At this time of year, as prospects gather in Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine and dynasty fantasy owners begin doing the first bits of preparation for the rookie drafts that will begin after the dust settles in Nashville on April 27, there’s one question that looms above all others for Individual Defensive Player (IDP) enthusiasts.
Who is going to be the first inside linebacker drafted this year? Because the odds are pretty good that whomever that player is, he’s also going to be the first IDP selected in those rookie drafts. He’ll also probably be the first first-year IDP taken in other formats as well — just as was the case in many leagues with Chicago’s Roquan Smith in 2018.
There’s still a ways to go until the NFL draft, but right now the general consensus among draftniks is that the first inside linebacker taken will be LSU’s Devin White. The 6-foot-1, 240-pounder, who had 123 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss, three sacks and three forced fumbles in 2018, was the Butkus Award winner as the top linebacker in college football.
In an age where range and coverage skills are more important than ever, Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com told Aric DiLalla of the Denver Broncos website that White has both in spades.
“When you have linebackers (who) can’t cover … it’s a liability,” Jeremiah said. “You will get picked on repeatedly. It’s tough to hide out there when you have a linebacker (who) can’t cover. So to me, you start right there. [White]’s going to be able to run and cover and help match up against some of the better tight ends and even some of these backs [with] how they’re used in the passing game. That’s a huge asset.”
Gavino Borquez of Chargers Wire agrees that White has a varied skill-set well-suited to today’s game.
“The punishing force on LSU’s defense,” he said, “White has all of the tools and the play style of a potential Pro Bowl linebacker for years to come. White’s not an elite athlete that will takeaway top tight end threats in coverage, but he is a terrific run stopper with excellent range and finishing ability, as well as a blitzer.
“White’s an explosive three down linebacker who can close running lanes, flow sideline to sideline, generate tackles for loss and record sacks because of his ability to blitz the interior.”
Per Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller, at least one scout believes White is more than just the most athletic linebacker prospect this year — he might just be the top athlete at any position.
“He might be the most athletic player in the entire class,” the scout said. “I’ve heard stories about his battles with Leonard Fournette, and they’re on a similar level athletically.”
Unless White’s legs fall completely off at Lucas Oil Stadium, he isn’t falling out of the first round. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a scenario over the next couple of months that could cause White to slide out of the Top 20.
In Jeremiah’s most recent mock draft, he slotted White to Denver at pick No. 10.
“(Coach) Vic (Fangio) has a way [where] he can cut it loose as a blitzer, too,” Jeremiah said. “He’s outstanding. Not only blitzing inside but coming off the edge, [White]’s got a good feel. He’s got real strong hands.”
Miller, on the other hand, predicted that White would go one selection later to Cincinnati.
“Speed is a huge need at the linebacker position,” Miller said, “even with Malik Jefferson coming back from an injury in 2019 and figuring to be an impact player at one spot. Devin White would give (Cincinnati) not just speed but instincts, toughness and playmaking skills at middle linebacker. The former prep running back has worked himself into one of the best linebackers college football has seen since Myles Jack and Jaylon Smith were running down plays.”
Draft Wire’s Luke Easterling believes White could go even earlier, forecasting a draft-day trade by Oakland that lands it White at No. 7.
“After moving back a few spots and adding even more picks,” he said, “(General manager) Mike Mayock and (coach) Jon Gruden still land a player (who) could have gotten strong consideration at their original slot. White is exactly the kind of difference-maker (Oakland) desperately need(s) at the heart of (its) defense.”
All three of those potential destinations have one thing in common — all involve linebacker-needy clubs where White would immediately become not just an every-down player but the team’s best player at IDP’s most important position. Provided he’s healthy when Week 1 rolls around, he’s going to be on the field — and in IDP lineups.
Now, this doesn’t guarantee that White will be the top rookie IDP of 2019. Smith wasn’t in 2018 — that honor went to Indianapolis’ Darius Leonard, who was the top IDP overall as a rookie.
In case you’re wondering, there is a Darius Leonard of 2019 — a small-school standout who could make a big rookie impact. But that’s a tale for another day.
But while Smith may not have been the top rookie linebacker of 2018, he did pile up 121 tackles and five sacks en route to a ninth-place finish among linebackers in Fantasy Sharks Default IDP Scoring.
That doesn’t mean White will be a Top 10 linebacker as a rookie. But he’s a similarly NFL-ready prospect who will all but certainly play extensive snaps from Day 1. At the very least that makes White an upside LB2 in redrafts and dynasty startups, and a safe bet as the first IDP taken in rookie drafts.