Continuing our series of the top ten prospects at each position in the draft – we already broke down the best available running backs earlier this week, so now it’s time look at their defensive counterparts. Once again, I evaluated the talent on the field and how I think these players project to the next level, without consideration of injuries and off-the-field concerns that may be hurt these names when NFL front offices make their decisions come late April.
In this edition, we are looking at the linebacker position, which I categorize as all off-ball second level defenders. So this won’t include edge rushers, like 3-4 outside backers, even though some of them may have been used as that to some degree. This class might not be very deep necessarily, but in terms of this top ten in particular, it might actually be an underrated one.
Here is how I have these names stacked up:
1. Micah Parsons, Penn State
6’2”, 245 pounds; RS SO
A top five overall recruit as a defensive end, head coach James Franklin told Parsons that he would play middle linebacker and despite starting only one game, he still became the first true freshman to lead the Nittany Lions in total tackles (82 – with four for loss). In year two he was just making plays all over the field and became the first linebacker for Penn State to be named a first-team All-American selection since LaVarr Arrington, putting together 109 total tackles, 14 of them for loss, five sacks, five passes broken up and four fumbles forced. He opted out of the 2020 season to prepare for the NFL draft.
Parsons primarily lined up on the weak-side of a 4-3 Over front in 2019, when he recorded a nation-best 94.8 run-defense grade by Pro Football Focus, as a fast-flowing second-level player. You constantly see him shoot the gap and dip underneath the blocker, combined with a rip-through on the front-side of zone runs, to force the cutback, while having the flexibility to square his shoulders again or redirect against the original direction, when the back puts his foot in the ground. He has the physical ability to back-door blockers and even when a guard has good position on him to pin him inside, Parsons can still rip through the arms of the blocker and work across his face to chase after the play. The start-stop ability and the way he can run guys down towards the sideline is phenomenal. He has plenty of experience with contain responsibilities on the edge or off the ball, when shaded outside, and he man-handles tight-ends in the run game. Parsons was one of only two linebackers in the FBS in 2019 with 75+ tackles and less than ten misses and he’s only missed 11 of his 188 career attempts overall. In particular, he was all over the field in the Cotton Bowl versus Memphis (his final college game) with 14 tackles, a couple of passes broken up as well as two sacks and fumbles forced each, including a strip-six off a crossdog blitz, which directly led to a defensive touchdown.
This guy is a flash as a blitzer, where if you give him a clear lane off a game that you run up front or he’s not picked up right away, he will get to the quarterback in a hurry. In particular, Parsons is a nightmare on cross-blitzes, as the secondary guy because of how quickly he’ll arrive at the QB. Penn State put him as an extra guy on the outside of the line quite a bit and some teams may ask him to play on the edge in their scheme, where he displays the skill-set to be that kind of hybrid player on passing downs, thanks to his burst and strong hand-swipes. On his 94 pass rush attempts as a true sophomore, he came up with 26 pressures and those five sacks. And while he wasn’t asked to cover a whole lot altogether, because of what he did as a spy and rusher, he did end up being targeted 64 times and didn’t allow a single touchdown on any of them, with four incompletions forced and five stops in coverage. The quickness and sudden bursts are certainly there to defend backs on option routes and stuff like that.
However, he did he only spend 64 snaps in man-coverage in 2019. His block deconstruction is still a work in progress and he is more of a see-ball, get-ball player at this stage of his football career. He gets his eyes caught up with what’s happening in the backfield a little too much, with H-backs on sift blocks making him hesitate and he tends to work too much vertically when flowing with zone runs, which restricts his ability to gain depth when he realizes it’s play-action. And I would like to see him get deeper on his drops altogether, because he missed a lot of opportunities to make plays on the ball because of it I felt like, but he’s just the smoothest at going backwards. At Penn State, he had a lot of freedom to just keep going and turn into an add-on rusher, when he realized it wasn’t a run play. While he does have plenty of production as a pass-rusher, when offensive linemen get their hands on him quickly, Parsons gets hung up quite a bit.
Still, he looked like a top ten lock until early this year, when there was all this talk about what kind of guy he is off the field and how he treated teammates. I just don’t have enough information to comment on that, but of course when you draft a guy in the first round, those questions have to be answered. Purely football-related – to me Parsons is best suited to stay in that role as a WILL or maybe transition to the strong-side in more of an on-ball role. If you want to make most of his skill-set, you should utilize his ability as a pass-rusher, especially since I’m not sure what you can ask from him in coverage. I think he could have issues to decipher everything from MIKE with NFL speed, but he has the size, speed and quickness to be a game-changer at that second level.
2. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame
6’1”, 215 pounds; RS JR
This former three-star safety recruit didn’t get off to a great start in his collegiate career, spending his first year on the practice squad and then missing all but two games of his debut campaign with a broken foot. Since then he has been one of the most versatile and dynamic playmakers on the defensive side of the ball however for the Fighting Irish. In 25 total games these past two seasons, he has combined for 162 total tackles, with 96 of them solo and 24.5 for loss, seven sacks, seven PBUs, an interception, five fumbles forced and four more recovered, of which he took one back to the house against Clemson in their first meeting last season. For that he earned the triple-crown of ACC Defensive Player of the Year, unanimous All-American and the Butkus award for the top linebacker in the country.
The guy often referred to as JOK presents a slim build with more of a safety skill-set, but he is freakishly athletic. He played that ROVER spot or field-side OLB for the Irish, who depending on the formation set would basically be a big nickel or stack over the guard, when the offense put the formation into the boundary. Owusu-Koramoah routinely flashed on tape when I watched the Notre Dame edge rushers and safeties for the 2020 draft. Man, this guy can run and he is a true joker for this Notre Dame defense. He shows up around the ball constantly and even though his frame wouldn’t suggest it, he is an incredible run-defender. I’m not sot sure if I’ve ever seen a linebacker with a more rapid shuffle, as he works laterally, but he is also not afraid to shoot the gap and takes great angles towards the sideline against outside stuff. JOK has the quickness to side-step and almost jump-cut around linemen working up to him at times. And he is so dynamic at going underneath a blocker trying to cut him off by dipping under and not really losing any speed to work horizontally. He has the speed to shuffle a couple of steps with the run and then still chase down the receiver catching the ball on an RPO bubble on the backside, if that guy just makes one cut back inside. And when somebody does try to put to hands on him, he really fights through the reach.
In the pass game, he is so loose at pedaling backwards in zone coverage and he is actually pretty physical dropping out and knocking receivers off balance, as they try to cut underneath him. He has the speed to carry not just tight-ends, but some of the fastest receivers down the middle of the field and that ability to get back in the picture and knock the ball down is incredible. You see quarterbacks looking to hit seam routes his way, but decide to check it down instead quite a bit, because of the way he can carry vertically. The athletic phenom had this one rep against Boston College in 2020, where he turned and ran with their fastest receiver on a slot fade and even though the ball was slightly underthrown, the closing burst to get a hand on that ball just blew me away. Forget about throwing any flat or leak-out routes to your tight-end, when he is in man-coverage against them. You see plays where a slot receiver may have that leverage on an out route, but Owusu-Koramoah shoots back into perfect position as they break towards the sideline or go through the recipient on slants, plus when receivers reach for the ball, he consistently rakes through their hands to knock it out. Because it was such a big part of his role with the Irish as that flat or hash defender, JOK has a super-quick trigger against screen passes and his quickness allows him to get around bodies with ease, to make those big hits in the backfield. This guy is like a blur as a blitzer and can make an impact even when coming off the slot, where he has a lot of wiggle to him, to get around the back. So the time to throw it is very limited, if you don’t have a plan for him in your protection scheme.
However, that lack of size doesn’t come without any negatives. When bigger bodies get into his frame, JOK has a tough time of getting away from them, and I’ve even seen him get shielded by slot receivers on too many occasions. USC’s Amon-Ra St. Brown comes to mind, who should not be able to hold up any linebacker for too long considering his slender frame. Owusu-Koramoah leaves his feet a little too much as a tackler and had ten misses in each of the last two years. You can argue his role at the Notre Dame doesn’t get valued as highly in the pros, because nickel corners get drafted on day three every year and in certain schemes, where he is not “protected” by the D-line, allowing big bodies to directly climb up to him, this could give him trouble. Yet, if he adds some mass to his frame, we don’t know how that influence his movement skills, which are the most intriguing thing about him.
With that being said, I believe if used correctly and maximizing his strengths, JOK can be a special player at the next level. If you put him at WILL with a lot Under fronts in a 4-3 for example and then make him your dime backer on passing downs, where he can sink deep over the middle if there is a threat way, plus you utilize him as a blitzer from different angles, he can be Defensive Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowl player for many years. However, if you ask him to take on blocks as a box-defender and not use his movement in space accordingly, you are not allowing him to bring out that potential.
3. Zaven Collins, Tulsa
6’4”, 260 pounds; RS JR
Once outside the top 2000 overall recruits, Collins redshirted his first year with Tulsa and then was a very good player already as a two-year starter in the AAC. However, he saw a meteoric rise in 2020, as the heart of a very good Hurricane defense, when in eight games he recorded 54 tackles, 7.5 of them for loss, four sacks, two forced fumbles and four interceptions, of which he took two back to the house. For that, he was named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, a unanimous All-American and the winner of the Nagurski, Bednarik and Lombardi awards, which the first two basically both go to the top defensive player in the country and the latter one to the best player regardless of position.
Collins has a well filled-out frame and primarily lined up as a stack WILL backer behind a three-down front. He displays a quick trigger in the run game, trusting what his eyes show him and instantly reacting to pulling linemen. Unlike most modern linebackers, he has the strong base to hold his ground against guard climbing up to him, with some strike in his hands to make the pads of big linemen pop back and he usually keeps them at extension, to where the ball-carrier runs into the blocker’s back at times. And you actually see him shove pulling guards to the side at times and wrap up the ball-carrier. Centers have almost no shot of sealing him off and even when linemen find a way engage with him as they climb up, they rarely get inside his chest and he finds ways to disengage. He does a good job of leveraging the ball, when he is responsible for C-gap out, and he is like a grizzly to get away from when he wraps up ball-carriers. He has the thunder behind his pads to deliver those splash hits, but he has become a more reliable tacklers every season, making a ton of ankle tackles, when he can’t get a clear shot on the guy with the rock. And his pursuit speed at 260 pounds is just absurd. A guy his size should not be able to run through the backside A-gap on wide zone runs and still chase the running back down from behind. But it’s also just him blowing up tunnel screen when lined up in-between the tackles or banging somebody out of bounds at the opposite side of the field.
In pass coverage, Collins was primarily responsible for the shallow zones, either on hook drops or covering the flats when lined up outside the tackle. Last season I thought he looked much lighter on his feet, not only to track down ball-carriers on speed sweeps and things like that, but also his ability to move backwards and laterally in space. He shows good bounce to his step when he has a running back approaching him and trying to read his leverage to break either way. Two years ago in the Oklahoma State in game, Collins brought down RB Chuba Hubbard for a 10-yard loss on a screen play on a third-and-long. In 2019 he was used more as an edge defender and still offers that skill-set on passing downs, where he displays a natural feel for using his hands on a well-timed chop-rip, combined with the ability to corner off that inside foot. Yet, he was equally effective rushing up the middle and coming on plenty of delayed blitzes if a lane opens up. Collins was the only linebacker to earn a PFF grade of at least 90 rushing the passer and in coverage last season. He had so many huge, clutch plays for the Hurricanes, whether it was a game-winning pick-six in overtime versus Tulsa, a game-sealing INT against SMU or an incredible TFL that resulted in a safety on a zone run play against UCF, which was part of their upset victory down in Florida.
Collins isn’t the easiest projection to the NFL, because Tulsa played a lot of Oki front, with three down-linemen and the ends in 4i alignments, where he really only read A-gap to C, if something gets out to the edges. You see him overrun his fits at times and allows cutbacks in the process. And while he graded out, he did a lot of simple spot drops in coverage, not being asked to carry anybody down the seams. When he comes off the edge, he aims at the wrong hip and lets quarterbacks escape to the outside on too many occasions, and I wouldn’t say he contributes as much in that regard yet to be out there over true schooled pass-rushers. So there’s the possibility of him being one of those guys, who have trouble sticking in one spot as a tweener between on-ball and stand-up backer.
With that being said, I think this is one of the cases, where you can’t overthink it. It’s hard to find a linebacker, who is built for the modern NFL in terms of the athletic skill-set at 260 pounds. He can make an impact shooting gaps or being a stack-and-shed run defender, he could take on a versatile role as a pressure player and while his responsibilities in coverage were very limited, he had major production in that area this past season, which you can build on.
4. Jabril Cox, LSU
6’3”, 235 pounds; RS SR
Once outside the top 3000 as a two-star recruit, Cox was an impact as soon as he stepped onto the field for North Dakota State, following a redshirt year, being named the Missouri Valley Football Conference Freshman of the Year and then first-team all-conference as well as second-team FCS All-American the next two years. Over his career with the Bison, he not only won three FCS national titles, but also amassed 258 tackles, 32 of them for loss and 14 sacks, to go with six INTs and two defensive scores. Cox transferred to Baton Rouge in 2020, where in ten games he recorded 58 total tackles, 6.5 of them for loss, three PBUs and three INTs, including a pick-six in season-opener against Mississippi State.
Cox isn’t just fast for a linebacker, but he actually chases down fast receivers in the SEC, to legitimize what he showed versus FCS competition before. He has the range to make plays all over the field. Cox is tough to put a hand on in the box, where he can shoot gaps with sudden movements, combined with the dip and rip like a pass-rusher almost. He consistently beats pulling linemen to the spot and he has the speed to scrape over the top of the blocking and chase guys out of bounds coming over from the backside. When he is lined up in the slot, you can get forget about stalk-blocking him. He’s collected several TFLs in his career, where he is goes underneath a receiver, shoots into the backfield and bends his path back laterally, to trip up the ball-carrier. However, when he is put outside the box and reads inside runs, he stays patient, to not let the ball get around the edge, while having the burst to make tackles before the second level is cleared. And you see him defend both guys on speed options at times, where he has the quick change of direction, to kind of play in-between them and still be able to wrap up once they commit.
He has no issues picking up slot receivers on shallow crossers and running with them stride for stride, But he is also so fluid in flipping his hips and run with guys down the seams. His ability to carry receivers vertically is highly impressive, whether it’s turning with guys in match zone or manning up against the number three in trips. He does an excellent job finding targets in space and adjusting his drops in zone accordingly, while having a good balance in toggling his eyes between the quarterback and his receivers. And I think he could soon be elite in man-coverage on backs and tight-ends. Cox had that highly impressive pick-six against Mississippi State last season, where he opened with the number three in a trips set and got beat across his face it seemed like, but was back in the hip-pocket a split second later and took it away. And he has that ability to work over the top of picks and quickly erase RAC opportunities by closing the space. However, he can also be very dangerous as a blitzer. At NDSU, you saw him line up over slot receivers and then rush the QB from there, arriving there in a heartbeat. Go back to the Northern Iowa game in 2019, where he put a couple of huge hits on quarterback, where he timed up the snap perfectly and came through unblocked. Something else that is pretty impressive is that he wasn’t flagged once all of last season.
In general, Cox uses his length and quickness well to avoid contact with blockers, but when he’s just lined up in stack and has those big bodies get into his frame, he has problems disengaging and playing through contact. Therefore you see him caught in the trash on a few occasions. In coverage, because of how aggressively he jumps crossers, cox might get punished on pivot or whip routes. And as a blitzer, when he is actually accounted for, he gets pretty hung up with contact and still needs to show more of a plan in defeating the hands of blockers.
While I do think there is a big three at the linebacker position, where all of them could easily go in the first round, there’s five to seven more names that all could be impact starters early on. Cox is my favorite among the bunch, because of well he projects as a run-and-chase defender, his ability to elude blockers in space and how well he projects as a coverage piece. He really is your modern-day linebacker, who can get a TFL shooting the backside B-gap one snap and then cover a big slot the very next.
5. Jamin Davis, Kentucky
6’4”, 230 pounds; RS JR
Barely a top-1000 recruit back in 2017, Davis got an interception in each of his first two years with the Wildcats, seeing action in every game as a backup and once as a starter. Last season, he made first-string and outside of one game missed due to COVID, was an impact player for UK in every contest. He recorded just over 100 tackles, four of them for loss, 1.5 sacks, three interceptions, including one taken back to the house, a fumble forced and recovered each.
Davis primarily was used as the Wildcats’ SAM linebacker, either on the edge of the box or over the number three receiver in trips. This guy just has a way of avoiding bocks in space, with very innate feel and suddenness to avoid getting hung up with contact, whether it’s slipping underneath or working across the face, combined with swiping down with his hands of the blocker, showing lateral agility that is just off the charts. And not only is he slippery, but also just fast through the hole, when something opens up to shoot through, which makes him a dangerous run-blitzer. On the backside of zone schemes, he stays patient for cutbacks, but also has the athleticism as a scraper, to work over the top of traffic. And you see the flat-out burners to chase down running backs and even receivers from the backside 30-40 yards downfield. Davis plays under excellent control and is quicker than pretty much anybody else in tight spaces, with a natural feel and understanding for the subtleties of the linebacker position. And since you rarely see anybody be able to actually square him up, when he is flexed out wide with them, he can set the edge versus any outside runs, without giving the ball-carrier a run-way to build up momentum.
As sudden as Davis is with bodies around him, he is also such a natural mover in space. He stays low and is very smooth in his pedal, while keeping his eyes on the quarterbacks throughout plays in zone coverage. And what I appreciate about him in that facet is his understanding for down and distance, not just racing up against underneath shallow crossers on third-and-long, but getting proper depth and then coming upfield, where he is an outstanding open-field tackler against backs catching check-downs or when the quarterback decides to take off. On 150 career attempts, he had only 11 total missed tackles, with an even lower rate last season in particular (7.3%). Plus, then of course, he has the speed to shut down any quick leaks or swings into the flats, when lined up in the box. I feel very comfortable about putting him in man-coverage flexed out, because of the way I’ve seen him carry slot receivers and tight-ends down the seams. One more thing – with everything I just described, he is an absolute nightmare to put hands on in the screen game.
Yet, with all that being said, I think Davis at times is too conservative when teams run right at him, where you see his first steps actually go backwards. With his lanky frame, he won’t necessarily set the tone when he is met head-on with linemen climbing up to him or make straight tackles against big backs. He also doesn’t necessarily chase his ass off all the time, starting to slow down or jog, when he sees his teammates have the ball-carrier corralled pretty well. While his skill-set would indicate that he can be a very effective blitzer, he has very little experience and tape doing so. And we don’t know the exact coaching points he’s given, but at times I’d like him to find the closest target in coverage and transition to man late, because you see catches being made around him, as receivers curl up, when nobody else is really around.
Davis has only 837 career snaps on defense and according to PFF, he actually spent just 26 snaps in man-coverage last season. However, while you would think his length may give him some trouble changing directions, there is nothing on tape that would suggest that’s the case. Davis can literally play big nickel on first down and then slide inside to MIKE, to take away backs or the quarterback one-on-one on third downs. With his innate feel for eluding blocks and the ground he can cover, he was a really fun watch.
6. Baron Browning, Ohio State
6’3”, 240 pounds; SR
Browning is a former five-star recruit, who was generally looked at as the top outside linebacker and on the fringe of being top ten overall. He quickly got a role in the rotation for Ohio State and started three games in year two. His junior season was when he really broke out, recording 43 total tackles, 11 of those for loss and five sacks. Last year in seven games, he picked up three more TFLs, a sack and two’s across the board for PBUs, fumbles forced and recovered.
This young man was a hybrid SAM linebacker for the Buckeyes, who filled a multitude of roles. He lined up off the ball in the box, on the edge over tight-ends, splitting the difference to the slot receiver and straight up on number threes in trips. As a run-defender, I love the way he leverages the ball when he has contain responsibility and Ohio State trusted him to stop anything out to the sideline, when the corner travelled over to the twins side, making him the closest guy to the white line. That was thanks in part because of the type of reliable tackler he is in space, as he only missed three total attempts last season. Yet, when he can get a clean shot on somebody, he packs a lot of punch to knock them backwards. Browning also has the speed to be lined up off the ball, shaded outside of the tight-end and still chase down a zone run play from behind. He brings plenty of thump at first contact, to take on lead-blocks from tight-ends and even pulling linemen, with 33-inch arms allowing him to lock out, and he has some freaking wheels when he gets into full-on chase mode. There’s this really funny play on the second series of the third quarter in the Sugar, where Clemson runs a zone-read and Trevor Lawrence carries the fake, Browning just gives him a little shove and he flips him, as if the quarterback got hit by a truck. However, what makes him so intriguing to scouts is that position-less versatility and unique skill-sets – in particular what he can do as a space-player, despite weighing in at over a solid 240 pounds.
Browning has all the athletic tools to match guys coming out of the backfield and was flexed out wide quite a bit with backs and tight-ends, where he even showed the ability to defend jump-balls (great break-up in the end-zone against Penn State last season). He is so much more fluid in his lower body and agile to change directions than you would expect for his size. You routinely see him make those 180-degree turns with ease and he can cover a lot of ground horizontally, whilst keeping his eyes locked on the quarterback. And he has the closing burst, to get back to the RB releasing into flats after having to avoid traffic over the middle on mesh concepts and stuff like that. Browning was used as a blitzer from all different angles and he shows a good feel for how to get through and avoid contact. And then he was asked to show a ton of pressure and bail out of it, whether that’s being lined up on the weak-side edge and drop out into the flats or threatening the A-gap and taking the hook zone, where you see him get the center to commit, but then end up with his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage a good ten yards away from the ball in less than two seconds. He is quick to find targets in space and then pivot his eyes back to the passer. And at the Senior Bowl, he showed the most impressive movement skills among the American linebackers. When you look at his explosive get-off coming from the edge, you think he can play that position full-time, because he can really threaten tackles around the corner.
It took Browning quite a while to establish himself as a key contributor for the Buckeyes defense. And while the coaches rotate their linebackers a ton, he was off the field more than Pete Werner and even Tuf Borland, who really was a liability in coverage. Browning needs to do a better job shooting across the face of blockers in space, to funnel the ball back inside, on bubbles and sweeps for example. You could see him fall victim of NFL scouts calling him a “jack of all trades, master of none”. He has limited experience reading run schemes from in-between the tackles, he has yet to actually learn any moves for an edge rusher and as impressive as his movement abilities in space may be, he did primarily do a lot of rather simple spot-dropping.
I looked at Browning’s numbers in coverage last season and they appeared much worse on paper than what the tape shows, because he was tagged the closest defender, even though he didn’t just lose, but rather the ball was checked down in front of him. And he made those tackles with ease. In the Penn State game last season, I saw him take on blocks from Penn State tight-end Pat Freiermuth and then stick with him on a crossing routes a few snaps later. Any player who can do that is who I want to add to my team, because he gives me the flexibility to leave him on the field no matter which tape of player I need. Browning can be an impact player in base and then a mismatch eraser on passing downs, to go with untapped potential as a pass-rusher.
7. Nick Bolton, Missouri
6’0”, 235 pounds; JR
Once just outside the top 1000 overall recruits, Bolton saw action in every game as a rotational player his freshman season. Over the last two years, he has recorded 198 tackles, with 16.5 of them for loss, three sacks, 12 PBUs and two interceptions, earning First-Team All-SEC accolades in both of them, in addition to Second-Team All-Americans honors from the AP in 2020.
Bolton is so quick at filling against the run. At times you see him just burst through his gap on the front-side of zone runs, before anybody can even put hands on him and he just pops running backs. And he is a fast flower from the back-side, with the speed to scrape over the top and run down ball-carriers on outside runs, or shoot through an open gap and chase the man down from behind. Yet, he also has the ability to back-door linemen climbing up to him and avoid contact, by reducing his shoulder or dipping underneath the blocker, where he has those sudden movement skills to get to the ball-carrier. And he displays pretty quick change of direction to flow with the run initially, but then redirect to chase after screens as part of RPOs. Bolton quickly IDs and drives on screen passes overall, when he can read them straight up, taking away those opportunities to regain lost yardage or producing negative plays in general. His 30 tackles for loss or no gain since 2019 are the most by any SEC defender over that stretch. And when he gets there, he packs some pop behind his pads. He had an unbelievable hit at the goal-line against Tennessee’s Jauan Jennings on a sweep play in 2019, to take away the touchdown, as one of many splash hits.
When you look at his alignments, Bolton was primarily put on the short side of the field and took away the flats in coverage, picking up backs on swings and option routes. He has plenty of experience manning up against them on those kind of underneath patterns. However, I believe he will primarily be used coming forward on passing downs, where he has pretty good ability to bend and turn the corner when coming off the edge and is like a blur blitzing up the middle. He was often used on delayed blitzes or an cross-dogs with the second linebacker, which he has impeccable timing and anticipation of the snap altogether on. And when he arrives there, he absolutely smokes quarterbacks. He blew up LSU’s Myles Brennan and Alabama’s Mac Jones to the point, where I wasn’t sure if those guys would still get up. Missouri lined Bolton up on the edge or showing pressure in one of the gaps quite a bit on third downs as well.
On the flipside, Bolton is eager to overrun his fits and give up his assignments in the run game. For a big hitter, he doesn’t really sets the tone at the point of attack against bigger blockers working up to him, staying more conservative in those situations and trying to get around them. His lack of height also makes him lose vision on the running back at times, when he is stuck in traffic. And too often there’s yards through contact even though the first collision looks good, because he doesn’t stand the ball-carrier up and completely stops their momentum, to go with 12 percent of his tackles last season. I don’t think he is at the same level as a space-player in coverage as some of the guys ahead of him area, showing limited awareness for targets around him and just executing his drops the way they are drawn up on paper. He did play quite a bit of man-coverage against backs, but doesn’t look as comfortable and gets grabby when flexed out wide.
I realize I’m a little lower on Bolton than most analysts out there, but I think that’s more about how much I like numbers four to six than anything else. I don’t think he’s worthy of a first-round pick, but if you grab him on day and let him play forward on passing downs, he can be a very effective player. I think the former Missouri standout would fit well as an OLB, to protect the edges versus the run, get involved on blitz packages or spy the quarterback and just chase the ball with bad intentions.
8. Pete Werner, Ohio State
6’3”, 240 pounds; SR
This former four-star recruit had to earn his stripes through special teams, leading the team in tackles in that are as a freshman, but it only took him a year to earn a starting spot among a loaded group of linebackers for the Buckeyes. These last three seasons, he has amassed a combined 167 tackles, 15.5 of those for loss, four sacks, 13 pass break-ups and four fumbles forced, finally receiving recognition for it last season, when he was a first-team All-Big Ten selection, after being an honorable mention the year prior.
Werner originally started more on the strong-side, but last season primarily lined up at WILL linebacker for the Buckeyes and flipped over to MIKE in nickel sets. This guy plays with some fire under his ass and to me has by far the cleanest transition from college to pros among the Ohio State inside backers. When ID-ing run schemes, Werner keeps his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, works down with good bounce and can get those stalemates with pulling guards in the hole – which for today’s standards at the position has become very uncommon. And when someone is working up to him on an angle or tries to meet him in space, he does a nice job of attacking the near shoulder, while keeping the outside arm free and not allowing the ball-carrier to bubble. He keeps good extension on linemen, with pretty long arms, and doesn’t lose vision of the ball. He rarely overruns plays from the backside and he really shoots those hips through at first contact as a tackler to stop the ball-carrier’s momentum, plus he displays excellent pursuit all around the field. Werner had this incredible play last season against Penn State, where it looked like the Nittany Lions had two linemen out in front on a screen pass, but he shot right past them and blasted the running back for no gain.
When I watched Werner move in coverage, I was much more impressed than I thought I would be originally, because of how much I’ve seen opposing teams attack that second level for Ohio State at times. Werner gets good depth in his drops and was even asked to carry guys down the middle in Tampa-2 a few times. He is physical with tight-ends looking to release up the seams and then he comes upfield quickly to shut down any additional yardage on crossers and check-downs. The former Buckeye key piece also has some experience covering backs and tight-ends in man and looked comfortable matching underneath routes. As a blitzer, he beautifully times up the snap and his speed really is on display, when you see how quickly he gets from that original spot to the quarterback, plus he can really smack backs in protection in the face at the back-end of it. In the CFP semifinal against Clemson last season, you saw Trevor Lawrence fade away and brace himself on several occasions, because Werner came charging in like a torpedo, which led to plenty of missed throws.
However, I’m not sure if Werner quite has the fluidity to be matched up with NFL running backs one-on-one, who run a complete route-tree and test his ability to flip the hips and change directions. He doesn’t have that athletic skill-set his teammate Baron Browning presents as a space player. While his quick trigger against the run is obviously a good thing for the most part, some teams that specialized at it, took advantage of it quite a bit in their RPO game. And I was a little surprised to see this, but according to PFF, Werner missed 14.6 of his tackling attempts over these past three seasons, with pretty consistent numbers.
I believe Werner can be three-down backer at the next level, who can probably play in any front, weak and strong side. You may want to pair him with a more fluid coverage guy next to him, so he can play more forward as a pressure player, but he is one of the more pleasant surprises in my evaluations, because of how much Ohio State rotated their linebackers and it was tough to pick up many things when I just watched the broadcasts of their games back in the fall.
9. Cameron McGrone, Michigan
6’1”, 235 pounds; RS SO
Just outside the top 100 overall recruits, McGrone only saw action in one game his first year in Ann Arbor and started his redshirt freshman season as a backup, but took over as a starter after just one game, recording 65 tackles, nine of them for loss and 2.5 sacks. Last season he didn’t have enough time to put together those impressive stats, with Michigan having just a five-game season, but still impressed scouts with what he did in the middle of that defense.
I said this already coming into the 2020 season – McGrone has all the athletic tools to be a star linebacker. He rarely takes mis-steps, then shows great burst out of his stance and can slip through tight creases almost like a running back, while being able to twist his body, to get hands on the ball-carrier. McGrone rarely allows blockers to work across his face and get their bodies in front of him. And while he doesn’t look big enough to deal with fullbacks and guards climbing up to him, he somehow doesn’t get blown backwards and often times bangs through the play-side shoulder of the blocker, to get through a gap, being able to work through and slip off contact routinely. Yet, he also has the speed to back-door or go underneath blockers trying to pin him inside and you routinely see him scrape over the top from the backside, where he can flat out run people down on jet sweeps and other outside stuff. However, what makes him kind of unique as a run-defender – and it’s not that easy to describe – is that ability to stop his momentum, like shooting through a gap, so the blocker can’t get put hands on him, but then still being able to drag down the running back as he makes his cutback. And he adds that extra bit of chippiness, routinely giving a little shove to the ball-carrier when he gets up.
McGrone’s speed as a blitzer really stands out, especially when the O-line can’t decipher quickly enough to pick him up in protection, because his closing speed is pretty crazy. And once again, he’s not very big, but when he blows into those guys, he can create some vertical movement and he has suddenness to make the back whiff, when he oversets to one side. In Don Brown’s blitz-happy defense, he provided pressure from all different angles, often times looping around the edge, where he displayed a natural ability to corner and flatten to the quarterback. In coverage, his speed to really fly around the whole field is apparent. He can cover a lot of ground after stepping up initially against play-action fakes and you see him cover tight-ends down the seam with pretty good success. He was much more of a forward player because that’s what linebackers do in that Big Blue scheme, but in terms of quickness, speed and fluidity in the lower body, I don’t see why he couldn’t develop into a player that sink deep in zone and covers option routes one-on-one. And while it is a limited sample-size, McGrone didn’t miss any of his 26 tackling attempts last season, which tells you about his ability to bring down the ball-carrier in the open field.
On the negative side, the young man still gets his eyes lost at times, reading run schemes, often times not finding the ball-carrier because he doesn’t seem to be able to look over or through the offensive line. And it takes him a while to actually find the ball, which ends with him following the tailback on a jet sweep or toss fake, as the offense runs a fullback dive for example. I would like to see him show some better backside discipline on zone runs and he is prone to overrun his fits at times in general. At this point he plays a lot on feel rather than reading his keys. In coverage, he certainly has the mobility to cover a lot of ground, but he still doesn’t show much of a plan or process yet, in terms of working through progressions and identifying route patterns.
With that being said, let’s not forget that McGrone is still only 20 years old. Whether it’s still being able to add to his frame, learning how to work through his keys in the run game, with extension work in the film room or just the reps he can get in practice, there is a lot of room for growth. He can be an impact player right now if deployed as a blitzer or matchup piece in man-coverage, while he improves in those areas and the sky really is the limit for this kid, depending on his future coach he will work with.
10. Dylan Moses, Alabama
6’3”, 240 pounds; SR
Once a top 15 overall recruit, Moses originally committed to LSU, but then decided to join their archrivals in Tuscaloosa instead. As all linebackers for the Crimson Tide, he had to earn his stripes early on via special teams and as a rotational player, but in year two he took over a starter, recording 86 tackles, with ten of those in the opposing backfield, and 3.5 sacks. Unfortunately, he missed all of 2019 with a knee injury and you saw the Alabama defense play at much lower level than we’re used to from them. Last season, he added another 76 tackles, with six of those for loss, three PBUs and his first interception since his freshman campaign.
When I look at Moses, I see a very patient run defender, who keeps his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage when working laterally on the front-side of zone plays, but then can take on linemen off combo-blocks with good extension and his outside arm free, without allowing a big hole to open up in-between the linemen that were responsible for him and the down-man. Yet when he’s lined up on the backside with the edge man in contain, he has the speed to run around the tackle and chase the running back down from behind, when the opportunity presents itself. On gap-schemes like duo, he can be leveraged to one side behind the double-team and then has the sudden quickness in short areas to meet the ball-carrier on the other side. And he also shows good lateral agility to work around pullers on power plays and initiate first contact. Yet, when he sees something coming, he does not shy away from shooting the gap or running into bigger bodies either, while being able to kind of corner and get his hands on the ball-carrier, to go along with the strong arms to drag them down from the side.
As a coverage-defender, he is a very easy mover in general, at times looking more like a big safety or designated dime backer, when you watch him kind of glide around the field. He has the quick burst to attach to the hip of tight-ends on crossing routes off play-action, where he gets pretty physical with them, or cover ground into the flats against quick dump-offs, and he does a nice job of taking away hooks and deep curls over the middle. Plus he is a very reliable tackler in space, who paces, puts his facemask on the ball-carrier and wraps up to great effect, to hold check-downs to the back and scrambling quarterbacks to minimal yardage. Overall he had just 13 missed tackles on 192 career attempts. That’s why Nick Saban & company utilized him as a spy in certain matchups. As a blitzer, he comes in at a million miles per hour and has a great feel for anticipating the snap, running through several backs along the way. He was utilized to wrap around and as part of a lot of different pressure packages, where he showed good timing and ability to set up those cross blitzes and stuff like that.
While I do like the patience he displays in the run game, what Moses does borders on being too slow at times and he can miss out on some opportunities. While in other situations, he sometimes blindly commits to one key he sees, like following a tight-end on a sift block of a split-zone, because he expects the back to follow him, getting himself out of position and giving up a big gain in the process. Once O-linemen really get into his frame, Moses usually isn’t getting away from them, at times even with big tight-ends. Against Missouri in their 2020 matchup early on the TE literally drove him about ten yards into the backfield and put him on his butt. I’m not sure how much I would trust Moses in man against backs, because of how grabby he can get in those situations. And while he doesn’t shy away from banging into linemen as a blitzer, he rarely actually knocks them backwards.
Moses’ presence was immediately felt when he returned for Bama’s 2020 season-opener against Missouri, when he constantly showed up in the backfield. At times, his tape can be rather underwhelming and he doesn’t have as much production in the pass game as you would hope, but he is a highly dependable tackler, can cover plenty of ground and has proven to be a key piece for one of the best-coached defenses in the country. I believe Moses is best suited to stay in a 3-4, where he has a strong nose in front of him to let him run around freely and could be a core special teams player.
Just missed the cut:
Monty Rice, Georgia
6’3”, 240 pounds; SR
Once a four-star recruit, Rice was called the next Roquan Smith after the All-American linebacker and while he didn’t quite live up to that hype, he recorded just under 200 combined tackles, 8.5 of those for loss, two sacks, five PBUs, three fumbles forced and a scoop-and-score over these last three years as a starter. For that, he received second-team All-SEC honors in 2019 and was first-team all-conference last season, right in the middle of one of the elite defenses in college football.
Rice is quick to work downhill in the run game and won’t shy away from contact, while keeping his hands busy to disengage from blocks. He uses his hands well to avoid any cave-in or crackback blocks and work over the top, to chase the ball-carrier out to the sideline. Rice doesn’t allow eye-candy to get him out of position too many times, as he plays under good control and rarely overruns plays, yet he displays great pursuit and hustle across the field. And he has some sudden movement to get his hands on the running back, as he slaloms through the blocking at the second level, to go with often beating linemen on the backside of zone runs quite a bit. Rice is also a pretty fluid mover in space, who can move in any direction without really any issues. I’ve seen him carry Alabama receivers Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle down the seams and he didn’t look like he was totally out of place, maybe a couple of steps behind them. He has also really improved his timing and hand usage as a blitzer, to get around problems. Rice made an unbelievable play in the Tennessee game in 2020, when he came on a blitz, worked around the back for a strip-sack, scooped it up and took it to the house to pretty much seal the win.
However, Rice sinks too deep at times and can kind of get lost in coverage at times. He doesn’t look super comfortable taking down guys one-on-one in open space and still has to learn how to break down and wrap up properly. His lack of height and length give him issues dealing with blockers in his face and he tends to read the action in the backfield rather than ID-ing blocking scheme, which gets him out of position on play-action and counter runs at times. Rice as taken off the field quite a bit on passing downs. The numbers may not be perfectly representable, because they just take into account, who the closest defenders was at the moment of the catch, but according to PFF, Rice allowed completions on 24 of 25 targets last season. And he isn’t very effective lining up in the gap or on the edge, because when linemen get their hands on him as a blitz in general, he has a tough time of making any impact.
You don’t turn yourself into one of the top linebackers in SEC – which nowadays has much more wide-open offenses than it used – if you can’t play. Rice is a really solid all-around linebacker, with good feel for the position, excellent pursuit and outside of 2019, when he missed a highly uncharacteristic 16 tackles, he has been very dependable tackler, with just five misses on 113 attempts between 2018 and ’20. There may be some limitations in coverage, but he can be a quality starter in my opinion.
Chazz Surratt, North Carolina
6’1” ½, 230 pounds; RS SR
This young man was actually recruited as a three-star quarterback and started seven games as a redshirt freshman for the Tarheels. However, with the struggles he had and the arrival of Sam Howell on the horizon, he decided to switch to the defensive side of the ball in 2019. That move paid off big-time, as he was a first-team All-ACC selection his first two years of playing the position, with just over 200 combined tackles, 22.5 of those for loss, 12.5 sacks, two INTs, five PBUs and two fumbles forced and recovered each, in 24 total games.
Surratt instantly turned himself into a TFL machine in the run game. He is quick to shoot gaps and often times gets through almost unblocked. He has the speed to beat blockers across the face routinely and kind of dip underneath them, to not just open a lane behind him. He has gotten a lot better at finding a way to sort through blocks on the inside, stepping around them, keeping his hands active to disengage and meeting the ball-carrier in the hole. Surratt has those long arms, that help him wrap up ball-carriers from the side and bring them down, as they try to make him miss and he simply doesn’t stop pursuing the, gets in on tackles late constantly. In zone coverage, he brings a lot of range to the table and really improved his feel for targets in space I thought in 2020. Surratt can really run and carry slot receivers down the seams, as well as chase guys down towards the sideline, when they catch a crosser and try to turn it upfield. He presents a large radius in the middle to break up passes and when quarterbacks throw it underneath, he went from an absurd 27 missed tackles to “just” 11 last season, because he is super patient and always seems to get a piece of the man. Surratt was also brought down late and rushed off the edge quite a bit, where he shows good lean to shorten the corner, and he was used on cross-dog action as well. Plus, he was deployed as a spy in certain matchups and situations, where his long arms allow him to take away passing lanes, and he covers a ton of ground bailing out of A-gap pressure looks.
However, he is still very new to the position and it shows in his angles, block-deconstruction and tackling consistency. Surratt’s eyes can get trapped in the backfield, rather than reading the blocking. And he is just not very physical when dealing with blocks, almost backing up as he tries to get around them at times, getting driven out of the screen or pancaked a couple of times when coming down against pullers. Even on draw plays, he is kind of waiting for the center to work up to him and gives the ball-carrier a two-way go almost. And he’s had some success as a blitzer, but when he’s charging down in-between the tackles, you rarely see him actually drive linemen backwards.
So this is definitely more of a project. I think Surratt has already shown a lot of improvement from years one to two and with the right coaching, will continue to rise. My problem with him – and this is not supposed to be about quarterbacks being soft – is that he simply isn’t a very physical overall player. However, I like the range he presents as a coverage defender and the length he has to work with. I don’t think he deserves to go ahead of anybody in my top ten, but after that, I like bringing him in if you feel comfortable about the way you can develop him.
The next names up:
Garrett Wallow (TCU), Paddy Fisher (Northwestern), Charles Snowden (Virginia), Tony Fields II (West Virginia), Justin Hilliard (Ohio State), Grant Stuard (Houston) & Derrick Barnes (Purdue)