Fantasy Football: How 2023 NFL Draft's linebacker class stacks up using key stable metrics

Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. (0) reacts after sacking Navy Midshipmen quarterback Xavier Arline (not pictured) in the second half at Nippert Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

NFL draft season is well underway, and there are plenty of fantasy football general managers who are building their rookie draft boards for dynasty purposes. Utilizing all information available is going to be key in building those draft boards, and looking at how each position stacks up against one another from an analytics standpoint is just one of the many tools to consider during the evaluation process. This series focuses purely on the key stable metrics that translate more often than not from college to the NFL.

A few notes about how this series will work:

  • Rankings are based entirely on how these players performed in PFF’s stable metrics over the past two seasons.
  • Athletic ability and size are not taken into account for this process. Again, this is just one of many evaluation tools to consider.
  • This list includes all 14 quarterbacks from Mike Renner’s draft board but does not provide any weight to projected draft capital or the ranking.

Top-10 linebackers in PFF coverage grade since 2021

Player PFF Coverage Grade Coverage Snaps
Jack Campbell, Iowa 93.0 872
Aubrey Miller Jr., Jackson State 88.9 534
Ivan Pace Jr., Cincinnati 87.5 666
Daiyan Henley, Washington State 86.2 632
Dorian Williams, Tulane 85.4 615
Charlie Thomas, Georgia Tech 83.6 526
Mikel Jones, Syracuse 83.3 556
SirVocea Dennis, Pittsburgh 76.0 600
Jalen Graham, Purdue 73.7 644
Drake Thomas, NC State 73.2 681
Drew Sanders, Arkansas 71.2 405

As NFL defenses place more and more value on defending the pass, linebackers who can perform well in coverage will be valued more highly due to a potential for a three-down role, which is the biggest key to success for IDP. In this class, Jack Campbell earned far and away the best marks over the past two seasons, in large part, due to his 92.9 coverage grade in 2022 that led all linebackers in the country. Considering his athletic scores and ranking as the No. 2 linebacker on the PFF big board, Campbell profiles as an every-down player in the NFL and potentially the top IDP linebacker off the board in dynasty rookie drafts.

Jackson State's Aubrey Miller posted truly impressive marks in the FCS, including a 91.8 coverage grade in 2022 that ranked third among all FCS linebackers. Miller led this class with the lowest first down and touchdown rate allowed in coverage (18.6%), yards allowed per coverage snap (0.36) and yards allowed per coverage target (4.2) over the last two years. 

Ivan Pace may be on the smaller size for the linebacker position, but it hasn’t affected his production over the last two seasons, especially in coverage. Pace not only earned high grades but ranked second in this class in yards allowed per coverage snap (0.41) while forcing the highest incompletion rate over the last two seasons (15.4%).

Top-10 linebackers in PFF coverage grade when lined up in the box since 2021:

Player PFF Coverage Grade in the Box Coverage Snaps in the Box
Jack Campbell, Iowa 93.4 731
Aubrey Miller Jr., Jackson State 82.7 507
Ivan Pace Jr., Cincinnati 82.3 632
Dorian Williams, Tulane 80.4 550
Jalen Graham, Purdue 79.8 224
Mikel Jones, Syracuse 79.2 533
Drew Sanders, Arkansas 77.0 328
SirVocea Dennis, Pittsburgh 76.1 574
Daiyan Henley, Washington State 75.0 532
Charlie Thomas, Georgia Tech 74.8 338

Coverage ability continues to hold one of the strongest correlations from college to the pros, and Campbell is once again at the top of the list in that regard, primarily from an off-ball linebacker alignment. Considering this will be his primary alignment once in the NFL, it’s a good sign that he can hold his own, dropping into zone coverage and being in the right position to make a play on the ball, including tying for the most interceptions (four) when lined up in the box over the past two years.

Miller and Pace remained inside the top three when lined up in the box while Tulane’s Dorian Williams moved up a spot thanks to a bounce-back season in 2022. Williams earned a 90.2 coverage grade in 2020, which was third among FBS linebackers but fell to a 63.5 in 2021 before redeeming himself as one of the best linebackers in coverage with an 87.0 coverage grade in 2022. His coverage ability figures to be his greatest asset, at least early in his career, as he transitions to the NFL.

Top-10 linebackers in PFF coverage grade when lined up in the slot since 2021

Player PFF Coverage Grade in the Slot Coverage Snaps in the Slot
Daiyan Henley, Washington State 78.5 81
Aubrey Miller Jr., Jackson State 77.5 26
Mikel Jones, Syracuse 75.7 15
Dorian Williams, Tulane 74.3 51
Owen Pappoe, Auburn 72.9 78
Charlie Thomas, Georgia Tech 70.8 159
Ivan Pace Jr., Cincinnati 69.8 31
Drake Thomas, NC State 67.7 161
Trenton Simpson, Clemson 67.1 213
Drew Sanders, Arkansas 67.0 23

Washington State’s Daiyan Henley comes in as the No. 1 linebacker on the PFF big board despite his slightly smaller frame as a former wide receiver. His coverage ability is among the best in this class, which shows when lined up in the slot. Henley’s workload in the slot makes his 25.0% first down and touchdown rate allowed all the more impressive when considering he ranked fourth in this class in target rate when in coverage from the slot.

No linebacker in this class faced more targets from the slot than NC State’s Drake Thomas, who, despite only ranking eighth in coverage grade from that alignment, allowed just 0.62 yards per coverage snap (fourth).

Top-10 linebackers in forced incompletion rate since 2021

Player Forced Incompletion Rate Total Targets Faced in Coverage
Ivan Pace Jr., Cincinnati 15.38% 39
Dorian Williams, Tulane 14.00% 50
Jalen Graham, Purdue 12.94% 85
Isaiah Moore, NC State 12.50% 40
Ryan Greenhagen, Fordham 11.76% 51
Cam Jones, Indiana 9.38% 32
Drew Sanders, Arkansas 8.57% 35
Drake Thomas, NC State 8.33% 72
Carlton Martial, Troy 8.00% 50
Jeremy Banks, Tennessee 7.89% 76

Forced incompletion rate is not just about who can break up more passes by knocking them out of the air, but maintaining tight coverage as well, which leads to the receiver being unable to haul in the pass, force-outs and other plays of that nature. There was no better player in this class in that respect than Pace, who may not have been targeted as much as others but was able to post five pass breakups, which were tied for fifth among this year’s class.

Jalen Graham was targeted at the second-highest rate in this year’s class (14.1%) but was far and away the leader when it came to coming up with pass breakups (11). As a result, he came up with three interceptions over the last two seasons and only allowed a 65.5 passer rating when targeted, which was the best in the class. Graham is way down the ranks of the PFF big board but could still end up catching the eye of NFL teams thanks to strong ball production at Purdue.

Top-10 linebackers in PFF run defense grade since 2021

Player PFF Run Defense Grade  Run Defense Snaps 
Isaiah Moore, NC State 93.2 375
Drake Thomas, NC State 90.7 570
Carlton Martial, Troy 90.5 656
Ivan Pace Jr., Cincinnati 88.5 822
Ryan Greenhagen, Fordham 86.0 512
SirVocea Dennis, Pittsburgh 83.3 460
Jack Campbell, Iowa 81.5 819
Aubrey Miller Jr., Jackson State 79.9 637
Cam Jones, Indiana 74.4 430
Drew Sanders, Arkansas 72.6 430

North Carolina State boasts the two best run defenders in this year’s class between Thomas and Isaiah Moore. Moore tops the rankings by leading all FBS linebackers in run defense in 2022 with an elite 94.4 grade. Moore’s ability to limit offensive production by taking down ball carriers around the line of scrimmage was a huge contributing factor as he led the class with an average depth of tackle of just 1.24 yards on 75 tackles against the run.

As for Thomas, he isn’t expected to have high draft capital in the NFL draft, ranking as LB17 on the PFF big board, but earned some well-rounded marks across the board throughout these stable metric rankings. He posted 31 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage against the run which was the best in this class.

Pace makes another appearance inside the top five, and even with size concerns, performed well against the run by posting more run stops (93) than any other linebacker in this class over the past two seasons.

Top-10 linebackers in run stop rate since 2021

Player Run Stop Rate Run Defense Snaps
SirVocea Dennis, Pittsburgh 13.26% 460
Drake Thomas, NC State 12.28% 570
Ventrell Miller, Florida 12.24% 286
Ryan Greenhagen, Fordham 12.11% 512
Cam Jones, Indiana 11.86% 430
Carlton Martial, Troy 11.74% 656
Isaiah Moore, NC State 11.73% 375
Ivan Pace Jr., Cincinnati 11.31% 822
Aubrey Miller Jr., Jackson State 10.83% 637
Mohamoud Diabate, Utah 9.84% 447

SirVocea Dennis had a breakout season in 2022, earning a 90.6 overall grade and earning some of the most consistently-strong grades across all defensive categories in 2022. Dennis only missed four tackles on over 600 defensive snaps in 2022 while posting a 2.33-yard average depth of tackle, which was second in the class over the past two seasons.

Ryan Greenhagen faced a healthy amount of snaps against the run over the past two years and earned his highest finish among these stable metric categories thanks to a total of 62 run stops. While Greenhagen’s best marks come against the run, he was also able to post a top-five finish in forced incompletion rate.

Combined consensus ranking of all stable metrics since 2021:

Ranking Linebacker PFF Big Board Rank
1 Ivan Pace Jr., Cincinnati 7
2 Drake Thomas, NC State 17
3 Aubrey Miller Jr., Jackson State 14
4 Jack Campbell, Iowa 2
5 Dorian Williams, Tulane 5
6 SirVocea Dennis, Pittsburgh 16
7 Drew Sanders, Arkansas 3
8 Carlton Martial, Troy 18
9 Ryan Greenhagen, Fordham 19
10 Mikel Jones, Syracuse 25
11 Daiyan Henley, Washington State 1
12 Trenton Simpson, Clemson 4
13 Isaiah Moore, NC State 22
14 Jalen Graham, Purdue 24
15 Charlie Thomas, Georgia Tech 20
16 Owen Pappoe, Auburn 10
17 Cam Jones, Indiana 8
18 Ventrell Miller, Florida 12
19 Noah Sewell, Oregon 9
20 DeMarvion Overshown, Texas 6
21 Jeremy Banks, Tennessee 23
22 Ben VanSumeren, Michigan State 21
23 Dee Winters, TCU 15
24 Mohamoud Diabate, Utah 13
25 Henry To’oTo’o, Alabama 11

Pace found himself inside the top five in four of six stable metric categories while never finishing lower than eighth throughout. As previously mentioned, his size is likely the biggest concern when it comes to translating to the NFL, but his impressive metrics in coverage while also boasting a strong sample of positives against the run are enough to make him one of the more intriguing linebacker prospects in this class.

Thomas and his impressive showing throughout the stable metric rankings gave him the biggest leap in rankings when compared to the PFF big board. While he isn’t among the very best in this class as a coverage linebacker, his ability to defend the run while also offering some pass-rush upside could eventually lead to an every-down role in the NFL, making him an intriguing depth piece in IDP leagues.

Miller is the only linebacker in this class ranked inside the top-25 coming out of the FCS and that level of competition is going to be a concern when trying to project him to the NFL. While he wasn’t the most productive player in the box score defending the pass, he still found a way to rank second in all other coverage categories outside of forced incompletion rate.

Cambell and Williams were the only two linebackers ranked inside the top five of the PFF big board that was able to hold their position in these rankings because of their strong coverage profiles. Both players should have a shot at three-down roles in the NFL within the next few seasons.

Drew Sanders just barely missed repeating inside the top five, as he fell to seventh in the stable metric rankings. While none of his marks were poor, finishing in the top 10 in four of six categories and 11th in one more (coverage grade), he also only had one year as a starter at Arkansas after transferring from Alabama, where he was a part-time edge player in 2020 and 2021.

Henley was one of the other fallers from the PFF big board to these rankings, mostly due to poor showings in the run defense categories. As a former wide receiver, it was great to see him show very well in coverage, but he still has some room to develop as a run defender, which will be key to an every-down role as a smaller linebacker.

Trenton Simpson comes in as No. 4 on the PFF big board but thanks to a variety of usage at Clemson, he didn’t get to settle into just one role and truly shine, with just one top-10 finish across all stable metrics. Simpson’s top-tier athleticism and versatility are what make him an intriguing prospect, however, offering experience as a blitzer, decent run defense metrics and an ability to line up in the slot and not be a complete liability.

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