Draft 2020: Inside Linebacker
Let’s start by saying sorry for the radio silence. Getting everything in order has proved to be, well a bit of a faff. Anyway expect us to be incredibly vocal on the site until we get the pod up and running.
Anyway lets dive into my favourite off the ball linebacker prospects and unlike last year, there’s a few!
Isaiah Simmons – Clemson
This is something of a no brainer. When I hand a player the dubious title of being my favourite player in the draft, it’s usually followed by black clouds descending over their head and an audible sigh from every team that hoped to have them on the roster. So let me just put it this way. Isaiah Simmons is an exceptional football player.
With the NFL being the much talked about “copycat league”, I think it’s fair to say that we can expect to more teams trying to emulate what the Ravens were trying to do last year. Offences loaded up with pass catching backs, that would keep you guessing and running past linebackers caught out of position or powering through safeties caught off guard. Isaiah Simmons is the hybrid that can (if he lives up to his college career) be a key weapon in slowing that down. Simmons in the box or man coverage is a homing missile that has proven to be affective in taking away key weapons on offence.
The idea of “positionless football” has gained more relevance over the years with a need for defences to keep up with the pace of the ever evolving offence. The likes of Todd Bowles have been preaching, but with limited players that can effectively function in this role. Enter the likes of Jamal Adams and now Isaiah Simmons to become stand out players in this field.
Simmons combines being an absolute physical freak with an ability to understand man coverage like few others. Whilst being a very different player, the effect that Simmons can potentially have on a defence is Kuechlyesque. An ability to most likely fill any deficiency a team will have in coverage, whilst showing great presence in the box. Simmons ability to match up against slot receivers could also force offensive coordinators to think twice about jet sweeps and where they plan to motion receivers.
I’d love to see him go somewhere that really gets it. Carolina seems like a good fit on the surface (No Luke), but when you dig into what Phil Snow has done at Baylor it starts to make some sense too, plus his ability to take key players out of the game has to be pretty tempting for a team that has to face Alvin Kamara and now Todd Gurley twice a year.
Wherever Simmons goes, expect him to play a ton of snaps.
Kenneth Murray – Oklahoma
Kenneth Murray saw his stock rise at the Scouting Combine with an impressive 40 yard dash time. Add this to a highlight reel filled with hits that make you say “oooh” and it’s understandable why many mock drafts have Murray as a solid first round prospect.
I feel there is a few question marks though. He has a tendency to get lost in traffic, with some wayward pursuit angles seeing him make some poor choices. There is a few times where over committing to making a play has put him in a poor position. More than a few times, the hole created here has led to big gains on offence. I’m not sure he’s going to be a teams first choice for a coverage linebacker either. Any tight end that can sell a route will probably gain a few yards on him.
However this is not what you’re picking up Kenneth Murray for. Kenneth Murray is a bruising linebacker that does his homework. There are numerous plays where you can see Murray knows exactly what’s about to unfold. This coupled with an ability to read how a play is developing make him a deadly in the box linebacker.
When Murray hits, he hits hard too, stops plays dead, great for blowing up plays and moving the chains backwards. Murray racked up 15 tackles for loss over 2 years.
Murray will invariably find a home and a role in the NFL, but I don’t think he’s a great fit for everyone. Teams that have seen what the Niners have put together on defence will no doubt be particularly interested in his sideline to sideline ability, but there needs to be some concern about some of the big plays that were given up from him over-pursuing.
Patrick Queen – LSU
Queen is a really interesting prospect. Teams might be put off by a lack of experience, but there is the makings of a very good linebacker here. He’s relatively scheme diverse, but not nearly as flexible as Simmons.
Whilst the NFL is looking for undersized linebackers, his lean frame might cause teams to think twice. This is an issue that comes up year in, year out. Roquan Smith for example was considered a lighter linebacker, but it hasn’t stopped him being a homing missile for the Bears. Well Patrick Queen shares some of the traits that made Smith a first round draft pickup, not least his nose for where the ball is and a great deal of patience when letting plays develop. Combine this with his exceptional speed and you’ve got a winning combination.
Queen being “undersized” hasn’t hurt his pass rush ability, with LSU using him as a mismatch in the centre of their wide 9 front. Putting Queen up against the bigger guys in the middle is a frightening prospect and with defences like the Niners (once again) using the wide nine a significant amount Queen could be a solid complimentary piece.
So whilst you might not want to build a defence around Patrick Queen, he will benefit a great deal by being part of an already established defence. Put him behind a dominant line and you can expect teams to find it very difficult to run for a first down.
Troy Dye – Oregon
If you’re looking at numbers Troy here is the guy. At least 50 tackles a year whilst at Oregon, which is production that can be traced back to his high school career.
When you read up on him the words that come up regularly are “effort” and “football IQ”, which will be appealing to the coaches that put a great deal of stock in their players being locker room influencers.
His effort is visible on tape. Constant pursuit to the ball, rarely gives up on a play and shows great closing speed. Where the question marks come in are on his size…
Now I know that I was literally paragraphs ago preaching about NFL teams putting too much stock in size over ability, however it does seem to be a stumbling block for Dye, who has a ton of tape of him being moved around by the more powerful offensive players.
I think there is a home for Dye in the NFL and I genuinely think that the right coach might be able to turn him in to an exceptional off the ball linebacker. His coverage skills are excellent too, different from Simmons, but he’s perfectly capable of shutting down some of the leaner tight ends.
As I say, I think in the right role you could turn Dye into a foil for the modern offensive schemes, but it might be in more of a support role than any of the other linebackers we’ve been talking about so far.
One last point. His pass rush ability might be of interest to certain teams that have valued speed over power. This will probably see his value be different from team to team. I think for example New England and from what we’ve seen in the off season, the Lions might find him particularly useful.
Akiem Davis-Gaither – Appalachian State
Well here we have another undersized linebacker rocking up at 200 lbs… (detecting a theme here?), Davis-Gaither however is a really interesting prospect.
For anyone that’s been paying attention to how the Jets utilised Jamal Adams, you could potentially see Davis-Gaither as a situational pass rusher with coverage ability in a nickel linebacker role. Akiem Davis-Gaither is not a safety though, he is most definitely a linebacker, with excellent vision against the run and an ability to stop running backs that are more physically imposing than he is.
He can over extend a little which gets him in trouble when trying to react to a run not going the way he expected and his size can cause problems when wrapping up tackles. 15 missed tackles in 2 years is not ideal, although this is from 209 tackles.
Davis-Gaither is not going to come in and be a centre piece player for a team, but he definitely will be a complimentary piece for a team that is looking for a solid “positionless” player and potentially a special teams stud.
Lets go a little quick fire with the rest…
Malik Harrison – Ohio State
Harrison doesn’t have the diversity of the above linebackers, but is a solid run stuffer. Everything in the box is excellent, just don’t expect a player that can drop into coverage against some of the better route runners. Once again could be a great complimentary piece for a team that trusts their secondary. Harrison combined with a game controlling ILB and being allowed to play downhill against running backs and in blitz packages, could be very dangerous.
Zack Baun – Wisconsin
I’m not going to talk about him in this post. I believe he very much is an edge rusher, so I’ll get to him when I go through them.
Evan Weaver – California
Another complimentary piece, Weaver is a proficient tackler, that could be a good addition to a team that needs some extra power against run heavy teams. Weaver’s effort is never in doubt, but a potential move to the defensive front could be on the cards. Once again very scheme specific, but could be a difference maker on a team that needs a big hitter with a solid understanding of the game.
Willie Gay Jr – Mississippi State
Tough to know where to start with Willie Gay Jr. There’s the off the field issues (allegedly cheating in an exam, allegedly causing an orbital fracture to his QB in an altercation which caused him to miss the game and an altercation which saw him ejected from a game, although he was very much not alone on that one). Then there’s the play on the field. Explosively making his way to QB’s and running backs and some solid man coverage skills. Makes some odd choices in pursuit angles, but shed blocks with relative ease. Then….. there’s the exceptional combine which has seen him move up some draft boards. Want to know how important the combine is to teams, then this will be a pretty good measuring stick.
Jordyn Brooks – Texas Tech
You see some good and some bad when watching Jordyn Brooks. His game against Oklahoma stands out as a game where he seemed a little out of his depth. Poor decision making saw him in no mans land numerous times, which is a concern. In other games his instincts don’t let him down quite as much, takes good pursuit angles against the run and is a solid blitzer. Potentially a future prospect for a team that is looking to move on from their ILB eventually, until then probably works well as a situational linebacker, with a ton of potential.
Davion Taylor- Colorado
I am quite the fan of Davion Taylor. For starters he’s an athlete who can cover inside and out in man and zone (some work needed though). Taylor tied the lead for pass breakups on his team at linebacker with 7. Taylor is however work in progress, but could be a tempting player for a team that are on board with the “positionless football” mantra, with views to eventually becoming a starting nickel linebacker.
Logan Wilson – Wyoming
Another prospect that I really like. Has a lot of traits that NFL teams would consider desirable. Great instincts coupled with an ability to understand offensive plays and how they unfold means he has the makings of a great middle linebacker. Where we’ve talked about linebackers that would benefit from an experienced MLB/ ILB in this post, Wilson could be the guy that anchors the middle of the field allowing others to move around the field a bit. Probably not an immediate starter, but will undoubtedly see some snaps in 2020.
Cameron Brown – Penn State
Brown plays like a whirlwind. Reasonably solid in coverage when asked to drop back, great pursuit speed in the run game and a fun blitzer complete with his own spin move. He just needs to slow down a bit sometimes to let plays develop. I think he could be a fun prospect as that guy you bring on as an outside or even inside speed rusher, but probably needs to bulk up a bit. Regardless, he’s a lot of fun to watch.
And that’s it! Keep an eye on the Gents site as we breakdown every position ahead of the draft, stay up to date on twitter (@gridirongents) and we’ll be back soon!