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2018 NFL Draft linebackers watch list: Malik Jefferson, others to watch

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With college football starting up next month, it’s never too early to get to know prospects to watch for the 2018 NFL Draft. Today, we focus on the linebackers.

Today, we continue our first look at college prospects who will be eligible for the 2018 NFL Draft. Since the retirements of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland, as well as lower body injuries to NaVorro Bowman the San Francisco 49ers have been trying to rebuild their once proud linebackers unit. They took a major step in the right direction this offseason drafting Reuben Foster out of Alabama. Is he the next Patrick Willis? Only time will tell. However, he brings some excitement fans haven’t seen from this unit in a couple of seasons.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers-Press Conference Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

This offseason the 49ers switched to a 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. With that said, as the front office and coaching staff continue to rebuild the team’s defense they will do so with players that fit the new scheme. Below is a list of my top five linebackers you should pay close attention to once the college football season gets going. While the 49ers drafted Foster, and signed players such as Malcom Smith, I would expect them to continue to build and add more talent to this rebuilding unit.

1. Malik Jefferson, LB - Texas (Junior)
6’3” 238 lbs.
Round Projection: 1st
2016 Stats: 59 Tackles, 5.5 sacks, 3 passes broken up.

NCAA Football: Texas at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Strengths:

Malik Jefferson has the efficient blend of size and speed scouts and evaluators seek at the position. He has a great instinct for where the play is going to occur, and has a quick jump on the ball. Quick on his feet, with smooth and clean straight line speed. His movement both vertically and side-to-sideline are explosive, and his ability to change direction on a dime give him an ability to cover a lot of field. Since his freshmen year, his ability to defend the pass in coverage has improved dramatically, and he has always been a positive contributor defending the run. Watching the tape, Jefferson seems to perform his best when he is in space. On tape, he has also shown the ability to get to the passer in blitz packages. I expect Jefferson to have a healthy amount of blitzes to his name this season. Overall though, Jefferson is everything you look for in a linebacker in the pass friendly NFL. At times watching his tape, he reminded me of current Dallas Cowboy Jaylon Smith.

Weaknesses:

At times on the tape, Jefferson had trouble finding holes to get to the passer in blitz packages. He relies heavily on his defensive linemen to open holes for him and create running lanes. Jefferson will also try to work around the blocker more often than we would like to see. Jefferson would also benefit from bulking up more, and adding some more weight and muscle before he makes the transition to the NFL.

2) Matthew Thomas, LB - Florida State (Senior)
6’3” - 227 lbs.
Round Projection: 1st
2016 Stats: 77 Tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, 2 passes batted, 1 forced fumble.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Florida State Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Strengths:

Put on an absolute show at the Orange Bowl against Michigan recording 15 tackles and 3.5 tackles for a loss, having a major impact on the game. Thomas is a magnet for the football, and always seems to put himself in a position to make a play on the ball handler…especially on defending the run. Plays an aggressive style of football, and finishes his hits. Wraps around cleanly to finish tackles and end plays. Is a force and presence on the line of scrimmage, often defending the edges against opposing running backs looking to run outside the box. Has a good blend of vertical straight line speed and lateral speed from sideline to sideline.

Weaknesses:

At times Thomas can play overaggressively. It cost him a game getting ejected against Miami back in October on his targeting hit on quarterback Brad Kaaya. On tape, Thomas sometimes puts himself in awkward positions, which don’t give him an opportunity and impact on that current play. At times, Thomas displays some sloppy footwork…something I would like to see more from Thomas this season is his ability to run more fluidity through his hips. I also expect his ability to defend in coverage to improve as well this season.

3) Cameron Smith, LB - USC
6’2” - 245 lbs
Round Projection: 3rd
2016 Stats: 83 tackles, 7 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 4 passes broken up, 1 forced fumble.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Utah Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Strengths:

Like with many high profile linebackers we hope to say explosive athlete, and watching tape that is what I see with Cameron Smith. A linebacker who can makes plays all over the field. Something scouts and evaluators seek in a position that is being asked to do more and more in the pass friendly NFL. Smith has a quick first step, and anticipates the snap well, getting a jump on the ball. His ability to contribute in blitz packages, as well as cover tight ends and running backs making him a threat all over the field. His ability to stop the run, and end plays quickly on he ground contributed to shorter drives for the opposition. Has efficient football instincts that will only improve next season.

Weaknesses:

At times Smith can find himself out of position. He can be too overly aggressive, especially in blitz formations and misread where the play is going. While I do like his ability to cover against the pass, there is still improvement he can make in this area, and polish up his form and skill set. An early trend I’m seeing with many of these linebackers on tape is that they all want to go around the blocks, and Smith falls into this category as well.

4) Kendall Joseph, LB - Clemson
6’0” - 230 lbs.
Round Projection: 2nd-3rd
2016 Stats: 108 Tackles 12.5 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception

NCAA Football: Clemson at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Strengths:

The do-it-all linebacker for Clemson went very much under the radar last season playing alongside the very popular Ben Boulware. However, Joseph had a massively productive year last season, and without his contributions, the Clemson defense was not nearly as dominant as it would have been. Joseph is a volume machine who like Thomas has a knack for finding the ball, and making a positive impact. Has strong run stopping abilities, and finishes his tackles. Has a quick first step, and develops explosive straight line speed in blitz formations and packages.

Weaknesses:

Joseph is still a work in progress as far as his pass coverage ability. At times Jospeh does not anticipate where the play is happening in coverage, which sometimes puts him out of position. I am also looking to see more improvement in his lateral movement and speed from sideline to sideline. Watching the tape, Jospeh tends to goes around blocks instead of taking them head on. While I certainly wouldn't call this a weakness, I would like to see more leadership from Joseph this season. With Boulware out of the picture, Joseph has the opportunity to be a veteran leader for the Clemson defense.

5) Shaun Dion Hamilton, LB - Alabama
6’0 - 232 lbs.
Round projection: 2nd-3rd
2016 stats: 64 tackles, 9 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass broken up

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama vs Florida Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Strengths:

Like one of the newest members of the 49ers (Foster) Hamilton also like to play a physical, hard-hitting brand of football. One of my favorite things to watch with Hamilton is his ability to break up plays before they can even formulate. Numerous times last season plays were broken up behind the line of scrimmage, thanks to Hamilton’s efforts. Like Jospeh at Clemson, Hilton went a bit under the radar paying next to Foster, however they didn't stop his presence from being known on the field. Of all the linebackers on this list, Hamilton might be the most athletic and fastest of the bunch. His sideline-to-sideline speed is elite, and his straight-line speed and ability to break past blockers to get to the quarterback is amongst the best I saw all season. While he can play both on the outside and in, it’s the middle where Hamilton shines best. Something to tae note of, his ability to go one-to-one in coverage with light ends is a major plus for Hamilton.

Weaknesses:

Durability will be the most important thing to watch this upcoming season. Hamilton suffered a torn ACL in the SEC Championship Game against Florida, and his return date is not certain at the moment. However, head coach Nick Saban feels confident Hamilton will be ready for fall camp. At times on tape, you can see that his size can be an issue, and at times he struggles against blockers, especially those who are bigger than him. Something else to watch out for is the fact that Hamilton will be switching over to the MIKE position and taking on more of a field general role.

Best Of The Rest:

Jack Cichy, LB - Wisconsin
6’2” - 233 lbs
Round projection: 3rd-4th
2016 Stats: 60 tackles, 7 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, 2 passes broken up, 2 forced fumbles.

Azeem Victor, LB - Northwestern
6’4” - 232 lbs.
Round Projection: 3rd-4th
2016 Stats: 95 tackles, 9 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, 6 passes broken up, 1 interception

Micah Kiser, LB - Virginia
6’2” - 240 lbs.
Round Projection: 4th
2016 Stats: 117 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 13 tackles for a loss, 3 forced fumbles, 2 passes broken up

Josey Jewell, LB - Iowa
6’2” - 230 lbs.
Round Projection: 4th-5th
2016 Stats: 124 tackles, six tackles for a loss, 9 passes broken up, 1 forced fumble.

What are your thoughts on these rankings? Thinking of a linebacker who did not make this list? Do you have a different top five? Please share in the comments below! Thank You for reading!