2020 NFL scouting combine preview: Linebackers

Yahoo Sports

The NFL scouting combine is essentially boiled down to four key phases: medical evaluation, interview, athletic testing and positional workouts.

This year, in previewing the 2020 combine, we decided to highlight one prospect at each position who needs to nail (at least) one phase of the combine.

We also wanted to highlight one smaller-program prospect at each position who could make bigger names for themselves with strong performances in Indianapolis.

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The NFL scouting combine workouts begin on Thursday, Feb. 27 and run through Sunday, March 1.

Previous combine previews: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers | Tight ends | Defensive linemen

Linebackers overview

The scouting combine lists several prospects at linebacker who also could factor as edge rushers, but it primarily includes true, off-the-ball linebackers. Even with the pass-rush prospects includes, it’s impressive to note that the 2020 combine will feature the most linebackers (44) at the event in the past decade.

But even with some impressive high-end prospects, led by Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons (who also can play safety), this is not considered a banner group overall. Alabama’s Dylan Moses returning to school took a  possible first-round linebacker out of the mix, but there still could be as many as four first-rounders — Simmons, LSU’s Patrick Queen, Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray and Wisconsin’s Zack Baun.

Who needs to nail the medical evaluation

Markus Bailey, Purdue

It’s hard not to like Bailey’s game when you watch his tape. His instincts and football IQ appear to be very strong, and his versatility as a zone-coverage linebacker adds a layer of intrigue. He’s not expected to test through the roof athletically at the combine, but there’s a lot of  attractive qualities in his game.

The biggest concern with the 6-1, 240-pound Bailey is that he hasn’t proven to be durable. He suffered a torn ACL as a freshman, and then again this past season. Bailey also had surgery last spring to repair a torn labrum in his hip.

Had he been injury-free, Bailey likely would have gone much higher than he’ll end up being  drafted. Even with a positive medical evaluation, we suspect he’s looking at a Day 3 selection. It’s too bad because Bailey

Who needs to nail the interviews

Utah State LB Tipa Galeai

Galeai will make the trip to Indianapolis, although he won’t be able to work out at the combine. Here’s why:

A TCU transfer (dismissed by the school for that incident) and the cousin of Philadelphia Eagles OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai, the 6-5, 232-pound Galeai is a high-energy player who has lined up in just about every spot on the Aggies’ defense, including over the opposing center. He also has very good bend around the edge and great quickness off the snap.

That said, Galeai can get swallowed up in the much and has a lean frame that likely will limit his versatility in the NFL. He’s also considered a bit of a project, more so than redshirt senior prospect.

Now Galeai only will have his pro day (and possibly some private workouts) to work out in order to prove he has the frame and polished skill set to play in the NFL. But the combine interviews are just as important toward defining his draft grade.

Who needs to nail the athletic testing

Cal LB Evan Weaver

The biggest knocks on Weaver are his athletic ability and his work in coverage. The heady, instinctive linebacker was seemingly always around the ball the past two seasons, but especially in 2019 when he proved to be one of the better run stoppers in college football (FBS-best 182 tackles in 12 games).

However, his perceived lack of raw athletic ability is going to put him in the crosshairs during the athletic portion of the combine. Weaver dropped about 20 pounds from the end of his junior season in 2018 to this year’s Senior Bowl, when he checked in at a more svelte 231 pounds. Still, it was clear during the weigh-in there that Weaver still could sculpt his body more and add more definition.

It’s hard to peg a draft range for Weaver now prior to the testing in Indianapolis, and the team drafting him likely will do so banking on his football acumen, mental toughness and aggressive style. Still, he could really help himself by testing well and thus showing teams he might not be a liability in coverage against bigger, faster skill-position players in the NFL.

Who needs to nail the positional workouts

Michigan LB-EDGE Josh Uche

Coming off Uche’s strong Senior Bowl showing, we bumped him up significantly in our last mock draft. But it’s likely going to take the right team with the right plan to use a high pick on Uche, who is a bit of a positional tweener. 

Michigan's Josh Uche could keep rising as a prospect if he performs well at the NFL scouting combine. (Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Michigan's Josh Uche could keep rising as a prospect if he performs well at the NFL scouting combine. (Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Uche played mostly as a down rusher for the Wolverines but also spent time as a stand-up linebacker and even covering the slot some. At the Senior Bowl, Uche split his time at those two spots similarly. However, it’s hard to imagine him playing as a pure edge rusher in the NFL full time.

He measured in there at a shade over 6-foot-1 and 241 pounds, with good arm length at 33 1/4 inches. Those measurements put him right around the averages for combine linebackers in recent years, along with above-average arm length. But compared to the average combine edge rusher, Uche comes in more among the bottom end of the range for height and weight, and just shy of the 50th percentile for arm length at that spot.

It’s clear, with Uche working out in Indy among the linebackers, that NFL teams want to see how Uche performs in the drills at that position to help solidify their projection and possible plans for them. Uche is one of the more fascinating prospects, possessing an unusual skill set that might belie his lack of mass. But how natural his linebacker instincts are could be a significant development for his draft prospects.

Small-school standout

Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State

The highly productive linebacker — with a safety’s build — racked up 197 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 15 passes defended, one interception and one forced fumble the past two seasons.

Davis-Gaither’s size (6-foot-1 1/2, 219 pounds, 31 3/8-inch arms) is going to be worrisome for some teams depending on their defensive schemes or scouting philosophies. But his toughness, versatility, instincts, chase speed and twitchiness all bode well to land with a team that values those traits, lack of size be damned.

“He was extremely productive for us and made his impact felt in every game,” Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz, who was at App State last season, told Yahoo Sports at the Senior Bowl. “Interception, blocked kick, stopping the run, rushing the passer, dropping [in coverage] — he pretty much did it all for us.”

A few recent examples of top-100 selections at linebacker with similar dimensions to Davis-Gaither include 2016 Dallas Cowboys second-rounder Jaylon Smith, 2016 Atlanta Falcons second-rounder Deion Jones and 2018 Kansas City Chiefs third-rounder Dorian O’Daniel. We believe Davis Gaither will fall in a similar range, perhaps Day 2 or early in Day 3 of the draft.

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