Each week leading up to the 2019 NFL draft, we will be breaking down a position of need for the Denver Broncos along with the top prospects at those positions — their strengths, weaknesses, draft range and how they might fit in with the Broncos. Today we delve into the inside linebackers.
The Denver Broncos might have a handful of players who can fit as inside linebackers on their roster right now, but it stands to reason that change is coming.
New head coach Vic Fangio has placed a premium on the two interior LB spots in his system at almost every step of his career. In Houston, he had Jamie Sharper in his prime. With the Ravens, Fangio had Ray Lewis and Bart Scott as foundational pieces. As the coordinator with the 49ers, Fangio built his defense around Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, funneling everything their way.
And as the architect of the Bears’ defense the past few seasons, Fangio implored Chicago to spend at that position. In 2016, they signed Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman and also used a fourth-rounder on Nick Kwiatkoski. In 2018, they spent the eighth overall pick on LB Roquan Smith. The Bears spent a lot of assets on the position because Fangio valued it, and it helped lead to Chicago having one of the best defenses in the NFL.
The Broncos could try to swing a trade for a veteran (bring Trevathan back maybe?), but there’s a great chance that they look to upgrade over the two assumed starters right now, Todd Davis and Josey Jewell. Both should be contributors if they stick around, but more is needed.
(One note: Most of the linebackers the Broncos have been connected with during the pre-draft process have been Day 2 and Day 3 prospects, and even some expected undrafted free agents, although that interest – as Fangio admitted himself at the owners’ meetings recently – can be used as a smoke screen for the media and the NFL’s other 31 teams. For instance, the Bears carefully kept a safe distance from Smith a year ago before making him their first-round pick.)
2019 draft outlook
It should not in any way be considered a banner year for this position in the draft. But two prospects — both with the same first name – are head and shoulders above the rest, in our opinion.
LSU’s Devin White and Michigan’s Devin Bush both might be size-deficient, but they appear to be the only players from this position worth fitting in the first-round discussion. That’s because they can play on all three downs and have tangible impacts in both the run and pass defense because of their speed and range.
After that, it’s a bit lean. Here are our top five prospects for the 2019 class at inside linebacker.
1. Devin White, LSU (6-foot, 237 pounds)
Pros: Probably the closest comp to Roquan Smith in this draft, White is a converted running back who became one of the best off-the-ball playmakers in college football the past two seasons. His fiery competitiveness and sheer relentlessness shine on tape and highlight a player who made plays behind the line of scrimmage consistently. Not only did he time fast athletically – his 40-yard dash of 4.42 seconds at the combine rated higher than many wide receivers – but White also plays fast and puts that speed to good use.
White has great closing speed, possesses surprising pop and power and can find tiny cracks in blocking schemes to knife in and make impact plays. He works hard to run the alley and fill lanes, doesn’t often get fooled by misdirection and can deliver the blow. White has been praised for his film study and preparation, and he’s still learning the position with the potential to hit an even higher ceiling the more he plays at linebacker.
People close to the program have singled White out as the team’s no-questions-asked leader, and his communication skills and enthusiasm are everywhere to be seen in games.
Cons: White must better learn how to hone his instincts and play under more control. He’s a bit of a Tasmanian devil on the field – almost too wild – and his aggression will work against him at times. He was forced to miss the first half of LSU’s loss to Alabama last season after being called for targeting the game prior against Mississippi State (although the call was suspect at best). Still, his lack of control will lead to some missed tackles and the inability to position himself to best take on blocks and be the most efficient version of himself.
His instincts remain raw, and White could use even more time watching and learning from a seasoned pro at the position. He can lose faith in what he sees and take poor angles to the ball. White also has not been challenged yet with an advanced role in coverage, although his athletic traits suggest he should be able to develop this over time. Smith, for instance, was a far more seasoned prospect coming out last season in this department.
How he might (or might not) fit with the Broncos: White absolutely fits the profile of what Fangio has sought in his linebackers in the past, but there’s a chance he’s off the board by the time the Broncos pick in Round 1 at No. 10. There has been a lot of chatter of him going as high as the fifth pick to Tampa Bay. If he’s there for the Broncos, we absolutely can see that match happening.
2. Devin Bush, Michigan (5-foot-11, 234 pounds)
Pros: The son of a former NFL defensive back (also named Devin Bush), he fits the profile of the modern, three-down linebacker who has the athleticism and traits to be great. He plays fast, has top-tier instincts and plays with great intensity. Flip on any Wolverines game the past few seasons, and it won’t take long to see Bush tracking down a runner from the backside, sniffing out a screen or dropping in coverage with ease.
Sets the tone with his preparedness and intensity, similar to Devin White but perhaps even more in control. Bush plays fast but not loose – he harnessed his closing speed and misses fewer tackles. And even if he gets sucked in by play action or misdirection, he has the instincts, speed and change-of-direction skills to recover beautifully.
He’s not big, but Bush plays big and stronger than his size.
Cons: Bush will fall below the threshold for size at the position on some teams’ boards or will be pigeonholed simply as a fast-flow weakside linebacker in a traditional 4-3 front. Every team has its own minimums on these things, but even for the most liberal clubs in this department, he’s right on the cusp for height, weight and arm length.
There are times when Bush will get caught up in the muck on power run plays and cleared out by bigger blockers. He can get engulfed by mass and also can get stuck in the trash a bit. You really can’t ask Bush to be a true stack-and-shed linebacker, and he always will have to find creative ways to avoid and slip blocks. There are times he will be hyper-aggressive and take poor angles to the ball or overrun plays.
How he might (or might not) fit with the Broncos: Splitting hairs here, but we actually wonder if Bush – and not White – might be the better fit for the Broncos. Yes, his size is limiting, but Smith was only one inch taller, a few pounds heavier and had the same arm length coming out a year ago. Trevathan isn’t much bigger either, and though Bush’s instincts aren’t quite on his level yet, we think he’s a future Pro Bowl selection waiting to happen.
There’s very little separating White and Bush now in our minds; you can flip the order here, and we wouldn’t protest. And if White is off the board at No. 10 the Broncos should definitely look hard at Bush.
3. Mack Wilson, Alabama (6-foot-1, 240 pounds)
Pros: Mack looks the part of the downhill thumper and was developed in Crimson Tide system that has cranked out LB talent like few programs have the past several years. They run a complex system there, and Nick Saban challenged Wilson to be his defense’s unquestioned leader. For the most part, Wilson did just that. Even after a slow start last season, he finished with a huge flourish. With another year in the system, Wilson might have risen to an elite level, but he declared for the draft following his junior season.
Wilson attacks ballcarriers with aggression and has the toughness to fight through traffic inside. He has good pursuit speed, range and strength, and there’s little doubting that he possesses three-down ability on the next level. Although he’s not completely refined in either area, Wilson looks like he has the potential to be a good zone-coverage linebacker as well as a blitzer. There’s a little thump in his game, and he also will surprise with his fluidity at times.
Cons: Wilson struggled to pick up the Bama defensive system and all its checks and adjustments, admitting that it took him a full 18 months there to absorb everything. The 2018 season was a frustrating one when watching Smith’s lack of development until the late flourish in the final few games prior to the championship loss to Clemson. There are times when he plays an undisciplined brand of ball, such as guessing the wrong gap or failing to take down ballcarriers.
His interviews at the NFL scouting combine, league sources tell us, did not go all that well, and he failed to complete the on-field workouts because of injury. At his pro day, Wilson admitted that he did not have his best performance and some scouts have wondered how thoroughly he’s prepared for his NFL job interviews both on and off the field.
How he might (or might not) fit with the Broncos: Wilson’s lack of instincts and refinement could scare the Broncos off to a certain degree, but he should start being considered to come off the board in the draft right about where Denver owns its second-round pick (No. 41 overall). For us, we think there are other prospects who will check off more boxes than Wilson does in the Broncos’ minds, but if he starts to somehow slide out of Round 2, they could change their minds quickly because of the size-speed quotient Wilson possesses.
4. Vosean Joseph, Florida (6-foot-1, 230 pounds)
Pros: Joseph is an athletically gifted, rangy player who plays downhill but also has some coverage ability. His reaction time is fast, and he can be seen on tape baiting blockers into taking angles they don’t want to before Joseph displays his excellent burst and closes in to make plays. He can slip blocks well, fight through tight creases and deliver big hits.
Joseph will plant, drive and light up a running back who ventures into his territory without caution. He plays with high energy, has the physical traits to thrive in the NFL and will make a handful of disruptive plays per game. With the right coaching and surrounded by the right players, he could be an excellent chase-and-hit prospect in an aggressive system.
Cons: Just as Joseph has lot of eye-opening plays on the positive end of the spectrum, he also is guilty of some poor ones that just can’t be ignored. He’s guilty of a frustrating number of missteps and a lack of control in his game and is prone to mental errors. Even if coaching can fix some of that, his lack of natural instincts is concerning, and it could prevent his high upside from ever being realized.
Joseph has a narrow frame and could stand to add a little more bulk to thrive inside. Some teams project him to more of a weak-side position at linebacker to help cover up that lack of thump, but that also might not protect him in terms of pass defense. He appears uncomfortable in his drops at times and will lose phase and feel in zone. His best game appears to be playing downhill, and Joseph might never be truly disciplined or natural enough to be great in coverage.
How he might (or might not) fit with the Broncos: There’s a wide swath of opinions on Joseph as a prospect – some teams are intrigued and others might not even consider him before the latter stages of the draft. We don’t know how the Broncos might consider him, but we suspect he might only be an option for them on Day 3 of the draft – Rounds 4 and beyond.
5. Te’von Coney, Notre Dame (6-foot-1, 234 pounds)
Pros: There might not be a lot of sexiness to Coney’s game, but he appears reliable, tough, resilient and assignment-sound. He always appears around the ball and could be a scheme-diverse player capable of filling a few roles in most NFL defenses. Coney led the Irish in tackles each of the past two seasons and even flashed as a blitzer with seven sacks in that time. His play speed is strong, and he appears to have the requisite instincts to handle even complex systems and still react fast enough to be impactful.
It’s easy to see the progress he has made over the past few seasons in coverage, too, giving Coney more appeal as a three-down option. With even more coaching and development, he could become a respectable NFL coverage linebacker with keeping on the field all three downs – especially in teams that tend to play more zone defense. After not deflecting a pass his first three seasons, Coney had five passes defensed last season and an interception.
Cons: Athletically speaking, there are far more impressive linebackers in this draft class. He lacks anything more than decent speed, isn’t terribly explosive and can’t be asked to be a rangy coverage player. The more grass he has to cover, the less impact he makes. He’s just not anything close to what you would call a disruptive playmaker.
Although he takes on blocks and sheds well, Coney has to overcome his physical limitations to make plays at times.
How he might (or might not) fit with the Broncos: As a Day 3 option, Coney might make some sense. In the same way that Todd Davis has made himself into a legitimate NFL linebacker, Coney could do the same – and he has a bit more natural ability to do so. But he’s more of a wrap-up tackler and less of an enforcer. Overall, we say that Coney doubles up a bit on what the Broncos already have at the position, but he wouldn’t at all be a downgrade either.