While football has undoubtedly changed in many ways over the past couple decades, and those changes have impacted the way nearly every position is played, you could argue that linebacker play has evolved more than any other position on the field.
Some basic fundamentals still need to be there, of course. Great linebackers still need to properly diagnose what the offense is trying to accomplish. They still need to create violent collisions and make tackles. But the big, thumping linebackers who primarily play in the box and stuff the run don’t really do it anymore. Today’s linebackers must be able to play in space. They must be able to run and cover. They need to be able to chase speedy space players from sideline to sideline, and they need to be just as comfortable matching up with these players in coverage as they are filling gaps and taking on blockers in the run game.
Myles Jack, the über-athletic and versatile player out of UCLA, is the ideal modern NFL linebacker. During his time in Westwood, Jack showcased the ability to do just about anything you might ask today’s off-ball linebacker to do, plus a few things you might not normally ask a linebacker to do but make you say wow, it’s kinda crazy he can actually do that.
Before we turn to the tape, we obviously cannot discuss Jack without at least briefly touching on his medical status. In case you’ve been burying your head in the sand throughout the draft process and are just now taking a peak above the surface with one week to go (props to you if that’s actually the case), Jack’s final season at UCLA was cut short after three games when he suffered a torn meniscus in practice. Jack is not yet 100 percent recovered from the injury, and the most recent reports on the matter range from calling his knee a "time bomb" to effectively saying NBD, don’t even worry about it to just about everywhere in between.
It’s a confusing situation and the reality right now is that, unless you’re a medical professional and have intimate knowledge of his injury and recovery, we really don’t know a whole lot about how this will all play out. So for the purposes of this evaluation, we’re going to discuss Jack as if he were completely healthy and you can decide how much the injury affects his stock from that baseline. With that out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff.
Where he wins
Jack is a freaky athlete, which allows him to do all sorts of things on the football field you might not typically expect from a linebacker, beginning with his coverage ability. He is capable of outright eliminating players in coverage. And we’re not just talking about some running backs and tight ends. Jack spent a good amount of time in the slot in UCLA’s defense, and much of that time was spent covering wide receivers. Perhaps my favorite example of this comes from the USC game in 2014, when Jack spent considerable time matching up with Nelson Agholor, who went on to become the 20th overall selection in the 2015 draft.
"[UCLA] Coach [Jim] Mora put that challenge on my plate," Jack explained to Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar. "He came up and told me, ‘Nelson Agholor is their guy, and we want to put you on him.’" Later Jack added, "I was basically locked on Nelson the whole game, and that was that."
Any number of snaps from that game are worth showing—including plays where Jack carried Agholor vertically up the sideline like he thought he was Richard Sherman or something—but the play above was one of my favorites.
The play comes on a third-and–5 early in the contest, and Agholor is running an in-breaking route just beyond the sticks from a wing alignment. Jack, who appears to be playing an underneath zone in UCLA’s Cover–2 defense here (though it’s possible he was matched up with Agholor while the rest of the defense was in Cover 2), ends up as the primary coverman on Agholor. Jack meets Agholor at the top of the route, which prevents the wideout from getting much separation on his break, and undercuts the route before making a diving pass deflection to get his defense off the field.
Throughout the five games I watched on Jack, he showed it all from a coverage standpoint: the speed to stick with receivers across the field on crossing routes or up the field vertically, the acceleration to eliminate separation on underneath routes, the understanding of angles to undercut routes and get to the football, the change-of-direction ability to mirror receivers on double moves, and the ball skills to finish plays and pick off passes. He made you forget you were watching a linebacker at times.
On this two-play sequence from the second quarter of the Kansas State game in 2014, Jack shows you a little bit of all of those traits.
On the first play, Jack lines up in the slot initially, but is playing zone coverage so when the slot receiver runs vertically, Jack passes him off and looks for the next receiver who could threaten his zone responsibility. That player happens to be Tyler Lockett, the super slippery Seahawks wideout who earned first-team All-Pro honors as a return man during his rookie season. Jack locates him immediately, and when Lockett looks to redirect his route back over the middle to find some open space, Jack mimics his movement perfectly and takes away any potential passing lane.
The second play, which came just two snaps later, sees Jack carry the slot receiver vertically rather than passing him off. He keeps inside leverage the entire way up the field, turns to find the ball, and makes the pick like he was the intended target on the play. The likelihood Jack is asked to cover NFL wide receivers with any sort of regularity is probably low, but the fact he did so at the college level, and excelled at it, bodes well for the coverage assignments he will have at the next level.
Most agree on the excellence of Jack’s coverage ability, but not everyone is as sold on him as a run defender. His size is often questioned, which seems a little odd to me considering, at 6-foot–1, 245 pounds, he’s nearly identical in size to both Patrick Willis (6–1, 242) and NaVorro Bowman (6–0, 242) coming out of school. Jack also won’t turn 21 years old until right before the season opener, so there’s plenty of reason to believe his size and strength will improve over the next few years as he continues to mature physically.
Even if that didn’t happen and Jack stayed at his current size, however, I wouldn’t have much concern over his ability to defend the run at the next level. Jack is fearless about initiating contact in the box, and when combined with his explosive athleticism, you get a player who creates violent collisions at the point of attack.
You don’t need to match offensive lineman strength for strength when you can come downhill and deliver a punch that jar them backward like that. Jack plays with good pad level and knows how to convert his athleticism into power. Here’s another example from the same game, this time with Jack bringing the fight to a pulling guard, squeezing the hole, and freeing up his teammates to make the tackle for a short gain:
If Jack had a tendency to avoid contact in the box and go around blockers rather than take them on, I would be more concerned. But that simply isn’t the case. Not only is Jack unafraid of contact, he initiates it and wins those battles more often than not. And just as Jack can finish plays in coverage with his ball skills, he finishes on run plays as well, showing good ability to get off blocks and make tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, Jack missed only six tackles in 91 attempts over the 2014 and 2015 seasons, which gave him a tackling efficiency that was among the highest at his position in this draft class.
By now, you can surely guess that if Jack does have any question marks dealing with the run (and we’ll get to them shortly), they’re not with his ability to chase down ballcarriers in space from sideline to sideline.
Where he struggles
As you can tell from the previous section, there are few aspects of Jack’s game that I take issue with overall. The plays I did dislike, however, tended to revolve around him aligning near the line of scrimmage.
When Jack was asked to play up on the line of scrimmage, which, for him, typically meant on the edge, he lost the advantages provided to him by his athleticism as an off-ball linebacker. This led to him getting overpowered at times by bigger, stronger lineman. In this setting, he struggled setting the edge and shedding blocks.
By his own admission, Jack also doesn’t offer much as a pass rusher at this point. "I think that’s a part of my game I really need to work on," Jack told Farrar. "If there’s a weakness in my game, it’s that I need to improve my pass rush and be more consistent."
As things currently stand, Jack doesn’t really have any pass-rush moves to speak of. When he rushed the passer in college, most of the time he just kind of tried to use his speed to run around the edge, but it was rarely effective. He finished his college career with only one career sack, coming in his freshman season, and had just seven total pressures over 70 pass rush snaps in his final two seasons, per Pro Football Focus, giving him one of the lower pass rushing productivity scores in this class.
The bottom line
If there were no injury concerns, Jack would be the No. 1 overall player for me in this draft class. He’s a rare athlete capable of doing everything you want modern off-ball NFL linebackers to do, and is the type of player you can build a defense around.
With the 49ers, Jack would slot in at inside linebacker next to NaVorro Bowman, which would be an ideal fit to begin his career. Bowman is an excellent run defender and would be able to help free up Jack to do what he does best at this point, which is run and hit. In sub-packages, Jack would give the defense a ton of versatility, and could alleviate some of Bowman’s coverage responsibility, freeing up him to rush the passer more often, something he is great at.
Trent Baalke’s comfort level with risk and injured players in the draft is well known, so it’s not difficult to envision Baalke submitting a draft card with Jack’s name on it should he fall to No. 7. More so than any of the previous medical redshirts Baalke has selected—and especially if all of the other top-tier defenders are off the board—Jack is worth the risk.