Looking over the drafted linebackers from the 2015 Draft class, it’s deep and there sure are some nice sleepers. There will only be a total of six mentioned by me (three from last week, three this week), but I could easily find ten that I feel will have immediate impacts. After I discuss the last three rookie linebackers in this piece, I will drop a few other names to keep an eye on as they could emerge as plug-in plays or late season starters if those in front of them on the depth chart get injured or underwhelm. The three discussed here possess high upside, but I would not say they are of the same pedigree as the LB I discussed last week. Clearly, some teams got immense talent from the draft.
Denzel Perryman, San Diego – The writing is officially on the wall for Manti Te’o with the Chargers drafting Perryman. When the Chargersselected Perryman with the 48th pick in the Draft, they officially moved Te’o to a permanent backup role. Yes, Perryman is the Chargers answer inside, opposite Donald Butler. The only major knock on Perryman is that he will likely be limited to a two-down role, unless he drastically improves his pass coverage skills.
Scouting reports tend to agree that Perryman is a stout linebacker, but is an absolute thumper who can release and then diagnose the play, as well as blitz. Aside from being a liability in coverage, some areas he will need to work on will be changing directions, gaining more leverage on opposing tackles, and following more shifty running backs. Granted, at 5’11” he will almost always be smaller than the would be offensive tackle, but he needs to continue to be quick to separate from the tackle and get into the backfield. This ability could be limited if he is not able to provide ample leverage at the line, given his short stature and rather slowish speed (4.7/40). (Photo courtesy of packersinsider.com)
The “nasty” factor is definitely in Perryman’s DNA, as he led the Hurricanes in tackles last season with 110, was a First Team All-ACC Player, and a Butkus Award Finalist (nation’s top linebacker). Perryman may not profile as your typical three-down middle linebacker, but he will be a force on the interior for the Chargers on two downs immediately, though his potential will be curbed there unless he improves in coverage. In his rookie season, the Chargers will look to deploy Perryman as a two-down linebacker, who should be considered a sleeper to lead the Chargers backers in tackles. Target Perryman late in dynasty leagues and deeper IDP leagues as he may provide decent numbers for a LB 4/5.
Bottom line: Perryman is an instinctive linebacker who is a strong blitzer and good at diagnosing plays, but will be limited given his stature and liability in coverage. He could stand to improve his technique against running backs, but is an absolute thumper with sound tackling technique once he gets to his target.
Shaq Thompson, LB, Carolina- The versatile Washington product played the following positions last season: ILB, OLB, safety, and running back. Not everyone likes this pick for the Panthers, but he fits the bill perfectly for them and gives the Panthers one of the most athletic linebacking cores going forward. Initially, he projects as a project in the offseason, but I fully expect him to start at weak-side linebacker alongside Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly come Week 1. In 2014, he finished with four defensive scores and two on offense, on his way to the Hornung Award for the nation’s most versatile player.
Thompson is extremely versatile and athletic, moves with ease from gap to gap, and is solid in coverage, but gets bullied around easily by opposing offensive linemen. The Panthers must get Thompson to bulk up, and improve his ability against opposing offensive lines. Those scouts who think he profiles as a dime package player exclusively are wrong. Other concerns with Thompson are that he doesn’t always get downhill in a hurry and uses his shoulder, as opposed to wrapping up his opponent. You can teach technique, not talent or athleticism. (Photo courtesy of wsoctv.com)
Thompson is great in coverage, and although he also played running back (and receiver) for the Huskies, he still managed to score on three interceptions and a fumble recovery, and rack up 80 tackles. In other words, his versatility and athleticism will only aid his maturation at the NFL level, as he gets acclimated to the NFL style of play and bulks up from his 6’0″ 228 pound frame. The Panthers defensive staff, headed by DC Sean McDermott, was 5th in total defense and 2nd in scoring defense over the final four weeks of the regular season, before completely shutting down the Arizona offense to 78 total yards in the 2014 NFC Wildcard game. This staff will work with Thompson on his technique and morph him into a linebacker force. We all know what the Panthers linebacking unit is when fully healthy. With the arrival of Thompson, the unit not only got more athletic, but nastier. In addition, offensive lines can’t block all three linebackers, Davis, Kuechly, and Thompson, and still have enough to block the likes of Charles Johnson.
Bottom line: Thompson will be a moderate project for the Panthers to hone into a true NFL linebacker on the weak-side, but he is definitely a three-down LB who will start Week 1 this season, though he will need to adjust to the physicality of opposing offensive lines and be quicker to the ball carrier. He has the upside to be a LB3 in most leagues, and should be a late-to-mid round target in dynasty leagues.
Alvin ‘Bud’ Dupree, LB, Pittsburgh I recently wrote on Dupree in Defensive Rookies to Target, where I praised the Steelers for drafting him to the “Return of the Steel Curtain” (hopefully coming soon to a TV near you). I’m not as bullish on him as some, and think long-term Beasley will be the better pass rusher than Dupree. But, Dupree has more mystery to his game, as he played for Kentucky, whereas Beasley played for Clemson, receiving more national attention. Make no mistake about it, Dupree is a playmaker who finished his final two Kentucky seasons with 14.5 sacks and 22 tackles for loss. True, this is the third straight season the Steelers have drafted a linebacker (Shazier ’14, Jones ’13), but the Steelers also just lost Worilds to retirement, and need more of a presence outside than either Arthur Moats or the underwhelming Jarvis Jones. (Photo courtesy of behindthesteelcurtain.com)
Given the soft competition to start at outside linebacker opposite James Harrison, Dupree should have no problems winning the starting gig, as he is beyond athletic for a 269 pound OLB/DE with a 42-inch vert and 4.56/40 time. His lateral side-to-side movement is a nice plus. He’s solid when dropping back into coverage and he can play zone, but lacks in pass rush given his troubles beating blocks. Where scouts disagree on him is whether or not he can develop into an NFL caliber pass rusher. Given his athleticism and ability to transition from the run to rushing the passer during plays, he should be a solid bet to at least be an average pass rusher, but more likely he will be above average. It may just not happen immediately, however.
Scouts are hesitant whether or not he will develop into a true pass rusher, because on most of his sacks he was completely unblocked, and was unblocked on more plays than any other top pass rusher, suggesting he should have tallied more sacks than he did at Kentucky. In addition, he has a questionable consistency, as he can dominate when he chooses to, but also seems to give up on plays, as he doesn’t repeat the same technique play-in, play-out. Add in that he can be manhandled by more experienced tackles, and you see the reason for the question marks (see: Kentucky-Florida game for a prime example of him unblocked vs. blocked). This is where the Steelers staff will have its hands full: teaching Dupree consistency, giving 100% all of the time, and not getting manhandled. Add a consistent motor to his athleticism and skills, and the Steelers have a future All-Pro pass rusher on their hands. If they cannot get Dupree to be consistent, they may be drafting a linebacker for a fourth straight draft in 2016.
Bottom line: All that said, Dupree is a Steeler type player who is physical, hits hard, and knows how to play sound defense with solid coverage skills. It’s a risky bet calling him the Steelers OLB of the future, but he has all the necessary skills and athleticism. The Steelers took a smart gamble in the draft and Dupree could payoff playing on the same line as Shazier, Timmons, and Harrison. I do not think Jones or Moats pose much threat to Dupree’s gig as long as Dupree doesn’t continue to play with inconsistency. If he does, one of the other two could steal a good chunk of his playing time, or seize the starting gig outright. Consider him a sleeper to finish in the top 3 of all rookie pass rushers in sacks this season, likely eclipsing Randy Gregory.
Sleepers: Bernardrick McKinney (HOU), Paul Dawson (CIN)- especially if Vontaze Burfict is slowed by his microfracture surgery, and Jake Ryan (GB).
Maybe six rookie linebackers is too short, maybe it’s not? What I do know is the ones discussed are the ones you want to own, or at least keep tabs on as they are on the right teams to make an impact and help propel your fantasy teams. The only question with the three discussed here: Can they make the necessary adjustments on their way to reaching their full potential? I think it’s a resounding yes, but as with all rookies, we will see. Keeping tuning in here for great advice, and look for my top 100 linebackers pieces coming out the next few weeks.
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