- Todd McShay, Scouts Inc.
College football is almost upon us, which means the 2016 NFL draft will be here before you know it.
Those of us at Scouts Inc. -- Kevin Weidl, Steve Muench and I -- spent the summer scouring tape and ranking the top players at each position from a draft perspective.
Below is our preseason evaluation of the best linebackers in the 2016 draft.
sNote: Underclassmen are marked with an asterisk.
Top 10 inside linebackers
1. Reggie Ragland, Alabama Crimson Tide: Ragland, who is entering his second season as a full-time starter, is well-respected by his teammates and coaches for handling his business like a pro. He has very good straight-line speed for his size (6-foot-2, 252 pounds), while also possessing the instincts and toughness to thrive at the next level. Ragland has a shot at being a first-rounder in 2016
2. Scooby Wright III, Arizona Wildcats*: A former two-star recruit, Wright is coming off a breakout 2014 season in which he led the FBS with 29 tackles for loss. Although he's a very disruptive and productive defender near the box, he shows just average athleticism on tape, which makes him an occasional liability when defending in space. Wright does a good job of masking his athletic limitations by playing with outstanding effort.
3. Jared Norris, Utah Utes: Norris plays well in space, but he needs to continue to add bulk to his frame. At 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, he has the tendency to to get overwhelmed by size and strength when playing in tight quarters. Norris shows enough balance and agility to hold up in man coverage.
4. Blake Martinez, Stanford Cardinal: Martinez is coming off a productive first season as a starter for the Cardinal (101 tackles, 7 TFLs, 4.5 sacks). He lacks an elite closing burst but has deceptive speed in pursuit. Although he has the power to work through contact to generate pressure, Martinez needs to become more efficient in getting off blocks in 2015. He currently holds a fringe Day 2 grade.
5. Joshua Perry, Ohio State Buckeyes: Perry comes with athletic limitations. Shiftier players frequently shake him in the hole, and he'll be overmatched one-on-one against most NFL running backs in coverage. But he has been highly productive at the collegiate level (team-leading 124 total tackles in 2014), thanks to an impressive blend of instincts, toughness, strength, technique and effort.
6. Joe Bolden, Michigan Wolverines: At 6-foot-3, 232 pounds, Bolden is an undersized inside linebacker who doesn't have the speed or explosiveness to make up for that deficiency. But he has been able to overachieve at the collegiate level, thanks in large part to his outstanding instincts and football intelligence. Bolden projects as a backup who effectively steps in when called upon on defense and contributes on special teams.
7. Cassanova McKinzy, Auburn Tigers: Power has never been McKinzy's problem. At 6-foot-3, 253 pounds, he's your prototypical thumper, who comes with speed and athletic limitations. He exits the game on the majority of obvious passing downs because of his inability to stick with RBs and athletic TEs one-on-one in coverage. McKinzy needs to get his weight down and improve his agility.
8. Reggie Northrup, Florida State Seminoles: Northup, who is coming off a torn ACL suffered in the Rose Bowl, showed good instincts against the run before getting hurt. His problems are his size (6-foot-1, 231 pounds) and lack of ideal athleticism. He struggles to shed blocks far too often and doesn't show the burst to regularly chase down RBs on a straight line. He is a potential Day 3 pick for a base 3-4 team looking to add depth and bolster its special teams.
9. Nick Kwiatkoski, West Virginia Mountaineers: Kwiatkoski is limited athletically, but he is one of the more instinctive linebackers I studied on tape last season. He takes good pursuit angles, has a relentless motor and is a strong tackler. Kwiatkoski is the type of player who gets drafted on Day 3, then finds a way to contribute in the league for several years.
10. Antonio Longino, Arizona State Sun Devils: Longino finished last season with 94 total tackles, including 17 against Duke in the Sun Bowl. He plays hard and with an edge. Although he needs to continue to fill out his frame (6-foot-2, 230 pounds), Longino comes with a lot of upside because of his natural athleticism.
Top 10 outside linebackers
1. Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame Fighting Irish*: A highly athletic linebacker who continues to improve as a football player, Smith has the ability to impact the game on every snap. He is a far more disruptive pass-rusher than the numbers suggest (just 3.5 sacks in two seasons), has excellent cover skills and plays sideline-to-sideline as a run defender. He is undersized (6-foot-2½, 240 pounds) and occasionally gets engulfed, but he flashes a violent punch and the ability to jar much bigger blockers in a phone booth. Smith projects to be a first-round pick in 2016 if he continues to progress and opts to leave school early.
1dSam Khan Jr.