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2016 NFL Draft Preview: Five Intriguing Inside Linebackers

Posted Apr 8, 2016

The next article in our series leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft

The two starting inside linebackers for the Kansas City Chiefs—veterans Derrick Johnson and Josh Mauga—will return in 2016.

Johnson, who is entering his 12th NFL season and is the franchise’s all-time leading tackler, recently signed a multi-year extension that will keep him in the red and gold for what could conceivably be his entire career.

Mauga, who is entering his seventh NFL season and third with the Chiefs in 2016, finished with 58 tackles and 2 interceptions last season.

The Chiefs drafted two inside linebackers to play behind Johnson and Mauga in 2015 in former Georgia playmaker Ramik Wilson in the fourth round, and former Oregon State standout D.J. Alexander in the fifth round.

The Chiefs also signed undrafted free agent Justin March out of Akron, who was a standout in training camp before he suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals.

In February at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Chiefs general manager John Dorsey spoke highly of March.

“I admire Justin March,” he said. “I admire how he approaches the game. As a young kid, he truly is a professional. How he has dedicated himself to getting himself back into the top shape, he's done that. He understands the playbook. He goes out of his way to understand the little things.

“I can’t wait to get him into training camp and see him perform because we always say, year one to year two he's going to make bigger strides, and I can't wait to see what he does now.”

All that being said, the Chiefs have five inside linebackers they like on the roster right now. It’s one of the deeper positions on the team in terms of solidified starters, and there is also a young nucleus of talent to develop.

But with the NFL moving towards teams playing nickel and dime defenses almost 60 percent of the time, there’s an opportunity for some players who might have lined up on the inside in college to show their versatility and play a couple of different roles for the Chiefs if the personnel and coaching staff see a fit.

As we continue our series previewing five prospects at every position, let’s talk about five intriguing inside linebackers available in this draft.

1. Ohio State’s Darron Lee

When it comes to versatility, Lee’s name has to come to mind.

As the Chiefs look to try and fill the role the recently retired Husain Abdullah, who often played as their in-the-box safety, Lee, who played linebacker at Ohio State, could be seen as an athletic enough player to fill that role.

The Chiefs had former BYU standout Daniel Sorensen play that “box safety” role a bit last year.

The NFL has seen some of these “tweeners” find nice roles on defenses—the Los Angeles Rams have converted former first-round safety Mark Barron into a linebacker, and Arizona Cardinals safety Deone Buchanan has thrived in that role for their defense.

Lee could be an interesting fit for NFL defensive coordinators who understand how to use his size and skillset in their scheme with this trend of more sub looks on defense.

Here’s what NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein had to say about Lee:

“Lee's level of NFL success might very well be tied to scheme fit and his ability to add more muscle to his frame. His athletic traits and ability to make plays should make him a starter, but he won't unlock his full potential unless he gets strong enough to handle the rigors of an NFL linebacker.”

2. Alabama’s Reggie Ragland

It’s hard to be a college football fan and not know of Ragland, who paced one of the best defenses in college football at Alabama over the past two years, including leading the team to its 16th national championship in school history in 2015.

This past season, Ragland led the Crimson Tide with 97 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Here’s what Zierlein had to say about Ragland:

“Thumping inside linebacker with throwback size and tone­setting mentality. Ragland is a confident and capable early starter in league who has the temperament to become one of the premier run­stopping inside linebackers in the pro game. Ragland has some coverage and speed limitations, but his instincts and overall awareness should be able to mask those issues.”

3. UCLA’s Myles Jack

He’s one of the most talented players in this draft and there’s zero chance he’s available when the Chiefs select at No. 28, but Jack is someone to become familiar with if you’re just a fan of football.

He spent time both as a running back and linebacker during his career at UCLA, and he was actually named the Pac 12’s Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013.

At 6 feet 1 and 245 pounds, Jack is one of the most athletic linebackers in the country. Despite a knee injury that cost him all but three games last season, Jack is a lock to go in the top half of the NFL draft. 

Here’s what Zierlein had to say about Jack:

“Upper echelon explosiveness with the desire, speed and aggression to find his way into play after play. While UCLA asked Jack to do a little bit of everything, an NFL team is more likely to simplify his tasks and set him into attack mode to maximize his outstanding physical traits.”

4. Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith

There’s perhaps no other player in this draft whose medical report will determine his draft status more than Smith, who was a projected top pick before he tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee against Ohio State last season.

Over the past two seasons, the 6-foot-2, 223-pound playmaker racked up 225 tackles for the Irish defense.

Smith has shown the ability to come off the edge and rush the quarterback, which could make him a valuable commodity for a defense that can find a creative way to move him around within its scheme.

Here’s what Zierlein had to say about Smith:

"His length and upfield burst could draw the attention of a 3-4 team looking to transition him into a rush linebacker while utilizing his rare cover skills. News regarding Smith's injury and potential issues surrounding recovery have created doubt regarding his draft stock and his final landing spot will be determined by a team's medicals. Without the injury issues, he's one of the top players in this draft."

5. Stanford’s Blake Martinez

Martinez led the Cardinal defense with 102 tackles as a junior in 2014. 7 of those tackles were for a loss, and he also had 4.5 sacks and 3 interceptions. He followed that up with an even more impressive senior season in 2015, finishing with 141 tackles, including 6.5 for loss.

Here’s what Zierlein had to say about Martinez:

"Full-time starter over the last two years who plays with the temperament and ruggedness that Stanford wants in the middle of their defense. Martinez is a muscled-­up, throwback linebacker in a league that covets twitch and play speed over throwback traits. His special teams ability and overall tackle production is a big plus."

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