Rolling along with my top ten positional rankings for the NFL Draft, after breaking down the top running backs, we’re now looking at the guys on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage, trying to bring them down before they can really cross it.
Once again, these are all my personal opinions based on tape study, while using advanced settings and testing numbers to back my case or mention some of the concerns I may have.
Putting this linebacker class into perspective, instead of a trio at the top of the rankings like we had last year, with Micah Parsons, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Zaven Collins, there’s a clear duo at the top, while LB3 can vary a lot depending on which rankings you look like. However, I believe there’s about nine or ten more names that could arguably arguably within the first two days and even after that, there’s guys I like in specific roles.
Let’s get into it:
1. Nakobe Dean, Georgia
5’11” ½, 225 pounds; JR
One of the top two linebacker recruits in the country in 2019 – along with Penn State’s Brandon Smith – Dean was more of a rotational player as a freshman, before taking over as a fixture in the lineup for the Bulldogs in 2020, collecting 71 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Then as a junior, he became the lead-“dawg” for one of the greatest defenses in college football history and he was named a first-team All-American individually, with 72 tackles, 10.5 for loss, six sacks, a couple of forced fumbles, two passes intercepted (one returned for a TD) and five more broken up.
Dean was the play-caller and captain of this outstanding Georgia defense, which rotated their linebackers quite a bit, but he was the one constant that basically never left the field and everybody was looking and listening to. He looked a little beefy in 2020, but he seemed lighter on his feet as a junior was a heat-seaking missile for the Bulldogs. Dean moves very well laterally, as he tracks the ball-carriers on more horizontal runs and shuffles along, before flattening his angle to the sideline, if that guys tries to get around the edge. At the same time, he will not hesitate to meet an insert wing/H-back in the hole and absolutely launch himself into contact, to squeeze that man towards the next-closest blocker and avoid an extra hole being created.
He really packs a punch at contact with blockers or the ball-carrier, thanks to his compact build. And you see him almost push the pile like a runner, with the way he churns those legs as he’s engaged with somebody in traffic. The dude allows his eyes to lead him to the ball and he has tremendous closing burst. That’s what made him an absolute screen-killer. He had one of my favorite plays of any prospect last year against Kentucky, when the whole defense seemed to be fooled by a screen pass and the RB was about to stroll into the end-zone, with the Wildcats having three linemen out in front and nobody else on that side of the field, but Dean split them and took down the back for a five-yard loss.
In zone coverage, Dean does a nice job of tracking the eyes of the quarterback and confirming his path of floating in zone coverage, by peaking at the receivers from the corner of his eye. His football IQ and awareness are on display when he’s shuffling out to the flats with the back, but sees somebody coming across the field and he mid-lines those routes, to not surrender easy completions. When put in man, Dean displays tremendous anticipation for routes and even can stick with some slot receivers on shorter patterns thanks to it, while not allowing late separation as guys try to float away or run secondary routes. He had a play early in the Orange Bowl against Michigan, where he was flanked out wide with the back in an empty set and followed him all the way across the field on an orbit motion, directly into a swing screen, and made the tackle for a loss of two. And when the ball is caught over the middle of the field, the offensive player typically takes the worst of collisions with Dean. He nearly decapitated one of the Kentucky receivers at the end of their 2021 matchup
He is really tough to pick up in Georgia’s blitz packages, looping around and finding open lanes, while having some wiggle to freeze the feet of blockers momentarily. Being built lower to the ground allows him to turn some tighter angles than guys at 6’2” or taller, as he wraps around off games with the D-line. He shows some quick hands to get around guards and centers, while being able to cross them up with a jab to one side and then getting by the other way. The Bulldog coaches put him head-over over the center at times and gave him a two-way go, because he was so good at it and could sort of dip underneath the hands. When the quarterback starts rolling out to his side, you see Dean arrive there in a hurry and put some wicked hits on those guys.
Measurements are what might ultimately hurt Dean’s draft stock. He came in half an inch short of six feet at the combine and when big blockers get in front of him, you see him lose vision on the ball at times. He can get a little too aggressive working sideways and not protecting the cutback lane on split zone runs, as well as having all the momentum in front of his ties and being vulnerable to being made miss in the backfield. Playing behind a rotation of five likely eventual first-round picks certainly didn’t hurt either. Dean doesn’t have great long speed like the two other LBs for the Bulldogs and you see him have to be more conservative with his angles out to the sideline against sweeps and screens. You see him get a little grabby when he’s matched up with somebody faster than him and have his back towards the quarterback.
You can argue there was nobody playing his position at a higher level in 2021 than Dean did at linebacker. Everybody on that loaded Georgia D was looking for him to give directions and take them to that national title. He doesn’t have prototype size or athleticism, but he can play so fast because there is no hesitation in what he sees and he’s as physical as 240+ guys. There may be some limitations with what you can do with him on long downs, focusing on him as a pressure-player, rather than asking him to blanket athletic tight-ends, who might be able to get a step on him and tower over him, but he will not back down from any challenge and could set the tone for a defense for the next decade.
2. Devin Lloyd, Utah
6’3”, 235 pounds; RS JR
Just a three-star recruit as a safety back in 2017, Lloyd barely saw any playing time his first year on campus. Over his next 19 games as a starter, he amassed 139 tackles, 21 for loss, 8.5 sacks, two pass-breakups and a pick-six, before becoming a big-play machine for the Utes in 2021. He routinely came up big in their most crucial games, like a pick-six in the Pac-12 title game against Oregon, to make the score 14-0 and really set the tone (one of his two return TDs on the year). He ended his first-team All-American season with 111 total tackles, 22 of those for loss, seven sacks, four interceptions and six more PBUs.
Lloyd is very light on his moving laterally and super shifty with the way he can work around blockers, while also having the short-area burst to shoot through gaps and chop down ball-carriers in the backfield. He doesn’t shy away from going through one half of a lineman trying to get up to him either. You see him at times come down on pulling linemen and make them completely miss, to stand right there in the gap and take on the ball-carrier. In 2021, I think Lloyd improved a lot in his ability to read his keys in-between the tackles, while showing some patience, and his angles out to the sideline.
Yet when he can’t avoid contact, he’s usually the first one to initiate it, with 33-inch arms to keep his chest clean. And even when he gets banged from the side, he can keep his footing momentarily and dive at the legs of the back, to trip him up. Explosive hitting power is the word that comes to mind with Lloyd – and he doesn’t need much room to build it up initially. Yet, when he has chase guys down out wide and he can only get a piece of the ball-carrier, he will not let go of that guy’s leg and allows his buddies to join the party. Lloyd has the burst to come off the edge or wrap around behind a combo and track running backs down from behind. And then he also puts the flat-out speed on display, to chase down guys who manage to clear the second level and ahead of him.
Lloyd is pretty loose in his lower body to float around in coverage. He can cover plenty of ground in his back-pedal and then flip open, as he sees a receiver in his area breaking either way or turn, to get underneath somebody running down the hashes. I saw a couple of excellent plays breaking up shots down the seams on tape. Lloyd has that explosiveness to widen his drop one way and then having to get underneath somebody breaking the direction behind him. He shows good awareness for targets in space and doesn’t allow free access to his area usually, while being able to elude guys who have their back to him and getting his hands on the ball. It doesn’t look like Lloyd is straining when trailing backs into the flats and looking at his interceptions from this past season, he can make some outstanding catches, jumping up for passes at the line or tipping it to himself.
This guy has the athletic ability to track down scrambling quarterbacks, who have space to operate. He gets involved quite a bit as a blitzer, banging into big bodies if he has to, winning with sudden hand swipes and coming on delayed rushes as an off-ball player, when he sees an opening. You see him effectively get around backs by giving them a little shake and side-stepping them. Lloyd lined up on the edge for extended stretches and showed the ability to stress tackles with his upfield burst, along with leaving his feet to pivot his hips and flatten towards the QB, as well as actually landing some wicked spin moves. He came up with back-to-back sacks in the Arizona State game of 2021, to close out the W.
However, Lloyd doesn’t have the sturdiness to actually stack-and-shed blockers, when they can work up into his frame. He gets his shoulders turned too quickly on lateral run schemes and gives up some cutback lanes or has to redirect sharply against end-arounds and stuff like that, where his long legs limit his ability to change directions quickly. That can also be an issue projecting him forward to a scheme, where he actually has to stick with somebody in man-coverage through multiple breaks, which he wasn’t asked to do a whole lot of. Lloyd can get sucked in pretty deep by play-action and surrender completions in that voided area, with the ball going over his head. And seeing him run in the mid-4.6’s at the combine was rather disappointing.
This young man has a knack for the football and made so many big plays when his team needed him most last season, In the two games against their biggest threat for the Pac-12 in Oregon, Lloyd set the tone with some big hits on the run and then had a pick-six early to start the blowout in the conference title game, His rather lanky build may not be ideal for playing in-between the guards and he can get too aggressive flowing with the run, but he can avoid blockers very effectively, he’s an explosive hitter and he can be utilized as a versatile rusher on passing downs.
3. Chad Muma, Wyoming
6’2”, 240 pounds; SR
A lightly recruited three-star athlete in 2018, Muma increased his production in each of his four seasons with the Cowboys. and put up crazy numbers as a senior – 142 tackles, eight for loss and three interceptions, with two returned to the house. That earned him a third-team All-American honors, along with being a back-to-back first-team All-Mountain West pick.
This is an instinctive play-maker, who operates as fast as any linebacker in this class, other than maybe the top two. What stands out to me when watching Muma however is that he consistently has his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage in run defense. The he has that quick acceleration in tight areas, to beat linemen to the spot or leverage the ball, as run schemes develop and subsequently shoot down once he sees an opportunity. His ability to track the ball behind the line of scrimmage is outstanding. You constantly see him crashing through the reach of blockers to one side and fight through contact, in order to get to the ball. Plus when he arrives there, he can put the hit stick on guys in the hole. There’s some tackles on tape, where a guard still has both hands on him.
Muma has the explosion to be stacked over a guard and chase down a bubble screen to the number three in trips to his side, as well as cut off the angle to the sideline on fly sweeps and force the ball-carrier to redirect, at least being able to hold him up, until the rest of his troops arrive there. Yet, it’s not like he sees the ball go wide and chases it blindly. He has that natural understanding for leverage and where the rest of the defense is lined up, with how aggressive he is with his angles and he will switch back and forth with shuffling or at least pacing himself on the fly. Muma’s pursuit from behind, when he has to redirect against RPOs/screen alerts after stepping down initially is eye-popping. You see him deliver some licks on guys, who have to slow down momentarily and he catches up on them. He makes more tackles way outside his area than any LB I watched this year probably. During Senior Bowl week he confirmed that with how much ease he was flowing sideways and some of the high-level open-field tackles he made.
Wyoming told their D-ends to crash inside on the backside of those zone schemes, which made Muma the de facto contain defender and you see him quickly get to the outside of the last man at the line and then flatten down the line, to get initial contact for TFLs or minimal yardage. And when quarterbacks pull the ball on bootlegs, Muma takes a straight angle to cut off the path for those guys to actually pivot all the way around, arriving at the passer just as he’s trying to look downfield. The guys he was running at routinely flipped the ball out to somebody in the flats and already turned their bodies away from the hit. That translates pretty directly to what he can do as a blitzer, especially coming off the edge. When he’s rushing up one of the inside gaps, you see the effort to fight through and ultimately get home.
In the pass game, Muma can cover plenty of ground on diagonal shuffles in hook drops, yet when he ends up matched up with somebody working down the seams, he can turn and carry them vertically as well. On his tape, he routinely denies lay-ups in the flats to his side, usually putting those guys on their behinds. However, when backs wheel it up the sideline against him, he also has that secondary burst to not allow vertical separation. Wyoming pulled Muma over number three receiver in trips sets and he sat down over hook routes, but he also showed the quick-twitch to stay in the picture when the guy in front of him had an option to pivot or just tried to work his way open on a secondary route. Plus, he can sink between two receivers stemming vertically, to give his safety more time to read the pattern, before driving down on check-downs underneath or the quarterback scrambling towards the sideline. His ability to get out of a sideways shuffle and back underneath deep crossers off play-action is freaky.
With that being said, at times Muma trusts his eyes a little too much and his reads were more like a typical SAM backer, going C-gap out, rather than processing information from that inside triangle like a MIKE would, which most people project him to play at the next level. You see his pads get rocked back a few times when H-backs work across and hit him on an angle. As he triggers down against the ball going wide, he can get a little overzealous and slip off tackles. While I like his movement in space, I wouldn’t want him in a lot of off-man coverage against anybody detached from the line of scrimmage, because he tends to get too far on his heels as the guy in front of him stems vertically. When Muma is blitzing through one of the inside gaps, he has to do a better job of slapping away the hands of blockers and actually getting through (fairly) clean. A lot of his rushes tend to stall or at least get slowed down a lot.
There’s a lot of parallels between Muma and fellow Wyoming linebacker Logan Wilson, who is starting to get some recognition with the Bengals now. However, this year’s Cowboy prospect doesn’t project as cleanly to the MIKE spot as Wilson, because he played a lot more on the edge and we’ll have to see if he can learn to read in-between the tackles as well. From an ability to move in space and chase the ball perspective, Muma is actually is more impressive however and I have a higher grade on him, as I really enjoyed his tape and what I’ve seen in this pre-draft process as well. His 40 time was slightly below-average among fast LB group, but he was top-four among all other events and looked really smooth during the positional work.
4. Damone Clark, LSU
6’3”, 240 pounds; SR
This is a former four-star linebacker recruit right there from Baton Rouge. Clark decided to stay in his hometown and follow an illustrious lineage of linebackers for the Tigers. And after barely seeing the field on special teams as a freshman, he would rack up 248 tackles, 23 of those for loss, ten sacks and four PBUs over the next three years, earning first-team All-SEC accolades in 2021.
When I watched tape on the 2020 LSU defense, I often times got Clark mixed up with now-Cowboy Jabril Cox, because of similar numbers of 18 and 19, but also their games. Clark rarely allows himself to be cut off on the backside of zone runs, disengaging with his hands and working over the top of blocks, where those 33-inch arms are helpful. When the RB cuts back and allows somebody to climb up to Clark, he has the sturdy base to hold his ground mostly and fight through contact. He can bounce off interior linemen and is quick to use his hands, to create an angle towards the ball for himself, if he does get slightly taken off track. Clark has some suddenness to navigate around blockers in space, while ripping through their reach. And there’s some chippiness to him, with the way he throws guys off himself late.
Clark is also pretty quick to recognize misdirection and change his momentum as well. You see him at times trail a pulling guard and crash through, to take everybody down or at least create a mosh pit in the backfield. And then when he has a clean shot at the ball-carrier, he really launches those hips through the hit, to not allow ball-carriers to gain extra yardage, while also making plenty of solid stops from the side, as he twists guys down. Clark is known as an inside thumper in the SEC, but he has that speed to chase people down towards the sideline and is a good space-tackler- And when he has to turn and chase, he can even run some wide receivers down. There’s a play in this year’s season-opener against UCLA, where he flows with the run-fake and starts from in-between the numbers and hashes, while tight-end Greg Dulcich catches an over route at the opposite hashes about ten yards further ahead at full speed, who ends up making the corner making the corner miss and running up the sideline, and while he ends up just scoring, Clark is the one to just run him down at the goal-line.
Transitioning to Clark in the pass game, when he sees the quarterback drop back and he’s responsible for the middle of the field in zone, his eyes instantly go to his first key and he maintains bouncy feet. Along with that, he reads his eyes on the quarterback throughout the play and can knock guys off track, who try to work across his area. In man-coverage, you see the burst to make up ground and get into the hip-pocket of backs, who initially have him out-leveraged on flat routes. He stays patient sitting over option routes by the back and doesn’t get his feet stuck in sand as he sees the break either way.
Coming forward as a blitzer, Clark displays the ability to side-step running backs in protection when blitzing through one of the interior line, paired with a pretty effective double-hand swipe. He got around Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill a few times back in 2020, who I thought was one of the better pass-protecting backs in last year’s class. I also really like the way he can contribute as an add-on rusher or spy, staying locked in on the movement of the quarterback and taking off once he sees that guy is looking to escape, or if a lane opens up for him.
Since I made the comparison to now-Cowboy Jabril Cox, who lined up next to Clark a year ago, this year’s LB prospect doesn’t have the kind of loose hips to flip them suddenly. You also see that Mississippi State game, where they at some point each defend an in-breaker and while Cox gets a pick-six off the one against him, Clark allows a completion and just slips off the tackle. He tends to open his hips too far outside against RBs aiming at the flats and gets crossed up on angle routes because of it a few times. And when he has turn, after stepping up against the run initially, you see some guys run right by him almost and he lacks the awareness or quick burst to get back into position. I’m sure LSU asked their backers to just cover up guys and give their D-line some one-on-ones, but too often I was Clark just blindly run into people as a rusher and not having any plan to actually get home himself. As a run defender, he can miss some keys like tight-ends coming across the formation, but more importantly he tends to be impatient with leveraging himself behind combos or allowing the back to lead him one way, such as on duo, and then the ball-carrier runs by on the opposite side .
It’s rare to still see linebackers be able to keep big offensive linemen from his frame and stand his ground, while also having the speed track down really fast people. Clark isn’t going to wow everybody with sudden bursts or a fluid lower body necessarily, but he’s a complete enough all-around player to make an impact on all three downs. And he has plenty of room to grow I believe with proper coaching, while being a high-level run defender from day one. He was thumping people in the run game throughout Senior Bowl practices, being voted American LB of the week for it, and had two really important numbers in the combine drills – a 4.57 in the 49 and a 7.12 three-cone, which at 240 pounds are both excellent.
5. Christian Harris, Alabama
6’2”, 230 pounds; JR
Just outside the top-100 overall recruits in 2019, Harris quickly established himself as a key cog for that Alabama defense, due to the Dylan Moses injury his freshman year. He collected a combined 140 tackles, 14.5 of those for loss, 4.5 sacks (all in 2020), three PBUs and a pick over his first two years. This past season he recorded career-highs with 80 tackles, 11.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks, three PBUs and a couple of fumbles forced, after helping the Crimson Tide win a national title in 2020.
This was the best linebacker for Bama in 2020, despite playing alongside an All-SEC level player in Dylan Moses. He’s excelled at MIKE and as the backer on the strong side of the formation for a team that made it to the Natty twice (with one win and loss each). Harris is such an explosive and physical athlete. He displays shock in those hands when he attacks the chest of blockers, who often outweigh him by nearly 100 pounds, and then extends to create an angle on the ball as the back tries to get through. He can also crash through one shoulder, to plug the hole right away, and is fearless with meeting pulling guards at the line of scrimmage. When the ball is in his vicinity, he won’t stay blocked.
At the same time, Harris has the 32-inch arms and lateral movement skills to scrape over blocks, as tight-ends try to pin him inside on like jet sweeps. When he can shoot through a crease as the ball goes out towards the sideline, he has that 4.44 speed to run guys down. And he almost must be doing some kind of fingertip exercises, looking at how many tackles he finishes just by the end of his reach. Thanks to that, PFF only charged him with 1.5 percent missed tackle rate this past season.
In zone coverage, Harris is looking to pick guys up, with his hands really to strike. He can stop his weight pretty effectively, to crowd the catch point with his long arms on hooks and curls over the middle. When there’s no target to focus on, his eyes transition to and follow the quarterback. Harris wasn’t asked to sink deep a lot, but he shows the speed to stick with tight-end as they take him vertically, when matched up with them initially, on like flat-to-wheel routes for example. And then he works downhill in a very controlled fashion, when the pass is completed in front of him, and brings guys down pretty effectively, like I just mentioned.
When he’s given an open lane towards the quarterback, Harris. arrives there in a hurry and puts some absolute licks on those guys. He does time his blitzes nicely, when the D-line slants away from him and the tackle is occupied with the outside rush. And even when that lane closes, as somebody comes off his initial block and gets in his way, Harris doesn’t slow down and tries to finesse his way around. Alabama used him as the set-up man on twists, but also as a looper to the outside, where he can tilt around at a high speed and get around tightly, paired with upwards rip. And you also saw him walk down late and give guards a little shake to beat them across the face at times.
However, Harris can float around a little too much with his run fits, opening up cutback lanes or giving up the frontside, when trying to back-door linemen working up to him. I’d like to see a quicker trigger when he recognizes guards pull and his vision on the backfield often seems lacking. In coverage, you don’t necessarily see great awareness for route patterns or him attaching to targets later on. Harris gave up an 82-yard touchdown to Georgia RB James Cook, who was flexed out wide and ran right by him on a fade route, where Harris misjudged the ball and badly missed it on his jump. While his speed and physicality are good assets as a rusher, he doesn’t actually get around blockers very effectively, but is often content with just charging into them. And finally, he doesn’t show great effort to chase after the ball when it’s going further away from him.
Harris put on a show at the NFL combine, when he was just two hundredths of a second off the fastest 40 among linebackers (4.44) and one inch off the top mark in the broad jump, as he levitated 11 feet. His change of direction looked sudden and he made some excellent catches. So there is more potential to him as a coverage player and technical refinement could really boost his rushing profile. The physical tools are all there to become an elite run defender, but his eyes take him to the wrong places too often still. So I ended up with Harris a couple of stops lower than the consensus, even though being as scheme-agnostic as he is, thanks to the all-around package he presents, will make him an intriguing option for almost every team.
6. Troy Andersen, Montana State
6’3”, 240 pounds; SR
Andersen’s collegiate career may be the most diverse of any collegiate prospect in this class and he kicked it off in impressive fashion, as he was named the Big Sky Freshman of the Year, starting games at both running back and linebacker. The following year he became the program’s only first-team all-conference quarterback, which he repeated in 2019 – only this time on defense. As a senior, having settled in at linebacker, he finally became a unanimous All-American and FCS Defensive Player of the Year, thanks to 147 tackles, 14 of those for loss, seven PBUs, a couple of sacks and picks each.
This young man gets around blockers working up to him in highly effective fashion, with incredible short-area explosiveness. He has just over 32-inch arms and he uses them extremely well to keep blockers away from his frame. His reactive athleticism overall is something NFL coaches will be excited to work with. When Andersen has to take on a guard off a skip-pull, he doesn’t shy away from initiating contact in the hole and I also like his ability to shuffle along from the backside of zone runs and be ready for cutbacks in a less aggressive approach. Even when he’s not working downhill, he can launch from the ball of his feet into tackles and put ball-carriers flat on their backs.
I know the level of talent in the Big Sky Conference isn’t quite up to par with the Power Five Conference, but seeing Andersen at his size run down 185-pound backs, who bounce out wide and seem to have an angle towards the sideline against him, is still highly impressive. He has the range and physicality to make up for the D-end losing his contain and fighting over the top of somebody trying to cut off his path, while also being able to redirect with very little wasted steps. You see him shoot through a crease between blockers in space and shut down tunnel screens. And this guy’s 4.42 in the 40 shows up on tape, when he has to redirect against a reverse or some other misdirection play and ends up as the only guy in the picture with the ball-carrier, before he shoves that guy out of bounds.
Andersen is such a loose, athletic mover in space, who can flip his hips from diagonally dropping one way to going to opposite direction with no issues whatsoever. You see that when he widens from his initial alignment and then sticks with guys breaking inside deep out of the slot. And when he sees that he needs to attach to guys working vertically down the seams, he can really turn and run. I really like his ability to back and forward in coverage, to toggle through the pattern, plus then he looks like he’s shot out of a cannon when driving down on routes, to separate receivers from the ball or set the tackle. You see him in the hook zone a lot and somebody catch the ball out in the flats, but Andersen is wrapped around them before they can even turn upfield. Yet, when there’s room to operate, he does pace himself and forces the opponent to make an actual move on him.
The Montana State standout was heavily utilized as a blitzer from different alignments and on all three downs, because of the momentum he can build up that way and create negative plays. When he gets a running start on a blitz up the A-gap, he can literally get to the quarterback in one second, as you look at the play clock. And even when the back steps up his way, he can slip past them, with great balance to bounce off cutting attempts into his quads. When he’s in coverage and sees the quarterback take off, he gets downhill in a HURRY.
Because he did play a lot of positions and roles, Andersen will have to refine himself at one spot. You can tell there is a little bit of guessing at times with his decisions and you can see him get caught on the wrong foot and knocked off balance on a couple of occasions every game. Andersen leaves his feet a little too much when getting to the ball-carrier on an angle and ends up on the turf with empty hands a few times. He’s a rather passive zone defender, who is more so dropping to the spot, rather than attaching to a target coming into his area, and he has very limited reps in actual man-coverage. Plus, when he gets to the edge of blockers trying to go after the quarterback, he needs to pair that with some kind of hand-swipe to actually clear the hips.
I first laid my eyes on Andersen during Senior Bowl week, were he impressed me with his ability to move laterally as a run defender and stick with backs and tight-ends through multiple breaks in one-on-one coverage, before ripping the ball out late. So with the knowledge of the way he impressed against much higher level of competition, I went to the game tape. The first two games I watched on Andersen, he had a fourth-down stop in each of them, getting an easy sack up the middle against Montana and tracking down South Dakota State’s running back bouncing out wide, who already had his sight on the end-zone. Then he went on to run the fastest 40 of any linebacker at the combine (4.42) and received a nearly perfect RAS of 9.98. He’ll need to get together with a good linebacker coach, who can teach him to read his keys in run defense consistently, but the athletic profile is off the charts.
7. Brian Asamoah II, Oklahoma
6’0”, 225 pounds; JR
Slightly outside the top-500 overall recruits in 2018, Asamoah was already an impactful backup as a freshman and overall throughout his three years in Norman. He amassed 168 tackles, 12.5 for loss, five sacks, five PBUs and three fumbles forced during his time there. And while he was still rotated in and out to some degree as a sophomore, he barely left the field last season, when 56 of his 80 total tackles came in solo fashion and he was named a second-team All-Big 12 selection.
Despite looking like he played at sub-220 pounds at times at OU, Asamoah was shifted head-up over the center a lot and has that ability to read runs between the tackles. He absolutely has the speed to scrape over the top of blocks and shut down runs to the sideline, but doesn’t blindly go wide and is looking to shoot the inside gap if possible, where his instant acceleration pops off the screen. He can cover a lot of ground laterally with his shoulders nearly square to the line of scrimmage and then he can cut off angles by opening up his hips to the sideline. Oklahoma did a lot of slanting on their D-line to create chaos up front, while asking Asamoah to clean things up.
When he does attack, the Sooner missile has the short-area burst to back-door zone blockers and while he may lack the size to deal with large blockers, he can dip that near-shoulder and has the balance to stay upright when he takes a bump from the side. What I love about him is how hard he chases after the ball going away from him and you see that he can flat-out run. Running jet sweeps to his side and wide zone the other way usually aren’t very good ideas. This guy plays with his hair on fire and he brings a lot of energy to the table.
Asamoah is such an easy mover in space. He did a lot of middle hook and Tampa-2 sink drops, where he makes quarterbacks decline throws down the seams. He shows good peripheral vision to crowd throwing windows to tight-ends between the hashes, taking away a lot of easy completions on hooks or stick routes, but also on mesh concepts and other patterns, where he may drift with a route initially, but transitions to somebody else entering his area. Plus, then he can chase things down to either sideline, when he sees the ball come out, to limit big-play opportunities. He can quickly gain depth after initially stepping up against run-fakes and he is so sudden with the way he goes from flowing with zone blocking and then chasing after alert screens or RPO reads the other way, where you see him get involved on the tackle a split-second later. You see it on tunnel screens as well, where his agility to work around bodies and put hands on the target is highly impressive.
This past season, Asamoah was lined up outside the tackle box a lot more and was asked to set the edge and crowd easy high-low reads. He has the ability to come upfield and make key tackles in space on scrambling quarterbacks. When he’s brought as a blitzer, he can anticipate the snap and looks like a bat shot out of hel., Then he can squeeze past offensive linemen, with an ability to bend his rushes, in order to close to the quarterback, where his last few steps are in turbo mode. There’s some physicality to go through backs stepping up in the hole and he doesn’t shy away from running into a guard at full speed either, to free up one of his teammates on a twist.
Due to the lack of size, Asamoah tends to cross-face blockers prematurely, when the ball-carrier hasn’t committed yet and runs himself out of the action, as the cut-back occurs. And while he does have long arms to keep blockers away from his frame theoretically, you see guys get in there and drive him for a good ten yards a few times. Rarely does Asamoah actually stand up and drive back RBs, but rather wrestle and twist them to the ground, for some extra yardage. You see it at times, where he has the stop “in his hands”, but somebody backs his way forward, just beyond the marker. With the scheme Oklahoma ran, Asamoah will have to develop the ability to execute classic run fits and be disciplined in his reads. When he’s chasing out to the flats against check-downs, he would benefit from throttling down and forcing his opponent to actually put a move on him, rather than beating him with easily with one quick cut.
The toughest part about evaluating the linebacker position these days is judging how much the ability to read his keys in a more methodical fashion is worth and how much you can develop it as you transition to the next level. You look at another Oklahoma linebacker who went in the first round a couple of years ago in Kenneth Murray, who has yet to get comfortable in the NFL, in that same kind of role. So similar to that, I don’t think Asamoah will fit in any defense, However, if you put him at WILL on base down and don’t allow combos to work to him quickly, before you move him closer to the middle in passing situations, to take advantage of his ability to flow around, I think he can be a real asset to a defense.
8. Leo Chenal, Wisconsin
6’3”, 255 pounds; JR
One of the top-1000 recruits in 2019, Chenal bulked up from 215 to a massive 255-260 pounds throughout his career in Madison, as one of the gym heroes there. He got more and more involved as a player throughout his three years there, culminating in a second-team All-American selection in 2021, putting up 115 total tackles, 18.5 for loss, eight sacks and two more fumbles forced. He also was an honorable mention All-Big Ten as a true sophomore.
This workout warrior at Wisconsin stands out right away with massive biceps and frame overall. Chenal has the force to actually get into stalemates with guards and jolt their pads backwards at contact around the line of scrimmage, but he also shows some suddenness to work around them. On GT power and stuff like that he can funnel the run back inside with the way he approaches the lead-blocker. When he sees a tight-end trying to insert or deliver wham blocks, he can shoot downhill and absolutely whack them behind the line. Like if you go back to Michigan game early on last season, you can see him flat-out toss those TEs around.
When defenses are trying to cave the backside on like duo schemes, Chenal is not waiting for a crease to open up for him to shoot through – he creates it for himself by crashing through the inside shoulder. I felt like he had a couple of tackles squeezing through the C-gap like that every game. And when you go through the tape, you see him completely stone-wall big backs in the hole on several occasions. This guy is like a bear trying you’re trying to get away from, when he has you wrapped up, and he gets involved on a lot of tackles late, helping to pull the ball-carrier back to not allow extra yardage. Last season, he recorded less than eight total tackles just twice all year and finished with the third-best run-stopping rate among draft-eligible linebackers at 16.1 percent, according to PFF.
Wisconsin didn’t put him in coverage a whole lot, because they preferred what he can bring going forward, but you like the physicality to disrupt receivers in his area and he consistently goes up with that 40-inch vert and sticks a hand up from those shallow drops. Chenal has the burst to drive forward and shut down shallow crossers and check-downs for minimal yardage, and he can stop his momentum and twist down guys, who try to cross him up. When he triggers down on quarterbacks scrambling towards the sideline or throws into the flats, there’s some real speed for a big man
This past year, Chenal was heavily utilized as a blitzer by Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator Jim Leonard, where he displays crazy closing speed for such a big dude, which has to be a scary sight for quarterbacks, because he can deliver some absolutely devastating shots. Running backs trying to get in his way would agree with that, as you see them be discarded routinely. Chenal can get through with a pretty good club-rip move, but even when there’s a pile in the middle, he can help push guys backwards, to take away space for the quarterback to step up into throws. His pass-rush win-rate of 23.5 percent was top-ten among eligible LBs.
Unfortunately, on the flipside of that, PFF handed him a coverage grade of only 56.7 – and that’s kind of the story here. There’s certainly a stiffness to Chenal’s game and I wouldn’t ask him to do a ton in coverage, other than simple spot drops. He just doesn’t have the loose hips to open one way initially and then flip, as he transitions to another receiver. His blitzing game is very much about trying to go through people at this point and he needs to learn to attack half the man more regularly, along with a secondary move or plan. His testing numbers between the combine and pro day are off the charts (4.53 in the 40, 40.5-inch vert, 10’8” broad and outstanding agility numbers), but you don’t see those on tape necessarily.
In the modern, pass-happy NFL it’s interesting trying to slot a linebacker that looks more like Lance Briggs and some other guys from the 2000’s. Chenal can instantly upgrade your run defense, with the way he attacks downhill and can go through big people, which is rare to see these days. On passing downs nobody wants to get in front of this guy, because of the formula for “force equals mass times acceleration”, but he’s not somebody with a diverse rush plan at all and he’s not loose enough to play much in space either. However, for a team like New England, that’s looking for big backers, who can stop the run and then get involved on mush rushes, he makes a lot of sense, plus he has tremendous speed for his size to chase things down.
9. Darrian Beavers, Cincinnati
6’4”, 240 pounds; RS SR
Right around the top-2000 overall recruits in 2017, Beavers spent his first two years at UConn before transferring to Cincinnati. Through his five years, his numbers increased every single season, with his best season coming in 2021, when his team became the first non-Power Five squad to make the CFP and he personally was a first-team All-AAC selection, with 98 tackles, 11 of those for loss, four sacks, a couple of fumbles forced and recovered each.
Beavers presents a large, muscular frame, with an 81-inch wingspan. I really like the way he uses his hands to get to the edge of blockers on forces the running back to stop his feet on the front-side of zone run plays, but he can also go underneath guys working up to him, who have that leverage advantage to the outside. Overall when navigating around blockers, he shows pretty good feet, rips underneath guys and doesn’t allow himself to be taken off track too much. You see it quite a bit when scraping over the top from the backside, how he actually swipes away the reach of multiple blockers, to get over the top.And he has a feel for shooting through lanes against screens and sweeps to the sideline.
However, he can also deliver a strong punch and actually rock the pads of offensive linemen backwards at times, when he’s at the point of attack. Beavers has the size and hand usage to legitimately spend some time on the edge, with the ability to pull cloth and disengage from blocks. He did so largely in the Notre Dame game last year. He shows some impressive closing burst for a big linebacker as a blitzer and has some suddenness to him. That shows in him reducing the near-shoulder when rushing off the edge for example or winning on up-and-under moves. Beavers was involved on some twists as the set-up and second man.
He may look like Dont’a Hightower almost physique-wise, but Beaver shows better movement skills in space. He likes to play in-between routes as a zone defender and keep those feet moving, while being able to pedal backwards quite effectively, He was matched up one-on-one with the back quite a bit and he didn’t seem uncomfortable turning and running on wheel routes either. Beavers displays an awareness for formations and how offenses may attack him, working over the top of rub concepts and getting to his landmarks early. You see his agility laterally when the quarterback scrambles to the sideline, to either chase that guy down or if he dumps it off to somebody, as Beaver comes back inside and wraps up the ball-carrier for a small gain. Beaver really bangs around tight-end when put at the line of scrimmage to pump them, as well as shoving RBs to the ground at times when he’s lined up on the edge and tries to slow down their release.
On the negative side, Beavers does get his eyes trapped in the backfield at times, rather than reading the blocking scheme, and gambles on some stuff. I’m guessing he was given the green light to doing so to some degree, but Beavers did allow some pretty big cutback lanes by cross-facing the guard and shooting through the A-gap on the backside of zone run plays, Other times he will do the exact opposite, when he sees a tight-end sifting across the formation and he leverages himself that way too much. In coverage, it doesn’t look like Beavers is actually processing information post-snap, and his pass-rush productivity leaves things to be desired.
Watching Beavers during Senior Bowl practices, I thought he showed some impressive athleticism in space, flipping his hips around to stick with backs and tight-ends, plus having that short-area burst to crowd the catch point. He backed that up at the combine, where he was the nly linebacker to go below seven seconds in three-cone drill (6.91). I’m not sure how good he actually is at deciphering run schemes and route patterns on the fly. However, Beavers has quality experience in a versatile Cincinnati scheme, where he was lined up over the guards, on the edge, flexed out wide with running backs, had different roles in run fits, covered in man, zone and blitzed from different angles.
10. JoJo Domann, Nebraska
6’1”, 225 pounds; RS SR
A three-star safety recruit all the way back in 2016, Domann moved closer towards the line of scrimmage throughout his collegiate career and over his final 30 games, he racked up 25.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, 13 PBU and six forced fumbles. This past season he was named a second-team All-American defensive back, as he primarily lined up as an overhang/split-the-distance to the slot role, where he was asked to cover in space, but also stop the run as a force defender, having bulked up throughout his college career.
First of all, this guy is a mismatch against slot receivers in the run game, rarely allowing them to seal him from the action inside. He is aggressive his with his hands to disengage from blockers and pairs it with the lateral agility to side-step his man. You see it quite a bit with tight-ends trying to widen or seal him off and Domann gets them to fall flat on their faces. And even when he’s locked up, he has that suddenness to get off late and trip up the ball-carrier. Domann shows good short-area burst to track down ball-carriers who think they have an angle on him initially. I really like the way he sustains his leverage on the backside of runs, being disciplined with his assignments, and the readiness to pick up tight-ends sneaking underneath the formation and into the flats.
However, he was also put on the edge quite a bit, where he showed the willingness to pick up sift-blocks and blitzed from that spot quite a bit as well, where he’s fast enough to wrap up RBs in the backfield on runs between the guards. You see him legitimately run down slot receivers on bubble screens, even though he’s lined up inside and has responsibilities there initially. Domann can gain depth with a back-pedal that’s more than adequate for a box safety. And it’s not like he just blindly drops to an area, but rather he shows that feel for route patterns, adjusting to guys stemming down the seams. You see it quite a bit, where he widens with the tight-end and takes away any window between him and the back-end, while keeping his eyes on the quarterback. He routinely puts hands on people releasing vertically when working out to the sideline or going underneath him in the hook-seam area.
You see the ability to turn and run to get underneath deep crossers from the other side of the field, plus he can deliver some major shots by leading with the shoulder, if he can’t actually make a play on the ball. On the wide side of the field in a two-by-two set, he often times plays between the two receivers and sinks accordingly. Domann has the quick twitch to drive down on flat routes from number two or three and take away YAC opportunities, but also some make-up speed to get back in phase against slots releasing inside on crossing routes. And it wasn’t just zone with him, but rather the Cornhuskers trusted him one-on-one in obvious passing situations. He had an incredible rep against Utah RB T.J. Pledger during Senior Bowl week, staying perfectly in stride on a wheel route and swiping through his hands at the end of it, to get the ball out.
With that being said, Domann barely has any experience playing in-between the tackles. When he’s put at the point of attack, he doesn’t have the ability to anchor against combos on wide zone plays, but rather gets driven backwards usually. And if he ends up against tackles in space, they can push him around more than you want to see from anybody playing an extended role in the box. We saw Nebraska take him off the field in some goal-line situations because of that. In coverage, Domann could do a better job attaching to a man later on in plays, rather than floating around as a zone-defender initially.
It’s always tough to project a player to the next level, whose role doesn’t really exist in the NFL, but there’s a lot to get excited about from a player with easy movement skills in space, the ability to process extended information and cut off angles. Domann may not be a three-down player in every scheme and you’ll need to have a plan for him, but for a creative defensive coordinator, he can be sort of a chess piece and diversify what you can do schematically. I just have concerns for teams that draft him and think he will just find his role, rather than put him in one to succeed.
Just missed the cut:
Quay Walker, Georgia
6’4”, 240 pounds; SR
The number three linebacker recruit in 2018, Walker increased his role and production in the Bulldog defense all four years, highlighted by a career-high 65 tackles, 5.5 TFLs and three PBUs this past season (as well as 25 total pressures). He helped the UGA defense stand alone in terms of national rankings across the board and ultimately winning a CFP championship.
+ Works downhill in a controlled manner, as the back approaches the line of scrimmage, and uses his hands well to shed blocks
+ Shows off the speed to meet the back in the opposite B-gap on wide zone plays at times
+ Wraps up ball-carriers around the hips and stands them up or even lifts them off the ground to finish tackles
+ There’s a bounce to his step in zone coverage and he has the quick burst to get to the ball in short fashion when the quarterback releases it
+ Has the athletic ability to glide sideways at a good pace when widening out to the flats
+ Displays the speed to run stride-for-stride with tight-ends streaking down the middle of the field
+ Does a nice job of picking up RBs sneaking out late as checkdown options
+ Can be a weapon as a blitzer, thanks to how quickly he can get from point A to point B and his willingness to run into people in his path without slowing down
+ Was rushed off the edge a few times and has the height to trouble quarterbacks getting the ball out underneath, when he comes free
– Allows himself to float a little too much and take himself out of run fits
– Lets false keys take him away from the action at times
– Ends up just banging into linemen straight-on and doesn’t have that feel for how to work around them as a rusher
– Was subbed off some passing downs in favor of the more loose space defender in Channing Tindall
There’s some questions about Walker’s ability to read keys in the run game and anticipate route patterns, but he just ran a blazing 4.52 in the 40 (at the combine) and he absolutely smacks guys in the hole on tape. It’s tough for me to justify a first-round pick being used on a player like that, which UGA decided to sub off as much as they did – like some mock drafts would suggest – but I absolutely see the intrigue with him.
Terrell Bernard, Baylor
6’1”, 225 pounds; SO
Just outside the top-1000 overall recruits in 2017, Bernard racked up some pretty staggering numbers across 42 career games – 317 total tackles, 31.5 of them for loss, 16.5 sacks, thee passes intercepted and seven more batted down, with career-highs almost across the board (slightly below in tackles) coming his senior year, which earned him first-team All-Big 12 accolades.
+ Downhill-oriented run defender, who does not shy away from mixing it up with guards
+ Hands are ready to punch, but also pairs a quick rip and dip of the shoulder to effectively to slice through
+ Stays true to his assignments and maintains leverage for his gap
+ Shows an innate feel for how to work around blockers in space, in particular on screen passes
+ His pursuit all over the level is outstanding and he’s a reliable tackler in space
+ Rarely gets fooled by the action in the backfield and quickly reacts to tight-ends sneaking out on a route or the QB pulling the ball
+ Active communicator in zone coverage, pointing out stuff to his teammates
+ Doesn’t fully commit without actually being able to pass off receivers, but then shows a quick to trigger once he sees the QB start his throwing motionin
+ Displays excellent snap anticipation, to time up his blitzes and choose his angles
+ Has that suddenness to him, to work around those guys, paired with a simultaneous hand-swipe
– Doesn’t have the force in his hands to actually jolt the pads of blockers backwards and he can be swallowed up a bit if he’s not pro-active
– Has very little experience in man-coverage
– Pressure and sack output benefitted from becoming the free rusher a lot of times; Not nearly as effective when blockers get into is frame
– Durability is the biggest concern, considering he’s suffered foot, knee and shoulder surgeries in college
If you love smart team-leaders, who will fight through nicks and bruises and play above their size, Bernard is your guy. Unfortunately the lack of arm length (only 74-inch wingspan) and injuries do worry a lot of people about his ability to stay on the field over the course of games and then maybe also long-term, while the defensive system at Baylor was pretty “friendly” towards him. I personally think he’s underrated in this class and while he may have maxed out his frame already, there’s plenty of guys who excel in the NFL at 225 pounds, when they can see and feel where the ball is going.
D’Marco Jackson, Appalachian State
6’0”, 235 pounds; SR
Just a two-star recruit in 2017 at 205 pounds, Jackson developed his body and game throughout his career at App State, steadily increasing his production, with 206 combined tackles, 26.5 of those for loss, 8.5 sacks, three passes intercepted and 11 more deflected on his resume. He went from second-team All-Sun Belt to the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year this past season.
+ Has stopped the run between the tackles as a MIKE backer at a high level
+ Disciplined with keeping his shoulder square to the line of scrimmage whilst working diagonally towards it on zone plays
+ If a hole opens up in front of him, he shows no hesitation to fill it and bang around bodies
+ Displays the short-area burst to stay balanced behind a combo-block and then meet the back in the hole
+ Worked around traffic much more effectively this past, to make plays in the backfield – 20(!) tackles for loss
+ Initiates contact with low pads as a tackler and when he wraps guy up, they usually don’t get away
+ Has the ability toggle his eyes between the receivers, the quarterback and back to the targets in space
+ Understands when it’s time to match in his area, put hands on people and stick with them
+ When there’s an open lane to blitz through, he can hit another gear to stamp quarterbacks
+ Mountaineer coaches walked him down over the center, to give the rest of the D-line one-on-ones and have him as a quasi-spy quite a bit
– Lacks the flexibility to get his hands on ball-carriers who have room to make him miss with a sharp cut
– When Jackson doesn’t feel like he can catch up to the ball, you don’t see that all-out effort to just keep running anyway
– Fast tight-ends and backs are able to create separation down the seams
– Got stone-walled a few times on tape as a rusher
Similar to Bernard, I believe there are some limitations as a player for Jackson, only it’s more about all-around athleticism than size. However, he did run in the mid-4.5’s and jumped 10 ½ feet in the broad at the combine. With his ability to create negative plays in the run game and to contribute as a pressure-player on passing downs, I could see him be a quality three-down starter in the right situation.
The next names up:
Channing Tindall (Georgia), Mike Rose (Iowa State), Malcolm Rodriguez (Oklahoma State), Micah McFadden (Indiana), Brandon Smith (Penn State), Jack Sanborn (Wisconsin) & Nephi Sewell (Utah)