News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft linebacker rankings

Nov 9, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Micah Parsons (11) celebrates after sacking the Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan (not pictured) in the second half at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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1. Micah Parson, Penn State

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Parsons strap on the pads, so it may be easy to forget just how different he was. Last summer, I wrote about how he was the best linebacker prospect PFF has ever graded — and that hasn’t changed since. Parsons is still wholly capable of being a wrecking ball coming downhill that can destroy any blocker in his path.

The only real knock on his game is his limited coverage responsibility in Penn State’s scheme. He played all of 65 snaps in man coverage back in 2019. That’s not an end-all, be-all, though; he can still easily hunt down ball carriers with his movement skills in space.

At the end of the day, Parsons is simply too freaky to pass up. He earned the second-highest run-defense grade of any true sophomore linebacker in the PFF College era. He reportedly runs in the 4.3s at 240-plus pounds. If he were solely an edge rusher, he’d likely be EDGE1 with the way he attacks blocks. Parsons is the real deal.

2. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame

JOK is a decidedly different type of linebacker than Parsons. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if NFL teams evaluated the 215-pounder as a safety in their defenses because the position he played at Notre Dame was more akin to slot corner in the NFL than anything else. He played the overhang spot for the Irish, which meant he often had to run with slot receivers down the field. Even still, he earned coverage grades of 77.2 (2019) and 82.3 (2020) the past two seasons.

That level of coverage prowess puts him this high on the list. He boasts lightning short-area quicks and explodes into contact with an uncoachable ferocity.

Similar to Isaiah Simmons last year, JOK won’t be a plug-and-play Mike linebacker between the tackles. What he is, though, is a defense’s answer to a modern offense. His flexibility could be invaluable to a creative defensive coordinator.

3. Nick Bolton, Missouri

Bolton won’t have the length and won’t have the high-end measurables. What he will have is the production and all the intangibles you could ask for. The Missouri linebacker led the SEC in stops each of the past two regular seasons. He’s the highest-graded linebacker after Parsons over the past two seasons. All he does is make plays. Oh, and light dudes up.

He simply sees and processes the game at a level that I’m not sure any other backer in the class can match. There are reads like the one below littered all over his tape.

And it’s not like Bolton is a bad athlete, either. He’s just not to the level of some of the others in the class. Put him in the middle of your defense, and you’ve got little to worry about.

4. Zaven Collins, Tulsa

Collins may not be for everyone. Not every team needs a 6-foot-4, 260-pound horse galloping in the middle of their defense. Teams that want to take advantage of his wingspan and blitzing ability will likely fall in love, though.

Collins looked like an adult playing against kids at times on tape this past year at Tulsa. His sheer physical prowess stood out like a sore thumb. He earned a 91.1 overall grade, including a 90.6 mark as a pass-rusher and 93.7 grade in coverage. While he’s not going to be your “space” linebacker, Collins has a skill set you won't find later in the draft.

5. Jabril Cox, LSU

As far as pure coverage skill goes, Cox is the best in the draft class. Others are more athletic or explosive, but Cox is so assignment-sound and smooth that he consistently gets the job done. Whether that’s in man coverage…

Or zone coverage…

Cox just continually made plays throughout his college career. In his last three seasons — two at North Dakota State before transferring to LSU this past season — Cox earned coverage grades of 87.4 (2018), 85.2 (2019) and 83.5 (2020) while collecting eight picks and 11 pass breakups over that span. Maybe he won’t produce super high-end splash plays, but Cox gets the job done.

6. Justin Hilliard, Ohio State

As part of the 2015 recruiting class, Hilliard was the rare sixth-year college player in 2020. He was also comfortably the best linebacker for the Buckeyes every time he stepped on the field. His tape against Clemson and Alabama in the College Football Playoff this past season was as impressive a two-game sample as you’ll see from this linebacker class.

Hilliard’s problem isn’t what he did on the field but, rather, getting on the field altogether. Because of multiple injuries, he managed only 494 snaps his entire six years for the Buckeyes. He saved his best for last, however. If you solely evaluated what he did on the football field this fall — when he earned an 82.2 run-defense grade and an 81.0 coverage grade of 81.0 — along with what he did at the Senior Bowl, Justin Hilliard would be a top-50 player in the class.

7. Jamin Davis, Kentucky

Davis has the long-levered body type that’s very much en vogue at the linebacker position nowadays. At 6-foot-4, 234 pounds, he had no problem tacking on blocks in the run game and earned an 87.5 grade in that regard this past season.

Davis’ concerns are more related to his play in coverage. While he’s athletic enough to get the job done, he became a full-time starter only as a junior in 2020 and played a lot of spot drop zone in Kentucky’s defense. It was hard to get a read on how quickly he’d pick up route concepts, as he did a lot of staring down the quarterback. He still made some splash plays with three picks and one pass-breakup, so there is reason for encouragement.

8. Chazz Surratt, North Carolina

Surratt started his career for the Tarheels as a quarterback before switching to linebacker in 2019. You’d never guess it by watching the way he relishes the physical aspect of his new position. Surratt is the single most reckless blitzer in the draft class, racking up 62 total pressures on 200 pass-rushing snaps over the past two seasons as an off-ball linebacker. If you aren’t going to use Surratt as a blitzer, you’re likely wasting your time.

While his tape is littered with splash plays, Surratt is still very rough around the edges. False steps and misreads are far more frequent than big stops like the one below.

He has a lot of the tools you’d like from an every-down backer, but he may not be ready to start on Day 1.

9. Monty Rice, Georgia

Rice may not have the size profile that many teams are looking for at the position, but he does have one thing every NFL franchise wants at the position: speed. Rice can get from Point A to Point B in a hurry. So much so that he contested a deep over route against Alabama's Jaylen Waddle while running the deep middle in Cover 2. It showed up in a number of different ways on tape. Whether as a blitzer…

Or as a run defender…

He’s not particularly adept at taking on blocks, however, and will be best served going to a scheme that tries to keep him clean with its defensive line.

10. Dylan Moses, Alabama

The proverbial light switch never quite flipped on for Moses. He was one of the most highly touted linebackers in the 2020 draft class heading into his junior season because of what he was capable of physically. How many off-ball linebackers are able to produce reps like this?

Sadly, Moses tore his ACL prior to that season and returned to school in 2020. As a senior, we saw more of the same. Those sort of reps are great, but you saw almost no plays on the ball in coverage or on quick reads in the run game.

Despite playing the most snaps of any linebacker in the country, Moses finished 45th nationally with 35 stops. For context, Missouri's Nick Bolton had 44 on 250 fewer defensive snaps. While Moses' explosiveness didn’t necessarily go anywhere, you have to see it translate to a football field better than a 56.4 overall grade.

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