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2017 NFL draft rankings: Top 10 linebackers

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Many options available for Miami.

NCAA Football: Florida at South Carolina
Gators linebacker Jarrad Davis (40) closes in on the quarterback during the first half at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins have whiffed on many linebackers they’ve targeted in free agency or the draft. Zach Brown is the latest linebacker added to that list, after a long, frustrating hold out in free agency.

The Dolphins must find a linebacker in this draft to improve their defense. This class isn’t stacked, but it offers enough options for Miami to capitalize on — especially on day-two of the draft.

Since the outside and inside linebacker classes aren’t very strong alone, I decided to combine them into one list.

Honorable mentions: Steven Taylor (OLB), Houston; Ben Boulware (ILB), Clemson; Marquel Lee (ILB), Wake Forest; Ben Gedeon (ILB), Michigan; Anthony Walker (OLB), Northwestern; Connor Harris (OLB), Lindenwood; Jalen Reeves-Maybin (OLB), Tennessee.

10. Paul Magloire Jr. (OLB), 6’0” and 225 pounds, Arizona: Magloire was the only bright spot out of a mediocre defense for Arizona.

His outstanding athletic ability and versatility shows he can rack up tackles (81) wherever he plays. He’s a fluid athlete who shows great closing speed on tackles, and lateral movement to cross the field in coverage. His loose hips and pad level allows him to dip and get underneath blockers, or drop back into short area coverage. One of his underrated traits is his balance, showing ability to stay on his feet and fight through blockers. Magloire’s sharp instincts and reaction time allows him to dissect the play and position himself to make a play on the ball. He needs coaching and is still raw as a linebacker. He’ll occasionally get caught using his acceleration and burst to knock opponents on the ground, rather than use proper form tackling to bring them down. This may cause missed tackles early on in his career in the NFL. He’s undersized, so he’ll have to avoid being swallowed by offensive lineman. Magloire must “stay home” in zone coverage. Too many times he drifted outside of his zone to get a jump on a play. He’ll need to run straighter lines to the ball carrier, as he tends to take too many unnecessary steps, creating harder tackling angles.

He’s a 4-3 OLB who will get drafted somewhere in the fourth or fifth round. Due to his lack of size, I think there are better fits for Miami to look at for the remaining open linebacker spot, though I wouldn’t rule him out as a possibility.

9. Kendall Beckwith (ILB), 6’2” and 243 pounds, LSU: Beckwith is a solid contributor to your defense, but he won’t physically overwhelm you.

He has a compact built that holds up well in the NFL. His prototypical size, weight and toughness allows him to play both 4-3 and 3-4 inside linebacker at the next level. His average speed won’t translate well to playing outside linebacker, but his acceleration and change of the direction will allow him to play sideline to sideline. His disciplined style of play, and feel for zone coverage plays to his advantage in making a case for him to be a three-down linebacker. He won’t be easily fooled in diagnosing plays, and can be relied on to shed blocks and make plays in run support. He finds gaps and makes plays in the backfield quicker than his physical limitations would suggest. Beckwith struggles with too much space in front of him, especially with superior athletes. He also has limited pass rush ability and wasn’t asked to do much at LSU. He needs to avoid being too patient on his decision making in run support, and he wasn’t given many opportunities to cover in man-to-man which raises questions about his ability at the next level. He relies on ankle-tackling too much, and must use his size and physicality to wrap up high more. His torn ACL will raise questions to how ready he’ll be for his rookie season.

He’s a good fit for Miami. He doesn’t possess a ton of upside, and his lack of man-to-man experience may limit him to be a two-down linebacker, but he’s a reliable, tough player. He’s a fourth-round talent who can certainly help the Dolphins and be the middle linebacker thumper they lack. Miami would have to trade into the fourth round since they don’t have that pick this draft.

8. Alex Anzalone (ILB), 6’3” and 241 pounds, Florida: Anzalone plays like his hair is on fire. Unfortunately, that has resulted in quite an injury history at UF.

He has a well-proportioned frame that is long and athletic. He keeps his pad level low and makes several big tackles in the open field. He shows outstanding anticipation before the snap, often blitzing with great timing. He was very productive as a blitzer from inside and outside of the pocket, showing versatility as a defender. He has fantastic awareness and shows quick instincts to diagnose plays. His outstanding closing speed allows him to make game-changing tackles for loss, and he has a knack for batting balls down if he can’t get to the quarterback in time. As one of the more physical linebackers in the draft, he isn’t shy from shedding blocks or laying someone out. Anzalone shows his athleticism by having loose hips and fluid running, changing directions seamlessly. Don’t expect to find many guys with a higher motor than him. His aggressive playstyle has caused him to miss 20 games in his career. Despite athleticism, he has little experience in coverage – most will wonder if can handle coverage at the next level – and he was mainly used as a blitzer on passing downs. His decision making will occasionally get him into trouble on play action passes and misdirection running plays. Anzalone must find a way to stay on the field at the next level without losing his aggression.

His injury history and lack of experience in pass defense are causes for concern. He’s a 3-4 ILB or a 4-3 OLB. He would be a great fit for Miami in the fourth round, but I fear he may be over-drafted in the third. Again, it would take a trade into the fourth round for Miami to acquire him.

7. Matt Milano (OLB), 6’0” and 223 pounds, Boston College: Milano is a very underrated athlete, possessing sideline to sideline speed and change of direction.

His acceleration and quick first step stands out on tape, especially on blitzes and tackles for loss. His closing speed is one of his biggest weapons, allowing him to always be around the ball and making plays. Milano is one of the better coverage linebackers in the draft, showing impressive ability to cover both receivers and tight ends downfield. He isn’t exactly a ball hawk– he left a few interceptions on the field despite being in position to make them – but he shows enough ball skills to deflect passes or make occasional interceptions. His ability to play all three downs on defense shows he can be relied on in sub packages against pass-happy teams. Not only is Milano durable, but he is also versatile by making huge impact plays on special teams. He’s lacks length and is undersized, but he’s not afraid of physicality. Milano must avoid overrunning plays and lunging on tackles in the open field. He has a very boom-or-bust tackling technique, often using his acceleration and closing speed to make the big hit rather than wrap up and tackle. His hand placement is very inconsistent, leading to blockers smothering him in the trenches. He’ll need to be coached on how to disengage bigger lineman.

He’s a 4-3 OLB who will probably be used mostly as on the weak side of the defense. He has a lot of traits you like, and his coverage is impressive, but he needs polishing. He’s a late third-round pick who I don’t think the Dolphins need. Milano is essentially a slightly less version of Kiko Alonso, so it wouldn’t make sense to have two similar players at linebacker.

6. Duke Riley (OLB), 6’0” and 232 pounds, LSU: Riley has a lot of potential, but remains a bit of an unknown player in this draft due to a lack of significant snaps in his career.

He has speed and athleticism that can’t be taught. His smooth backpedal and change of direction are among the best linebackers in the draft. Like Milano, he lacks size and length, but that doesn’t stop him from hitting the trenches hard to blow plays up in the backfield. Riley is stronger than Milano and most linebackers their size, showing power that can allow him to beat lineman. Riley does most of his work by shooting gaps and reading plays in run defense before the running back can reach the line of scrimmage. His outstanding closing speed and acceleration will translate into a fair amount of sacks at the next level. His aggression is hard to match, but it also leads to overaggressive tackling angles. He shows good tackling technique, but must stay poised when moving laterally rather than making overzealous tackling decisions. His short area quickness is average, and it takes a bit to reach his top speed. He’s won’t explode off the snap and beat the snap count with first-step quickness. His lack of length causes him to struggle to disengage blocks, despite being powerful for his size.

He’s a one-hit-wonder who only saw significant snaps this past season. He needs more experience before starting in the NFL. He’s best suited as a 4-3 WLB with tremendous athletic ability. Like Milano, I’m not sure a finesse, inexperienced linebacker like Riley is a perfect fit for a team like Miami, who needs a bigger, well-rounded linebacker.

5. Raekwon McMillan (ILB), 6’2” and 240 pounds, Ohio State: McMillan is one of the more dependable linebackers in the draft.

He’s not an explosive athlete, but he’s a thick, strong alpha male you want in the middle of your defense. His strong upper body and powerful lower body makes him a human tank. He’s very reliable with his pursuit and tackling in run defense, rarely overrunning his target. McMillan has a high football I.Q. and diagnoses plays before they happen. He takes good angles when tackling, showing sound wrap-up technique. He lacks short area quickness, but he shows enough fluidity and instinct to cover in short space. McMillan’s knack for breaking through the trenches leads to stops at the line of scrimmage, often blowing up short yardage run plays. He uses his hands very well when shedding blockers, and uses his strong arms to drag down running backs on stretch plays. Not only is he a leader of the defense, but he can be a leader of a team. McMillan leads by example on and off the field with a smart, disciplined work ethic combined with a nonstop motor. He’s not a guy who will bust through defenses to make game changing tackles for loss, but he’ll rarely fail to make the play in front of him. Despite his feel for zone coverage, he struggles in man-to-man coverage and was rarely counted on. He’ll need a lot of coaching to improve his feel for downfield coverage. Despite being smart, tough and physical, he isn’t an athletically gifted guy who will struggle to change direction smoothly. He won’t possess a ton of range at the next level due to lack of explosion, leaving sideline-to-sideline ability questionable.

McMillan is a 3-4 or 4-3 middle linebacker who can be the physical force of a team’s front seven. He isn’t a perfect fit for Miami because they don’t have a great coverage linebacker on the roster right now, but he’s a good fit if they’re looking for a thumper to plug in the middle. He’ll be a second-round pick.

4. Zach Cunningham (OLB), 6’3” and 234 pounds, Vanderbilt: Cunningham is one of the most talked about linebackers in the draft who possesses one of the highest ceilings.

He’s a long, lanky player who is one of the most athletic linebackers in the draft. His versaitility athleticism and speed is what makes him a monster. His size and strength are what most teams will love – very rarely does a guy his size have that much athleticism at linebacker. He always finds himself around the ball and in on gang tackles. His man-to-man or zone coverage ability shows he can hang with most athletes, allowing him to play all three downs. His outstanding length gives him a rare tackling radius. He sheds blockers with relative ease by using his length and quickness. Cunningham can sort through the traffic and make explosive plays in the backfield quickly. He has decent ball skills and knows how to disrupt plays in downfield coverage. Cunningham has excellent sideline-to-sideline range – you’ll rarely find a running back who will beat him to the outside. He loses his balance and gets taken out of the play when facing bigger athletes. He doesn’t have the cleanest tackling technique, and often arm-tackles instead of wrapping up. Arm-tackling leads to broken tackles against NFL talent. He is a bit slow in reading plays that lead to him being a step slow in pursuit. Part of the tackling inconsistencies are due to poor tackling angles and hesitant decision making. He still is learning how to be an effective blitzer through gaps. He needs to avoid concentration lapses in coverage, especially on extended plays. Despite playing on the linside for Vanderbilt, his playstyle translates more as an outside linebacker.

He’s a late first or early second-round talent, but there’s a chance he’ll be drafted higher than he should be. Some people say he’s a top 25 talent – I don’t see it. I’d be more comfortable with taking him in a trade-back scenario for Miami, unless they are willing to wait for him in the second round. I just don’t see the value of the 22nd pick for a lanky outside linebacker who has tackling issues. Especially with Jarrad Davis, Raekwon McMillan and Haason Reddick (possibly) still available.

Good Cunningham:

Bad Cunningham:

3. Jarrad Davis (ILB), 6’1” and 238 pounds, Florida: Davis is a human missile that makes plays all over the field.

His instincts and short area quickness are among the best defenders in the class. He has the potential to be a top five inside linebacker in the NFL with his tremendous ability to knife through the trenches by using his burst and speed. He has experience in playing multiple coverages in pass defense, showing he is one of the best coverage linebackers in the draft – there’s no question he’ll be a three-down player at the next level. He stays active and won’t stay in one place for too long while scanning the field for play opportunities. His reaction time and awareness combined with excellent closing speed gives him game-changing ability. Davis is an outstanding blitzer and shows a feel for finding small gaps and staying skinny when passing through it. He’s a loose, agile athlete who plays sideline to sideline and changes direction seamlessly. He’ll produce a ton of tackles while staying disciplined in his decision making. Davis must avoid overaggressive tackling that leads to bad penalties. Despite being a disciplined player, he falls for play actions and misdirection plays because of his need to hunt. He needs to improve his tackling angles and technique to produce cleaner tackles. Too many times he closed in on his target before having to make second efforts to bring him down in open field situations. Despite his ability to shoot the gaps, he occasionally fails to shed blocks in a timely matter. Davis seems to be a guy who is always dealing with nagging injuries.

He’s a 3-4 or 4-3 middle linebacker who can play outside if needed. He’ll be an outstanding player at the next level. His athleticism, tackling and coverage ability make him a perfect fit for Miami. He is a late first or early second-round pick, and the Dolphins will have to decide if they want to slightly reach for him at 22, or attempt to wait until the 54th overall pick, where they’ll likely get burned for it. Tough decision ahead for Miami’s front office, though I personally would take him at 22.

2. Haason Reddick (OLB), 6’1” and 237 pounds, Temple: Reddick is one of the most explosive athletes in the draft.

His versatility of playing the linebacker positions and defensive end will make teams drool. Regardless of what position he plays, he’s a tackling machine. He can use his bend and quickness to beat tackles around the edge. He’s one of the best in this draft at tackling behind the line of scrimmage and making plays in the backfield. His outstanding closing speed and relentless motor will cause nightmares for offensive coordinators. His coverage ability is decent, showing good instincts and loose hips, though he doesn’t have a ton of experience and will need to be coached. Reddick had an outstanding Senior Bowl week, and showed he can compete against the best athletes on any level. His speed, range and agility leads to big tackles in run defense, throwing players to the ground. He’s a bit undersized and lacks ideal length that may cause issues against bigger lineman. Despite Reddick’s versatility he is a bit of an in between player. He doesn’t fit either position perfectly yet, and he still has work to do as a pass rusher with learning how to disengage bigger blockers who can mirror his movements. He’s an aggressive tackler, but he must wrap up more consistently to avoid whiffs. Oddly enough, he wasn’t used on defense as much as anticipated.

He can play as a linebacker and defensive end, but his best fit would be as an OLB. If he’s there at 22, the Dolphins must select him without hesitation.

1. Reuben Foster (ILB), 6’0” and 229 pounds, Alabama: Foster was highly regarded as the best linebacker coming into this draft, and he backed it up with his play this past season.

He’s built like a beast with a chiseled, powerful frame. He can be the leader of your defense, and the one to set the tone early in the game. His aggressive playstyle leaves players on the wrong side of ferocious hits. Foster isn’t much of a pass rusher, but he’s a smooth athlete with elite physical attributes that allow him to make many plays in the backfield. His burst and acceleration are used as a weapon in his closing speed pursuit. Foster’s coverage is good enough to cement him as a three-down player at the next level, and he’s fluid enough to drop back before changing direction and turning his hips against the fast athletes. He’s one of the more reliable tacklers in the draft, always using excellent wrap-up technique. He shows good timing as a blitzer, but still has room for improvement. He has high football I.Q. with reading the quarterback’s eyes, and can diagnose run plays very quickly. He needs to avoid taking over aggressive tackling angles in open space, and must learn to not use his head when tackling. Despite his understanding of the game, his read-and-react skills aren’t completely polished yet. It’s almost like he sees the play but is hesitant to immediately react.

He’s an elite talent who will be a MLB at the next level. With the ability to play all three downs, he’ll likely be picked within the top 10 picks. It would take a miracle for him to fall to Miami, but he’ll be a top middle linebacker for some lucky franchise.