Let’s make this clear from the start: the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft is littered with talent at the inside linebacker position.
With the increased usage of edge rushing linebackers over the past decade, a significant amount of first round draft capital has been spent at the position. The volume hasn’t been nearly the same for the traditional linebacker positions. In the past three years, a total of five conventional linebackers have been taken on the draft’s first day, including two last season in Jarrad Davis and Reuben Foster.
However, this year as many as four inside or weak side linebackers are being mocked in the first round. For the Green Bay Packers, two prominent ones figure to be off the board by the time pick 14 rolls around in Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds and Georgia’s Roquan Smith. Another rising name from mock draft pundits has been Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch, a player that followed up a breakout 2017 campaign with the Broncos by performing well at the NFL Scouting Combine. He has been mentioned as a Packer possibility in several recent mocks. (At the same time, Edmunds or Vander Esch are looked at as versatile players who might be able to hold their own on the edge as well.)
What about another name on the list that follows in a long line of productive college linebackers but hasn’t been as popular a name associated with Green Bay? A possibility perhaps undermentioned for the late teens? That’s Alabama’s Rashaan Evans.
After reviewing a few games this past season, there were plenty of traits that intrigued me about his potential fit for Green Bay and how his skillset could be utilized. However, here are a few burning questions I still have about Evans’ game that must be answered for the Packers to consider him in the first round.
Evans doesn’t meet all the Packers’ standard testing thresholds for linebackers and one is size. He’s a tad light at 232 pounds and though he plays with heart in fighting offensive linemen, there are many times in which he can get held up. Some teams are looking at Evans as a possible edge rusher in special packages, which could help a team like Green Bay that would value that kind of flexibility. But can Evans, or “Razor” as he is called, hold up in that aspect of the game against some of the massive offensive tackles in today’s NFL?
A knock on Evans has been his initial punch and ability to shed blocks with regularity. I saw a little more consistency in that regard as the 2017 season went on and with more regularity than most draft experts give him credit for. Here are some short clips that demonstrate his ability to fight off and slip past blockers.
Watch 32— KP (@KP_Show) February 2, 2018
How to take on a pulling OL, by Rashaan Evans pic.twitter.com/TfhDhAnaYe
Hear me out: cut Mark Barron, draft Rashaan Evans, stop the run. pic.twitter.com/C97fRuJDbD— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) February 19, 2018
Rashaan Evans is a monster. Why hitting power matters 101 pic.twitter.com/aU1SHyu0eM— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) March 8, 2018
This play by Rashaan Evans has been cut up by #drafttwitter ad nauseam but it's kinda a glimpse into some of the stuff about backers that Ive been thinking about recently. I'd like backers to move back to 5 yards but atleast here there is no read step from Evans. He stays lateral pic.twitter.com/aIIRNUPWxM— Seth Galina (@SethGalina) February 22, 2018
Just because Evans is on the smaller side doesn’t mean that he’s going to struggle to hold up from an injury standpoint. But I do worry about his groin injury from this past season, which really came under the microscope in early October. A strained groin has limited him twice in the past two seasons. The injury is still affecting him and has been a reason for Evans being unable to run the 40-yard dash at the Combine and Alabama Pro Day. After witnessing a myriad of nagging hamstring injuries for Clay Matthews, Packers fans might be skeptical of taking a player like Evans, who carries that kind of risk, in round one.
Speed and Quickness
Evans passes the eyeball test for me in terms of his lateral range. His 6.95 second three-cone drill time exceeded the Packers’ off-ball linebacker threshold time by over two-tenths of a second. On tape, Evans shows the ability to change directions and close on plays. He looked just fine during similar drills at the Combine such as this one.
The question mark for Evans comes in the form of his burst and quickness. The groin injury prevented him from participating in the 40-yard dash, the ultimate speed measuring stick that could have helped teams size him up compared to other ‘backers in first round territory. That measurable remains unknown. Meanwhile, his 4.36 second short shuttle time at the Combine was a bit below Green Bay’s preferred 4.26 split. The time wasn’t far off the mark, but another candidate, Vander Esch, met that goal.
But as I mentioned earlier, Evans’ film in on-field situations requiring the ability to get from Point A to Point B quickly doesn’t scare me off. The plays in the video below not only demonstrate Evans’ ability to diagnose a play, but to quickly run laterally to the receiver/ball and take the angle needed to finish it. And like he does here, Evans usually closes those one-on-one plays with plenty of physicality. I was pleasantly surprised with his rapidity to the ball and, if anything, he has a tendency to over-run the play.
What separates good inside linebackers from great ones is processing speed - the ability to read and react. A senior this past season, Evans sat behind the likes of Foster and Reggie Ragland before finally getting a regular starting job in his fourth year on campus. While he certainly gained experience in the middle outside of last season, there was a noticeable growth in Evans’ reaction time from the first game of the year against Florida State to the middle of the year against LSU, and then finally to the National Championship Game versus Georgia.
But I still think Evans has plenty of room to grow in this area if he’s going to be a starting NFL player. Hesitation remains and there is routinely a one to two-step difference right now between Evans providing support at the line of scrimmage and making a downhill play in the backfield as the first point of contact. The extra film sessions as part of an NFL organization, as well as additional game experience, will be critical for Evans’ development in the instinctual part of his game. Having to bank on Evans’ improvement as a pro in this area does affect my comfort with picking him in a mid-first round capacity.
I think Evans has a high ceiling if he can diagnose plays faster. Size might be an issue at the next level also, but I felt he was able to cover up that perceived shortcoming and didn’t sacrifice anything in the toughness department when it came to taking on blockers or ballcarriers. He plays with the attitude I’ve come to expect from Alabama linebackers of the past, but the groin injury bothers me.
This article attempted to clear up some of the areas in which Evans has been questioned by draft evaluators, but he brings a lot of positives to the table. For the Packers specifically, I see a player that could immediately help in the middle in the traditional 3-4 base defense or shift to WILL in nickel and dime packages. Evans has a spin move that gives him a potential bonus as a standing edge rusher and was a force when arriving late on blitzes from the inside at Alabama. I could envision new Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine utilizing Evans in a similarly aggressive role in his defense, which has always had productive inside linebackers and is in dire need of increased quarterback pressures. Here are some examples.
STONED LACK DRAFT WATCH - Rashaan Evans— STONED LACK (@StonedLack) March 26, 2018
Hier ein perfekter Blitz inklusive Sack! Ein weiterer Beweis seiner Vielseitigkeit pic.twitter.com/kW5sjIp9aZ
I’ll admit that inside linebacker isn’t the most pressing need for Green Bay. But it wouldn’t hurt the defense to add speed, versatility, and tenacity to the position to pair with Martinez. Moreover, Evans comes from a championship culture that possesses strong roster competition and plenty of big-game experience.
Realistically, Green Bay could stay at 14 and over-pick a player based on how I sense the first 13 picks may fall. A better option may be to seek a trade-back deal to pick up an additional second-day pick that fills other needs. In the latter case, I could see Evans as a Packer ‘backer, since my comfort level with him lies in the 20-and-later range. Dallas, picking 19, is in desperate need for a middle linebacker after losing Anthony Hitchens and could be the biggest threat for Green Bay in a trade-down situation.