Following one of the more loaded linebacker NFL draft classes we’ve seen in PFF's eight years of grading college football, the 2023 class doesn’t quite measure up just yet. It can certainly improve, but the depth just appears to be lacking as it stands right now.
1. Trenton Simpson, Clemson (Junior)
Simpson is the class' best do-it-all linebacker. As only a true sophomore in 2021, Simpson has already worn a ton of different hats in Clemsons defense. He was often tasked as the overhang player, and he played 225 snaps from the slot, 207 in the box and 117 along the line of scrimmage.
While he graded most impressively as a blitzer with 31 pressures from 90 pass-rushing snaps, his nimbleness in coverage earned him the top spot on this list. At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Simpson moves more like a safety than most linebackers. He’s looking to follow in the footsteps of players such as Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Fred Warner, who played more overhang linebacker in college yet went on to succeed in the box in the NFL.
Trenton Simpson (# 22) owns four consecutive plays on D. Second-fourth downs, then first down the next very series. pic.twitter.com/vcfog3gMeV
— Anna Hickey (@AnnaH247) October 18, 2020
2. Noah Sewell, Oregon (Junior)
The last name should look familiar and so should the outright physicality Sewell plays the game with. The Oregon linebacker is a one-man freight train at the linebacker position — taking on blocks is child’s play for the 6-foot-3, 251-pounder. He earned an 88.6 pass-rushing grade last season with 34 pressures from 98 blitzing snaps. Give him a straight line to a ball carrier, and it’s a wrap.
Noah Sewell is a freak at LB. Runs down the back and forces a fumble. pic.twitter.com/0XouagZ1Sq
— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) September 9, 2021
Nonetheless, he's still a work in progress in coverage. He only earned a 59.0 coverage grade last season and missed a lot of tackles in the open field. Those are two areas we’d like to see improved in 2022 to vault him into the first round.
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 11, 2021
3. Jack Campbell, Iowa (Senior)
Campbell is one of the easiest projections in the entire draft class, as he’s a sure-tackling 6-foot-5, 243-pounder who has a full season’s worth of middle linebacker experience under his belt. He has the range of a much smaller man in addition to the read-and-react ability you’d expect from an Iowa-coached defender. His balance and short-area quickness are both positive traits as well.
Iowa LB Jack Campbell (@jackcampbell133) is going to be a breakout star for the Hawkeyes next season. His instincts are incredible, and he’s a really good athlete. Campbell has the talent to put up All-American numbers next season. #NFLDraft #DraftTwitter pic.twitter.com/EGSz5tH3fm
— Jack Borowsky (@Jack_Borowsky) May 18, 2021
While he may not have the high-end talent of some of the others in this class, Campbell brings a high floor to the position.
4. Henry To’oTo’o, Alabama (Senior)
This is where the linebacker class starts to get thin. To’oTo’o started for two seasons at Tennessee before transferring to Alabama prior to last season. With three years of starting experience in the SEC under his belt, To’oTo’o would appear to be an NFL-ready linebacker, on paper. Unfortunately, the tape tells a slightly different story, as he can be a tick slow to read and react to the unexpected, which is why he’s never earned a grade above 59.8 in his three seasons as a starter.
Still, he flashes on tape, and he’s certainly an all-around NFL-caliber athlete. Just watch him close to the quarterback on a green dog blitz.
Most instinctive linebackers have knack for disguising & timing blitzes and Alabama’s Henry To’oto’o is that guy. Here’s @HenryTootoo1 showing good closing burst getting home on an add rush vs. LSU.#TheDraftStartsInMOBILE™️ pic.twitter.com/0lSKllLBy2
— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) May 26, 2022
He came back for his senior season because he knows he can play better in Year 2 under Nick Saban than he did in Year 1. If he does that, he could make his way toward the first-round conversation.
5. Justin Flowe, Oregon (Redshirt Sophomore)
Flowe is quite a bit different than any other prospect on this list because he has played a grand total of 67 snaps in his collegiate career — 65 of which came against Fresno State last season. And while he didn't put together an all-world performance, he displayed some special physical attributes. The same physical attributes that made him the No. 1 linebacker recruit in the 2020 cycle.
Oregon commit Justin Flowe is a different breed ????
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 11, 2020
After a torn meniscus in 2020 and a foot injury in 2021, Flowe simply has to stay healthy going forward to start shooting up draft boards.
6. Nick Herbig, Wisconsin (Junior)
While this is a ranking of off-ball linebacker prospects, Herbig plays on the line of scrimmage at Wisconsin as a true 3-4 outside linebacker. However, he’s going to have an uphill climb to stay there in the NFL at his listed size of only 6-foot-2 and 227 pounds. As only a rising junior, that could very well change by the time he declares for the draft.
If it doesn’t, the way he attacks blocks as a pass-rusher will translate nicely to an off-ball role. Herbig earned a 91.4 pass-rushing grade with 41 pressures from 208 pass-rushing snaps last season. He has a number of moves at his disposal and is slippery in the way he avoids contact. He could very well follow in Joe Schobert and Zack Baun‘s footsteps, as they made similar switches in the NFL.
.@BadgerFootball @nickherbig_ has everything it takes to have a “Monster Year” for the Badgers. His speed to power is what every #NFL team gets excited about. Collapse the pocket! Affect the QB. #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/vqA5oDzhNF
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) May 23, 2022
7. Dorian Williams, Tulane (Senior)
Some might call him undersized at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds but don’t make the mistake of classifying him as a finesse linebacker. Williams can pack a punch at the point of contact.
Those crack blocks on LBs always look easier on the whiteboard for WRs
Tulane LB Dorian Williams is a dude… Preseason AAC Defensive Player of the Year pic.twitter.com/khGx74bscm
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) September 16, 2021
The rising senior has started the past two seasons for the Green Wave, where he’s been exceptional in coverage, allowing 37 catches from 48 targets for only 342 yards with five pass-breakups over that span.
Tonight was my first viewing of #Tulane LB Dorian Williams and he impressed me big time. Shows natural instincts attacking the line of scrimmage, play recognition and displays some closing speed.
Recognized a screen, made the play, then scrapped to make tackles in run game. pic.twitter.com/6f5fR1bJ6a
— Devin Jackson (@RealD_Jackson) October 8, 2021
While the competition level concerns are valid coming from Tulane, they are alleviated a bit by the way he laid his body on the line against Oklahoma and Mississippi this past season.
8. Payton Wilson, N.C. State (Redshirt Senior)
A lot of people talk about playing defensive football violently, yet few players back it up like Wilson. The 6-foot-4, 235-pounder gets physical to a fault at times and will prioritize that violence over playmaking.
NC State’s Payton Wilson is playing NFL Blitz with all these clothesline tackles pic.twitter.com/0bNONoUxa6
— Pick Six Previews (@PickSixPreviews) September 29, 2019
Unfortunately, that violence has led to a growing list of injuries, as he’s torn his right ACL twice and only played 51 snaps in 2021 before a shoulder injury cut his season short. Even with a ready-made NFL game, that’s going to scare off a lot of teams.
9. Jestin Jacobs, Iowa (Redshirt Junior)
Jacobs is only still scratching the surface of what he could be at the linebacker position, as 2021 marked his first season as a starter, when he showed flashes of brilliance. At 6-foot-4, 236 pounds, he has the kind of long and lean athletic body type that NFL teams are looking for at the position. On the field, he moves like a tight end that’s been flipped to the other side of the ball — which is why, at that size, he filled the slot for Iowa’s defense and only allowed 275 yards all season. Add to that the fact that he only missed four tackles from 51 attempts, and you have the makings of what could be a top-75 pick.
Jestin Jacobs : 3 tackles & an INT pic.twitter.com/SYcmZjArtk
— Lee Harvey (@AyeThatsLee) October 10, 2021
10. Troy Brown, Ole Miss (Senior)
If this list was who plays the linebacker position the best right now, Brown would be at the top, as his football intelligence and play speed are as good as it gets in college football. Unfortunately, at 6-foot-1, 218 pounds, he’s closer to a safety in size than he is most NFL linebackers.
Brown spent four years at Central Michigan before transferring to Ole Miss this offseason. In three seasons as a starter, he racked up 116 stops while earning an 87.5 overall grade last season. Despite his size, Brown has been able to play off blocks before taking down ball carriers. While that’s going to be difficult in the NFL given his size and middling athleticism, it’s a good starting point.
Brown is a TOUGH safety playing full-time WLB at 6'2 205lbs – 1st Team All-MAC in '19 & '20
Dart into Backfields, Ball Skills, Physical, Coverage on Slots/RBs, Blitzer, 300+ Special Teams Snaps pic.twitter.com/r0OkOHS4Bq
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) June 19, 2021