Baylor ILB Hager has experience in coverage, stands out in Indy
By the great Tyler Dunne, Journal-Sentinel
~Indianapolis — Back in Pop Warner, Bryce Hager wasn’t even a middle linebacker. He played running back. In fact, he didn’t even play his Dad’s old position until his junior year of high school.
“It ended up working out, I guess,” Hager said.
Now, Baylor’s Hager follows the footsteps of his father, former Philadelphia Eagle Britt Hager, to the NFL.
Finding the right inside linebacker won’t be easy for the Green Bay Packers. You want an intimidator, but you also want a player who can cover backs and tight ends in today’s NFL. This player is difficult to find.
Arguably no one at the position helped his stock more this week at the NFL scouting combine than Hager. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.60 seconds (tied 6th-best amongst LB’s) and bench-pressed 225 pounds 26 times (tied for fifth). When teams turn on the game tape, they’ll like what they see, too. Hager made the All-Big 12 second team three seasons in a row, finishing with 114 tackles (76 solo), two sacks and two forced fumbles last year.
In the high-flying Big 12, Hager faced plenty of spread offenses, too. Tracking a back on a wheel route up the sideline won’t be new to him.
Whereas first-round prospect Denzel Perryman said last week he was already asked “10 times” about his coverage ability, this might be Hager’s No. 1 strength.
“Any time you get a one-on-one, one person’s going to lose,” Hager said. “So you always have to make sure that’s not you. Because you get exposed easily.”
His most challenging one-on-one match-up was the one he saw daily — running back Lache Seastrunk.
Hager calls him the most explosive player through the hole he’s ever faced.
“His talent was unbelievable,” Hager said. “That was one player you don’t want to meet one-on-one. … Seven-on-seven, you’ve got him coming up the middle. He’s got the whole field to work with. It’s just you and him. So that’s something you want as a challenge, but he can expose you if you’re not ready for it.”
Hager said he did have a visit with the Packers planned. He knows today’s NFL offense, whether it’s with Shane Vereen or Randall Cobb, seeks one-on-one’s vs. linebackers.
“Yeah, I’m ready for that,” Hager said. “Being in the Big 12, you’re exposed to one-on-one battles. So any time there’s a challenge like that, you don’t want to back down. That’s something you want. You’re looking for those 1-on-1’s to showcase your talent.”
Hager, considered a mid-round prospect by analysts, did struggle at times. The 42-41 loss to Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl wasn’t pretty at times. He missed a tackle in the hole on Jeremy Langford and Langford rumbled ahead for 65 yards. And amid the Spartan’s furious late rally, he was stood up at the goal line on a late touchdown.
Then, there’s Hager reading and intercepting Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight for a 36-yard return, one quality the Packers could also use at the position.
Green Bay’s inside linebackers haven’t been turning the ball over.
The entire group had zero interceptions in 2014 (Clay Matthews’ pick came at OLB), one in 2013 and zero in 2012. Whether it’s Perryman, McKinney or a Hager beyond the first round, they’ll be on the hunt for a playmaker.
Growing up, Hager said his Dad never pressured him to play football, let alone linebacker. So he feels no added pressure now to perform — Hager said he takes pride in his name regardless.
“Running backs and linebackers pretty much see the whole thing and read the same thing and try to find the open gap,” he said. “As a linebacker, you have to find the open gap and find out where he’s going to be or where he’s not going to be. So it kind of works both ways.”
Hager’s father played in the NFL for nine seasons with Philadelphia, Denver and St. Louis.
His name does come up when he meets with teams.
“Anyone who can bring up past stories about my Dad I haven’t heard, it’s awesome,” Hager said. “Things he used to do. How he was a hard-nosed player. Those compliments, I feel like those are compliments to me too just because they want to bring him up and want to talk about my family.”
Elsewhere at the position, Kendricks ran a 4.61 and had 19 reps and Perryman had a 4.78 but his 27 reps on the bench tied for third best.
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