There are limited choices for teams looking at linebackers early in the draft, particularly for interior ones. Defensive systems are so variable now that teams are going to place different levels of importance on several traits. Here are my breakdowns for the top two candidates this year:
1) Reuben Foster, Alabama
Strengths: Reuben Foster is quite simply one of the best linebackers I've seen come out of the draft in a long time. He's everything you want in an inside linebacker. He displays excellent speed and range, roaming from sideline to sideline easily. That speed allows him to close quickly on both runs and short routes. Foster can be classified as a traditional 'big hitter' when he's around the line of scrimmage. He will hit a gap and demolish the running back. He reads plays well and shows good instincts as they progress. Foster combines speed, strength and tackling to show "seek-and-destroy" ability in the run game. He'll frequently be the one bringing down the ballcarrier, even on long runs attacking the perimeter. One of the best parts to Reuben Foster's game is that it is so complete. For as strong as he is in the run game, his coverage ability should not be overlooked. He was asked to drop into coverage frequently in 2016 and was above average. He cannot be forgotten about in blitz packages either. For all these reasons, Foster will be a three-down linebacker in the NFL.
Weaknesses: Foster can be too aggressive at times, jumping into the battle at the line of scrimmage too early. From there he's stuck trying to free himself from offensive linemen. He's a dominant playmaker when he can read the play and find where to attack. He'll run into trouble when he's impatient and trusts his athletic abilities too much. The other issue when evaluating Foster, and middle linebackers in general, is that so much of their game relies on the defensive line in front of him. Alabama's dominant front draws plenty of blocking attention, and Foster certainly benefits when teams put so many resources into blocking guys like Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams.
2) Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
Strengths: Cunningham's reputation as a tackling machine is well-known and that was easily evident on film. There were times when it would seem he was racking up tackles on every play. His speed is his greatest asset, and that helps him wrap up opponents from all over the field. I've seen some other online analysts that were not as happy with his tackling technique but I'm not overly concerned. The proof is on film. This man is going to make a ton of tackles. Cunningham isn't a one-dimensional player either. His coverage ability is excellent. Coaches were so confident in his skills that they would line him up out wide in man coverage against WRs/TEs. Full credit to Cunningham, he held his own in these situations. I thought he was good against the run as well. You can see him shoot the open gaps and stop a runner immediately.
Weaknesses: The hard part when evaluating Reuben Foster and Zach Cunningham is taking into account the roles they're asked to play. For instance, Cunningham was rarely asked to blitz this season, so I have that down as a question mark. The main theme/concern I have is that I consistently thought he would be a better fit for outside linebacker. Cunningham has a long and slender frame, which is a little more noticeable when you compare him up against Foster. He (and the rest of the linebackers) would also line up farther away from the line of scrimmage sometimes, particularly when dropping into coverage. The team that drafts Zach Cunningham needs to be extremely confident he can fit their system. I don't view him as a 4-3 MLB, and I don't think he's a great fit for inside the 3-4 either. His best position would seem to be 4-3 OLB but then you need to be sold that he can generate pocket pressure. I'm not confident in that.
Reuben Foster is the clear headliner here. I think he's well worth a top 10 pick, particularly for the Tennessee Titans. Dick LeBeau's system needs linebackers that can do a bit of everything, and I think Foster is a clear upgrade at ILB for the team. I've mentioned it before, but I think Foster will become the backbone for a good defense somewhere. He'll instantly help a team's run defense and coordinators will love the versatility he brings for third downs. He was the quarterback of the defense at Alabama.
Zach Cunningham really impressed me on film, even if it may not seem like it given the description above. The biggest takeaway from his film was that he was a factor on so many plays and tackles. Given the trend towards passing offenses, I wouldn't be surprised to see a defensive coordinator fall in love with his coverage skills. There will still be questions to which position he's going to play in the NFL. For the Titans, you have to be extremely confident that he can handle ILB beside Woodyard/Williamson. Cunningham is still very likely to go in the first round, and I do think he can become a very productive player. The issue is that his transition to the NFL is a a bigger projection.