NFL Draft News & Analysis

2024 NFL Draft: The top-10 linebacker prospects if everyone in college football was eligible

2T9PC07 November 25, 2023: NC State senior Payton Wilson (11) directing traffic. NCAA football game, between University of North Carolina and NC State University, at Carter Finley Stadium, Raleigh, North Carolina. David Beach/CSM (Credit Image: © David Beach/Cal Sport Media)

• Harold Perkins leads the way: The rising LSU junior would be the top linebacker in 2024 if he was eligible to be drafted.

• Anthony Hill Jr. is the 2026 prospect to know: While he didn’t crack the top 10, the rising Texas sophomore is the linebacker to know for the 2026 NFL Draft.

• Draft and trade for yourself: Try PFF's Mock Draft Simulator — trade picks and players and mock for your favorite NFL team.

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The NFL is unique to other sports leagues in that players cannot enter it until they are three years removed from high school. 

What if that rule changed and players could enter the draft after playing just one year of college football? Here’s how the top-10 linebacker prospects would shake out for the 2024 NFL Draft if everybody in college football was eligible to be selected.

(Please note: Only players eligible for the 2024, 2025 and 2026 NFL Drafts were considered. Incoming true freshmen were not eligible. Also, the 2024 rankings are how I view the prospects, not necessarily what’s reflected on PFF’s big board.)

Click below to view our other all-eligible prospect rankings

QB | RB | WR | TE | OT | IOL | DI | EDGE

1. Harold Perkins, LSU, 2025

Perkins entered Baton Rouge as a top-10 recruit and proved why in his true freshman season. In 2022, he paced all Power Five linebackers with a 91.0 PFF pass-rushing grade and placed second among all FBS linebackers with 18 quarterback knockdowns (sack/hits).

The Tigers asked him to play more in an off-ball role as a sophomore and he responded with an 81.1 PFF coverage grade that was a top-15 mark among Power Five linebackers. While LSU would be wise to pin his ears back and allow him to rush the passer more as a junior, Perkins has proven that he’s versatile enough to do whatever’s asked of him at a high level.

2. Payton Wilson, NC State, 2024

Wilson has almost everything you look for in a linebacker prospect: length, intelligence, athleticism and production. His 89.9 PFF grade this past season ranked third among all linebackers in the nation and he took home the Bednarik Award, given to the best defender in college football.

What will likely preclude him from being a first-round pick is his injury history. Wilson has already suffered two torn ACLs in his career and had a season-ending shoulder injury in 2022. If he stays on the field, he’ll likely be a very good linebacker in the league.

3. Edgerrin Cooper, Texas A&M, 2024

While Wilson took home most of the individual honors in 2023, Cooper was actually PFF’s highest-graded linebacker (90.8). He was also the only one in the nation who earned 85-plus PFF grades as a run defender, pass-rusher and in coverage.

Cooper is a very explosive player who’s at his best downhill. 

4. Barrett Carter, Clemson, 2025

Carter was the top linebacker prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft entering the season according to PFF’s lead draft analyst Trevor Sikkema before surprising many by returning for his senior year. While his junior season didn’t quite live up to what he showed as a sophomore (70.6 PFF grade in 2023 compared to 81.4 in 2022), Carter’s entire body of work over the last two years still earns him one of the top spots on this list.

No returning Power Five linebacker since 2022 has been more valuable than Carter according to PFF’s wins above average metric. He’s especially dominant on passing downs, as he’s the only one in that same group with 80-plus PFF grades as both a pass-rusher and run defender in that span. Carter is a supreme athlete who can re-enter first-round conversations with a bounceback 2024 campaign.

5. Junior Colson, Michigan, 2024

A three-year starter for Michigan, Colson has consistently improved every season of his career. He was one of only seven linebackers in the nation this past season who earned 80-plus grades both as a run-defender and in coverage.

Colson is a good enough athlete with the size and intelligence to have a long career as a starter in the league.

6. Jeremiah Trotter Jr., Clemson, 2024

Trotter is one of many prospects in this draft with NFL bloodlines as his father, Jeremiah Sr., was a former All-Pro linebacker who played 12 seasons in the league. You can tell that Trotter grew up around the game due to how smart of a player he is. He’s the only Power Five linebacker with 80-plus PFF grades as a run-defender, pass-rusher and in coverage over the past two seasons.

Trotter’s measurables are less than ideal at 6-foot, 228 pounds with below-average speed and explosiveness. However, his IQ will likely allow him to carve out a significant role for an NFL defense.

7. Jaishawn Barham, Michigan, 2025

Barham broke onto the scene as a true freshman in 2022, placing fifth among Power Five linebackers with an 83.1 PFF coverage grade. He finished the season as the seventh-most valuable linebacker in the country according to PFF’s wins above-average metric.

Barham was limited by injuries as a sophomore and posted just a 44.7 PFF coverage grade this past season. He’ll try to rebound at a new home in 2024, as he transferred from Maryland to Michigan in December.

8. Jay Higgins, Iowa, 2025

Higgins was a true ironman for Iowa’s defense, leading all FBS defenders in 2023 with 985 snaps. He still played at an elite level despite practically never coming off the field, finishing fifth among all linebackers in the nation with an 89.6 PFF grade. Higgins ended the year as the most valuable linebacker in the country according to PFF’s wins above-average metric.

He always seemed to be around the ball last year, leading the nation with 108 plays where he made first contact on the ball carrier. Higgins was one of only six Power Five linebackers who earned 80-plus grades both as a run defender and in coverage. One of the others is further down this list while the other four are the top-four linebackers on PFF’s 2024 NFL Draft big board: Payton Wilson, Edgerrin Cooper, Junior Colson and Jeremiah Trotter Jr. In fact, Higgins’ 90.8 PFF coverage grade led all Power Five players at the position. 

9. Cedric Gray, North Carolina, 2024

Gray’s sideline-to-sideline speed allows him to constantly be around the football. He’s made first contact on a ball carrier 223 times over the past two seasons. That figure is 19 more than the next-closest FBS linebacker and 49 more than the nearest Power Five one. 

His play recognition must still improve in order to become a starter in the league, but Gray has the ability to be a very good run-stuffer.

10. Danny Stutsman, Oklahoma Sooners, 2025

Stutsman was named a third-team AP All-American this past season after living in opposing backfields. His 19 tackles for loss/no-gain as a junior were tied for fourth among Power Five linebackers. He also tied for eighth among Power Five linebackers with 37 run-defense stops.

He needs to improve in coverage, earning just a 64.2 PFF grade in that aspect last season. Still, Stutsman is a menace downhill who’ll once again be the leader of Oklahoma’s defense next season.

2026 Prospect to Know: Anthony Hill Jr., Texas

Hill had plenty of hype coming out of high school as a top-20 recruit in the 2023 class. While there’s certainly work to be done (60.1 PFF grade in 2023), there’s no denying his high ceiling.

Hill’s 15 coverage stops were tied for sixth among Power Five linebackers this past season and his 18 pressures were tied for 21st. He has incredible closing speed at 6-foot-3, 234 pounds who’s just beginning to scratch his ceiling. 

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