After putting out my top running back prospects on Tuesday, we will follow that up today with the linebackers – as we will jump back and forth between offense and defense until all these rankings are released.
First of all, this to me are primarily off-ball linebackers, meaning no true edge rushers or 3-4 outside linebackers, who I don’t expect to stand up a whole lot.
This group of off-ball backers might not have a big names after the top four, but they are all more athletic than I would have thought before I saw them perform at the combine and they are just absolute freaks at the top as well as a few likely day three selections.
We have one headliner, whose versatility will probably make him a top-ten pick, with two other likely first-round selections and another fringe guy, who played on the edge primarily in college. After that there is a lot of disagreements among the draft community and question marks for pretty much every prospect.
This is the list:
1. Isaiah Simmons, Clemson
Somehow just a three-star prospect despite being an all-state player in Kansas on both sides of the ball, Simmons started out as a back-up safety for the Tigers, with appearances in every as a freshman. In year two he led Clemson in tackles on their way to a nation title, while already displaying his tremendous versatility across Brett Venables’ defense. Last season he took his game to another level – 102 tackles, 16 of them for loss, eight sacks, three interceptions and nine pass break-ups. That earned him the Butkus award for the nation’s top linebacker, while also being a finalist for several other awards, being named ACC Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-American.
At 6’4”, 230 pounds, Simmons is an athletic freak, who just blew up the combine with a front-seven best 4.39 in the 40, an 11-foot broad jump and a 39-inch vert. Since those numbers started being archived in 2003, he is the only linebacker to hit those kind of marks. However, that athleticism is a part of what makes him a great prospect. While he was tagged as that SAM or star backer for the Tigers, he lined up all over the field. Last season Simmons spent at least 100 snap at inside and outside linebacker, either safety spot and nickelback, with the most (299) coming at inside backer. This guy is just a rare breed with the ability to blow up people as a MIKE backer as well as make plays outside the numbers as a deep middle safety. Wherever you line him up, he comes downhill against the run and usually is very dependable tackler. He was heavily utilized as an edge-setter for the Clemson D, but he also has the quick acceleration to track ball-carriers down from behind coming off the backside of zone run plays, where excels at transitioning his speed when bending his running track while reacting to the ball-carrier.
In addition to being a tough task in the box, Simmons also has the athletic tools to carry guys down the seams or run with them on deep corner and out routes, plus the length to reach around guys and disrupt them at the catch point. With his freakish, you can ask him to cover pretty much any area of the field, whether it’s half-field and deep middle responsibilities or most definitely sinking in a Tampa-2 style look. While he is very long-limbed a linebacker, Simmons has no problems changing directions. He has incredible closing speed, as he transitions for shuffling to coming upfield on underneath completions or shutting down scrambling quarterbacks, which will be a huge asset against some of these new-era mobile signal-callers. on 59 targets in coverage over the last two years, Simmons has given up just one touchdown, while intercepting four passes and taking one to the end-zone himself, plus last season he surrendered a passer rating of just 65.3 in coverage.
As good as the linebacker/safety hybrid was in coverage, he actually said he prefers to rush the passer on third downs and he was already a highly dangerous blitzer from the slot in college. Simmons is that kind of bendy, flexible athlete, who can work his way around blockers and somehow find a way through to the quarterback when being sent on a blitz. He also shows impeccable timing without committing offside penalties and when needed, he was already utilized as a QB spy at times. As a tackler he has some explosion in those hips to jolt ball-carriers backwards when he arrives at them, plus an innate ability to wrestle guys down even on weird angles and without being able to wrap up. You made a bunch of crucial shoe-string tackles for Clemson as well, including one in the fourth quarter of the semifinal versus Ohio State after picking off a pass earlier already.
However, with his speed, Simmons seems to overrun some plays, as he is eager to make the stop. Most NFL teams will feel like Simmons is not a natural fit at any spot of their defense and as a true linebacker people will want to devalue him, At this point, Simmons instincts as a run defender on the interior are somewhat lacking compared to other guys who have spent four years at those spots and he has very limited experience taking on and shedding offensive linemen.
However invests that high draft pick in Simmons should use him as a chess piece to maximize the payback of his versatile skill-set. While most NFL analysts and scouts will be looking for a comparison, I can’t really find one and I would not try to him slot into a traditional role. Let him play SAM in your base sets and then use him a variety of ways on passing downs, either giving them coverage duties in zone most linebackers would struggle with, blitzing him from different spots to keep the offense guessing or straight-up taking guys in the slot one-on-one that would present mismatches for most other defenders. While I hate using terms like this, Simmons actually is that type of once-in-a-lifetime prospect.
2. Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma
This former four-star recruit out of Texas quickly made I name for himself with the Sooners, being named a first-team All-Freshman and the Big XII Co-Defensive Player of the Year. Over these last two years he has been a tackling machine, putting up 257 combined take-downs, with 29.5 of them for loss and 9.5 sacks. He also deflected six passes and was the lightning bolt of an often struggling OU defense. This earned him second-team All-Big 12 and first-team all-conference respectively.
The first thing that stands out about Murray is the fact he plays with a ton of energy. He trusts his eyes and just goes where they take him. He will shoot gaps when things open up and plays the run in an unconventional way at times. He has that kind of natural feel for how to work his way around blockers in space and find creases to wiggle through and get his paws on the ball-carrier. Despite not being small at 6’2”, 235 pounds, he might not be able to shed offensive linemen at a high rate, but he will attack the chest of blockers, plus he is kind of sturdy and has very long arms he can use to keep distance between himself and the opponent. Murray also seems to have the type of frame that should allow him to still add some mass and not lose a lot of explosiveness. Murray can stop and re-accelerate as quick as anybody at the linebacker position, as he sorts through traffic.
Murray was asked to run downfield straight away and take away anything up the seams by the Sooners on a lot of snaps, but then he aggressively works his way back upfield without being made look silly by ball-carriers for the most part. When the Sooner backer sees the quarterback decide to run, he takes off like a rocket and quickly shuts things down. Overall negates a lot of angles towards to the edge and closes space in a heartbeat, plus then he finds ways to bring guys down, often lasso-ing and twisting them to the ground, leading to a low missed tackle rate. Murray will not slow down just because somebody puts his body in the way either and that relentless pursuit is highly impressive considering how much the Sooner defense is usually on the field thanks to their quick-scoring offense and bad overall D, which led to some ridiculous effort plays. You also saw him line up on the edge at times as well and run the arc with a better burst and lean than most pass rushers.
With that being said, the explosive linebacker gets too much on his toes at times and doesn’t stay balanced all the way. He will just completely give up his backside discipline and run all the way over the blocking action to make an impact on too many occasions. He needs to do a better job of working his way through reads more methodically, even if I like the instincts and aggressiveness in general,.And while he has the length and some jolt in his hands, his ability to deconstruct blocks is definitely not where is needs to be. Simmons is a little late with realizing who has the ball in his hands as well and as much as I like the upside in that area, according to PFF he surrendered a passer rating of 118.4 in coverage last season.
At the next level Murray is probably best suited as a WILL linebacker, who can run around and make plays. That’s what he is – a playmaker and a source of energy for the rest of your defense. You will have to reign him in a little to be a more assignment-sound defender instead of a clean-up specialist for a bad defense, but his skill-set fits what NFL evaluators are looking for really well and he doesn’t rely on his natural gifts – as good as they are with a 4.52 in the 40 and explosive leaping numbers – as his hustle stands above all of them.
3. Patrick Queen, LSU
A former four-star recruit and Warrick Dunn award finalist for the top high school player in the Baton Rouge area, Queen had to wait his turn to receive playing time for the always-talented Tigers. As a freshman he recorded just six total tackles and in year two it took an injury to Devin White for him to finally see the field more. Queen started four of the final five games and showed the coaches how dynamic of a player he can be. Last season he was a major contributor on LSU’s road to the National Championship. Queen recorded 85 tackles, 12 of them for loss, a pick and two PBUs, while earning Defensive MVP honors in the title game.
At 6’1”, 227 pounds Queen is slightly undersized for the position, but he plays with a lot of fire under his ass. As good as the two guys above him are, from sideline to sideline I’m not sure if there is anybody quite as spectacular when it comes to being able to basically run parallel to the line of scrimmage and somehow meeting the ball-carrier right at the white line. Queen scrapes over the top of blockers routinely without having to retreat and chases guys down from behind he just shouldn’t, considering where he lined up originally. He truly has that lightning speed to actually run around traffic on the interior and get behind it to take down the ball-carrier at times, plus he has an innate ability to turn his body different directions and somehow still make plays when he seems to be completely out of position. For as slight as Queen is built, I have seen him put a couple of pulling guards on their back when meeting them at full speed before they could even load up their punch and he doesn’t wait to meet lead-blockers behind the hole either.
In coverage he shows incredible range and was all over the field for the Tigers during their playoff run. Queen does a great job reading the eyes of the quarterback in zone coverage and has the ability to cover a ton of ground laterally as well as with fluid pedal to get down the seams. His one pick last season came against Tua Tagovailoa. Queen was asked to show blitz and then drop out to various spots for the Tigers, including at times almost playing as a robber safety on third-and-long. Moreover, he displays very loose and patient hips to mirror guys out of the backfield and will draw a lot of attention for his ability to cover dynamic backs one-on-one or even carry guys downfield on wheel routes. You see him actually run down wide receivers in full stride as well on tape.
Queen is like a blur on blitzes and side-steps a lot of backs trying to square him up. He makes some centers look absolutely foolish, as they try to slide in front of him and you see them desperately trying to grab him as he shoots through the A-gap. When Queen is closing in on quarterbacks as they scramble outside or whatever, he always seems to surprise them with how quickly he arrives there and he influences those throws immensely. As a tackler he really shoots those hips into contact and is capable of popping guys backwards despite being above his weight class.
However, he needs to do a better job of bring his arms with him as a tackler instead of going for the knockout hit sometimes and he would benefit from using lower pad level overall. Queen simply does not have the size or strength to take on blockers routinely and when is caught off guard with a lineman in his face, the play is basically over for him. He will have to be part of a defense with space-occupying defensive linemen to keep him free and allow him to beat blockers to the spot. With his style of play revolving heavily around speed, Queen is obviously prone to overrunning some plays and simply putting himself out of position, which is apparent in just one full season as a starter. He also needs to learn how to break down in space more and not leave his feet while lead the way with his helmet so much. Overall he missed 13 tackles on under 100 attempts last season.
As much as I disliked the type of light linebackers, who could not deal with blockers in tight spaces a few years ago, I have adjusted my evaluation process and I can value Queen’s ability to make plays in space and find alternative ways to get the job done. I think he shows enough violence when he comes downhill to survive in the NFL and with his 4.5 speed it is only up to his coaches to make him technically sound to do pretty much anything in coverage. His play-recognition should only improve with more reps.
4. Zack Baun, Wisconsin
Joining his home-state Badgers, Baun won the state’s title as Offensive Player of the Year as a dual-threat quarterback, but quickly transitioned to linebacker when he got to Madison. He appeared in just three games as a freshman backup and missed the entire 2017 season with a foot injury, but came back with a strong junior campaign. In 2019 he took his game to another level and become the leader of the Wisconsin defense. Baun put up 12.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss, a couple of forced fumbles and a pick-six, which earned him first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-American accolades.
While Baun has shown the ability to make plays sideline-to-sideline standing up for the Badgers at times, he primarily lined up on the edge for them. While you would like to see him play more assignment-base run defense with stacking and shedding at times, Baun can be elusive getting around blocks and going inside for the ball-carrier. He clearly was coached to follow wing-men on sift blocks or wrong-shoulder pulling linemen and he didn’t hesitate to throw his body around. He also has some experience off the line as the backside linebacker on zone plays, where he does a nice down shuffling along without opening his hips and creating cutback lanes, while also having the quick burst to flatten his angle as the ball-carrier crosses the line of scrimmage.
As an edge rusher, Baun some third-down snaps where his get-off basically puts him a full speed ahead of the rest of the D-line and that foot comes down before the tackle has finished his initial kick as well. He is primarily a speed-based pass rusher, but can also torque his upper body different ways to give tackles little area to grab and punches their hands down with a nice chop to complement it. He also flashes a devastating spin move to counter those speed rushes and makes tackles look bad with it. In coverage he looks pretty smooth dropping into hook and flat zones out of an in-line stance, according to PFF. Baun was the only edge rusher in the draft to drop into coverage on at least 100 snaps and he was the highest-graded in that regard as well. He had a great pick-six versus Michigan State, where the QB seemed surprised about him being in that spot
At the same time Baun has some issues to hold his ground against true power tackles and probably won’t survive as an edge-setter at the next level. On base downs he engages tackles too straight up and gets caught up with them in the process. He has to play with more power in his punch and better extension. Baundisplays some wasted movement off the snap in general. While you love some of the versatility some teams will question where they can use him in their scheme. Is he more like an Anthony Barr or Haason Reddick?
Even though it is tough to find a perfect fit for him, Baun has done everything very well and just a very good all-around football player. He will continue to be an interesting evaluation for where he will line up at the next level, but my guess is an off-the-ball linebacker who can operate in space and then come down to rush the passer on third downs. During Senior Bowl week Baun impressed with his jump off the ball as a pass-rusher, but he also made a few nice plays in coverage as well.
5. Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State
Just a two-star recruit who excelled at multiple sports back home in North Carolina, Davis-Gaither mostly was a back-up and special teams contributor through his first two years with the Mountaineers, before breaking out in 2018. He led his team in tackles (105) and pass-breakups (seven), but really took off as a senior. Last season he once hit the 100-tackle mark, with 14.5 of them for loss, five sacks, a pick and eight more passes broken up, which made him the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year. He was also part of an App State class that finished as one of the most successful in school history, going 54-12 with a perfect bowl game record and four straight conference titles.
A little undersized at 6’2”, just under 220 pounds, Davis-Gaither is a very loose and flexible athlete with quick-twitch muscles, who brings juice to a defense. He primarily played SAM linebacker for a 4-3 defense that used plenty of Over fronts with him lining up on the edge, where he showed efficient hand swipes and great burst to shut down any runs to the outside. The App State backer has a way of getting around pullers with a little dip of the shoulder and the ability to pivot back around to chop down the running back’s legs. He also has the speed to be lined up in the box and chase down bubble screens from a trips set. His acceleration is truly remarkable for a linebacker and you see him close distances in a heartbeat, with several snaps where he jumps on the ball-carrier’s back late.
Davis-Gaither was tasked with a lot of man-coverage duties against backs and tight-ends. In zone he quickly closes the distance against curls out in the flats or against backs catching a hook route over the middle. He was asked to key primarily on the receivers in spread sets, especially against stacks and trips. During coverage drills at the Senior Bowl, he was right there with the backs in one-on-ones and really stood out among a less dynamic linebacker group there. Davis-Gaither has the start-stop ability that you would like to see from a lot of running backs. You actually see him hesitate and then give a quick burst to get around offensive linemen as a stand-up blitzer as well as make tackles look back when he gives an inside counter coming off the edge. He knocked down several passes when his rush stalled and has influenced many others when he got into the QB’s face with his arms in the air.
On the other hand, I would like to see him be a little more violent when he has to take on blockers. I’m not sure how much he can bulk up and still play the same style either. His unwillingness and probably inability size-related to stack and shed blockers in favor of working their way around them don’t make him a fit for every scheme. Davis-Gaither also doesn’t have a ton of experience with gap responsibilities unless he was lined up on the edge and he will not rush the passer a whole lot at his size on the next level, which was a strong part of his game. On just over 100 tackles he missed 15 of them last season.
With his experience playing in space and fit multiple roles, Davis-Gaither projects very well as a linebacker on the next level, with WILL being the most logical one to me. He has that type of reactive athleticism and unique style of play that will be very intriguing to some teams and he will probably go much earlier than casual fans would expect – if they even know his name. He is my clear choice after that group of four that most people have in their top 50,
6. Malik Harrison, Ohio State
This young man was a top 50 national recruit as a quarterback in Columbus and while he wanted to play receiver for his hometown Buckeyes, the coaches moved him to defense. Harrison played in every single game his first two years on campus in a reserves role, before taking over in the middle as a junior. He was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection that season before making first-team all-conference in 2019 with a team-leading 75 tackles, 16.5 of those for loss, 4.5 sacks and four PBUs.
Harrison is big linebacker at around 6’3”, 245 pounds, but has pretty light feet, He plays at full speed ahead at all times, plus he is one of the few stand-up backers in this class that can actually punch at the chest of offensive linemen and disengage from them to make tackles. You see him even knock pulling linemen a couple of steps backwards at times when he meets them in the hole. However, Harrison also shows a quick burst to shoot through an open gap and chase guys down from behind when he is unblocked. He takes pretty good angles towards the sideline and is like a bear as a tackler, typically driving ball-carriers backwards and not letting them go, or straight up popping them backwards.
With the Buckeyes he was asked to cover in-line tight-ends and even number three receivers in trips sets quite a bit in man-coverage, where he showed a lot of physicality and mirrored them pretty well. I haven’t actually seen nor could I imagine seeing receivers pick Harrison for easy completions to a teammate. Harrison was heavily utilized around the line of scrimmage either blitzing straight up, delaying his rush and seeing if a lane opened up or just dropping out of it to take away any quick completions. He was also utilized a lot on crossdog blitzes as the primary and secondary looper. Spying quarterbacks was part of his job for the Buckeyes and he closed distances much faster than you would think.
With that being said, Harrison prematurely opens his hips to scrape over blockers in the run game and works too far over the top of some action, allowing easy cutback opportunities. He displays some stiffness in his lower body and doesn’t change direction exceptionally well. During Senior Bowl week, Harrison struggled a bit staying with those dynamic North RBs in one-on-ones, even if he redeemed himself without a great interception sinking down the seams in team drills. At the same time he wasn’t really asked to cover anything outside of shallow zones and still surrendered a passer rating of 122.1 in coverage.
Harrison’s most natural fit would probably be a true MIKE in a 4-3 scheme in the pros, but I could also see him excel on the strong-side with his physical style of play and Ohio State played him at all three spots through his career. While he will be mostly be utilized as a blitzer on passing downs early on, I think he can come in right away and contribute, while showing great effort on defense and special teams. At the combine I thought he erased some questions about his speed and quickness with a 4.63 in the 40 and the fastest time in the three-cone drill among LBs (6.83).
7. Joe Bachie, Michigan State
Coming into 2017, expectations were low for a Michigan State program that had gone 3-9 without a lot of bright spots the previous season, but the emergence of Brian Lewerke and Joe Bachie put Sparty right back in the Big-10 conversation. While the QB was pretty up-and-down throughout his career, Bachie’s strong play and leadership was a big reason for the defense holding opponents to 20 or less points in both ‘17 and ’18. In his three years as a starter for the Spartans, he recorded 274 total tackles, 28 of them for loss, seven sacks, five interceptions, 11 PBUs and four forced fumbles. He was named the team’s MVP in 2018 and was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection by league coaches despite missing five with a suspension for a positive PED test.
While being slightly undersized compared to other linebackers in the Big Ten at 6’2”, 230 pounds, Bachie is a highly instinctive and aggressive player, who turns into a maniac on the field. He is a tremendous run-blitzer and loves to shoot gaps aggressively to shut down the opposing ground attack. Despite giving up close to 100 pounds to some offensive guards, the way he attacks one shoulder of those guys and tries to go through it or weaves around them, he rarely gets driven backwards. Sometimes it seems like he is in the backfield so fast offensive linemen can’t even put hands on him and he lights up running backs after they just took the handoff. While he doesn’t mind sticking his face in the fan, Bachie has developed the ability to kind of make offensive linemen miss by stepping around and ripping through without giving up his gap integrity. Overall he just does an outstanding job sorting his way through traffic to get to the ball-carrier.
in the passing game Bachie does a good job keeping guys in front of him while pass concepts develop and then jumps on shallow crossers when his area is cleared. He has a good feel for when to sink against seam routes and does a nice job tracking the eyes of the quarterback in zone coverage overall. There might be no linebacker better at working around traffic and shutting down tunnel screens in this draft class. He made many impact plays in the pass game for Sparty, including a diving interception versus Michigan in the pouring rain as a freshman and a game-sealing pick versus Utah State in the 2018 season-opener. As a tackler, he puts his helmet on the ball and drives his legs through contact. Bachie has the grip strength to rip down ball-carriers out of his range and a talent for stripping the ball out of the hands of an opponent. He truly chases guys down sideline to sideline, displaying outstanding hustle as he runs guys down 20+ yards downfield when the ball is thrown over his head.
When Michigan State lined their MIKE backer up in a gap to blitz on third downs, he virtually didn’t have any success, mostly just locking horns with the guy in front of him. Bachie’s arms are pretty short and you see him lose vision on the backfield as he tries to take on a blocker because of it. Overall he is just not the most natural athlete and more of a try-hard player for the most part. Bachie does not project well for man-coverage duties against backs or tight-ends because of a lack of short-area quickness, as we didn’t see him asked to do that many times.
Bachie is probably best suited as a MIKE for a 3-4 defense who can be a thumper in the run game and get everybody around him in the right positions. He has someone limitations in coverage without much upside at shadowing guys in man, while not really making up for it as a primary blitzer on passing downs. However, he is an excellent communicator and sets the tone with the fire and hustle he plays with. Even if the Spartans weren’t a major player throughout his career, Bachie always played hard even when they got blown out and had some tremendous performances.
8. Jordyn Brooks, Texas Tech
A former three-star recruit, Brooks has been one of the bright spot on one of the worst defenses in the nation over his four years there. Texas Tech allowed an FBS-high 43.5 points his freshman season and over 30 in each of the other three. Still he was an all-conference selection each year and a second-team All-American as a senior, as he went off for 108 tackles, 20 of them for loss, three sacks and a couple of fumble recoveries. Overall he amassed 360 total take-downs as a Red Raider.
Brooks has good size at 6’1”, 240 pounds with very long arms. As part of that poor defense, the Red Raiders used some fronts that basically made it impossible for Brooks to look good at times, having him as the only guy in-between the tackles with three down-linemen in front of him, giving him no clear run fits. Brooks has the speed to shoot gaps and scrape over the top of traffic. He might be a great stack-and-shed backer, but you rarely see blockers get into his frame because he has his long arms extended. He also seems to be able to attack some keys like pulling guards and beats them to the spot to crush into their pads. He brings a lot of thump at initial contact when he can meet ball-carriers head-up, plus he does a nice job wrapping around and twisting down ball-carriers at their legs when he comes in at angle and rarely has guys slip out of his grasp.
In coverage Brooks displays pretty good mobility in his shuffle to execute spot-drops as well as the quick burst to drive on slant and pivot routes. He has experience chasing guys around all over the field in the wide-open Big XII and was challenged to make plays in open space. Brooks comes in red-hot as a blitzer and smacks plenty of running backs in the face. He displays excellent closing burst and pretty good change of direction to react to scrambling quarterbacks, influencing a lot of throws by getting into the QB’s face or chopping them down as they try to turn the corner. The Texas Tech standout was heavily utilized as a spy with delayed blitzing when a lane opened up.
On the flipside, Brooks doesn’t have a particularly great combination of vision on the back-field and feel for blockers, as you see him step around and spin off guys without much control. While you can’t really punish him for it, the fact you didn’t see Brooks have to play with a lot of gap integrity and be more of a see ball-get ball type player creates a big question mark. He doesn’t show much of a plan to defeat blockers as a blitzer if he can’t just run past them. While all the tools seem to be there, he hasn’t shown a lot in true coverage and when he did drop back, his awareness for receivers around him looked sub-par.
A fluid, fast linebacker who triggers quickly and pursues the football with a passion is something every team wants, but with Brooks you have to project a lot of his play to a league where everybody can run and he needs to be able to play a more disciplined brand of football. If you can turn him into a reliable run defender on base downs, he could immediately have three-down value with his ability to run or win as a blitzer on third downs.
9. Troy Dye, Oregon
Only a three-star recruit out of California, Dye has been an actual star for the Ducks ever since he first arrived in Eugene. He put up 90+ tackles for three straight years and was one of only two player in the FBS to lead his team in that category over that stretch. Last season he “only” had 84, but put up a career-high in plays on the ball. Overall these are numbers he collected through his four years with the Ducks – almost 400 tackles, 41.5 of them for loss, 13 sacks, 13.0, five interceptions, 14 pass-breakups and four fumbles forced. Dye was a Freshman All-American and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in each of the last three seasons.
Dye lacks some mass at 225 pounds, but doesn’t mind throwing his body around in the run game and is pretty good at disengaging from contact by using his hands when he sees things in front of him thanks to his length at 6’4”. He plays with a bounce to his step and great acceleration once that switch flips. On outside-aiming runs, he does a very nice job of ripping through the arms of the blocker and creating an angle towards the ball for himself. Dye also bumps his shoulder into some guys to stay clean and forces the guy with the ball to make a move. He showed off his toughness last season, when playing with a broken thump for a bunch of games. While not the most effective, Dye is a relentless blitzer. Several times he shot up the A-gap at full speed and tried to make a play even whilst his feet were off the ground due to cut blocks at times. I have seen some moves to avoid offensive linemen that almost look like a dead-leg a running back would use. Plus, when the quarterback finds a lane to escape, the Oregon LB will not stop chasing this guy around
In zone coverage, Dye quickly pulls the trigger once he sees the ball come out and is doesn’t miss a lot of tackles where he drive on receivers. At the same time he has the speed to run down the middle of the field with tight-ends or backs and knock down passes. You see him not only read the eyes of the quarterback, but also realizing when inside receivers try to get behind him on some type of crossing route, which he responds to by fulling turning his head downfield and finding that guy to break up the pass. He contests some balls that seem out of reach for him and was moved out to the slot on some third-and-long plays, where he got very physical with the receivers. A great PBU versus Washington stood out, where he stepped up against the run-fake and then still disrupted the catch point 15 yards downfield.
While he does not act like the smaller guy in most collision, there are times where Dye is forced to settle for drag-tackles. Way too often guys spin off him and fall forward for another couple of yards or he just ends up empty-handed as he tries to clamp down on the ball-carrier, resulting in several conversions instead of being short of the line to gain. Dye needs to work on thrusting his arms upwards from his hips instead of trying to get them around opponents as a tackler. He gets caught up in traffic a little too much and loses sight of the ball at times, as well as misjudging angles when aiming at somebody on the edge. At this point he is more about seeing and chasing rather than diagnosing plays and he missed 30 tackles over the last two years.
While I don’t love the body type or ability to play at a more prototype weight for linebackers, the tape is strong and suggests his skill-set should translate to the next level very well. I think Dye would have benefitted from coming out last year already, after what I thought was his best collegiate season. While he is similarly undersized to guys like Queen and Murray, the Oregon backer doesn’t quite have the juice those two guys do. He might have to earn playing time with his high-motor as a special teamer whilst developing his ability to read offenses, but that club on his hand might have been what forced to be a more conservative tackler last season.
T.-10. David Woodward, Utah State
Joining the Aggies as the All-Olympia (Washington) Player of the Year as a senior running back and two-star recruit, Woodward quickly made an impact for his college team, making some plays as a backup in year one. As a sophomore he led the Mountain in total tackles (134), including 12.5 TFLs and five sacks. Last year Woodward was a first-team all-conference selection despite appearing in just seven games due to injury, as he still somehow managed to record almost triple-digit tackles and forced four fumbles, in addition to scooping one of them up for a touchdown himself.
As a run defender, Woodward is very patient with reading the action and the ball-carriers movement behind the line, but then also has the quick burst to beat a bunch of offensive linemen to the spot and create negative plays when a key triggers him. At 6’2”, 235 pounds, he has good length and can throw blockers off himself or knock their arms down to make the tackle. The Utah State backer can almost bend around blocks as he scrapes over the top and not let those guys hold him up. He is kind of slippery that way. That also shows up when he lights up some receivers on tunnel screens. Woodward shut down plenty of read-option plays with delayed handoffs, when he basically took away both guys by himself at times. He doesn’t allow ball-carrier to get out of his grasp many times, twisting and turning them to the ground, plus he pursues the ball all over the field and punches at it quite a bit when tracking guys down from behind.
Woodward’s sudden acceleration also allows him get back on the hip of crossers or shoot past blockers in the screen game. He is quick to jump on stick and out-routes with the length to get his hand on the ball. He was lined up over number three receivers on the trips side quite a bit and was also moved out wide to cover backs against empty sets. In 2018 the Utah State backer allowed a passer rating of just 56.6 and a lackluster 4.6 yards per reception in coverage. He does a nice job avoiding the back in protection when brought as a blitzer, side-stepping and swiping past him. He had a couple of strip-sacks in the 2019 season opener against Wake Forest, with one of them ending in a touchdown, as the ball landed right in his hands and he took it the last few yards. Woodward’s length also bothers QBs when he gets into their vision.
However, he is pretty high-hipped and long-limbed for the position, which limits his ability to change directions. I don’t really see him cover quicker backs one-on-one at the next level because of that. Woodward doesn’t seem to have great lateral agility to square up ball-carriers in space. Also, if he doesn’t come downhill and he has an offensive lineman climb up to him, he can get caught up in traffic and shielded from the ball-carrier. That passer rating he allowed increased to 93.1 in coverage last season. With bad athletic testing numbers (4.79 in the 40) and some medical red flags due to multiple concussions and an undisclosed injury that knocked him out of 2019.
With that being said, Woodward has been an outstanding college player over these last two season, with a knack for creating negative plays and forcing turnovers. On 1267 total snaps over that two-year stretch he missed just 13 tackles and his combination of instincts and awareness will carry over to the next level, even if he has to prove his toughness and effort on special teams first.
T.-10. Evan Weaver, California
These last two year Weaver has put up ridiculous numbers, He had a Pac-12-leading 74 defensive stops in 2018 and was close to leading the FBS overall with 155 total tackles. He also threw in 4.5 sacks, six passes knocked down and another two of them intercepted, with one of going to the house. Not only was he a first-team All-American selection in consecutive years now, in 2019 he was also named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year with 181(!) tackles, 11.5 of them for loss and a couple of fumbles forced.
When you watch Weaver play there is no doubt how he put up those kind of absurd tackling numbers. If he sees things develop in front of him, he is very good at keeping offensive linemen away from his body and staying in position to take down the ball-carrier. At the same time, when he the 6’3”, 235-pound backer is unblocked, he has this way of working way around his teammates who are engaged with opponents and keeping vision on the ball to limit yardage. Weaver was also heavily utilized as a run blitzer, where he does a good job of swiping away the hands of the blocker and creating chaos in the backfield. Often times he shot through a gap and then pivoted back to run down the line of scrimmage with the play going away from him, almost like an edge rushers flattening to the quarterback.
In zone coverage, he does an excellent job reading the eyes and body-language of the quarterback. Then he is quick to pull the trigger and he arrives there with some attitude, including using punches at the ball when the opportunity arises. Weaver disrupts a lot of the timing in the pass games by knocking crossers off their route and he takes away some hook and stick routes in his area. In addition to his play in coverage, there might have been no player in the country better at anticipating snap counts and timing up his blitzes. In some spots he arrived there so quickly that the back could not even step in front of his quarterback quite yet. He was also used looping around the edge from a stack position a lot of times. Weaver is Great hustle player, as the type of guy who will jump on piles late or you see fall down and pop right back up to continue chasing the ball-carrier. As a tackler he shows a large radius, clutching the legs of the ball-carrier and twisting them to the ground most of the time.
Before we talk about anything, this guy simply isn’t a great, explosive athlete. When Weaver does allow blockers to get into his body, he is not nearly as physical as I would like him to be, getting pushed around and failing to disengage for the most part, even by some tight-ends. With the amount of drag-tackles five plus plays yards downfield by Weaver are similar to the ones Washington’s Ben Burr-Kirven had coming into last year’s draft, which make those totals a little less impressive. You rarely see the Cal backer pop guys straight back in the hole and mostly they earn a couple of extra yards just falling forward. There are also no man-coverage reps I can really find on tape and some teams might see him as more of a two-down linebacker. For as many tackles as Weaver put up in these last two years, he has also missed 31 over that stretch.
Weaver is that kind of athletically limited, try.hard kind of player, who the NFL doesn’t value, but usually sees the field sooner than their draft position might suggest, since he just knows how to play. He is an effective run-defender and reads his keys exceptionally well in zone coverage, even if you probably won’t ask him to man up against anybody at a high rate. If a team can hide some of those limitations and utilize as a blitzer on passing downs, he could carve out a nice career for himself.
Just missed the cut:
Logan Wilson, Wyoming
It didn’t take long for Wilson to make an impact with the Cowboys, after being recruited as a TE out of high school, as he was named Mountain West Freshman of the Year. Throughout his collegiate career he became more of a vocal leader and the guy everybody looked up to at Wyoming, finished with a first-team All-Mountain West selection in 2019, Wilson wraps up his career as fourth in school history with 421 tackles, 35.5 of them for loss and also intercepted ten passes.
The 6’2”, 240 pound standout played MIKE for a 4-3 defense with their D-line in 3 and 1 alignments. He plays with a high level of instincts and football IQ. Wilson keeps excellent extension and vision through the blocker in the run game. I’ve seen this guy put offensive linemen flat on their back. At the same time he is too fast for a lot of offensive linemen and he beats them to the spot in the process. On the backside of zone run plays he tags on tight to the last man at the line. During Senior Bowl week, Wilson did a nice job sorting through the trash on run plays and displayed good closing speed, improving every day.
In zone coverage, Wilson keeps his eyes locked on the quarterback while also showing good awareness for receivers around him and getting plenty of depth in his drop. He has enough speed to erase throws down the seam and quickly transitions forward out of his pedal in zone coverage. You see him shut down quite a few screens that way by attacking upfield before somebody can put a hand on him. He made an unbelievable play versus Texas State last year when he came up against the scrambling quarterback and whilst somebody tried to push him past the QB, he reached out, stripped the ball out and had it pop right into his hands to return it for a touchdown.
Unfortunately, Wilson leaves his feet a little too much as a tackler for my taste instead of wrapping and driving. You rarely see him square up a ball-carrier in the hole and knock him backwards, allowing some yardage after contact. Overall he just wasn’t asked to do much in coverage in terms of matching receivers in zone or picking up guys one-on-one.
A very solid small-school prospect, Wilson might not be an out-of-the-world athlete, but he is plenty good enough to intrigue NFL scouts. Over these last three years he has been highly productive for the Cowboys and his combination of processing skills and short-area burst is excellent.
Shaquille Quarterman, Miami
A legend in the Orange Park area in Miami, the Hurricanes did not allow this four-star recruit to leave the area. In four years with “the U”, Quarterman has recorded a combined 356 tackles, with 46.5 of those for loss, 12 sacks, 13 passes defensed and five fumble recoveries. He was a first-team All-ACC selection as a senior, when he put up career-highs in several categories, while leading the Hurricanes in tackles (107), TFLs (15.5) and pass-deflections (five).
Quarterman is 6’1”, 240 pounds with a thick, dense build. He stepped right in as a freshman as the leader of the Hurricane defense and has been the heart of this unit ever since. He plays the run aggressively and consistently keeps moving forward. When Quarterman runs into a blocker, he delivers the shot. I have seen him knock guards straight on their butt, once he sees the hole open up, plus he can blow up guys in the hole in a devastating fashion with tremendous hitting power. At the same time he works his way down the line laterally pretty well against zone run schemes.
The big LB can light up people over the middle, but can also sink deep and make plays in coverage. He showcases excellent play recognition and football IQ, picking up tight-ends coming across the formation and guys out of the backfield off play-action and stays attached to them to take away the easy underneath completion. At East-West Shrine practices he actually really surprised me with the work he did against the backs in one-on-ones, not overreacting to routes and showing pretty good closing burst. He had two outstanding reps back-to-back on day two, carrying one back on a seam route and then knocking down the ball on an angle route.
However, Quarterman lacks some lateral agility that leads him to miss a few tackles on guys who are one step away from him and Shaq fails to redirect and wrap up. He doesn’t have the pure speed to catch guys on the edges on jet-sweeps and reverses or run with guys down the seams. While he can be trusted with some shallow zone duties and punishes receivers coming into his area, this is probably his main value on passing downs at the next level, as he surrendered a passer rating North of 100 in coverage this past season.
Quarterman old-school linebacker, who is at best at moving straight ahead and playing with some violence. He is not an overly mobile athlete and his speed is not comparable to some of the guys at the top of the board, but he is somebody who will immediately upgrade your run defense, even if he won’t play too much third downs, unless you can get him involved as a blitzer in an effective way.
Right behind them:
Willie Gay Jr. (Mississippi State), Cameron Brown (Penn State), Mykal Walker (Fresno State), Justin Strnad (Wake Forest), Khaleke Hudson (Michigan)
For more coverage around the NFL and college football go to halilsrealfootballtalk.com