Linebacker is the strongest position group on the Carolina Panthers’ roster.
With Luke Kuechly performing like the top middle linebacker in the league, Thomas Davis continually showing up big when it counts, and addition last season of Davis’ heir apparent Shaq Thompson it would appear that the Panthers are set at linebacker for the near future.
While it is highly unlikely that the Panthers take a linebacker early in the draft, David Gettleman has continually proven that he is going to take the players that he believes are the best fit for the team. So it couldn’t hurt to take a look at a few of the top LB prospects and one that may fall to a later round.
Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame
Jaylon Smith may have been the first linebacker taken in this year’s draft if he hadn’t torn his ACL on New Year’s Day. A player who Irish coach Brian Kelly said is the best he has ever coached, Smith was a consensus All-American in 2015.
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He tied his career high with 9.0 tackles for loss to go along with a career-high 115 tackles, a sack, five passes defensed and two fumble recoveries in 13 games before suffering his knee injury. That came after 111 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and a pair of passes defensed as a sophomore.
While it is highly unlikely that we would pick a linebacker early enough to get Jaylon smith, it is undeniable that there is definite value in the player. Jaylon will likely miss most if not all of the 2016/17 season while recovering from a knee injury.
However, if a team is willing to give him the time to recover and be productive they will likely get a blue chip player in the long run.
Su’a Cravens, USC
Su’a Cravens is an interesting prospect that the Panthers seem to have taken a liking to. He was originally a Safety and was moved by USC to the Linebacker position (a move he was initially very unhappy with.) Those feelings quickly subsided when he was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team, and was single handedly attributed 82 negative yards for opposing offenses with 17 tackles for a loss.
He also led the team in interceptions (5) and made 68 tackles. In his junior year, Cravens led USC in tackles (86), tackles for a loss (15), and tied for first in sacks (5.5). He was again named to the All-Pac-12 First Team, and the AP All-American Third Team.
This selection would be an interesting one. While he is listed as a Linebacker most teams that have had a workout with him see him more as a safety at the next level. Gettleman could pull the trigger seeing Cravens as a hybrid safety that could step up and play at the line of scrimmage while still having the ability to drop back into coverage on passing downs.
Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
Since the Panthers pick later in the draft, and picked up a linebacker in the first round last year, I thought I would also give a look at one of the LBs that is expected to go in the later rounds. Jordan Jenkins is a 6’3” 259lb. OLB out of Georgia.
Jenkins had 59 tackles with 10.5 for a loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles in 2015. In 2014, Jenkins recorded 70 tackles with 9.5 tackles for a loss, five sacks, a pass batted and a forced fumble.
While not nearly as flashy as the other two LB’s I mentioned, Jenkins is a versatile and athletic football player. He is bigger than the typical linebackers, but still has the quickness to be able to diagnose plays and react on the ball. If there is a downside to Jenkins it is the label “tweener.”
He may be too big to play outside linebacker and too small to play defensive end. Also he has issues with his ability to change direction quickly. But could provide a good value pick later in the draft.