones’s smaller frame could be problematic at the next level. At the combine, he weighed just 222 pounds, in the second percentile among linebackers in MockDraftable’s database. Talent evaluators voiced concerns that Jones might be swallowed whole by NFL offensive linemen.

It’s no coincidence that one of Kamara’s least-impressive games as a rookie came against the Falcons in Week 16. With Jones roaming the middle of Atlanta’s defense, Kamara finished with 19 touches and just 90 total yards. The Saints’ sensation failed to reach the end zone.

Jones was arguably the best coverage linebacker in football last season. He racked up 10 passes defensed, good for second in the league among inside linebackers. His three interceptions were tied for tops at the position. With a potent combination of quickness, recognition ability, and a knack for getting his hands on the ball, Jones routinely snuffed out plays designed explicitly to take advantage of overmatched linebackers in coverage.

Tied with Jones atop the inside-linebacker interceptions list was Jaguars’ stud Telvin Smith. He was an integral piece of Florida State’s 2013 national championship roster, but fell all the way to the fifth round in the 2014 draft. Like Jones, the main worry teams had about Smith was his size. Weighing just 218 pounds at the combine, he was about as small as potential NFL linebackers come. Yet by the midway point of last season, he’d emerged as an indispensable piece of the league’s best pass defense. In late October, Jacksonville elected to give Smith a four-year, $45 million contract with more than $20 million guaranteed. His $11.3 million annual average value is the second highest in the league for an off-ball linebacker, trailing only Luke Kuechly.

The emergence of Jones and Smith as two of the NFL’s premier linebackers makes one thing clear: If enough stars shared the same pre-draft weakness, maybe that weakness isn’t much of a drawback after all. An emphasis on linebacker size continues to be a remnant of a bygone era, and that thought points to where teams may be able to find value in this year’s draft.

Roquan Smith
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Few would claim that Jones was an NFL draft diamond in the rough. The middle of the second round is a place where teams expect to find quality starters. Still, he was grossly undervalued at 52nd overall. Any redo of the 2016 draft would have Jones go at least 25 spots higher. And his success could directly influence the fates of both Georgia’s Roquan Smith and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds.

Smith and Edmunds were standout college linebackers who many analysts consider two of the top prospects, regardless of position, in the 2018 draft. Each has regularly appeared in the top 10 of mocks, even as both real and projected trades have hinted at an early run on quarterbacks. If both players go that high, it’ll mark the culmination of a significant shift in front-office mindset. If one or both slip, they could become the latest pass-defending linebackers who eventually go down as draft-day steals.

Like running back, off-ball linebacker has been a marginalized position in drafts throughout the past decade. Just four move linebackers (Anthony Barr, Kuechly, Rolando McClain, and Aaron Curry) have been selected in the top 10 since 1998. The argument for why players at the position haven’t warranted high picks runs parallel to the one against taking running backs near the top of the draft. As passing has come to dominate the NFL, the defenders who aren’t tasked with rushing the passer or covering the most dangerous receivers on the field have decreased in value.

As players such as Kamara, Gurley, and Le’Veon Bell continued to show last season, though, some running backs are the most dangerous pass catchers on a given offense. Yet while the usefulness of great pass-catching backs is now widely understood, the perception of their mirror image on defense has inexplicably lagged.

A large part of the case for Penn State back Saquon Barkley’s worthiness as a top-five pick is his value as a receiver. Even if no running back prospect warrants a top-five selection based on his work on the ground alone (see: Fournette, Leonard), the added pop Barkley provides in the passing game allows him to transcend the limits of his position. And if a disproportionate amount of running back value is now derived from passing-game ability, it would track that their defensive counterparts—linebackers—should get the same treatment.

That’s where the evaluation and eventual draft position of a player like Smith becomes so fascinating. Edmunds, with his 6-foot-4, 253-pound frame and downright stupid testing numbers at the combine, is a safe bet to go in the top 10. But it’s reasonable to argue that Smith is the superior prospect, even with his smaller frame (6-foot-1, 236 pounds). Smith often resembles a running back’s shadow in coverage; his rare combination of athletic prowess and instincts helps him appear at ease even on the plays that are designed to attack him.

At times, Atlanta’s Jones has run into the types of problems some scouts foresaw when he came into the league as an undersized defender. In the modern NFL climate, those struggles have never mattered less. If a team believes Smith can hold up in man coverage against matchup nightmares in the Kamara mold, that team should act accordingly on April 26. He deserves every bit of his top-10 draft hype.

In a league known for copycat tendencies, franchises wouldn’t be prudent to trudge into the wilderness searching for the next Kamara. The next great Kamara stopper, though, could be there for the taking.