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- Offensive play-calling in the NFL is about personnel matchups and the defense avoiding being stuck in a vulnerable situation. An offensive coach once told me that his game plan was basically an exercise of “Where’s Waldo” — finding the mismatch on defense, which was usually a linebacker vs. the slot or running back.
- And that is why the NFL covets athletes at the linebacker position.
- For most evaluators and coaches, mental processing will always be the No. 1 trait required at the position, but athletic versatility and the ability to be an every-down player is a close second. And the top of this year’s draft class includes several linebackers with those high-end athletic traits with a chance to see the field early.
- 1. Isaiah Simmons, Clemson (6-3, 228, 4.52)
- Olathe, Kan. (Olathe North), redshirt junior. Age: 21.74
- A two-year starter at Clemson, Simmons played a hybrid SAM/Nickel role in defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ 4-3 base scheme, playing a position that combined the responsibilities of safety, linebacker and cornerback. A track star turned safety turned linebacker, he was the centerpiece of the Tigers’ defense and gave college play-callers fits because of his pre-snap deception, not tipping if he was going to spy, blitz or cover.
- Simmons accelerates with ease and closes with burst, showing tremendous reaction to movement and open-field ability. He must do a better job defeating blocks before they happen, but his length and speed make him efficient working the edge. Overall, Simmons is the ideal modern-day defender with his ability to blitz, cover and stop the run, projecting as a unique four-down defender with the multi-dimensional skills to be deployed in any situation.
- All-22 Takeaway: A linebacker playing single-high safety? Yeah, Simmons can do that. Along with covering in the slot, blitzing off the edge or lining up as a weakside linebacker. From his single-high perch, he showed off his range with his third-quarter interception against Justin Fields and Ohio State in the College Football Playoffs.
- 2. Patrick Queen, LSU (6-2, 233, 4.64)
- Livonia, La. (Livonia), junior. Age: 20.69
- A one-year starter at LSU, Queen was an inside linebacker in defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 scheme. His first career start came vs. Alabama in 2018 when Devin White was sidelined (due to a targeting penalty) and he steadily grew into one of LSU’s top defensive performers, playing 89.5% of defensive snaps over the second half of the 2019 season.
- One of the youngest players in the draft, Queen has outstanding play speed and can run all day, smoothly transferring his weight and closing with purpose. He is still developing his stack-shed ability and finishing skills, but shows natural read-react athleticism and the mean-spirited personality required for the position. Overall, Queen doesn’t have an extensive resume, but he is an explosive run-and-hit linebacker with excellent mirror skills and the fluidity to turn and run in coverage, projecting as a high-upside NFL starter with every-down ability.
- All-22 Takeaway: Queen (#8) had flashier plays on the Alabama tape, including an interception of Tua Tagovailoa. But this incomplete pass was the play that stuck with me. With speedster Jaylen Waddle in motion and running back Najee Harris setting up in pass pro, Alabama appears to be running the speed screen to the field side. But Queen doesn’t buy it. Instead of taking a false step or losing eye discipline with Tagovailoa’s body fakes, he bursts toward the running back in the boundary and his speed beats the blocker to the spot. Harris dropped the ball, but Queen was in position to make the play due to his athletic skill and ability to sniff out the misdirection. This was also an impressive job by K’Lavon Chaisson (#18) to avoid the block of Jedrick Wills and put himself in position to make the tackle.
- 3. Zack Baun, Wisconsin (6-2, 240, 4.69)
- Brown Deer, Wis. (Brown Deer), redshirt senior. Age: 23.31
- A two-year starter at Wisconsin, Baun was an outside linebacker for defensive coordinator Jim Leonard in the Badgers’ 3-4 base scheme, playing mostly to the field side and switching between a rusher and dropper. Despite his sack production in college, he projects best as an off-ball linebacker in the NFL and defensive play-callers will need to be creative with how they allow him to rush.
- A fantastic space athlete, Baun has the natural burst and loose hips to be deployed across the formation, handling open-field responsibilities. He consistently affects the game with his active play style and effort, but he rushes and covers more on instinct than technical know-how right now. Overall, Baun’s evaluation requires some projection because he won’t be a full-time rusher in the NFL, but he displays the fluid athleticism, smarts and motor to line up as a stack linebacker and nickel pass rusher, projecting as a first-round pick.
- 4. Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma (6-2, 243, 4.67)
- Missouri City, Texas (Elkins), junior. Age: 21.43
- A three-year starter at Oklahoma, Murray lined up as the MIKE linebacker in defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s hybrid 3-3-5 base scheme. Nicknamed “K9,” he reached triple-digit tackles each of the last two seasons and rarely left the field, playing 90.5% of defensive snaps the last three years.
- Although he doesn’t consistently anticipate the action and must tweak his tackling approach, Murray’s instant speed is the equalizer, flowing fast and attacking alleys. He is overflowing with adrenaline and displays the competitive spirit that will win over a coaching staff. Overall, Murray can be late to sort and zero-in on the ballcarrier, but his outstanding play speed and relentless energy are difference-making traits, projecting as a three-down, run-and-hit outside linebacker in the NFL.
- All-22 Takeaway: I love Murray’s play speed and killer instinct, but he can be late to sort at times, especially in confined spaces, which is the main reason he isn’t second or third on this list. On this play against Baylor, Murray (#9) cleanly mirrored laterally, but he is tardy sorting through the blocks and finding the run lane, causing him to overstep. He should have been in the perfect position to fill the gap and plant the runner for no gain, but instead he gave the quarterback a clear path to the end zone.
- 5. Malik Harrison, Ohio State (6-3, 246, 4.73)
- Columbus, Ohio (Walnut Ridge), senior. Age: 22.13
- A two-year starter at Ohio State, Harrison lined up as the weakside linebacker in former defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley’s 4-3 scheme, leading the Buckeyes in tackles as a senior. A former high school quarterback who wanted to play receiver in college, he showed steady improvement each of the last four seasons, grading out as one of the top run defenders in college football in 2019.
- Harrison is an alert, gap-sound player who explodes as a tackler at contact. He flies around the field and constantly chases the action, but his occasional false steps prove costly and there are questions about his man coverage skills. Overall, Harrison is a terrific height/weight/speed prospect and with his ability to mirror, take on contact and finish, he is one of the better run defending linebackers in this draft class.
- 6. Jordyn Brooks, Texas Tech (6-0, 241, 4.68)
- Houston, Texas (Stratford), senior. Age: 22.51
- A four-year starter at Texas Tech, Brooks manned the MIKE linebacker position in defensive coordinator Keith Patterson’s 3-3-5 scheme, moving inside as a senior after spending high school and his first three seasons in Lubbock outside. He finished the 2019 season second in the FBS in tackles for loss per game (1.82) and became the first All-American linebacker for the Red Raiders since Zach Thomas (1995).
- Brooks rarely loses foot races to the sideline, even with a late start – once he sees it, he unlocks and goes. He relies more on his lower body, not his upper body, to get by blockers, but his trigger and burst help compensate. Overall, Brooks was more of a downhill player in Tech’s scheme and there are concerns in coverage, but he has excellent lateral range and striking skills, projecting best as an inside linebacker in a blitz-heavy 3-4 scheme.
- All-22 Takeaway: Shorter than ideal, there are times when Brooks (#1) is late to read the backfield action like this play against Arizona. But even with his tardy start, he shows off his impressive range and acceleration to meet the ballcarrier at the numbers, exploding into contact for the tackle.
- 7. Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State (6-2, 219, 4.54)
- Thomasville, N.C. (Thomasville), redshirt senior. Age: 22.59
- A two-year starter at Appalachian State, Davis-Gaither lined up at outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s 3-4 base scheme, playing an overhang defender role. Despite his tweener size, he owns the length and speed that NFL teams covet, projecting as discount version of Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons a few rounds later in the draft.
- Probably the best “Tag” player in the neighborhood growing up due to his lower body quickness to avoid blocks, Davis-Gaither plays with terrific closing burst once he unlocks and goes. His relentless play style is a strength, but his motor is stuck in overdrive at times and he would benefit by adding more discipline and control to his game. Overall, Davis-Gaither needs to fine-tune his take-on skills and develop his cover instincts, but his twitched-up athleticism and confident play speed help mask his technical flaws, projecting as a subpackage NFL linebacker who should shine on special teams.
- 8. Logan Wilson, Wyoming (6-2, 241, 4.75)
- Casper, Wyo. (Natrona County), redshirt senior. Age: 23.79
- A four-year starter at Wyoming, Wilson lined up as the MIKE linebacker in former defensive coordinator Jake Dickert’s 4-2-5 base scheme. Despite not playing linebacker until he arrived in Laramie, he made an indelible mark at Wyoming as only the second player in school history to be a three-year captain and the fourth to eclipse 400 career tackles.
- With his top-level diagnose skills, Wilson is a tackling machine due to his break down ability and sound technique in the open field, mirroring with range. He rarely came off the field and as a former high school cornerback, he looks comfortable in reverse with natural ball skills. Overall, Wilson likely won’t have the same production in coverage vs. NFL athletes, but he won’t miss many tackles and his reaction to movement translates well, projecting as a special teams stud with starting potential.
- 9. Troy Dye, Oregon (6-3, 218, 4.62)
- Norco, Calif. (Norco), senior. Age: 23.60
- A four-year starter at Oregon, Dye was the WILL linebacker in defensive coordinator Andy Avalos’ 3-4 base scheme, playing primarily to the boundary side of the field. He was part of a freshman class that went 4-8 in their first season and played under three different head coaches and three different defensive coordinators, but he helped return the Ducks to prominence, including a Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl win in 2019.
- Speed isn’t a question for Dye, who covers a lot of ground and does a great job finding his balance in space to make one-on-one tackles. However, strength is a concern, often sticking to blocks once engaged and not anticipating enough to compensate. Overall, Dye looks like a modern-day linebacker with his length and athleticism, but he plays more like a safety with questions about his functional strength and scheme fit in the NFL, projecting as an immediate back-up and special teamer.
- 10. Francis Bernard, Utah (6-0, 230, 4.79)
- Herriman, Utah (Herriman), redshirt senior.
- A one-year starter at Utah, Bernard played the “Mac” linebacker position in defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley’s 4-2-5 base scheme. He rarely came off the field in 2019 (played 93.1% of defensive snaps) and rebuilt his image after a pattern of immature incidents that ended his time at BYU.
- The quarterback of the Utes’ defense, Bernard is a determined player with a violent mentality, seeing things quickly with enough athleticism to get the job done in pursuit. However, he must cut down on the missed tackles and develop his hand usage to properly stack, shed and make stops in the hole. Overall, Bernard must improve his take-on technique to earn a meaningful role in the NFL, but he is an aggressive run defender with promising reps in coverage, projecting as an NFL rookie back-up who will eventually compete for starting reps.
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