Richner: 2016 Top ILB

Last Updated: 5/1/2016 1:00 PM ET
For one reason or another, the NFL has experienced a decline in elite interior/middle linebackers. In previous generations it seemed as though every team had an elite middle linebacker capable of making every defensive adjustment and quickly plugging a running lane, putting his helmet on a the ball carrier and driving him into the ground. The likes of Dick Butkus, Junior Seau, Mike Singletary, and Ray Lewis no longer rise through the college ranks as prevalent as they once did.

The two distinguished leaders currently in the NFL at the middle linebacker position are Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner. Both these players are superior students of the game with the ferocious ability to make game savings tackles all over the field. These are two standout performers who are three down linebackers who can affect both the run and passing games of their opponents.

Last year's group of linebackers excelled in pass coverage, dropping into their zones and were capable of covering sideline to sideline. This year's crop of linebackers are heavily rooted in their ability to stop the run. These collection of linebackers enjoy laying the lumber on a running back, and making the big hit.

A big run on inside linebackers will more than likely occur in rounds two and three. I wouldn't be surprised if six or seven players at this position were selected. A few of the players on the rankings below might not get drafted, but as we saw last year with Zach Vigil, just because you don't hear your name called on draft day, doesn't mean you can't make the roster and become a starter.

With the speed and tempo of offenses increasing each season, defenses are becoming even more dependent on clear and concise communication amongst all 11 players. Typically, the player in-charge with the role of getting everyone lined up, calling out coverages, and moving his lineman is the inside linebacker.

One statistic that I like to incorporate is Impact Points. This is based on a formula I created that calculates a defensive player's point value based on total tackles, tackles-for-loss, sacks, forced fumbles, blocked kicks and their team's overall rush defense and pass defense.

Another statistical category is called the pass rushing index percent, this is used to calculate a players overall impact as a pass rusher. The pass rushing index percent takes, sacks, hits, throwaways, hurries, and batted down passes. The index takes a weighted value for each category and applies it to the total number of pass rushing opportunities each player had over the past two seasons.

There were only seven inside linebackers in this draft class that met the minimum number of snaps (200) to qualify for the pass rushing index. The top three pass rushing index percent scores were from Scooby Wright (10.8), Nick Vigil (9.8) and Steven Daniels (9.4).

1) Scooby Wright III (ILB, Arizona):

It almost goes without saying that the 2015 season didn't go as planned for Wright. He came off a standout performance during the 2014 season that saw him lead the country in tackles for loss (29), forced fumbles (6), and tied for third in sacks (14). Wright earned the Bednarik, Lombardi and Nagurski Awards. It was a season to remember.

Wright was only able to play in three games during his junior season due to a torn meniscus in his left knee. Despite his limited number of snaps played, Wright decided to forego his senior season and declare for the 2016 NFL Draft.

In just 30 career games played, Wright recorded 215 tackles, 41.5 TFL, 16 sacks, six forced fumbles, one pass breakup and one interception. He averaged 7.2 tackles per game, second highest amongst inside linebackers (ILB) in this draft class. He amassed a total of 79.5 impact plays, an average of 2.7 impact plays per game, the highest average amongst ILB in this draft.

A skilled pass rusher, Wright has the instincts to rush the quarterback and does a good job of timing his blitzes and crashing the lanes to apply pressure. Wright had a pass rushing index rating of 10.8 percent, the highest score within the ILB group in this year's draft class.

As a run stuffer, there isn't a more capable and willing tackler in this draft class than Wright. He is adept at quickly diagnosing and getting himself into position to make a big play. It remains to be seen if he can regain his old form but, prior to his injury, Wright showed impressive lateral agility. What makes Wright different from other ILB's is his ability to make the impact play when tackling a ball carrier. With six forced fumbles, Wright is looking to rip the ball out and make a play for his defense.

At 6'0” and 246 pounds, Wright is a bit on the shorter side, but his stout frame allows him to win most leverage battles. One area of concern is Wright's ability in coverage; he lacks the straight line speed to cover most athletic tight ends.

It's his instincts and ability to be a consistent playmaker that should make Wright a surefire first rounder. Wright's injury history and his suspect pass coverage skills could drop him into the second or third round. Regardless of which round he is taken in, Wright has grown from a former two star high school prospect into the nation's top ILB. Teams would be wise to not underestimate what Wright will be able to do in the NFL.

2) Kentrell Brothers (ILB, Missouri):

In what can only amount to a major oversight, Kentrell Brothers was left off the Butkus Award list for the nation's top linebacker. In addition to being the captain of a defensive unit which finished sixth in the country, he was also the nation's leading tackler. It should also be noted that the Missouri offense ranks 125th in the country, only Boston College, Kent State, and Central Florida had worse offensive production than Missouri.

In 12 games last season, Brothers averaged 12.7 tackles per game. He was one of the most dominant and productive players regardless of position in college football last season.

In 51 career games played, Brothers recorded 271 tackles, 23.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 11 pass breakups, four forced fumbles, three interceptions and five blocked kicks. He amassed a total of 75 impact plays, an average of 1.5 impact plays per game.

Brothers isn't the most physically imposing linebacker. At 6'0” and 245 pounds, he is a heavy hitter, looking for the quick strike to take down opposing ball carriers. Brothers is one of the most sure-handed open-field tacklers in college football; once he gets his hands on you, he doesn't let go.

Some players on defense look to make the tackle and go onto the next play while Brothers looks to make the highlight play and cause a turnover. Against Mississippi State this past season, he had 14 tackles, one forced fumble and one blocked kick. His forced fumble was a result of Brothers punching the ball out of the running back's grasp as he hit the inside gap. Most linebackers just bury their heads and look to lay their shoulder on the ball carrier.

Not only is he a playmaker on defense, but Brothers' ability and desire to play on special teams is something you don't see very often from top tier NFL Draft prospects. The willingness to be an impact player on special teams will improve his draft stock considerably amongst NFL teams.

In college, Brothers wasn't asked to rush the quarterback very often. He only had 88 total pass rush snaps over the past two seasons, which is well below the limit of 200 pass rush attempts needed to qualify for the pass rush index score. Teams will most likely see Brothers as a run stuffing ILB who can play inside in a 3-4 scheme.

Some scouts think that Brothers is too undersized to be a three down linebacker in the NFL. He might lack the top-end speed of a Lavonte David, but he makes up for it with his instincts. Brothers has proven over the past couple of seasons that he is a true playmaker and he is almost always in the right spot at the right time.

Look for Brothers to be a possible second round selection and someone who can make an immediate impact for his team. Teams such as the Saints, Falcons or Eagles are possible landing spots for Brothers.

3) Nick Vigil (ILB, Utah State):

Last year Nick Vigil's older brother Zach, who was the sixth rated ILB in our rankings, went undrafted. He was signed by the Miami Dolphins and made two starts last season. Nick won't have to wait as long before an NFL team calls his phone during the draft.

Nick Vigil was one of the top performers at the ILB position at the NFL Combine, posting impressive numbers in the three cone drill and the 20-yard short shuttle. Vigil is a complete inside linebacker who has the ability to make adjustments and defensive calls.

In 40 career games Vigil had 237.5 tackles, 39 TFL, 15.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, five pass breakups, and two interceptions. He amassed a total of 83.5 impact plays, an average of 2.1 impact plays per game. For comparison's sake, his brother averaged 1.6 impact plays during his college career.

At 6'2” and 235 pounds, Vigil isn't afraid of contact and he is a textbook tackling machine, wrapping up ball carriers and minimizing yards after contact. While some players like to make the highlight hits, Vigil is looking to bring his man down to the ground and get onto the next play.

An efficient pass rusher, Vigil had the second best pass rush index mark of 9.8 percent among ILB in this draft class. He had a high number of quarterback hits, showing that he was on his mark and just needs to work on shaving a tenth of a second off his pass rush time.

Vigil has a good foundation for teams to work with and is likely suited to play the weak side linebacker spot in a 4-3 scheme. Vigil graded out with a second round grade.

4) Joshua Perry (ILB, Ohio State):

The vaunted Ohio State defense of 2016 was filled with six possible first rounder picks. A couple of these teammates could be drafted with the first couple of picks (Joey Bosa and Darron Lee) considering all the attention the Buckeye's defense received last season, Perry was the unsung hero of the unit. He has been one of the top five leading tacklers for the Buckeyes over the past three seasons.

Perry is a true ball hawk, running down tailbacks in the open field, refusing to get caught up with blockers and shedding them with ease. He is quick to diagnose and read opponents' keys.

An experienced player, Perry has played in 52 career games, recording 232.5 tackles, 18 TFL, 7.5 sacks, eight pass breakups, one forced fumble, and one interception. He amassed a total of 39.5 impact plays, an average of 0.8 impact plays per game. He averaged just over 1.2 impact plays per game over the past two seasons.

Perry has shown that he knows when to shoot his gap as a pass rusher. Unfortunately, he didn't register enough pass rush opportunities for his pass rushing index rating to be eligible.

While Perry possesses the straight line speed to chase down tailbacks, he has missed a few backs in the open field where he lacks the agility to stay with his man. He is decent in zone coverage, using his expertise to diagnose and quickly gets to his spot.

Though Perry might not check off all the height, weight and speed measurables, he was a team leader on a defensive unit with more stars than most NFL rosters. Perry was one of the most consistent producers in college football during the last couple of seasons. He should be a difference maker on special teams and someone who will only get better the longer he is in a system.

Perry graded out with a second round grade and teams that could be interested in him are the Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos, or Dallas Cowboys.

5) Reggie Ragland (ILB, Alabama):

Nick Saban's tenure at Alabama has corresponded with a number of first and second round NFL Draft picks at the linebacker position. The next player in the long lineage of great Alabama linebackers is Reggie Ragland. In recent years, the likes of C.J. Mosley, Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, and Rolando McClain have been first or second round picks.

At 6'1” and 247 pounds, Ragland isn't the biggest or fastest linebacker prospect, but he excels at play recognition. It's as though he is part of an opponent's offensive game plan and will call out the play, get his teammates lined up properly and has a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

Against Florida in the SEC Championship game, he was consistently in the Gators' backfield, though to be fair, most of Alabama's defense was there as well. Ragland helped shut down the Gators' rushing attack. He sheds blockers with ease, using his leverage and strength to fight through traffic and rarely misses a tackle. He was one of the most sure-handed tacklers in college football the season.

The one area of weakness for Ragland is his coverage abilities; he has a hard time running stride for stride with a tailback coming out of the backfield or turning and locating a tight end. He does well in zone coverage when he can drop and read the quarterback's eyes. He has stated that he can cover the flat and wheel routes, but was given just a limited number of opportunities last season to prove so.

Alabama took Ragland off the field when opponents were in obvious passing situations. He was rarely asked to rush the quarterback. He finished with just 170 pass rush snaps over the past two seasons.

In 53 career games, Ragland had 168.5 tackles, 17.5 TFL, four sacks, 10 pass breakups, four forced fumbles and one interception. He amassed a total of 46.5 impact plays, an average of 0.8 impact plays per game.

As one of the best senior linebackers in the draft class, Ragland might be best suited to play the inside linebacker spot in a 3-4 defense. This would allow him to be the run-stuffer and to help diagnose plays on the weak side, a sort of locate-and-destroy-the-ball-carrier type of defensive player. He is likely considered a first round draft pick, though by all statistical measurements, Ragland should be a second round selection.

Ranking Player School Draftable Round Impact Plays Avg. Impact Plays/Game
1 Scooby Wright III Arizona 1-2 79.5 2.7
2 Kentrell Brothers Missouri 2 75.0 1.5
3 Nick Vigil Utah St. 2 83.5 2.1
4 Joshua Perry Ohio State 2 39.5 0.8
5 Reggie Ragland Alabama 2 46.5 0.9
6 Steven Daniels Boston College 3 54.5 1.2
7 Nick Kwiatkoski West Virginia 3-4 74.5 1.5
8 James Burgess Louisville 4 75.0 1.5
9 Tyler Matakevich Temple 4 91.0 1.9
10 Luke Rhodes William and Mary 5 65.5 1.4
11 Blake Martinez Stanford 5 54.5 1.1
12 Jake Ganus Georgia 6 60.0 1.2
13 Jared Norris Utah 6 51.0 1.2
14 Cassanova McKinzy Auburn 7 55.0 1.1
15 Hunter Kissinger Louisiana-Monroe 7 65.5 1.4
16 Dominique Alexander Oklahoma 7 34.5 0.9
17 Great Ibe Eastern Michigan 7 47.5 1.4
18 Josh Forrest Kentucky 7 54.5 1.2
19 C.J. Johnson Mississippi FA 58.5 1.1
20 Elandon Roberts Houston FA 44.5 1.3
21 Brandon Chubb Wake Forest FA 38.5 0.8
22 Terrance Smith Florida State FA 36.0 0.7
23 Antonio Morrison Florida FA 34.5 0.7
24 Zeek Bigger East Carolina FA 36.5 0.7
25 Raphael Kirby Miami (Florida) FA 24.5 0.6
26 Joe Bolden Michigan FA 24.5 0.5
27 Reggie Northrup Florida State FA 22.5 0.4