The 2021 linebacker class is shaping up to be the best group at the position in recent memory. It features a mixture of top-end talent and depth that the past couple of years haven’t been able to match.
But after top dog Micah Parsons, it will be a “choose your own adventure” of sorts. That’s because guys like Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Tulsa’s Zaven Collins may technically be called linebackers, but at 215 pounds and 260 pounds, respectively, they’ll play vastly different roles in an NFL defense.
There are a number of unique skill sets in this linebacker class waiting to be tapped into, so let's dive in.
Parsons is the best run defender, blitzer and tackler at the position in the draft class. He’s quite easily the best blitzing off-ball linebacker we’ve seen in our seven years of doing this, so it's no surprise that he ranks first in this draft class in PFF pass-rushing grade over his career. We have only ever seen him as a true freshman and sophomore, too. Parsons is a truly special prospect.
Versatile, instinctive and explosive, JOK ticks the boxes you want to see from a modern linebacker. He generated the second-highest slot coverage grade of any player in the country last season. Oh, and did I mention that he’s a 221-pound linebacker? That type of coverage prowess is rare for the position.
Bolton is arguably the most instinctive linebacker in the class. He’s racked up stops in both the run and pass game over the past two seasons. He’s also gotten his hands on the ball despite being small for the position, tallying 11 pass breakups and two picks over that span.
Collins is one unique backer at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds. He’s not physically limited by any means at that size and earned a 93.0 coverage grade this past season for Tulsa. While he won’t be for everyone, certain schemes will covet that size.
Davis put together one heck of a season in his first year as a starter in 2020, earning an 87.5 run-defense grade for the Wildcats and showing some legit sideline-to-sideline range. He ran in the 4.4s at his pro day and tied the record for the highest vertical jump ever recorded by an off-ball linebacker (42 inches). He has all the athletic tools to be your do-it-all linebacker in the NFL.
Cox has one of the best coverage pedigrees in the entire draft class. He’s earned coverage grades of 87.4, 85.2 and 83.5 over the past three seasons between North Dakota State and LSU.
Werner has an ideal blend of size and athleticism at the position. There aren’t a ton of “wow” plays on his tape, but he’s not going to be limited at the NFL level, either.
PFF BIG BOARD RANK: 101
After switching from quarterback — of all positions — to linebacker just a couple of years ago, Surratt made his presence felt quickly in the Tar Heels defense. He racked up a ridiculous 56 stops in his first season as a starter but had a disastrous missed tackle problem. That was something that had to get cleaned up in 2020, and he did, with only one miss in his final five games (47 attempts). He’s still not the most adept at his run reads and fits between the tackles, but he’s a playmaker with modern-linebacker athleticism.
PFF BIG BOARD RANK: 102
The former five-star recruit has always had the physical tools, but until this year he was more liability than difference-maker for the Ohio State defense. You could see the wheels turning in real time in years past, but this year saw a noticeable uptick in his play speed. The team simplified his role in the defense, and his natural ability flourished — to a degree. He still only earned a 71.8 overall grade. The one area he continues to intrigue in is the pass rush. His size and athleticism is tailor-made for the edge, which would alleviate processing speed issues.
PFF BIG BOARD RANK: 110
Rice saw playing time for the Bulldogs from his true freshman season to the end of his college career. And he’s been on NFL radars the entire time for his ability to fly around a football field. He didn’t start until his junior year, though, when he racked up 40 stops for the Bulldogs’ defense. He returned in the hopes of upping his draft stock but fell out of favor and ceded playing time to sophomore Nakobe Dean. Rice played only 33 snaps per game and didn’t look too dissimilar from the player we saw in 2019.