Previewing the 2019 NFL Combine: Studs, starters and sleepers at Rush Linebacker

Oct 6, 2018; Gainesville, FL, USA; Florida Gators defensive lineman Jachai Polite (99) pressures LSU Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow (9) during the second half at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Rang

The 2019 NFL Scouting Combine is now less than two weeks away and is taking a daily look at the top prospects at each position to help get you up to speed quickly.

Each day, a different position will be profiled and given a grade with three individual players featured:

· A First Round Prototype

· Second Day (Future) Starter

· Third Day Sleeper

Senior Analysts Rob Rang and Ric Serritella have nearly 40 years of combined experience professionally evaluating prospects for the NFL and after a year spent visiting campuses, watching tape, attending games, all-star practices and Combine training facilities, they have not surprisingly developed some favorites in this talented 2019 draft class.

Hundreds of their scouting reports are being printed for Lindy’s NFL Draft magazine right now with a snapshot of each position and some of their favorite players to watch available complimentary of below.

Rush Linebackers

With offenses becoming more multiple by the hour, the days of teams running standard 4-3 and 3-4 alignments exclusively on defense are over.

This evolution of the game has lessened the need for the traditional glass-eating, run-stuffing inside linebackers that used to personify the game of football and greatly enhanced the value of those edge defenders who can impact the passing game – whether by rushing the quarterback, blanketing potential pass-catchers in coverage or, ideally, both.

Fortunately, the 2019 NFL draft offers an above-average class at the position with a Baskins Robbins-like variety of fits and flavors to suit every taste.

Earlier this week I profiled some of my favorites among this year’s off-ball linebackers.

This list focuses on the rushers.

Teams willing to spend money to make money might just want to keep it simple and invest a top 10 pick in Kentucky’s Josh Allen, a twitchy and prototypically-built 6-4, 258 pound edge rusher who dominated the SEC to the tune of 21.5 tackles for loss and 17.0 sacks in 2018.

Others wonder if similarly-built but less-polished prospects available later might not provide better value.

Grade: B

A First Round Prototype: Josh Allen, Kentucky

Perhaps no player better exemplified the value in returning for one's senior season than Allen, who helped guide his beloved Wildcats to a 27-24 Citrus Bowl victory over Penn State - Kentucky's first New Year's Day Bowl game in two decades - by emerging as arguably the most dominant defender in the country, at least in the minds of Nagurski, Bednarik and Lott IMPACT award voters. Clean on and off the field, Allen might now be the first senior off the board in the 2019 NFL draft. Given his ideal blend of size, athleticism and production against elite competition, Allen ranks as one of the "safer" prospects of the 2019 draft class, perhaps even contending for No. 1 overall honors. Skeptics will point out that he was surrounded by a great deal of talent at Kentucky (especially in their secondary), aiding his cause as a pass rusher.

Second Day (Future) Starter: Jachai Polite, Florida

The 2019 NFL draft features a rare bounty of pass rushers with talent coming in all shapes and sizes. That includes Polite, who - not to be rude or anything - struggled with his weight early on at Florida before committing to his craft as a junior and enjoying a breakout campaign as one of the nation's most feared edge rushers. Starting all 13 games as a stand-up edge rusher in 2018 after previously seeing action as an undersized defensive tackle, Polite exploded for 45 tackles, including 19.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. Polite was hardly that when it came to taking the ball away from opponents, leading the nation and tying the Florida record with six forced fumbles in 2018, including one in the Gators' Peach Bowl win over Michigan. While he lacks ideal size and therefore requires a real plan as to what an NFL team wants to do with him, Polite's frame, suddenness and grit remind me of former Indianapolis Colts’ great Robert Mathis (6-2, 245), warranting top 40 consideration even in a draft blessed with several more traditionally-built rush linebackers.

Third Day Sleeper: Justin Hollins, Oregon

Labeling Hollins as a sleeper seems silly given his talent, level of competition and production. Scouts seemed to appreciate Hollins' growth more over his three seasons as a starter than the Pac-12 media, however. Hollins was never recognized by them as an all-conference player at Oregon despite leaving the Ducks with 184 tackles, 36 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles over his career – including five in 2018 – one behind Polite for the national lead. He was, however, invited to the East-West Shrine Game, turning heads with his quickness and agility when asked to play a more traditional off-ball role and earning Defensive MVP honors during the game, itself, with 10 tackles, including three for loss and two sacks. Don’t be surprised if the 6-5, 242 pound Hollins splashes at the Combine, just like the similarly-built and twitched-up Lorenzo Carter did a year ago, registering a mind-boggling 4.46 in the 40-yard dash at 6-5, 250 pounds. Like Hollins, Carter’s terrific workout came on the heels of his posting career-highs during his senior season at Georgia, ultimately earning him the 66th overall selection by the Giants. No one will be calling Hollins a sleeper following the Combine.