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NFL Draft 2017: Jalen Reeves-Maybin a low-risk, high-upside cover linebacker

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Despite being undersized, Reeves-Maybin showed at Tennessee he’s one of the most productive linebackers in his class. His combination of speed and smarts is a perfect fit for today’s pass-heavy NFL. But, there are some concerns, too.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Northwestern vs Tennessee Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With the league shifting to even more pass-happy offenses, defenses have had to catch up and deploy more nickel and dime formations. Not only does that force teams to employ extra quality secondary guys on the roster, but teams are also seeking faster and more agile linebackers, able to cover running backs and tight ends in space. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, out of Tennessee, has all the traits to fill that role for an NFL team. Could that team be the Cincinnati Bengals?

The cousin of Los Angeles Angels outfielder Cameron Maybin, Reeves-Maybin had a nightmarish senior season with the Vols, being ejected for targeting in the season opener before being sidelined for all but three other games with a shoulder injury. He was cleared to participate in the NFL Combine, although, he only took part in linebacker drills. Before 2016 though, Reeves-Maybin was a budding star for Tennessee, recording 100+ tackles and 10+ tackles for a loss in two straight years. He’s got the athleticism, the smarts and the instincts to be quarterback of the defense in the pros, but his size, or lack thereof, will hurt his stock, as will his senior season.

School: Tennessee

Position: Linebacker

Height: 6’

Weight: 230 pounds

Arm length: 32 1/4"

Hands: 9 5/8"

Draft projection: Round 6 to undrafted

College Stats: 29 games, 240 tackles (149 solo), 8.0 sacks, 1 interception, 4 passes defended, 4 fumble recoveries, 2 forced fumbles.

Despite missing most of his senior season, Reeves-Maybin is a tantalizing prospect with lots of upside due to a combination of speed and instincts, but he also carries a lot of risk because of his lack of bulk. That and his shoulder injury is what could make him available in Day 3 of the Draft where he could be a steal.

Being undersized didn’t matter to him in school, where he showed a killer instinct and a no-prisoner attitude that every coach would love out of their linebackers.

Reeves-Maybin has quick, light feet and a relentless motor. When it runs hot, no running back is safe from being caught from behind.

Despite his small frame, his hands are big and strong enough that he’s a good finisher in open space. Reeves-Maybin also displayed good tackling technique at Tennessee, making sure he wrapped his arms around the opponent every time. And after starting his collegiate career as a part-time safety, the son of a Louisville basketball player, he showed flashes of what he could do in coverage, although his ball skills might be rather poor.

Where Reeves-Maybin lacks is his ability to stay off blockers. As you might have figured out, his size makes him sometimes easily blocked, and that will be even more drastic in the NFL, where offensive linemen and tight ends are bigger and stronger.

What to like:

Speed, acceleration, quick diagnosis of plays right off the snap. That combo is something you really want in every modern linebackers. According to NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein a personnel executive with an NFC team believes "he can play MIKE or WILL in a Tampa 2, and he has really good cover talent".

While he won’t get bigger, Reeves-Maybin can get stronger, and his will to tackle can help him succeed in every scenario. He thrived as special teamer in his freshman season, so he could earn a role early on for the team that drafts him. He has the ability to pass the rusher too.

What needs work:

He rarely takes away opposing linemen, and often is not able to get much leverage against them. Short arms and subpar strength will always be a problem for him in the pros. Also, according to Zierlein, "scouts say he appears to have lost functional weight while injured".

When in coverage, he needs to play with more control or will get burnt by shifty receivers in the slot. Reeves-Maybin, while quick to get to the ball, never gave me the impression of being a ball hawker.

How does he fit in the Bengals:

Cincinnati has Vontaze Burfict, Nick Vigil, Vincent Rey, Kevin Minter and P.J. Dawson at the linebacker position. They play nickel most of the time, and they already drafted Vigil last season to be their guy for the role. Minter was added this offseason to spell Burfict some, and Dawson is still young and could develop into a valuable role player. Bringing Reeves-Maybin wouldn’t hurt though.

The Tennessee native wouldn’t cost them a premium pick and his speed is something the team lacks at the position. With Minter and Burfict set to be free agents in 2018 he could be an insurance policy, too. The Bengals have been trying to find their safety-linebacker hybrid for a long time, with Taylor Mays and Emmanuel Lamur failing to pan out. Reeves-Maybin is worth taking a chance on to give it another try.

After moving on from a big and slow guy like Rey Maualuga this spring, Cincinnati seems to realize that they need an influx of speed and athleticism at almost every unit, and Reeves-Maybin fits the bill.