The NFL is basically a copycat league. If one team has great success with a play or a scheme, other teams usually quickly follow suit.
That takes us to the great success that the Arizona Cardinals had by employing Deone Bucannon to play the weakside linebacker position for them in 2015. Bucannon was drafted as a safety out of Washington State in 2014 by the Cardinals.
The 6’1″, 210-pound Bucannon had a great season for Arizona at linebacker, as he started all 16 games and had 112 tackles, three sacks, and interception for a touchdown and three forced fumbles.
Bucannon played the run well, plus was used a number of ways in coverage, whether it was to shadow the slot receiver, running back or tight end.
Other NFL teams saw the success of Bucannon and the way he was used, and that is why teams are now interested in players in the 2016 NFL draft who can help them in a similar way.
Players who are smaller, quicker linebackers who are basically safety/linebacker hybrids. The key is that these players have to be effective stopping the run, plus also have the speed and coverage ability to help out in covering backs and receivers, whether they are in the slot or play tight end.
That is a position which would really help a team like the Green Bay Packers, as the team had issues covering backs and tight ends in 2015 on passing downs.
In looking at the prospects who can do that in the 2016 NFL draft, there are three players who I believe fit that mold. They are Su’a Cravens of USC, Deion Jones of LSU and Jatavis Brown of Akron.
That is why I wanted to get an opinion about these three players from NFL scout Chris Landry. I was particularly intrigued by the play of Brown, who was the MAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2015. The same honor in 2014 went to cornerback Quinton Rollins of the Packers when he went to Miami (Ohio).
The 5’11”, 222-pound Brown had 116 tackles in 2015 for Akron, plus had 19.5 tackles for a loss, 11.5 sacks, one interception and four forced fumbles.
Then on his pro day, Brown was phenomenal, as he showed off his strength and speed. He had an outstanding 33 reps in the bench press, plus ran a 4.47 in the forty-yard dash. Brown was outstanding in the other drills as well.
Looking at the 6’1″, 226-pound Cravens, the former Trojan had a very nice year in 2015 as a safety/linebacker hybrid. He had 86 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
At the USC pro day, Craven ran a 4.65 40-yard dash, an event that he didn’t participate in at the NFL Scouting Combine. At the combine, Cravens had 16 reps in the bench press. Cravens bumped up his vertical leap from 27 inches at the combine to 30.5 inches at his pro day.
Jones didn’t make a name for himself at LSU until 2015. But what a year it was for Jones. He had 88 tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss, five sacks, two interceptions (one for a TD) and one forced fumble.
At the combine, the 6’1″, 222-pound Jones didn’t participate in the bench press drill, but he did run a 4.59 in the 40, plus had a 33 inch leap in the vertical jump. Jones also helped himself at LSU’s pro day, as he lowered his 40 time to between 4.38 and 4.40, plus increased his vertical jump to 35.5 inches. Jones also had 16 reps in the bench press drill.
While he is still updating his linebacker draft board, Landry had given both Cravens and Jones 6.0 grades, which means that both have mid-to-late 2nd round value.
Brown meanwhile, was given a 5.4 mark, which means he had fifth to sixth round value.
When I had a chance to speak to Landry on Friday on 620 WDAE’s Steve Duemig Show, I first mentioned Bucannon and then wanted to get his opinions on Cravens, Jones and Brown, plus wanted to see if he had Brown moving up on his board thanks to his great pro day.
“Yeah, I do,” Landry said. “I did a little more work on him which you’ll see in the scouting reports that I’m working through. His [Brown’s] workout caused me to do a little more work.
“He’s not moving up a whole lot, but I think he has some value. I still think he’s a guy that may go maybe as high as the third, but certainly he deserves to be in the fourth round, the 5.5 group. He’s at the top of my 5.4 group now, with Dadi Nicolas of Virginia Tech.”
Landry than talked about how the safety/linebacker hybrid position has been transformed now in the NFL, especially with the play of Bucannon in 2015. Landry also said that Myles Jack from UCLA has the very same skills.
“Those are three good guys [Jones, Cravens and Brown] who represent good value and will be really good players.”
Landry than added some more insight about another linebacker from the 2016 NFL draft who the Packers have already met with.
“One of the big stories of this draft is going to be determined next week in large part,” Landry said. “I don’t know if we’ll hear about it that much, but when we go to the re-check physicals, Jaylon Smith of Notre Dame [will get his].
“Let me remind people. There is not a better player in this draft than Jaylon Smith of Notre Dame. He’s the kid who had the knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. If medically the doctors say that he’s going to be 100 percent once he’s healed, I mean there are teams talking late in the first round about taking him.
“You are talking about a guy who could be the first pick or the second pick or third pick of the draft if he was healthy. If you are in a position, maybe like Bob’s Packers or somebody like that, I mean you are talking about an elite player.
“You would have to redshirt him, as he’s not going to play next year. But if you are willing to do that and be comfortable enough as an organization to do it, and then medically do you feel good, with the the doctors being comfortable saying that this guy is going to be fine in a year, it’s just going to take time, he is well worth the wait.
“Remember, if you take him late first round, you get an extra year of him being under contract.”
Landry gave Smith the highest grade on his linebacker draft board with a 6.5 mark, which was also shared by Jack of UCLA.
Would Ted Thompson and the Packers select Smith with pick No. 27 in the first round? The fact that they have already met with the 6’2″, 223-pound Smith tells me that they would.
Smith had a fantastic three-year career in South Bend, as he had 284 total tackles, 23.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles.
Before his injury, Smith ran a 4.44 in the 40.
So, depending on the board at the time, and if Smith is still available, I would think that Thompson and the Packers would give serious consideration into selecting the former Fighting Irish star.