I am back again and this week I cast my eyes over the nations top college Linebackers. This piece follows that which I wrote about the top college Running Backs which you can below if you missed it.
Linebacker is another position which demands that many of the early selections make themselves known from Day 1. Players like Devin White, Patrick Queen and Devin Bush have all started from Day 1 and looked like they are the futures for their respective teams. Below I cover 11 (10 wasn’t enough) of the next guys hoping to be their new team’s Ray Lewis, Luke Kuechly or Demarcus Ware.
It was a difficult task, sorting into any kind of order, I am sure everyone out there has their own favourite however the one thing I am certain is that most of us will in some manner, agree with who I have at Number 1.
(Who would have thought the Cyclones would get Number 1 in both RB and LB!)
1. Mike Rose (6’4 – 250lbs) – Iowa State Cyclones – Senior
Mike Rose has been a guy who has stood out ever since he stepped onto the field as a starter for the Cyclones. He has graded as the 6th, 2nd and 2nd in PFF rankings over that three year span. Rose is a Linebacker who can do everything,. He was the joint highest graded run defending linebacker in the FBS as well as the leader in interceptions and placed joint 4th in pass breakups.
Across 12 games last year Rose recorded 18 QB pressures and 2 sacks, showing just how versatile he is. Couple this with an average of 6 tackles per game and there is good reason to believe Mike Rose will be the first backer off the board in the 2022 Draft.
Teams who are looking for their next three down backer to build their team around will find the answer in Rose. If there is a weakness in Rose’s game it is in coverage. Despite picking off 5 passes he was often out of position and this is an area of the game for him to work on. There is reason to believe it is not as much of a problem as it could appear. His grade in 2019 was significantly better, he graded out as the 3rd best that year. Rose was expected to declare for the 2021 Draft, that he didn’t shows a desire to fine tune his game ready to make an impression immediately for whichever team takes him in the first round of the 2022 edition.
2. Micah McFadden (6’2 – 232lbs) – Indiana Hoosiers – Senior
If you want to send a Linebacker after the Quarterback then your first choice is Micah McFadden. He blitzed on 28% of his pass rushing snaps in 2019 and 44% in 2020, achieving pass rush grades of 81.9 and 90.8. That he also managed to make strides in improvement at both coverage duties and tackling as a whole shows why sometimes staying in college is the sensible thing to do to develop your game.
Unsurprisingly, McFadden scored highly in the part of my evaluation that focuses on QB Pressures and sacks. If he didn’t then he why send him after the QB. McFadden accounted for 2 interceptions as well as almost 6 tackles per game throughout the 2020 season. He has elite instincts and sometimes appears to be able to diagnose a play before it has occurred.
With a build similar to Luke Kuechly, who was also undersized for his role, McFadden made my mind go back to Kuechly plays more than once. His attitude also stands out, on a field where every player should be fighting to the end of every play McFadden stood out above the rest. McFadden’s leadership and overall approach to the game makes him a player who will very quickly become the leader of his Defence once drafted.
3. Edefuan Ulofoshio (6’1 – 235lbs) – Washington Huskies – Redshirt Junior
Putting someone who has only started 7 games in his college career this high may seem strange. Ulofoshio is special though. In this time he has emerged as one of the best off-ball Linebackers in college football. To put this into perspective, on PFF a grade above 75 is good for any aspect of a players game. Ulofoshio has scored above this in the following: Run Defence, Coverage, Pass Rush and Tackling in both 2019 and 2020. Basically he can do everything. To date he hasn’t played a bad game for the Huskies.
Ulofoshio finished last years truncated season tied for third in the FBS in solo tackles per game with a miss rate of only 5.4%. Ulofoshio in the box is a legitimate star in the making. If we remove coverage from the above figures e has scored higher than 82.0 since entering college. this year he hopes to show the world just what he can do over a full season.
If he can show the same progression he made form his first to second year, and there is no reason he cant, then watch out. This is one guy who will fly up Draft boards come February/March time next year. He may be the most complete package at Linebacker in the class, we just haven’t seen enough play time to anoint him with that title just yet.
4. Mike Jones Jr (6’2 – 234lbs) – LSU – Redshirt Sophomore/Transfer
Spending his first 3 years at Clemson, Jones Jr. had to initially wait his chance behind Isaiah Simmons. After Simmons left for the Draft in 2020 Jones Jr got his chance to step up. Despite starring for the tigers, Jones Jr announced this offseason he was transferring to LSU for what is likely his final year at college before declaring for next year’s Draft.
You won’t find many who will argue against Jones Jr. being the best coverage linebacker in the 2022 class. His PFF grade was 90.2 last year, you don’t see that often. According to his former Defensive Coordinator at Clemson Brett Venables, Jones Jr wanted to transfer as it would allow him to “move inside the box…this is just what he felt like was best for him”.
If Jones Jr. can show the improvements that he hopes this year in tackling and run defence then there is every reason to think he will be in the discussion for the first Linebacker to come off the board come April next year. Jones Jr. projects as a high second round selection currently, if he makes the strides he hopes following his transfer then the 1st round is not out of the question.
5. Grant Morgan (5’11 – 235lbs) – Arkansas Razorbacks – Redshirt Senior
Another player who has spent his time in college well, Morgan tied for first in the nation at average tackles per game with 12.3. Morgan was not well recruited out of high school and I bet there are plenty of coaches kicking themselves now. Morgan was the first consensus All-SEC first team Defensive player from Arkansas since 2014 last year.
A leader in the locker room, Morgan is another 3 down player who can do more than just tackle. He was responsible for 5 pass breakups last year and snagged 1 interception. His biggest game of the year was his 19 tackle and interception in the game against Ole’ Miss, he also chipped in with a sack for good measure. Of all the players I reviewed, only Morgan came in the top 7 in 3 different categories, tackles per game, interceptions and pass break-ups
Morgan could have come out last year but reportedly wasn’t happy with is draft grade. You can’t teach that sort of commitment. Yes, he is undersized but some guys have the heart and the skills to make up for that. Size issues may keep him out of the first round but someone is going to take a chance on Morgan and he will repay that faith in spades.
6. Jack Sanborn (6’2 – 236lbs) – Wisconsin Badgers – Redshirt Senior
Some players come into college pretty much playtime ready. Jack Sanborn has had to work to get to where is is today. There may be no player on this list who has come as far from day 1 to now as Sanborn in terms of the quality of his play. Whilst he was more than capable in pass defence, his tackling and run defence left much to be desired.
By the end of his second year on the team he had improved his run defence grade that was almost 30 points higher than the year before. This is an enormous improvement to make over one year. In the same year he managed to bring his missed tackle rate down by 10%. What this shows me is that there is a player here who is eminently coachable. Someone who takes on board what he needs to develop and improve and does it.
If Sanborn can continue to improve his work in the box, alongside his natural ability in coverage then he is a player who will be a welcome addition for a number of teams. If we can see more examples of the outcome that we saw in Wisconsin’s bowl game last year against Wake Forest,11 total tackles, including two for loss and an interception, then an early day 2 selection is not out of the question.
7. Carlton Martial (5’9 – 210lbs) – Troy Trojans – Redshirt Junior
Another player who plays far bigger than he is, Martial is one of the best off the ball Linebackers in this class. A walk-on in 2017 at Troy, Martial has progressed to a fantastic level. He has lead all FBS off ball Linebackers over the last 3 years in defensive stops with 159. He has never ranked lower than 12th on PFF’s grading system covering all Linebackers.
Last year, despite being his lowest grade at 82.4, Martial was on a historic pace over the last 6 games he played. Over that span he graded out as the best off-ball Linebacker PFF covered. As an example of how high a regard Martial is held in, he has been named the 41st best college payer in 2021 by PFF, the 3rd best returning Linebacker.
Martial was dominant last year, leading the nation in tackles. He recorded 113 tackles with 10 tackles for loss. Martial was one of only 3 players to rank in the top 50 on both metrics. Add to that 3 pass breakups and an interception and we have another guy who flashes 3 down potential. I fully expect Martial to challenge for the Burlsworth Trophy in 2021, which is presented to the nation’s top player who began his career as a walk-on.
8. Payton Wilson (6’4 – 235lbs) – North Carolina State Wolfpack – Redshirt Sophomore
Leading one of the nation’s top linebacking core’s is a responsibility, one that Payton Wilson embraces. As one of the most productive Linebackers in college football, who racked up 108 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, and two interceptions, Wilson is looking to further his profile this year. Wilson is a sideline to sideline kind of a player who has improved year on year.
Wilson is a player who has great gap awareness and who is rarely, if ever, positioned incorrectly. He possess speed and a quick twitch that allows him to react quickly to what he sees in front of him. These skills were what made him NC State’s leader intops, tackles for loss and interceptions. He was also first in his conference in tackles per game.
I see Wilson as a third rounder currently, however, a strong year could propel him up to the latter half of the second if he is lucky. Another string to his bow that he has is that he is a strong special teams player. As a route to early playing time that will only help him. If he can also show that he has worked on his cores strength to reduce the occasion she can be moved out of the way, which does happen from time to time, then that will also only further strengthen his draft stock.
9. DeMarvion Overshown (6’4 – 223lbs) – Texas Longhorns – Senior
Sometimes it takes changing positions for a player to realise their true potential. Overshown started his college career at Safety and it was not until last year that he came down into the box. Since that change Overshown is flying up Draft boards. Currently a predicted 2nd rounder another successful season could shoot him into the 1st round.
The reason for the hype? 60 total tackles, eight tackles for loss, one sack, a team-high seven pass breakups, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, four quarterback hurries and a team-high two interceptions. This article isn’t just about stats but in this case it was undeniable. Overshown has something special and who knows what more is under that surface yet to be unleashed. His coverage skills, as expected as a converted safety, are great, his ability to drop back and disrupt a play is an asset. The flip side to this is that his strength and play recognition still needs some work. That is not unexpected though, you cant learn everything in one year.
Whilst there are some admittedly very rough edges, Overshown is the player on this list with the greatest upside. If he can dial it in and achieve what many think he will this year. Overshown has an athletic profile that not many can match, if he can fill out and learn not to bite so often on fakes, as well as improving his play recognition, then we could see something special. This takes time though, there is no reason to think we may not be talking about Overshown as LB1 in April next year.
10. Nik Bonitto (Edge – 6’3 – 240lbs) – Oklahoma Sooners – Redshirt Junior
Nik Bonitto has averaged 6 sacks and a further 9.5 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. The end to his Sophomore season was the most impressive part of the year, accounting for 6.5 sacks in the final four games of the Sooner’s season. Bonitto has never struggled to get after the QB, he accounted for 49 total pressures last year, of which 8 were sacks.
The standout game for Bonitto last year was surely the game against Kansas where he was just unplayable. He totalled 3 tackles and 3 sacks in this game alone. Oklahoma could very well have the best Defence in the league this year and Nik Bonitto fairs to be one of the leaders of the pack. Whilst Bonitto has a fantastic upside at pass rushing and in pass defence in general, his run defence could use some work.
Reviewing his tape, it is evident that he plays short. By this I mean he struggles to get to rushers at times. It is this downside to his game that may cap his 3 down appeal unless he can show improvement there this year. There are always teams on the lookout for the next great Edge defenders. If Bonitto has another year in the vein of that which he had last year then there is no reason that he cannot be considered a potential first round Draft candidate.
11. Will Anderson (Edge – 6’4 – 243lbs) – Alabama Crimson Tide – Sophomore
Ok, so my Top 10 this week is actually an 11. This is because I was just unable to separate Bonitto and Anderson. As I mentioned above with Nik Bonitto, Anderson found a way to get to the QB often. He recorded 60 pressures in 13 games, 8 of which were sacks. For a Freshman to come in and do what Anderson did is crazy. No wonder he has the nickname “The Terminator”!
To go with the above pressure figures, he also recorded 10.5 tackles for loss. His best stretch was a two game run against Auburn and LSU in which he recorded 12 tackles and 3 sacks. He also showed his effectiveness on Special Teams in the playoff win against Notre Dame by blocking a field goal attempt. The winner of the FWAA Shaun Alexander National Freshman Player of the Year Award, I fully expect Anderson to get even better this year.
Along with Chris Allen, who wasn’t far from making this list himself and resides in the ‘For the Future’ list below, Anderson will terrorise the SEC for the foreseeable future. Other teams will be praying for early entries to the Draft for both just so they don’t have to face them again! As with Bonitto above, should Anderson have another year like he did last year then I wouldn’t be shocked at all by a declaration for the 2022 Draft where he could be considered possibly the best Edge prospect available.
(Disclaimer – If Chris Allen actually gets drafted ahead of Will Anderson I wouldn’t be shocked…)
- Chris Allen – Alabama Crimson Tide
- Nick Anderson – Tulane Green Wave
- Chris Bergin – Northwestern
- Jake Hansen – Illinois Fighting Ilini
- Devin Lloyd – Utah Utes
- Carson Wells – Colorado
For the Future
- Noah Sewell – Oregon Ducks
- Dorian Williams – Tulane Green Wave
A top 11 does not give me nearly enough opportunity to cover all the players I wanted to. I would urge you to go and check out all of the guys I have on my lists just above as well as the 11 discussed. If you feel I am dead right, or dead wrong, please let me know. Let’s have a discussion.
Also, this year at Undrafted we will be covering college ball a heck of a lot more so please check out the content we have to offer there.
If you enjoyed this please drop us a follow on twitter @UndraftedTN, and share your thoughts with us! Tell a friend as well!
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