2023 NFL Draft: Linebacker prospect superlatives

Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, USA; Clemson Tigers linebacker Trenton Simpson (22) smiles after a sack against the Boston College Eagles during the second half at Alumni Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

  • Trenton Simpson takes home two honors: The Clemson LB's athleticism and range set him apart from the rest of the linebacker class in this year's draft.
  • Daiyan Henley thrives in coverage: His athleticism enables him to accomplish feats in coverage that are unrivaled in this class.
  • Ivan Pace Jr. dominates against the run: The diminutive linebacker has the instincts that will enable him to maintain his effectiveness defending the run in the NFL.
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

While it’s one of the thinner linebacker classes in recent memory, expect to see the middle of Day 2 littered with players at the position coming off the board. With such a varied position like linebacker, two players can both be top prospects yet have wildly different skill sets, which is why I’m breaking down the best in each aspect of the position in the 2023 class:

Best sideline-to-sideline range: Trenton Simpson, Clemson

This is why Simpson is getting the hype despite only earning a 68.7 overall grade last season. Evaluators don’t care too much about who Simpson is right now, but rather they care more about what he can be in time with his easy movement skills. His 4.43-second 40-yard dash for a 235-pounder is nothing short of elite.

Best in Coverage: Daiyan Henley, Washington State

The former high school quarterback and collegiate wide receiver at Nevada knows a thing or two about how passing offenses work. He not only understands route concepts but also has the athleticism to get the job done. He ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at the combine and is a twitchy mover on tape. If you want a linebacker who can bump out and play the slot in this class, it’s Henley.

Best at taking on blocks: Jack Campbell, Iowa

Campbell is everything you want in a stack-shed middle linebacker, which is why he earned an 87.0 grade against the run last season. He’s patient in his run fits and then violent into contact. You see him make more plays off of blocks last season than any other linebacker in this draft class. If you need a thumper in the middle, Campbell is your guy.

Best run game instincts: Ivan Pace Jr., Cincinnati

Hard to do better in the run game than the player that led the nation last season with 50 run stops. Pace has a nose for the football that doesn’t quit. He may not be a pure take-on player at his size (5-foot-10, 231 pounds), but he knows how to make his strikes zone small to avoid would-be blockers. 

Best blitzer: Drew Sanders, Arkansas 

This one could have been Pace as well, but he doesn’t have near the prototypical physical traits to translate the way Sanders does. Sanders is a former edge-rusher who transitioned off-ball when he transferred to Arkansas. Those pass-rushing skills didn’t go anywhere, though, as he racked up 39 pressures and 11 sacks still last season.

Best tackler: Daiyan Henley, Washington State

It may seem a little weird that the player who only switched to the defensive side of the ball three years ago would be the best in this regard, but that’s why Henley is LB1 on the PFF board. He missed only 8.2% of his tackle attempts in his career and improved every single season after switching to linebacker in 2020. This past year, Henley missed only five of his 97 tackle attempts.

Freakiest athlete: Trenton Simpson, Clemson

Simpson has the kind of testing numbers that you’d be happy with in a cornerback, let alone a linebacker. His 4.43-second 40-yard dash, 40.5-inch vertical, 25 bench press reps at 225 pounds, 32 ⅜-inch arms and 10 ¼-inch hands are all create-a-player-type numbers for a linebacker. The only worry is that he’s still more athlete than off-ball linebacker at the moment. 

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