The University of Alabama has become a factory for NFL linebackers in the Nick Saban era. Rolando McClain, Courtney Upshaw, Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Mosley, Reggie Ragland, Ryan Anderson, and Reuben Foster and even Mark Barron have all gone from Crimson Tide star to first or second-round pick during Saban’s time in Tuscaloosa – with varying degrees of success.
Rashaan Evans is the latest Tide linebacker to make the jump to the NFL, and as Charlie Potter reported for 247 Sports, Evans has learned a lot from the players before him.
“C.J., every time he comes back to the university, me and him always try to chop it up,” Evans said. “And the main thing I always get from him is always just to kind of take things slow, be patient, knowing that this process is kind of long, but at the same time just enjoy it. And I always kind of try to model my game after him. He’s an exceptional linebacker, he plays the game the right way and that’s something I always wanted to play like.”
Regarding Foster, who was a first-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers last year, Evans said, “The fact that I was able to see a guy play it at a high level, it definitely made my game a lot better. I kind of really knew how to play the game itself and definitely how to approach the game, so all of my preparation fell in place once I learned how to actually make the calls and not only that but play at a high level.”
Unlike those players, Evans played both inside and outside during his collegiate career. He told SB Nation’s Alex Kirshner at the NFL Scouting Combine that he believes that versatility of experience can only help him at the professional level.
“I feel like the game is changing a lot,” Evans said. “Linebackers are now having to kind of walk out and line up on receivers and be able to have more versatility. I think that’s a good thing for a guy like me to be able to do so many, multiple positions. It just lets them know that they have a lot more chances to change up different schemes and be able to fit me in wherever they need me to fit in.”
One AFC scout told Lance Zierlein of NFL.com (who compared Evans to Lawrence Timmons of the Miami Dolphins) that he was especially impressed by the progress that Evans made playing inside during the most extensive playing time of his collegiate career in 2017. “He made a lot of progress as an inside backer from last year to this,” the scout said. “He was more instinctive and a lot more natural.”
Tape of Evans sold Zierlein, who projects the 6’3″, 234-pound Evans as a Day 1 pick. “Ascending linebacker talent who has the speed to fly around from sideline to sideline and played with an improved feel for the position in 2017,” Zierlein wrote. “Evans is an ideal inside linebacker fit for a blitz-happy 3-4 unit, but he could easily fit as a 4-3 WILL with rush potential on sub-packages. Evans is an early starter with high-end potential if he can stay healthy.”
Most of the draft community is in lockstep with this belief. In his latest mock draft at ESPN, Todd McShay has the Los Angeles Chargers looking to Evans at pick No. 17. “Los Angeles’ defense is strong but needs an upgrade at linebacker,” McShay said, “and Evans is a thumper in the running game. He plays with tremendous effort and has sneaky pass-rush ability as well.”
Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports, on the other hand, projected Evans to land with a 3-4 team in the Tennessee Titans at No. 25. “Evans is one of the more fluid linebackers to come out of Alabama over the last five years,” Trapasso said, “and he comes with the typical Crimson Tide demeanor on the field. He’s not afraid to lower the boom.”
Evans, for his part, told Potter that he’s ready and willing to play wherever for whoever. “I was born to be versatile,” he said. “I was born to be able to play whatever you want me to play. I don’t even like to put a name on what I play because I feel like that’s really limiting or downing my athletic ability.”
Evans isn’t the thumper against the run that Foster or even Ragland was, but he has better range. In fact, the argument can be made fairly easily that Evans’ all-around skill-set is a better fit for the 21st-century NFL than either of those young linebackers. He has the wheels to hold his own in coverage, the physicality to be stout at the point of attack and as last year progressed his instincts and play recognition both improved steadily.
Whether it’s on a 3-4 team like the Titans or Los Angeles Rams (who are now in the market for linebacker help after trading Alec Ogletree to the New York Giants), or a 4-3 squad like the Cowboys or Buffalo Bills, it isn’t the scheme that will determine Evans’ short-term IDP value as much as it is the role – as in three-down role.
It’s not unreasonable to forecast that Evans will play in sub-packages from Day 1 given his abilities and likely first-round status in this year’s draft. There are a couple of other rookie linebackers entering the NFL who could (depending on landing spot) rise past Evans to claim the mantle of the top IDP rookie of 2018, but make no mistake….
Evans is in that conversation as a player who could muscle his way into the back end of the Top-25 in very short order.