As we roll on here at Touchdown Wire with our draft rankings, we have arrived at the off-ball linebacker portion of the proceedings. Once a highly-regarded position, these types of players are seeing their stock take a bit of a hit over recent years, as coverage players or pass rusher tend to be valued more in the modern NFL where passing is king.
That has, perhaps, led to a bit of an evolution at the position, Some of the top players this cycle are known more for what they might do in space or in the slot than what they offer between the tackles. If the “two-down thumper” is going the way of the Dodo, in its place are linebackers who can match tight ends, running backs and even slot receivers depending on scheme and alignment. Some may get scared off by the position designation but some of these players are more LINO’s than anything else:
Linebackers in name only.
Here are the top 11 linebackers in the 2021 draft class.
Note: The percentiles in parentheses listed next to pro day data are compared to all historical athletic testing (combine and pro day) at the respective position of the player. Kudos to Pro Football Focus, and their Pro Day Schedule and Results Tracker, for this. As there was no scouting combine in 2021, and pro day schedules vary, we may not have all testing information for all prospects at publication time. For offensive tackles whose positional specificity is in question, we will include percentiles for both positions per PFF’s data.
1. Micah Parsons, Penn State
(Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)
Height: 6’3″ (87th percentile) Weight: 246 (82nd) 40-Yard Dash: 4.39 seconds (99th) Bench Press: 19 reps (33rd) Vertical Jump: 34 inches (47th) Broad Jump: 126 inches (93rd) 3-Cone Drill: 6.94 seconds (79th) 20-Yard Shuttle: 4.40 seconds (25th) Bio: Micah Parsons was one of the top recruits in the entire 2018 recruiting class and had no shortage of offers coming out of Harrisburg High School in Harrisburgh, Pennsylvania. 247Sports.com graded him as a five-star recruit, the fifth-ranked player in the nation and their 64th-ranked prospect of all time. He was recruited by almost every school imaginable but for Ohio State, who agreed not to recruit him after Parsons appeared on the “College Gameday” set and posed for a photo with former Buckeye Kirk Herbstreit. Seriously, NCAA. Figure it out… Parsons ultimately stayed close to home, choosing to play his college football at Penn State. Stat to Know: Pro Football Focus charted Parsons with just 11 missed tackles on 188 career attempts. If he gets to you, the play is over. Strengths: Parsons opted-out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, but the last we saw of him back in 2019 was all we needed to complete the evaluation. Between the lines Parsons is almost as clean as it gets at the linebacker position. Parsons is effective at getting to the edges, and equally effective at shooting gaps working downhill against the run. He often forces running backs to cut or bounce behind the LOS. He is very effective at sifting through traffic in front of him, identifying the hole and making the tackle. Here is a great example of this:
Parsons can flow well sideline to sideline, as he is athletic and quick with good short area burst. He will chase down runners that have a better angle. He is so adept at avoiding blockers, sifting through the chaos and getting to the ball-carrier. As a pass defender he is impressive as well. He is very active with his eyes when working in an underneath zone, and while man coverage is not his strong suit he can hold his own against some tight ends and running backs. He is very aware in zone coverage situations. On a play against Michigan State he has a flat/wheel to his area and he sinks off the flat to get under the wheel route from the tight end, nearly coming down with the interception. Parsons is also very dangerous as a blitzer, whether rushing through the interior or off the edge. A smart NFL defensive coordinator will use him as an EDGE defender in some sub packages or on some blitzes, as he has a complete array of pass rushing moves that some of the EDGE prospects in this class might like to study. Weaknesses: Really, there are not too many. Did Penn State use a lot of zone coverages, leaving the box next to “man coverage ability” unchecked or perhaps as an incomplete? Perhaps. Did he not produce against the pass in terms of interceptions or pass breakups? Sure he is not perfect in that regard. But between the lines Parsons is again as clean as it gets from an evaluation standpoint. He even tested extremely well, which matched the tape. The real concerns likely stem from a hazing incident which has resulted in a lawsuit from a former player against the school and head coach James Franklin. Parsons was never formally charged and the school was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, but teams will look into this for certain. Conclusion: Provided teams are satisfied about the character concerns, Parsons is a top ten talent in this draft class. The other concern might be the position, as off-ball linebackers tend to be devalued in today’s game. But given what he can do off the edge as a pass rusher in spots, the fact Parsons can also contribute in that way makes him a player worth targeting at the top of the first round. Comparison: Parsons combines the feel for the game and pass rushing ability of Dont’a Hightower with the athleticism of Tremaine Edmunds. Kyle Crabbs of The Draft Network went with Myles Jack, and that could be a solid comparison for Parsons.
2. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame
(Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)
Height: 6’1″ (50th) Weight: 221 (6th) 40-Yard Dash: N/A Bench Press: N/A Vertical Jump: 37 inches (75th) Broad Jump: 124 inches (87th) 3-Cone Drill: 6.80 seconds (93rd) 20-Yard Shuttle: 4.15 seconds (85th) Bio: A product of Bethel High School in Hampton, Virginia, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah graded as a three-star outside linebacker during the 2017 recruiting class, according to 247sports.com. Owusu-Koramoah entertained a number of scholarship offers including Virginia and Michigan State, but enrolled to play college ball at Notre Dame. His career at South Bend got off to a slow start, as he was a reserve player as a freshman and missed the bulk of his sophomore season due to a foot injury. But he became a starter in 2019 and recorded 80 tackles — including 13.5 for a loss — and 5.5 sacks. Last year his numbers dipped a bit but he brought home a ton of hardware for his efforts on the field, including the Butkus Award (given to the top linebacker in college football), ACC Defensive Player of the Year and he was a unanimous All-American. Stat to Know: My favorite stat of his? Owusu-Koramoah notched a 1310 on the SAT. Strengths: In an era where off-ball linebackers are becoming devalued, Owusu-Koramoah might be the perfect player for the moment. He is more “linebacker in name only” than anything else, and he spent a lot of his time in the slot as an overhang defender. There you might see him matching up with players like Amari Rodgers and Dazz Newsome in the slot, and he would match them stride-for-stride on routes downfield, forcing the QB to look elsewhere with the football. Still, Owusu-Koramoah is perhaps described as a “space player with a linebacker’s mentality.” He is athletic, explosive and physical. You might see him fighting through traffic in the box to get the the running back on first down, and then running with a slot receiver on second down. He has a very quick trigger against the run, flying downhill to get into each fit. Despite his penchant to play in the slot, he can still be physical against the run and works hard to get into the right fit. Notre Dame used him a lot on blitzes from the slot, and he has great feel and awareness in those moments, such as his touchdown in Notre Dame’s regular-season win over Clemson which came on one such play. Notre Dame also tasked him with different coverage responsibilities, from pattern matching to spot-dropping coverages and man coverage schemes. He displayed great awareness in pattern matching situations, such as a play against UNC where he needed to carry the out-and-up route from the #3 receiver on the play. Finally, when you combine his athleticism with the effort and intensity he shows on each play, you get one heck of a football player. Weaknesses: Those of us on the outside continue to promote the idea of “positionless football,” and the idea of hybrid players. This is happening on both sides of the football, lest you forget the discussions around Kyle Pitts this season. Another prime example was a year ago, with Clemson defender Isaiah Simmons. Yet the league might not feel the same about these kinds of players, and with Simmons as an example he slid a bit in the draft and has faced a more difficult transition to the NFL than people like me expected. That could be the case with Owusu-Koramoah, who would be one of the smaller linebackers in the NFL if used primarily as a stack LB in a more traditional role. Or if teams do view him as more of an overhang/slot player, is that worthy of an early first-round selection? So one of his biggest weaknesses might stem from finding him the right fit. Owusu-Koramoah’s aggression and play speed can get him into trouble. He flies around the field but there are moments on film where he gets himself to the spot, but fails to finish the play with a missed tackle. There were examples of this in both games against Clemson, as well as his game against UNC where after a well-timed slot blitz, he missed on a chance for a huge sack of Sam Howell and let him escape. Conclusion: Still, I would rather find ways to use a player like this all over my defense than pass on him and see another defensive coordinator find ways to use him to wreck offenses, including my own. A player that can run with some of the best slot receivers in the ACC on first down, explode downhill to stop the run on second down, and then disrupt the pocket with a well-timed blitz on third down, can play for me any day of the week. Comparison: It is hard to find an apt comparison for him given his versatility, but in terms of a role Fred Warner could be a schematic comparison. Both were players used more as overhang defenders in college, and Warner has found ways to contribute all over the field in San Francisco from coverage to blitzing through the interior gaps. That could be a model for Owusu-Koramoah’s transition to the league.
3. Zaven Collins, Tulsa
(Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports)
Height: 6’5″ (98th) Weight: 259 (96th) 40-Yard Dash: 4.67 seconds (49th) Bench Press: N/A Vertical Jump: 35 inches (61st) Broad Jump: 122 inches (78th) 3-Cone Drill: N/A 20-Yard Shuttle: N/A Bio: Zaven Collins did a little bit of everything for the football team at Hominy High School in Hominy, Oklahoma. He played quarterback on offense and both linebacker and safety on the defensive side of the football. He ran for over 4,000 yards and 54 touchdowns while passing for 3,056 yards and 32 touchdowns during his high school career, and he led Hominy to a state title and a 14-0 record as a senior. A three-star recruit as an outside linebacker according to 247sports.com, he took the first offer that came his way, to play at Tulsa. Collins redshirted as a freshman but was unleashed on the AAC as a redshirt freshman in 2018, when he recorded 85 total tackles and 1.5 sacks. In 2019 he improved on those numbers, notching 97 total tackles and two sacks. Last year in just eight games Collins posted 54 total tackles, four sacks and four interceptions. He earned a number of post-season awards, including the Lombardi Award (given to the best player in college football), the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (given to the best defensive player), the Chuck Bednarik Award (given to the best defensive player by the Maxwell Football Club) and he was named the AAC Defensive Player of the Year. Stat to Know: Pro Football Focus charted Collins with one snap at free safety and I have to say, that might be the most terrifying thing I have ever contemplated. Strengths: In the words of the sage Emory Hunt, “size is not a skill.” However, Collins’ rare size for the position makes everything else he can do so pronounced. Usually when studying non-quarterbacks you spend the first five minutes of each game trying to figure out who they are, and identifying factors such as towels, wrist bands, the height of their socks and more are helpful. That…was not the case with Collins: https://twitter.com/MarkSchofield/status/1381282801597681666?s=20 Collins jumps off the film the second you turn it on, but that is just where the fun begins. He is athletic with the ability to work sideline-to-sideline, and you can see him flash impressive change of direction skills working against the run. He had an impressive run stop against Oklahoma State when he cut on a dime to mirror the cutback attempt from the running back. He fights like hell to get to the spot, and if he is required to force a play to the middle of the field, by god he is going to get there and do just that. Collins can track ball carriers down the line of scrimmage very well, and he can play bullyball when he wants to, blowing up blockers and spilling plays. He is also a weapon in underneath zones due to his size and frame. Throwing over him is a challenge, and a prime example of this came in the Oklahoma State game when he was in the curl/flat zone and the QB tried to get a comeback route over his head. Collins was able to get his hands on the ball, tipping the pass and changing the trajectory. The pass was still completed, but in most instances that is an incompletion, or an interception. He can be an eliminator in underneath zone coverage and using him as a rat in the low hole could be a perfect role for him. Perhaps my favorite play of his came against Navy, when he sniffed out a screen, exploded downhill and chopped it down for a near-safety. Just let him be a game-wrecker and get out of his way. Weaknesses: There are moments when Collins could be more physical, as he tries to evade blocks more often than simply running through them. But there are instances when he plays more of a bullyball style, such as against Navy and their option offense. He could also stand to get better with his hands against cut block attempts, as Navy’s offense is built around athleticism and cut blocks up front and he let himself get chopped down a few too many times in that game. He also plays high, perhaps due to his size, and that led to some missed tackles in space. Of course with any off-ball linebacker there is a question about role and value, but a player with his size and skills can always find a home at the next level. Conclusion: My advice for NFL teams is simple: Draft him and get out of his way. He might be more of a traditional linebacker than Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, but he still offers some flexibility in terms of scheme and usage. He can play in the more stack linebacker role, but you can put him down on the edge, he is athletic enough to play in space, and you can use him to matchup against tight ends in the passing game. Smart defensive coaches are going to see what he offers and find a home for him right out of the gate. Comparison: I watch Collins and immediately think of another player with that last name, Jamie Collins. Just let him fly around the field and be thankful he’s doing it for you, not against you.
4. Jabril Cox, LSU
(Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports)
Height: 6’3″ (89th) Weight: 232 (29th) 40-Yard Dash: N/A Bench Press: N/A Vertical Jump: N/A Broad Jump: N/A 3-Cone Drill: N/A 20-Yard Shuttle: N/A Bio: There might be some recruiting directions, and recruting services, kicking themselves over Jabril Cox. The linebacker was graded as a two-star recruit by 247Sports.com out of Kansas City where he played at Raytown South High School. That might have been due to the fact that he was a quarterback first, who also saw time at linebacker, safety and wide receiver. While Cox took visits to schools like Nebraska and Arkansas, the bulk of his offers came from FCS schools. He enrolled at North Dakota State, and did not see the field until his redshirt freshman season after the switch to linebacker. It did not take long for him to make an impact, as he was named the Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year in 2017. For the 2018 season Cox earned MVFC Defensive Player of the Year honors thanks to his 91 tackles, including 9.5 for a loss. Cox had another solid year for the Bison in 2019, as he recorded 92 total tackles and was named a First-Team All-MVFC player for the second-straight season in 2019. Cox wanted to prove he could play at a higher level, and as a graduate he transferred to LSU for his final year of eligibility. He immediately stepped into a starting role for the Tigers, and notched 58 tackles (6.5 for a loss) a sack and eight passes broken up. Cox also got on the board with a Pick Six in his first SEC game against Mississippi State. Stat to Know: Pro Football Focus graded Cox with five forced incompletions, ranking him fourth among linebackers in 2020. Strengths: If the passing game truly is king, then Cox is going to be highly coveted in the upcoming draft. He is more a cornerback in the middle of the field than a stack linebacker, with smooth change-of-direction skills and the ability to cut or flip his hips on a dime. His pick-six against Mississippi State is a prime example, as he cut back to the middle of the field after opening his hips to the outside to stick on an underneath crosser, and then cut under the throw for the easy pick and score. He handles man coverage responsibilities extremely well, whether from a linebacker’s alignment against running backs or playing in space against slot receivers. Even if he allows the reception, Cox is a sure tackler in space who often minimizes — or outright eliminates — yardage after the catch. He shows a good understanding of zone coverage rules, knowing when to pass off options and when to match to routes in space. He can match with receivers or tight ends in coverage, and runs the seam with TEs quite well. It is a shame that Kyle Pitts was not healthy for LSU’s game against Florida, as that would have been a matchup to see. Against the run Cox wins with athleticism, as he can chase plays down and evade blockers well as he works to the football. He can close on plays to the edges with quickness and play speed, and there are moments on film where you can see him fighting to get into the right fit, or even adjusting his fit based on what his teammates do around him. Weaknesses: Cox is more of an athlete against the run than a physical, stack-and-shed linebacker. He will rely on athleticism to get around blocks more than taking them on and working through them. His strength comes in what he offers in coverage, and teams looking for a run stuffer and going to keep looking. He is a player I would characterize as more of a “helper” against the run than anything else. Conclusion: When Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin invented the Tampa 2, I think Cox was the kind of player they had in mind for that middle linebacker role. An athletic player who can excel in coverage and has the speed to match with tight ends, running backs and even slot receivers. That looks and sounds a lot like Cox to me. As two-high safety coverage are coming back into favor, a player with Cox’s abilities and skill-set could be extremely valuable. Comparison: Cox harkens one’s mind to Cory Littleton, an athletic linebacker known for his coverage skills in the middle of defenses.
5. Nick Bolton, Missouri
(Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)
Height: 5’11” (4th) Weight: 237 (49th) 40-Yard Dash: 4.59 seconds (75th) Bench Press: 15 reps (40th) Vertical Jump: 35.5 inches (49th) Broad Jump: 119 inches (34th) 3-Cone Drill: 7.05 seconds (36th) 20-Yard Shuttle: 4.39 seconds (15th) Bio: 247Sports.com graded Nick Bolton as a three-star recruit coming out of Lone Star High School in Frisco, Texas. Bolton entertained offers from Kansas and Washington before deciding to play his college football in the SEC at Missouri. He did not take long to contribute, as he played in all 13 of Missouri’s games as a true freshman. He slid into a starting role for the 2019 season as ad was named a First-Team All-SEC player after recording 103 tackles and a pair of interceptions. Even in a COVID-shortened season, Bolton notched another 95 tackles and two sacks in 2020, earning First-Team All-SEC honors for the second time. Stat to Know: Pro Football Focus charted Bolton with 32 run stops in 2020, 14th among linebackers in the college game. Strengths: Bolton has a feel for the game that is one of the better traits among this class. He moves extremely well in the box with the ability to track, match and tackle against the run. He is a fighter when working downhill, who can explode through blocks, even doubles, and still get to the ball carrier to hold them to a minimal gain. He is aggressive, almost frenetic, when working against the run and getting into his fit, and some of his runs stops are among the best in the class. He had a stop against Florida early where he fought through traffic, somehow managed to change directions late, and cut down the runner with great change-of-direction ability. Against the pass Bolton flashed some man coverage chops as well as the ability to handle underneath zone coverage responsibilities. I think his best role was as a blitzer, and Missouri used him on a lot of interior pressure packages or let him green dog late in plays. He put a huge hit on Mac Jones in Missouri’s loss to Alabama on one such design, although to his credit Jones hung in there, took the shot and delivered a touchdown to Jaylen Waddle on a crossing route. But then against Florida it was Bolton’s blitz that impacted Kyle Trask’s release, leading to a Pick Six. Weaknesses: Bolton is not the most athletic linebacker of the bunch, and matching vertical routes could be a tougher ask at the NFL level. There are times hen he bites on misdirection or play action, but given his feel for the position you will probably live with those instances. Given how often Missouri used him to pressure in passing situation rather than dropping him into coverage roles, you wonder how he might handle more coverage responsibilities at the next level. Conclusion: Bolton is a linebacker’s linebacker. His ability to fight through chaos and put the helmet on the ball carrier is tops in this class, and that still has value in today’s game. If you are a believer in the adage that “pressure is production” what he offers as a blitzer, both off the edges or through the A-Gaps, is going to be beneficial as well come Sundays. Comparison: Bolton’s aggression, feel and usage reminds me a lot of Kenneth Murray from a season ago.
6. Jamin Davis, Kentucky
Height: 6’3″ (87th) Weight: 234 (37th) 40-Yard Dash: 4.37 seconds (100th) Bench Press: 21 reps (49th) Vertical Jump: 42 inches (100th) Broad Jump: 132 inches (99th) 3-Cone Drill: N/A 20-Yard Shuttle: N/A Bio: Jamin Davis was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and his family moved to Georgia shortly after his birth. he played football for Long County High School in Ludowici, and was a two-way player who tallied 126 total tackles as a senior while accounting for 201 yards from scrimmage on the offensive side of the ball, with three touchdowns. Davis entertained offers from Louisville, Goergia Tech and N.C. State, but went to Kentucky and the SEC to play his college ball. Stat to Know: Davis played 592 snaps this season, more than his 2018 and 2019 seasons combined. Strengths: Davis is one of this draft’s late bloomers, but he could ride that into the first round if recent reporting is to be believed. After redshirting as a freshman he was not named a starter until this year, and he produced in a big way. Davis led the Wildcats with 102 total tackles — four for a loss — and also notched three interceptions, one of which was a Pick Six. He does a good job against the run and the production matches the film. Davis can pick through chaos with the best of them, and is a solid tackler with ideal technique and form. he shows good athletic ability and range on film, with some sideline-to-sideline potential. He is strong at the point of attack, with the ability to shed blockers and work to the football in run defense situations. Kentucky used him as an interior blitzer and he has good burst and short-area quickness, helpful traits as a penetrator but really in all aspects of the game. He is experienced at underneath zone coverage and shows good feel for those situations and passing off routes to the next defender. And that 40-yard time is evident on tape, but still impressive to see. Davis is one of the prospects who has crushed the pre-draft process, as you can see from those pro day numbers. Weaknesses: As a late bloomer there are lots of aspects to his evaluation that are more incomplete grades or require a bit of projection. Kentucky relied on a lot of spot-drop concepts, so you have to look harder to find evidence of him pattern matching or sticking on routes. He can get manipulated in zone coverage, and NFL quarterbacks will be able to move him with their eyes early in his career. At times you can see him lose sight of and relationship to his nearest threat, although his short-area quickness allows him to recover in those moments. He has the ability to be a three-down player in the NFL, but coaches will need to be a bit more creative with him on passing downs, at least early in his career. Conclusion: Life as an NFL linebacker will require more than spot-dropping so patience might be warranted early in his career. But Davis is moving up boards for a reason. There is room for growth and we know NFL coaches often think that “if I just get my hands on him, I can mold him into something greater.” Whether this is simply “coach-em-up-itis” or something more accurate remains to be seen. But his ability against the run combined with his athleticism gives him a path to be an immediate contributor as the rest of his game is filled out. Comparison: Kyle Crabbs went with Willie Gay Jr. from last year’s draft, with is a solid comparison for Davis. Both in terms of where they were as prospects, and what they could become down the road.
7. Dylan Moses, Alabama
(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Height: 6’3″ (Listed) Weight: 240 (Listed) 40-Yard Dash: N/A Bench Press: N/A Vertical Jump: N/A Broad Jump: N/A 3-Cone Drill: N/A 20-Yard Shuttle: N/A (Moses did not work out at his pro day as he is recovering from surgery on a torn MCL). Bio: Dylan Moses offers one of the more fascinating — or terrifying — recruiting stories depending on your point of view. At an LSU football camp when he was just 14 he was hand-timed in the 40-yard dash at 4.46 seconds, which earned him a scholarship offer as just an eighth grader. He ultimately would play at IMG Academy as a senior in high school and notched 116 tackles, and would decide between his beloved LSU Tigers and Alabama. He went to Tuscaloosa to play for Nick Saban. Stat to Know: I mentioned the 4.46 as a 14-year old, right? Beyond that, Pro Football Focus charted him with just 13 missed tackles on 192 career attempts. Strengths: You don’t lay down a 4.46 as a 14-year old without athletic ability, and Moses offers that right out of the gate. One of my favorite plays from any linebacker this cycle came from him against Mississippi. He was initially blocked by the right tackle on an outside run to the left side, but it was Moses who was able to chase that down from behind to force the ball-carrier out of bounds. Those kinds of plays are what he offers out of the gate. Moses is also very adept at taking angles in the run game or even against the boundary passing/screen game, and when you combine that with his athletic ability you have a linebacker who can cover ground in a hurry and impact the game from sideline-to-sideline. As offenses continue to try and get the football to athletes in space, a defender who can match that speed from an interior alignment is a huge asset. Weaknesses: There are moments when Moses can get caught looking at eye candy or enticed by misdirection elements from the offense, but his athleticism allows him to recover in those moments. He does a good job identifying run concepts and can explode downhill, but from a coverage standpoint there are moments when he can get tentative in terms of passing up routes, matching patterns or working through his zones. Routes that employ quick direction changes give him more difficulty than anything on a straight line. Conclusion: Despite the promise and the status as a five-star recruit, one might argue that it never fully came together for Moses at Alabama. He played immediately, making eight appearances as a freshman but his season ended early with a broken foot. He was a finalist for the Butkus Award as a sophomore, when he tallied 86 total tackles including ten for a loss. But he missed his entire junior season due to an ACL injury suffered right before his season. he came back last season and recorded 76 tackles, including six for a loss. Still, great athletes like him are rare, even in the NFL draft, and there is potential still within Moses. His athletic ability, what he can do against the run, and what he offers as a situational pass rusher make him worth a bet in the draft. Comparison: Jordan Reid of The Draft Network went with C.J. Mosely, which is a solid comparison.
8. Pete Werner, Ohio State
(Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)
Height: 6’3″ (84th) Weight: 238 (54th) 40-Yard Dash: 4.52 seconds (90th) Bench Press: N/A Vertical Jump: 40 inches (95th) Broad Jump: 122 inches (79th) 3-Cone Drill: 6.95 seconds (77th) 20-Yard Shuttle: 4.38 seconds (31st) Bio: Pete Werner is the latest member of his family to test the upper ranks of football. His father played at DePauw University and spent two years in the NFL and Pete’s brother Dan played at Harvard. Coming out of Cathedral High School in Indianapolis Pete was considered a four-star recruit and entertained offers from Duke, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State and Notre Dame. He originally committed to Notre Dame at the end of his junior season, but re-opened his recruitment during his senior season and eventually chose Ohio State. Stat to Know: Werner put 40 total tackles on the board this past season, an impressive number in a COVID-shortened season. Strengths: Werner’s best strength might be his versatility. He is a solid, safe prospect who does a number of different things and does them well. Early in his career with the Buckeyes he was used as more of a SAM/Strongside linebacker but over time Ohio State started moving him to the outside more and into space. He saw 66 snaps in the slot last season, a career-high. He can cover tight ends and stay with them on routes all over the field, but you can also find him stacking and shedding against the run, working to get to the ball carrier. He moves very well in coverage and that ability makes him an option on third downs in the NFL, even if he just carves out a sub package role as a rookie. He also offers special teams experience, something that is valuable when you start dipping into this spot of the draft class. Weaknesses: Over the bulk of his Ohio State career working downhill against the run was not his best trait. His willingness to come downhill is without question, but his skillset is more of a coverage linebacker who can help against the run, rather than some of the other options in this class who thrive on crashing downhill and putting their facemask on the ball. Conclusion: Solid, safe options deeper into the draft are often a front office’s best friend. Werner’s experience, versatility and well-rounded game make him a solid option for any team and a scheme fit in almost any system. He probably projects best as a weakside linebacker early in his career, but defensive coordinators could probably find a spot for him anywhere up front. Comparison: You can see some overlap between Werner’s game and De’Vondre Campbell, who is now with the Arizona Cardinals.
9. Baron Browning, Ohio State
(Kyle Robertson-USA TODAY Sports)
Height: 6’3″ (82nd) Weight: 245 (80th) 40-Yard Dash: 4.51 seconds (92d) Bench Press: 23 reps (64th) Vertical Jump: 40 inches (96th) Broad Jump: 130 inches (98th) 3-Cone Drill: 6.78 seconds (94th) 20-Yard Shuttle: 4.23 seconds (70th) Bio: ESPN graded Baron Browning as a four-star recruit out of Kennedale High School in Kennedale, Texas, and graded him as the 26th player overall in their 2017 recruiting class. Browning turned down offers from Michigan, Alabama, Florida State and UCLA, among other school, to play college football for Ohio State. He was an immediate contributor on the defensive side of the football, appearing in 12 games and notching 14 tackles as a freshman. He saw more time each of the next few seasons and the production increased, as he put together 43 tackles and five sacks as a junior in 2019. Last year Ohio State’s season was shortened due to COVID-19 but he managed 29 total tackles and a sack, and was named a Third-Team All-Big Ten selection. Stat to Know: When targeted in the passing game Browning allowed a passer rating of 119.9 this season, ranking him 314th in the country among linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus. Strengths: Browning has experience both on the inside and on the outside, and one of the things you do notice with him is his ability to decipher plays pre-snap or at the snap. That showed up on film against Nebraska and Rutgers, when he would diagnose zone runs due to slice blocks or option plays based on the blocking up front. There has been some questioning of his awareness, but I think when you see him diagnose plays or get under hitch routes as part of a “smash call” you can see him piecing the game together nicely. Browning is also an athletic player, and he can chase down running plays for a loss. He gives you sideline-to-sideline potential both from the middle of the field or as an overhang defender, the role he carved out his final season in Columbus. Browning will fight to force runs back to the inside from any alignment. In zone coverage he is patient in underneath zones, keeps his eyes active and can close in a hurry on throws completed in front of or near him. Weaknesses: Browning seems passive at times, particularly against the run. Against Nebraska early he was in the hole for a potential run stop but tried to dance around the lead blocker, letting the ball carrier get to the outside. He sometimes misses some tackles in space, and you would like to see him finish plays at a higher level. Then there is the Clemson game, where Trevor Lawrence beat him to the edge on a touchdown run early, and Browning was not seen for the next few drives from the Tigers. He played a lot against Alabama in the National Championship, but oddly the Buckeyes relied on a lot of four-LB packages, something that is rather curious and resulted in Tuf Borland trying to carry DeVonta Smith vertically…. Conclusion: Browning is getting legitimate first-round buzz in this draft cycle and while I understand, I will admit that I am not as high on him as others. There is a part of me that looks at what he can do as an athlete and as a pass rusher and considers using him as more of an edge at the next level, where he can use his athletic ability and pass rushing skills to contribute early. Define a role for him and let him attack with his athleticism, then try and fill in the rest of his game. Comparison: If you go back and watch some of Raekwon McMillan while he was at Ohio State, I think you might see some similarities.
10. Monty Rice, Georgia
(Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)
Height: 6’0″ (13th) Weight: 238 (53rd) 40-Yard Dash: 4.82 seconds (11th) Bench Press: N/A Vertical Jump: N/A Broad Jump: N/A 3-Cone Drill: N/A 20-Yard Shuttle: N/A Bio: Monty Rice was one of the nation’s top recruits at inside linebacker in the 2017 recruiting cycle, grading out as a four-star recruit according to 247Sports.com. The native of Madison, Alabama considered playing at Auburn and LSU and first committed to LSU, before flipping his commitment to the Georgia Bulldogs. He was a contributor as a freshman and then started five games in 2018 before earning a full-time starting role in 2019. He started every game for Georgia that season, and led the team with 89 tackles. He returned to the Bulldogs for his final college season, and was named a First-Team All-SEC performer. Stat to Know: Rice averaged just 33 snaps a game this past season in a more rotational role for Georgia, which we will return to in a moment. Strengths: Rice is an experienced linebacker with a good understanding of run fits and responsibilities in the run game. He can flow downhill well and shows the ability to fight to the football and make sure tackles both in space and in crowds. He is a very athletic player, who can chase down some of the SEC’s best athletes. Against Alabama this season he came on a blitz and almost got to Mac Jones, but the play was a designed screen to Jaylen Waddle towards the boundary. Rice was still able to change directions and get to the speedy wideout for a tackle. Rice is comfortable working in spot-drop zones, with good awareness for route distribution in those moments as well as the ability to click and drive on players after the catch, limiting yardage after the reception. He was used as a blitzer and can generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks in those moments as he flashes some pass rushing chops and technique. Weaknesses: What was interesting about Rice this season is that Georgia often took him off the field on clear passing downs, and when you combine that with the rotation the Bulldogs used on defense, that led to the low number of snaps per game. If a player is a two-down ‘backer in the SEC, what happens when he gets to the NFL? Now I think there is room for him to be that three-down player at the next level, but other teams might view him differently. There are moments where he looks more “track fast than football fast,” and his athletic ability bails him out when he is slow to read and react, but the athleticism he has is a solid foundation to fill out the rest as he develops. Although then you see that 40-yard dash time and you start to wonder… Conclusion: Rice is an experienced linebacker who can move well and is a sure tackler. Years ago that might have made him LB1, but now that might see him slide into Day Three of the draft. Still, there are worse starting points for a linebacker than athleticism and experience, and I think there are better days ahead of him if used as a blitzer on passing downs while the rest of his coverage game develops. Comparison: A few years ago the New England Patriots drafted Ja’Whaun Bentley out of Purdue, someone who looked like a pure two-down linebacker in the NFL. As New England fans soon found out, Bentley had more to offer as a blitzer and even in coverage, and the Patriots carved out roles for him where he could contribute. I think something similar could happen for Rice, who offers a lot at the start, and some room for growth.
11. Cameron McGrone, Michigan
(Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports)
Height: 6’0″ (14th) Weight: 234 (37th) 40-Yard Dash: N/A Bench Press: N/A Vertical Jump: N/A Broad Jump: N/A 3-Cone Drill: N/A 20-Yard Shuttle: N/A Bio: Cameron McGrone was one of the top linebacker prospects recruiting cycle. ESPN graded him as the ninth-overall player at his position, and a four-star prospect coming out of Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis, and he entertained offers from Cincinnati, Duke, Indiana, Iowa and Iowa State before settling on Michigan. He became a starter as a redshirt freshman in 2019 due to injuries, and played in 11 games recording 65 total tackles and 2.5 sacks. In the COVID-shortened season of 2020 he played in five games, recording 26 tackles and a half-sack. Stat to Know: According to Pro Football Focus McGrone had a missed tackle rate of 0.0% which…which seems pretty good. Strengths: McGrone is an athletic run-stopping linebacker who flows freely to the football and just finds ways to make plays. He is explosive when he pulls the trigger against the run, flying downhill to put his helmet on the football. he is a physical ‘backer who will take on blocks whether from fullbacks or offensive lineman. He can stack and shed or play the half-man against the run, always working to disengage and get to the ball-carrier. He can work through traffic as well, keeping his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage and his eyes scanning for his target. Against the pass, McGrone is plenty athletic. He can handle “fast 3s” and even “fast 4s” to the flat and match those routes, and his range shows up on film when teams tried to isolate him on vertical routes or wheel routes out of the backfield. He has good eyes and patience in zone coverage and he reacts well to throws in front of him. But the main thing is his range, and sometimes you just wonder — or put in your notes as I did on more than a few occasions — “how in the world did he get to this?” Weaknesses: McGrone is more developmental prospect than finished product. He appeared in just 17 games at Michigan and has a lot of room for growth. He can get baited by misdirection designs or caught looking at eye candy when in coverage, and sometimes he is slow to diagnose what is happening in front and he needs to rely on his athleticism to react and recover. Teams might need to use him as more of a blitzer/penetrator on passing downs, or in more man coverage, as he learns the finer parts of the coverage game. Conclusion: Still, when you get to this point of the draft finding a player with his athleticism and room for development is a nice find. McGrone’s ability to play against the run and his athleticism are solid building blocks, and if you define a role for him ether in man coverage or as a blitzer, you can see him contributing on all three downs early in his career. Comparison: Mike Renner of PFF went with Malik Jefferson, which makes a great deal of sense.