Linebackers have been under siege across college football with the rise of RPOs, option runs, play action, jet-motion and wide-spread offenses. The position is becoming almost as diverse as safeties in terms of the roles one is asked to execute.
Pure PFF grades may not tell the whole story at the linebacker position, as some are being asked to handle far more difficult tasks than others. Nowadays, to get drafted highly as a linebacker, one has to test athletically closer to a cornerback than a linebacker of old. Being able to cover ground is at a premium, and the guys high up on this list can certainly do that.
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1. Nakobe Dean, Georgia (Junior)
Dean approaches every play like a cannonball ready to fire. He may not key every play at an elite level yet, but as soon as he knows where the ball is going, you can bet he’s going 100 mph to get there.
Nakobe Dean nearly took Mac Jones' head off with this sack. pic.twitter.com/y68CAj7VpP
— Chris Hummer (@chris_hummer) October 18, 2020
It’s that utter fearlessness coupled with some absurd explosiveness that earns the Mississippi native the top spot on this list. He’s only 6-foot and 220 pounds, but you’d never guess he’s that small watching him take on linemen between the tackles. Dean took the every-down role in Georgia’s defense away from third-rounder Monty Rice last year as a true sophomore and didn’t look back.
Fantastic pickup here on the wheel by Nakobe Dean who is going to be a top pick in '22. The second he saw Dean bail to the wheel, he needs to throw the shallow into the vacated window. Bad read but I don't think he was expecting Dean to recover after getting caught in the rub pic.twitter.com/uTZd1Xbi44
— Max Toscano (@maxtoscano1) May 24, 2020
2. Christian Harris, Alabama (Junior)
Harris has ideal modern linebacker traits. He’s a long, explosive and violent linebacker despite checking in at only 232 pounds. You see his explosiveness routinely with how he takes on blocks.
Alabama LB #8 Christian Harris checks all the physical boxes with room to grow polishing his game. pic.twitter.com/pOkF5cnlCW
— Bobby Skinner (@BobbySkinner_) June 25, 2021
Harris dominates running backs as a blitzer and racked up 31 pressures on 116 pass-rushing snaps last year. That’s quite easily his biggest selling point at the moment. He’s still a tick slow to see things develop in coverage and can be too easily manipulated in zone coverage. Still, Harris boasts the kind of range and movement skills to excel when deployed in man coverage at the next level.
Can we talk about this play from Alabama linebacker Christian Harris (@Charris_36) for a second? Gets caught up for a second contacting but HOLY SMOKES look at that closing speed on Anthony Schwartz… and a forced fumble to boot. That’s some big time athleticism. pic.twitter.com/PigbPIrI37
— Ryan Roberts (@RiseNDraft) August 31, 2020
3. Mike Jones Jr., LSU (Redshirt Junior)
Jones started at overhang for Clemson last year before transferring this offseason to LSU, where he should play a more traditional linebacker role. He’s undersized at 6-foot, 220 pounds, but the Nashville native makes up for that size deficiency with some of the smoothest hips in the country at the position. Jones easily mirrors running backs and slot receivers alike in the open field.
Mike Jones Jr. makes the huge INT to keep Clemson’s hopes alive! 35-14 Buckeyes in the 3rd pic.twitter.com/BPrezu9FDt
— Zach McKinnell (@zachmckinnell) January 2, 2021
He finished with a 90.2 coverage grade last season and allowed only nine catches on 13 targets for 47 yards. He’ll have to prove he can take on blocks and secure tackles better in 2021, though. Last season, the IMG Academy alumnus missed a ridiculous 13 tackles on 35 attempts.
4. Devin Lloyd, Utah (Redshirt Senior)
Lloyd was one of the few holdover starters last year from the vaunted 2019 Utes defense, and he took his leadership role to another level in 2020. He registered a hefty 27 defensive stops and earned an 82.2 overall grade in just five games. Lloyd’s biggest selling point may very well be how little projection is needed with his game. We routinely see him taking on and beating blocks at the line of scrimmage.
Blocking UT LB Devin Lloyd with TE? Forget it. Too strong at POA, gets down line fast. Also gets off OL blocks. Lines up stack and on edge, not asked to rush often but is effective. Covers zone, secure tackler that limits YAC. Tracks down ballcarriers when needed. #SnapScout22 pic.twitter.com/lVUO67ruoA
— Chad Reuter (@chad_reuter) June 1, 2021
Oh yeah, and there’s also that whole playing in space box Lloyd checks with ease.
Insanely talented play from Utah LB Devin Lloyd pic.twitter.com/AT1lUxdkbH
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) December 12, 2020
He may not quite be the ultra-high-end athlete some of the others ahead of him on this list are, but Lloyd is more than athletic enough to be a three-down linebacker at the NFL level.
5. Owen Pappoe, Auburn (Junior)
Even though teammate Zakoby McClain is the more well–established name in the Auburn linebacking corps, Pappoe is the one on the rise after starting each of his first two years on campus. He earned a 74.4 coverage grade last season despite SEC offenses focusing in on linebackers last season. Watch him in coverage, and you will see why he is nicknamed “the freak.” Pappoe has about as easy a match and mirror skills as you’ll see from any returning linebacker in the country. While he still needs to fill out (listed at 6-foot-1, 226 pounds) and improve against the run, Pappoe isn’t too far off.
— Ryan Roberts (@RiseNDraft) August 24, 2020
Wildcard: DeMarvion Overshown, Texas (Senior)
I can’t say I’ve seen too many linebackers with Overshown’s build. If I had to guess, I’d say the number of wide receivers his size (6-foot-4, 217 pounds) beats out the number of linebackers throughout history by a factor of over 100. It’s a brave, new world in terms of what linebackers are asked to do, though, in both college and the NFL. That size gives a defense flexibility in terms of where it deploys Overshown’s skill set.
Someone I highlighted before the season was #Texas LB DeMarvion Overshown, who was making the transition from Safety to LB this season. He has made it seamlessly, as he picks up his second INT of the season here.
Athletic, rangy, still learning, but he's someone to watch. pic.twitter.com/Plgr3FQori
— Devin Jackson (@RealD_Jackson) December 30, 2020
The Longhorn started his career at safety before transitioning to linebacker, so he’s more than comfortable tracking balls down the football field. In his first year as a starter this past fall, Overshown picked off two passes and broke up five others.
Someone I'm keeping an eye on is #Texas converted Safety turned LB DeMarvion Overshown (#0) this season. Has some versatility in coverage, and put in a four tackle (2 TFL) effort on Saturday.
He played eight games at safety last season. pic.twitter.com/W3cUqS28An
— Devin Jackson (@RealD_Jackson) September 17, 2020
Obviously, there will be some physical limitations at his size, which is why he falls squarely in the “wildcard” category for now. Overshown missed 25 of his 102 career tackle attempts and is not going to be much of a physical presence. Possessing such an unprecedented skill set for the position, Overshown is one to monitor.
Prospects to Watch
Edefuan Ulofoshio, Washington (Redshirt Junior)
Ulofoshio went from a walk-on to one of the highest-graded linebackers in the country in a few short years. Ulofoshio earned a 90.2 overall grade on 452 snaps over the past two seasons due to his steadiness from down to down. He plays with exceptional balance and is ultra-quick to diagnose. He may not have ideal physical traits at 6-foot and 230 pounds, but he’s a player.
WA JR Edefuan Ulofoshio is a thick, instictive ILB. He's constantly taking on and shedding OL blocks between the tackles, or dipping below the block before it arrives to corral ballcarriers. Adept in zone coverage, as well. Has the want-to to get outside the hashes. #SnapScout22 pic.twitter.com/Ke3Bt1YJql
— Chad Reuter (@chad_reuter) July 17, 2021
Brandon Smith, Penn State (Junior)
Usually when talking about the overhang/slot/apex linebacker in a college defense, it’s an undersized guy barely scraping the 220s. With Smith, that’s not close to the case. He took 215 of his 403 snaps over the slot last season at a burly 6-foot-3, 244 pounds. While he wasn’t nearly as adept there as, say, a Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (Smith earned a 50.2 coverage grade), the sheer fact the coaching staff felt confident enough in Smith’s ability in space to play him there says a lot.
Only Brandon Smith days (12) until Penn State Football.
— Nittanyville (@NittanyvillePSU) October 12, 2020
Ventrell Miller, Florida (Redshirt Senior)
Miller is one of the most productive returning linebackers in the country, boasting 73 defensive stops over the past two seasons. He’s a brick wall as a tackler and packs an absolute wallop at only 6-foot-1, 230 pounds.
Great 3rd and 1 stop by LB Ventrell Miller pic.twitter.com/lXlWob9JNf
— Connor Rogers (@ConnorJRogers) September 26, 2020
Watching Miller come downhill is a sight to behold, and he could stand to be utilized more as a blitz weapon. Miller generated pressure 21 times on only 59 pass-rushing snaps the past two seasons. That will almost assuredly be a bigger part of his game at the NFL level.
Ventrell Miller (Florida LB 51) is an experienced LB for the #Gators with 21 career starts. Listed at 6-1 and 225 pounds, he's starting to become one of their most consistent players in the middle of their defense. Here he shows good patience, range and makes a good tackle. pic.twitter.com/JYHyAbUeIC
— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) July 8, 2021
Miller is still a linear player, though, and can struggle when isolated in space. It’s likely why, despite his productive numbers last year, he’s still returning for his senior season and not already in the NFL.
Jack Sanborn, Wisconsin (Senior)
Sanborn is very advanced at the little things of the position already, so most of his improvement has to come physically. He’s terrific at taking on blocks in the run game as well as route recognition in zone coverage in the passing game. The good news is, we already saw him make serious physical strides from his first year as a starter in 2019 to this past year. He got far stronger as a tackler and saw his missed tackle rate almost chopped in half, from 24.0 in 2019 to 14.3 this past year.
WI LB Jack Sanborn is solid ILB, takes on or avoid OL in box to find the ball with instincts and quickness. Here directs teammates, then form-tackles a RB after reading play and dipping under blocker. Aware in zone coverage, gets to RB/WR to prevent the big play. #SnapScout22 pic.twitter.com/WwXd8HKVMq
— Chad Reuter (@chad_reuter) June 2, 2021
Kadofi Wright, Buffalo (Redshirt Senior)
Wright could easily qualify for the “wildcard” spot in this class as well with his unique combination of length and speed and usage in the overhang position. While he may be a tad stiff, Wright covers ground in a hurry and has the type of juice the NFL will covet.
BUF LB Kadofi Wright is 6-3, 230 but shows speed and quick reaction here. Often used in coverage because of his agility, Showed explosive movement skills as a blitzer in team's bowl- more of that in '21 may convince some 3-4 teams he will be a contributor. #SnapScout22 pic.twitter.com/1ALflGe2e1
— Chad Reuter (@chad_reuter) May 21, 2021
Best Blitzer: Christian Harris, Alabama
This is where Harris poses the biggest threat in the middle of Alabama’s defense. He can not only beat backs, but he can also go one on one with offensive linemen and get home. He had six sacks, seven hits and 18 hurries last season.
Most Versatile in Coverage: Mike Jones Jr., LSU
Jones is just an all-around smooth mover. He could likely play safety with his movement skills, but you won’t find many 220-pounders roaming the back end anymore. Jones should easily replace Jabrill Cox’s coverage versatility in LSU’s defense.
Best Run Game Instincts: Edefuan Ulofoshio, Washington
Ulofoshio consistently plays a step faster than linemen trying to get to the second level to block him. For his career, Ulofoshio has a run-stop percentage of 10.9%.
Best Tackler: Olakunle Fatukasi, Rutgers
The younger brother of Jets defensive tackle Folorunso Fatukasi, Olakunle doesn’t possess too much flash in his game. He does, however, get the job done consistently. Fatukasi has missed only 21 of 218 tackle attempts for his career.
Best Athlete: Owen Pappoe, Auburn
Pappoe posted a 4.47 40-yard dash and a 40 inch vertical coming out of high school. His testing numbers were good enough for a 147.12 SPARQ score — the highest of any linebacker in the 2019 recruiting class. Three years later, and not much has changed. Pappoe put on nearly 20 pounds since his high school days and maintained that elite level of explosiveness.