2021 NFL Draft Big Board: Linebackers

nfl draft linebackers

Off-ball linebacker has become an increasingly scheme dependent position to evaluate with college teams tasking players with a variety of roles. Regardless of college or the NFL, the ability to play in space is king, and this class is a prime example of the shift from run stuffing thumpers (sorry Nick Bolton) to smaller rangier back seven players (see Jamin Davis). Still, this group is diverse and talented and should see over 20 guys come off the board in the draft.

Linebacker Big Board

1) Micah Parsons – Penn State

2) Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah – Notre Dame

3) Zaven Collins – Tulsa

4) Nick Bolton – Missouri

5) Pete Werner – Ohio State

6) Jamin Davis – Kentucky

7) Jabril Cox – LSU

8) Chazz Surratt – North Carolina

9) Monty Rice – Georgia

10) Baron Browning – Ohio State

11) Charles Snowden – Virginia

12) Cameron McGrone – Michigan

13) Garret Wallow – TCU

14) Dylan Moses – Alabama

15) K.J. Britt – Auburn

16) Tony Fields II – West Virginia

17) Grant Stuard – Houston

18) Ernest Jones – South Carolina

19) Justin Hilliard – Ohio State

20) Derrick Barnes – Purdue

21) Buddy Johnson – Texas A&M

22) Paddy Fisher – Northwestern

23) Tuf Borland – Ohio State

24) Max Richardson – Boston College

25) Antjuan Simmons – Michigan State

26) Erroll Thompson – Mississippi State

27) Isaiah McDuffie – Boston College

28) Rayshard Ashby – Virginia Tech

29) David Curry – Georgia Tech

30) Riley Cole – South Alabama

Guys To Watch

LB-1: Micah Parsons – Penn State

Micah Parsons is arguably the best defensive prospect in the 2021 draft class and should hear his name called on Day 1. Originally brought into Penn State as a pass rusher, Parsons transitioned into a hybrid stack linebacker with the ability to slide down onto the edge in obvious pass situations. In the league, his combination of explosiveness, speed and strength is going to be best used off the ball at linebacker where he can roam sideline to sideline. On passing downs, he is an exceptional blitzer and his impact will be maximized when he is moved around the front seven similar to Melvin Ingram. Parsons can be an effective player in zone coverage as well but will need some development there to be counted on consistently. Regardless, he is a top tier athlete who will bring instant impact to the front seven on all three downs for whatever team takes a shot on him in the draft.

High Guy: Pete Werner – Ohio State

Pete Werner is the best of the quartet of linebackers Ohio State will send to the NFL this year. Werner has prototypical size at 6-foot-3 and over 240 pounds to step right into a middle linebacker role in the NFL but also the versatility to play any stack position he is asked to. He shows solid instincts in the run game with strength to take on lead blockers and speed as a pursuit player consistently tracking down running backs who bounce runs outside. Werner has some nice pop in his hands to shed blockers as a blitzer and looks explosive coming downhill. When asked to drop into coverage, he shows nice depth and solid special awareness. Werner is not the flashiest of players, but he has a well-rounded game and plays with excellent instincts. He should be a lock into the top 100 and hear his name called sometime in Day 2.

Low Guy: Baron Browning – Ohio State

Ohio State is always one of the best teams at recruiting athletes, and Baron Browning is not exception to that. Playing in primarily a SAM linebacker position, Browning is at his best in space when he can flow and pursue ball carriers. He does a nice job breaking down and finishing guys before they can turn up field and gain any additional yards. However, for all his physical gifts there is a noticeable lack of instincts to Browning’s game that concerns me enough to slide him down the board. He has been getting a lot of hype as a guy who is a first-round prospect and for me one of the key things I need to see from first round guys is quick mental processing, which Browning does not have right now. With development, he can eventually be a three-down starter in the league, but his processing is going to hurt in the run game some and especially on play-action and passing downs where he likely will be a liability early in his career. With such a high floor to ceiling variance I cannot justify drafting him as early as some people seem to think he will go.

My Guy: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah – Notre Dame

Typically, I try to avoid picking players who are sure fire first round picks as “my guys” but JOK is such a fun player to watch on film that I just could not resist the urge. It is one thing to be versatile, but it is another to play multiple positions at a high level and that is what JOK will be able to give the team that drafts him. He displays phenomenal instincts and recognition skills that allow him to click and close at an extremely high level. His burst and explosiveness coming down hill in the run game are elite and while he may not always wrap up, he is not shy about delivering a blow to the ball carrier. On passing downs, he can run in man with tight ends and running backs and does well finding the ball once it is in the air. In zone coverage, he gets great depth on his drops and aggressively attacks the catch point. A good defensive coordinator will use him as a chess piece and maximize his aggressive nature as a pursuit player within blitz packages. He is a lock to be a first-round pick in this draft.

Sleeper: Monty Rice – Georgia

Some guys don’t have the measurables, but they simply have a knack for making plays. Monty Rice is one of those guys. Rice is a superb pursuit linebacker with great closing burst once he identifies his target. He is slightly undersized and probably best suited for a will linebacker role, but Rice is instinctive and can act as the quarterback of the defense. He can also remain on the field for third downs where he gets good depth in zone drops and consistently finds and tracks down the pass catcher to eliminate any additional RAC if the ball is caught. Rice is going to be one of those guys that slips a bit because of his lack of height and length, but his instincts and burst pop on tape and he plays with physicality that will translate nicely to the next level. If I was in a draft room, Rice would be someone I would pound the table for late Round 3 or early Round 4 as a guy with a high floor who can come in and contribute right away on both defense and special teams.

Photo courtesy of Auburn Athletics