2020 NFL Draft Position Review: Inside Linebackers

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2020 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2020 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
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This page was last updated March 30, 2020. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Inside Linebacker Class
Early-round talent: B-
Mid-round: B
Late-round: B-
Overall grade: B-

2020 prospects vs 2019
Devin White
Devin Bush
Kenneth Murray
Patrick Queen
Jordyn Brooks
Jahlani Tavai
Germaine Pratt
Sione Takitaki
Anfernee Jennings
Troy Dye
Malik Harrison
Cody Barton
Bobby Okereke
Quincy Williams
Joe Bachie
Jacob Phillips

Last year had a solid group of inside linebackers, and the 2020 NFL Draft’s group is of similar quality. Like in 2019, this draft could have two first-rounders, but the 2019 NFL Draft had better talent for Day 2 than the 2020 crop. This year could have some third-day sleepers who end up being overachievers in the NFL.

If you were to merge the two classes together, the top two from last year would retain those spots. Devin White and Devin Bush went higher than where Kenneth Murray probably will this year, but I know team sources who feel Murray is similar to those two. Patrick Queen also will probably go in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. I think Jordyn Brooks is a better prospect than Jahlani Tavai, but Brooks might slide a little lower than where Tavai went off the board. Anfernee Jennings, Troy Dye and Malik Harrison could be mid-round prospects on a par with Cody Boarton and Bobby Okereke. Joe Bachie and Jacob Phillips are also on the bubble of the second and third day, like Quincy Williams was last year.



Safest Pick: Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma
Previous Picks:
2019: Devin White
2018: Roquan Smith
2017: Jarrad Davis
2016: Reggie Ragland
2015: Denzel Perryman
2014: C.J. Mosley
2013: Kevin Minter

My track record here is pretty good. White had an excellent rookie season, and Smith has been very good for Chicago. Davis has been a mild disappointment but he still could turn into a quality pro. Ragland has had a slow start to his career after losing his rookie year to injury, but he started to play decently for Kansas City. It is still a bit too early to make any judgements on him. Perryman and Mosley have both turned into good pro linebackers, so I was correct on them. Minter has been a starter, although not as good as he was expected to be and has turned into a journeyman.

This was an easy choice as I think Murray is one of the safer players in the 2020 NFL Draft at any position. I think Murray will be an excellent pro linebacker with Pro Bowl potential and the ability to be one of the league’s top Mike – middle – or Will – weak side – linebackers. He is a tackling machine in the ground game with pass-coverage ability and is a dangerous pass-rusher. On top of his skill set of size, speed,and instincts, Murray is known to be a great worker and leader. I think he is going to be a really good pro.



Biggest Bust Potential: Jacob Phillips, LSU
Previous Picks:
2019: Cameron Smith
2018: Malik Jefferson
2017: Raekwon McMillan
2016: Tyler Matakevich
2015: Bernardrick McKinney
2014: Chris Borland
2013: Kevin Reddick

My track record here is pretty good. Smith was a fifth-round pick, so you can’t consider that a true bust if he doesn’t stick in the NFL, as the odds of those picks working out are very small. Jefferson has been a disappointment, but it is still too early to pass judgement on him. McMillan missed his rookie year with an injury, and he has been just okay with Miami. I blew it with my selection of McKinney, who has emerged as one of the top inside linebackers in the NFL for the Texans. Reddick didn’t pan out, so I was correct there. Borland retired after an impressive rookie year, so that’s more of a draw. Matakevich slid deep into the draft. so you can’t really consider him a bust for the Steelers.

This was a tough call as no early-round linebacker is screaming bust potential to me. I chose Phillips because some have projected him to having early-round potential earlier in the process and perhaps he could go on the second day of the 2020 NFL Draft. I’m skeptical that he has the pass-coverage skills, speed and athleticism to be an effective three-down starter in the NFL. I think Phillips is more of a mid-round pick who is a backup linebacker and rotational run defender.



Inside Linebacker Rankings by Attributes


Pass Coverage:
NFL prototype: Luke Kuechly, Retired
  1. Patrick Queen
  2. Kenneth Murray
  3. Jordyn Brooks
  4. Troy Dye
  5. Malik Harrison
  6. Joe Bachie
  7. Jacob Phillips
  8. Anfernee Jennings


Recap: The ability for a linebacker to be effective in pass coverage is mandatory in the passing-driven NFL. Defensive coordinators need linebackers who cover a lot of ground and can drop quickly downfield. Along with playing zone, linebackers who can effectively match up against the versatile pass-receiving tight ends and running backs out of the backfield are difficult to find.

In pass coverage, Queen is well suited for today’s NFL. He is a smooth mover in the open field with the speed to run vertically down the middle seam. Queen is skilled in zone coverage to flow with the play and cover a lot of ground. With some development, he could be an asset in helping to cover running backs and tight ends in man coverage. Due to his speed and athleticism, Queen is a great fit for the modern pro game, as he can be a three-down starter who provides a plus defender in coverage.

Murray is an asset for pass coverage. Team sources like his athleticism and coverage ability, which are vital characteristics to being a three-down starter and difference-maker for a non-pass-rushing linebacker in modern NFL. He covers a lot of ground in zone coverage, is a smooth mover in space, and does a nice job of disrupting throwing lanes. His size and athleticism allow him to have the potential to play some man coverage on tight ends and backs out of the backfield. On dump-off passes to the flat, Murray explodes into the ball-carrier and is very good at making tackles in space. He has the speed to run down the middle seam as well.

In pass coverage, Brooks functions well. Team sources like his athleticism and coverage ability in zone. He handles a lot of ground in zone coverage, is a smooth mover in space, and does a nice job of disrupting throwing lanes. His quickness and athleticism allow him to have the potential to play some man coverage on tight ends and backs out of the backfield. On dump-off passes to the flat, Brooks can close quickly to hunt down backs and is a steady tackler in space. He has the speed to run down the middle seam as well. Brook’s skill set and read-and-react ability make him a capable spy to help neutralize a mobile quarterback as well. Brook also is a decent blitzer.

Dye is a solid pass-coverage linebacker who made some big plays in zone coverage for Oregon. He can help defend tight ends and showed solid instincts roaming in the middle of the field. If it weren’t physical limitations, Dye would be rated higher in this category and in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Harrison and Bachie should have some ability to contribute in pass coverage after some additional development. They are solid at playing zone coverage in the middle of the field and have enough of a skill set to contribute running with tight ends or getting to backs out of the backfield. They both need to improve their coverage skills to become NFL starters.

Phillips’ pass coverage needs some work for the NFL. He has speed and athleticism limitations, but he has good length and height to help on tight ends. Phillips needs to improve in coverage to see the field as a pro. Jennings showed improvement in pass coverage over the past couple of seasons, but he is not a fluid athlete roaming in space, so he has limitations for the next level.



Run Defense:
NFL prototype: Bobby Wagner, Seahawks
  1. Kenneth Murray
  2. Jordyn Brooks
  3. Patrick Queen
  4. Malik Harrison
  5. Joe Bachie
  6. Anfernee Jennings
  7. Jacob Phillips
  8. Troy Dye


Recap: As multiple scouts told WalterFootball.com at the college all-star games, a thumper inside linebacker is a dying breed in the NFL. Still, teams have to have middle linebackers who can be tough run-defenders. They especially need pursuit skills with the rash of mobile quarterbacks and the mixing in of read-option plays. This was really tough to rank because honestly, there wasn’t a bad run defender in the group.

Murray is a very physical tackler with sideline-to-sideline speed and has some ability to take on blocks at the point of attack. Murray is a very good at wrapping up ball-carriers and putting them into the turf with force. He has the size and mentality to take on blocks, holds his ground, shed the block, and get in on tackles. Murray has been a tackling machine throughout his collegiate career, as he is a superb run defender and projects to be a force to shut down and limit an offense’s ground game.

In the ground game, Brooks is a good tackler who wraps up ball carriers and is reliable to get them to the ground. He has sideline-to-sideline speed and does well to shut down the perimeter. For the next level, he needs to get better at taking on and shedding blocks. Right now, Brooks would really struggle to get off blocks from the 315 pounders in the pro game and he is going to have a hard time holding his ground against them. Thus, he is not a great fit as a middle linebacker.

As a run defender, Queen uses his sideline-to-sideline speed to shut down perimeter runs. He flashes good vision and uses that to weave through trash to get in position to finish plays. For the next level, Queen needs to get stronger to take on and shed blocks. Downhill runs straight at him can give him problems, and he has a hard time shedding blocks when offensive linemen and some tight ends lock onto him. Team sources say that from an instincts perspective, Queen is developing, which is a good way to describe it. He flashes some good instincts on some plays with good decision-making on when to fire his gun. On other plays, he can seem to react a hair late and take a false step or two before redirecting. As team evaluators have pointed out, Queen did not play a lot in college, so he does not have a lot of experience. Thus, there is some rawness to Queen and he needs development in the NFL.

Harrison, Bachie and Jennings were steady ground contributors the past few seasons. Bachie was a tough run defender for Michigan State, recording 101 tackles in 2018 and did a good job of shutting down the interior. Harrison is a reliable tackler and has quality instincts. Jennings was a solid run defender for Alabama and really improved as a senior. He is strong and built well for the NFL ground game.

Phillips’ run defense is his biggest strength, as he does well defending the ground game in the tackle box. He is a quality tackler and takes on blocks. Phillips, however, could have some athletic limitations to be as good of a run defender in the NFL.

Dye is a solid defender against the run. He reads his keys well and fires to the ball-carrier to limit gains. There are times where Dye really brings the violence, as he will lay the wood on ball-carriers. For the NFL, Dye could stand to tackle lower as he has the tendency to go too high. That could lead to some missed tackles in the pros with him bouncing off pro tailbacks. He also could stand to improve his ability to take on and shed blocks.





Tackling:
NFL prototype: Bobby Wagner, Seahawks
  1. Kenneth Murray
  2. Jordyn Brooks
  3. Malik Harrison
  4. Joe Bachie
  5. Patrick Queen
  6. Jacob Phillips
  7. Anfernee Jennings
  8. Troy Dye


Recap: With each passing year, I think tackling is becoming a lost art in the NFL. Missed tackles are a plague on defenses that seems to get progressively worse every season. One of the primary reasons for this epidemic is the decreased training camp practices with less padded work and live hitting. Rule changes have also made tackling more difficult, as players must avoid contact in certain locations and methods of taking down a ball-carrier. The end result is seeing a plethora of missed tackles on a down-by-down basis. This group is pretty solid, and none of its players stand out in a really negative manner.

Murray and Brooks are excellent tacklers. Consistently, they do a good job of wrapping up ball-carriers with solid tackling technique. Harrison and Bachie are solid tacklers. You rarely see them miss tackles, and they do a nice job of tackling ball-carriers who other linebackers struggle to get on the ground.

Queen, Phillips and Jennings are good tacklers. They were very reliable to finish the tackle when they got there. Queen could stand to get stronger for tackling NFL backs. Dye could stand to tackle lower because he has the tendency to go too high. That could lead to some missed tackles in the pros from him bouncing off pro tailbacks.



Instincts:
NFL prototype: Luke Kuechly, Retired
  1. Kenneth Murray
  2. Jordyn Brooks
  3. Malik Harrison
  4. Patrick Queen
  5. Troy Dye
  6. Joe Bachie
  7. Anfernee Jennings
  8. Jacob Phillips


Recap: Instincts are what separates good linebackers from great ones. Having the innate feeling of what the offense is going to do is a huge factor for linebackers who can take the ball away, make a critical stop on a third down or consistently set up good down-and-distance situations for the defense. All great players are instinctive.

In this group, there wasn’t a linebacker who I would say has poor instincts. I have Murray as the most instinctive linebacker in this draft class, which was an easy choice. His instincts are good, and he seems to be a step ahead often. Over three seasons as a starter at Oklahoma, Murray showed that he has good instincts, but they may not be on an elite level like a Luke Kuechly.

Brooks and Harrison both possess above-average instincts. Those two defenders have all shown the ability to anticipate what is coming and get in position to make plays or be disruptive. Each should continue to show good instincts in the NFL after getting tuned into the pro game. Team sources have told me that Brooks’ instincts are above average but not great.

Team sources say that from an instincts perspective, Queen is developing and that is a good way to describe it. He flashes some good instincts on some plays with good decision-making on when to fire his gun. At other times, he can seem to react a hair late and take a false step or two before redirecting. As team evaluators have pointed out, Queen did not play a lot in college so he does not have a lot of experience. Thus, there is some rawness to Queen and he needs development in the NFL.

Bachie, Dye, Jennings and Phillips were all decent with instincts in college, and they used their abilities to be steady for their defenses. Jennings’ instincts are rather average and can be streaky. Phillips also has issues with consistency.



Shedding Blocks:
NFL prototype: Alec Ogletree, Giants
  1. Kenneth Murray
  2. Anfernee Jennings
  3. Malik Harrison
  4. Joe Bachie
  5. Jacob Phillips
  6. Patrick Queen
  7. Jordyn Brooks
  8. Troy Dye


Recap: Getting off blocks is a critical attribute for any linebacker in the NFL. Running around blockers results in busted gap integrity and can spring backs for big runs. Shedding blocks is one of the hardest aspects for a college player going to the the next level. A lot of the top linebackers in the NFL struggled with it early on.

Murray is the best at it as he can take the contact, hold his ground, shed the block, and make the tackle. He still has room for improvement in this category for the NFL, but Murray does it the best of this group. Jennings is similar, showing a lot of strength and physicality to do the same.

Harrison, Bachie and Phillips were able to get off blocks in college. They had the strength to take on offensive linemen, shed the block, and make the tackle.

For the next level, Queen needs to get stronger to take on and shed blocks. Downhill runs straight at him can give him problems, and he has a hard time shedding blocks when offensive linemen and some tight ends lock onto him.

Brooks needs to get better at taking on and shedding blocks for the next level. Right now, he will really struggle to get off blocks from the 315 pounders in the pro game and he is going to have a hard time holding his ground against them. In time, Brooks probably will improve in this regard.

Dye has issues taking on blocks. Offensive linemen are able to get a push on him and knock him back. He will sometimes try to run around blocks as well.



Pass Rush:
NFL prototype: Bernardrick McKinney, Texans
  1. Anfernee Jennings
  2. Kenneth Murray
  3. Patrick Queen
  4. Malik Harrison
  5. Jordyn Brooks
  6. Joe Bachie
  7. Troy Dye
  8. Jacob Phillips


Recap: There aren’t too many inside linebackers in the NFL who consistently rush the passer, but 3-4 defenses especially like to have interior backers who can blitz up the middle after the quarterback. This group has some linebackers who are very good blitzers, especially the top four.

Jennings is the best blitzer of this group, and he is very adept at harassing the quarterback. He had eight sacks in 2019 after 5.5 during 2018. At Alabama, the coaches used Jennings as an edge rusher and he was dangerous flying off the edge. With his short and strong build, Jennings has good leverage to get underneath tackles to win going upfield. In the NFL, he could be used as an edge rusher in the sub package.

Murray is a dangerous edge rusher as well. He had four sacks last year, but would have had a lot more if he hadn’t been used in pass coverage the majority of the time. Some scouts say that his pass-rush ability is better than some players who do it on an every down basis. Murray has shown that he is a dangerous blitzer this year showing speed off the edge with the ability to bend, dip, and turn the corner.

With his great speed, Queen is a blur running around or by blockers to put heat on the quarterback. He is a very good blitzer and quickly is able to apply pressure.

Harrison isn’t far behind, having notched 4.5 sacks in 2019. He has the size to battle blockers in the NFL on interior blitzes. As a pro, Harrison could be a dangerous blitzing linebacker.

Brooks was a decent blitzer in college, totaling seven sacks. He had three in each of the past two years, but similar to Murray, that total would have been bigger if he had been given more opportunities.

Bachie was a decent blitzer for Michigan State, but that won’t be his role in the NFL. Same with Dye. Phillips did not produce much in the way of pass rush over the last few seasons. He won’t be used for that in the NFL and probably will be pulled in the sub package.




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