Editor's note: NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein will reveal the top CFB players to watch in 2017 at each position, concluding today with linebackers.
NFL scouts are always looking to the CFB ranks to find next-level talent. While we won't speculate about where these potential future NFL stars will go in the draft one day, it's not too soon to take a peek at their game tape and start to stack them as the top players to watch.
This list has a nice blend of high-end athletes and players with strong production. With offenses becoming more and more diverse in their personnel groupings, it is important to identify players who are not only productive, but also have either pass-rush or coverage talent.
Tremaine Edmunds is a three-down linebacker who has the physical traits and playmaking production that help him stand out. Rashaan Evans should be ready to take a big step forward as a hybrid linebacker with pass-rush talent on third down. Malik Jefferson's explosive flashes should mature into bigger production in Year Three, while production and consistency haven't been problems for USC's Cameron Smith.
Of course, there is still plenty of work to be done in evaluating each player during and after this season. Of the linebackers I've studied, here are the top 10 to watch.
10. Josey Jewell, Iowa
Jewell is a downhill combatant whose first two steps are almost always toward the line of scrimmage. He's a tackling machine, but he's also done a nice job of knocking passes away in coverage. His draft stock will have a cap due to a lack of reactive athleticism and speed, but he's strong and extremely consistent. There were several linebackers I considered for this spot, including youngsters like Michael Pinckney (Miami) and Caleb Kelly (Oklahoma). Florida State's Matthew Thomas has the physical attributes, but his motor is inconsistent and he has only one year of production.
9. Fred Warner, BYU
Listed at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Warner stands out due to the amount of time he spends playing in space against pass-happy offenses on the BYU schedule. He has been a linebacker dating all the way back to his high school days, but he moves more like a big safety out on the field. Warner has soft hands and good instincts in coverage. He's taken two of his six career interceptions for touchdowns. He's capable near the line of scrimmage with the speed to pursue across the field, but scouts want to see more toughness. At times, he'll take inconsistent angles to the ball, which can lead to an arm-tackle attempt.
8. Cameron Smith, USC
Smith won't wow scouts with a long, limber frame or blazing pursuit speed, but he is productive and consistent. Smith has good lower-body strength, providing him a sturdy frame to take on blockers, and he does a nice job of playing off of blocks to make tackles. He's a bear-hug finisher who has yet to allow a broken tackle in two seasons. He operates with outstanding awareness and little wasted motion. Smith won't win the NFL Scouting Combine when it's his turn to head to Lucas Oil Stadium, but his tape will be full of plus plays and very few mistakes. Average athleticism and questions about whether he can play all three downs at the next level could cap his draft ceiling.
7. Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss
Most will project Haynes as an edge prospect, but I'm going to project him as a 4-3 outside linebacker. His thin frame is too small to hold up at the point of attack on early downs, but he might have the athleticism and talent to play beyond just a "sub-package" label. Haynes has good pursuit speed to the ball and his motor keeps him chasing the play throughout the rep. On passing downs, Haynes can bump down and utilize his get-off to challenge tackles around the edge.
6. Kenny Young, UCLA
Young looks the part with an angular, tapered frame and athletic build. He's shown marked improvement in each of the last two seasons as a starter and he will carry additional draft value because of his ability to stay on the field for all three downs. Young is a smooth strider who eats up yardage when pursuing to the ball. He may have weak-side or middle-linebacker value in the pros. Young trusts his eyes and does a nice job of allowing his keys to bring him to the ball. He's at his best when allowed to chase and finish. When plays come straight downhill at him, he can get in some trouble because he doesn't always take on blocks like he needs to.
5. Azeem Victor, Washington
Victor is a smart linebacker who plays with a good balance of caution and instincts. He is diligent on the backside and careful not to overshoot his run fits when scraping. However, he can be quick to diagnose and trigger against run plays to the perimeter and when he gets there, he's going to look to land a memorable blow on ball carriers. Scouts will like his ability to drop into space and handle zone coverage. Victor needs to improve in taking on blockers so he can punch and keep himself clean rather than get sticky on blocks.
4. Jerome Baker, Ohio State
Looks and plays like former Buckeye Darron Lee. Like Lee, Baker is a fast, fluid athlete who is able to turn, twist and wind his way into tackle opportunities. Baker shows an understanding of his run fits and isn't afraid to square up big running backs when the time comes to meet face-to-face in the hole. Baker, like Lee, also offers unique cover talent with the ability to defend against big slot receivers underneath and finish interception opportunities that come his way. Once again, like Lee, Baker lacks size and NFL-caliber strength at the point of attack. He will have to improve his ability to keep himself clean because getting glued to blocks is the only thing slowing him down right now.
3. Malik Jefferson, Texas
Jefferson is body-beautiful and an exceptional athlete with a great combination of size, speed and explosiveness. However, Malik Jefferson the football player hasn't caught up with Malik Jefferson the athlete just yet. Jefferson possesses a monster burst to close out running backs looking to turn the corner and his reactive athleticism allows him to recover from mistakes that would leave other linebackers out of the play. Jefferson's instincts failed him at times when he played in the middle and he would run himself out of position too often. Texas is moving Jefferson to outside linebacker this year, which should open him up to think less and play faster. That could help unlock his massive potential.
2. Rashaan Evans, Alabama
Evans has had limited playing time due to the talent that was ahead of him on the depth chart and his switch from rush end to linebacker. However, he possesses a good blend of NFL size and speed. His tape shows he's warming quickly to the responsibilities of the linebacker position. He has the ability to range from sideline to sideline and the lateral quickness to sift from gap to gap mirroring shifty running backs. Evans has serious edge speed as a rusher and can be deployed from that spot in sub-packages. His instincts and awareness are a work in progress. He doesn't have a wealth of production in his background, but I'm betting on his traits and toughness.
1. Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech
Long and rangy with high-end physical tools and traits, Edmunds posted outstanding production as a sophomore. The tape shows a player who does a good job of maximizing his length and quick-twitch athleticism to find his way into tackles. He's an early responder after the snap and will usually beat blockers to the spot. While his speed and agility can launch him to the perimeter in an effort to contain wide-flowing running plays, he still needs to develop a little more patience and control in his pursuit. He will occasionally take a false step here and there, but generally speaking, his instincts are where they need to be. Edmunds has the athletic ability and motor that allow his playmaking radius to sprawl all over the field, which is why he will likely be considered a high-end linebacker prospect who has the ability to play outside or inside.