2021 NFL Draft Position Review: Linebackers

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2021 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2021 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
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This page was last updated April 22, 2021. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Position Review: Linebackers

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

2020 prospects vs. 2021
Isaiah Simmons
Kenneth Murray
Micah Parsons
Zaven Collins
Jamin Davis
Jordyn Brooks
Patrick Queen
Jabril Cox
Nick Bolton
Joseph Ossai
Josh Uche
Willie Gay
Monty Rice
Logan Wilson
Julian Okwara
Chazz Surratt
Dylan Moses
K.J. Britt

Just to be clear this article and series is all my opinion based off my own study and information I’ve gotten from general managers, directors of college scouting, national scouts, area scouts, and NFL coaches who know way more than I do.

The 2021 NFL Draft has a quality class of linebackers. It is not as good as last year’s in terms of top-shelf talent, when four non-pass rushing linebackers were selected in the first round. There could be three first-round picks this year, but there is greater depth in second-day prospects. There are some good options for the second and third round, and there are even some other decent prospects for the third day.

If you were to merge the two classes together, the top two from last year would retain those spots. Isaiah Simmons and Kenneth Murray were much better prospects than Micah Parsons. Parsons may go higher than Murray did because some teams had medical concerns that hurt Murray. Zaven Collins and Jamin Davis are better prospects than 2020 late first-rounders Jordyn Brooks and Patrick Queen. Jabril Cox, Nick Bolton and Joseph Ossai could be second-round picks and go higher than the 2020 late second-rounders Josh Uche and Willie Gay. Monty Rice is a better prospect than Logan Wilson and Julian Okwara, but Wilson and Okwara are better than Chazz Surratt, Dylan Moses and K.J. Britt.

Safest Pick: Jamin Davis, Kentucky
Previous Picks:
2020: Kenneth Murray
2019: Devin White, Josh Allen
2018: Roquan Smith, Tremaine Edmunds
2017: Jarrad Davis
2016: Reggie Ragland, Myles Jack
2015: Denzel Perryman, Eric Kendricks
2014: C.J. Mosley, Khalil Mack
2013: Kevin Minter, Arthur Brown

Most would pick Penn State’s Micah Parsons, but I am skeptical about him. Parsons was a solid run defender, but he was not a tackling machine in college. Parsons also was functional dropping in coverage, but he doesn’t show special ability there, and is seen as a “clean air” linebacker rather than a “take on” defender. Parsons is at his best in the blitz, and his opportunties for that will be reduced in the NFL. He also has serious character concerns and sat out the 2020 season, so he lost a year of development. I don’t think Parsons will be a bust, but I would not call him a safe pick and think some team will take him higher than he should go.

This was an easy choice. I think Davis has the makings of being an excellent linebacker in the NFL. The 6-foot-3, 234-pounder possesses excellent size, speed and athleticism. Davis showed real pass-coverage ability in 2020 and also was a solid run defender. He has a ton of upside to improve as he gains experience, and he could turn out having been a nice value late in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. I think if Davis had gone back to school and built on his 2020 play, he could have been a top-10 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Biggest Bust Potential: Dylan Moses, Alabama
Previous Picks:
2020: Jacob Phillips, Terrell Lewis
2019: Cameron Smith, Jachai Polite
2018: Malik Jefferson, Lorenzo Carter
2017: Raekwon McMillan, Haason Reddick
2016: Tyler Matakevich, Kamalei Correa
2015: Benardrick McKinney, Randy Gregory
2014: Chris Borland, Dee Ford
2013: Kevin Reddick, Chase Thomas

This was a not an easy choice. but Moses could go as high as the second round and be a disappointment. He struggled in 2020 coming off an ACL tear and did not look like an instinctive linebacker for the next level. Adding in durability concerns, I could see Moses having some issues panning out in the NFL.

Linebacker Rankings by Attributes

Pass Coverage:
NFL prototype: Luke Kuechly, Retired
  1. Jabril Cox
  2. Zaven Collins
  3. Jamin Davis
  4. Micah Parsons
  5. Chazz Surratt
  6. Dylan Moses
  7. Monty Rice
  8. Nick Bolton
  9. Joseph Ossai
  10. K.J. Britt

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.

A linebacker with Cox’s coverage skills is going to be in demand and have plenty of teams hoping to land him. Cox is an excellent zone-coverage linebacker with good instincts that lead him to glide around the field, and he does an excellent job of reading routes and spying the eyes of the quarterback to disrupt passing lanes. His tremendous career total of 23 passes broken up was no fluke, as he has phenomenal ball skills to break up passes and is a threat to pick them off. Cox shows soft hands for a linebacker and uses his size to win 50-50 passes. Not only can Cox move around the field in space in zone coverage, picking up receivers and covering up receiving options, he has demonstrated man-coverage ability on tight ends. It would be wise to give him some practice reps and coaching before going man-to-man on NFL tight ends, but in time, he could be a phenomenal weapon to help neutralize receiving tight ends.

Collins is a freaky type of linebacker with excellent coverage skills while having the size of some defensive ends. He does some very unique things in pass coverage at linebacker. Collins has shown explosive speed, athleticism, an ability to cover, and an ability to play in space. He can cover a lot of ground in zone coverage and also help to pick up tight ends and running backs. With his size, he can play at either a middle or outside linebacker in pass coverage. Thus, Collins is an excellent fit as a sub-package linebacker for the pro game.

Davis is a real asset for defending the pass. He is phenomenal in zone, covering a lot of ground in the middle of the field and covering the flat sideline-to-sideline. With impressive vision to go along with his speed and long frame, Davis glides in coverage, moving to neutralie receivers and making his presence felt by being around the ball. Davis is a big linebacker, but gets depth in his drop with smooth athleticism and agility. While he will need development to play man coverage on tight ends and running backs in the NFL, he has the physical skill set for it and could pick up that ability with some additional refinement.

Parsons is very good in zone, covering a lot of ground in the middle of the field and covering the flat sideline-to-sideline. On top of being a functional zone linebacker, Parsons has the physical skill set to deal with tight ends in man coverage. Parsons’ size and strength means tight ends can’t push him around, yet he has the speed to run with them down the seam. After sitting out the 2020 season, his NFL team should break him in slowly in man-coverage situations, but the skill is something that could be developed as he gains experience at the pro level.

Surratt has the potential to grow even more valuable in pass coverage. He is already a natural for zone, covering a lot of ground in the middle of the field. With his size, speed, and athleticism, Surratt could become a real asset in the NFL to cover tight ends running vertically down the middle of the field or running backs leaking out of the backfield, and he also should be a good defender to help with receivers crossing the middle of the field. Surratt has a good foundation to work with in terms of developing in man due to his speed, his athleticism, and his knowledge of the passing game as a former quarterback. He has some rawness to work out, but he has the skill set to cover, and in time, he could be a valuable pass-coverage linebacker.

The NFL is a passing-driven league, and Moses is a linebacker with the size, speed and athleticism to become a three-down starter. He shows the ability to pick up receivers in zone and keep close coverage on them in the middle of the field. With his skill set, he could develop into a linebacker who has man-coverage skills on tight ends and running backs. Moses also can run with backs out of the backfield or tight ends down the seam. He covers a lot of ground in zone, displaying impressive vision to stay keyed into the play. On top of being able to cover, Moses is a dangerous blitzer.

In pass coverage, Rice’s instincts and discipline are impressive. He does not bite on play action or misdirection, which is a rare sight for a college linebacker, especially for one coming from a conference that still features rushing attacks. Rice is able to read routes and moves well in zone coverage. He also shows some man-coverage ability on tight ends.

Bolton showed some ability to play zone coveraage in the middle of the field and also held his own in man coverage on tight ends. His limited speed, range and athleticism, however, are going to be issues for covering in the NFL. That could leave him being rotated out of the game a fair amount in the sub package, which is played 70 percent of snaps.

Britt was able to get by in pass coverage in college, but in the NFL, he probably will get pulled in the sub package for linebackers whp are more capable at defending the pass. Ossai was an edge rusher for Texas, and his stiffness makes him a poor fit to drop into coverage in the NFL.

Run Defense:
NFL prototype: Bobby Wagner, Seahawks
  1. Nick Bolton
  2. Micah Parsons
  3. Jamin Davis
  4. Monty Rice
  5. Jabril Cox
  6. K.J. Britt
  7. Dylan Moses
  8. Zaven Collins
  9. Joseph Ossai
  10. Chazz Surratt

Recap: The thumper inside linebacker, as many scouts have told WalterFootball.com many times, is a dying breed in the NFL. Still, teams must field middle linebackers who can play tough against the run. Those run defenders especially need pursuit skills given 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, but all of them to need improve at taking on and shedding blocks.

Bolton really stands out as a run defender in the tackle box. He is instinctive and displays quick diagnosis skills and a sharpened ability to read-and-react. With an aggressive demeanor, Bolton will attack downhill and work his way through trash to make tackles. Bolton stays around the ball and is a hard-hitting physical presence who will reliably limit the other team’s rushing offense. While Bolton is good in the tackle box, he faces speed and range limitations for the next level. He can have issues getting to the flat and is not a sideline-to-sideline heat-seeking missile. Bolton also is not a great athlete or that big for the NFL.

Parsons is a tough run defender who has instincts and read-and-react ability. He does a very nice job of reading his keys and then firing to the ball to limit runs. Parsons can quickly diagnosis a play and dart behind the line to start a tackle for a loss. With his closing speed and strength, Parsons can pack a punch on ball-carriers when he comes downhill. Parsons is fast to the perimeter to shut down runs in the flat, and he is a good tackler who will reliably take the ball-carrier to the ground. Parsons’ athleticism and agility also result in has plus change-of-direction skills.

Davis is a solid run defender who demonstrates instinctiveness and strength at the point of attack. With his speed and athleticism, Davis can fire to the flat or work his way through trash to make tackles in the box. He plays downhill and uses his strength to get ball-carriers to the turf. Davis can pack a punch on running backs, and his strong base and upper body power allows him to stonewall power backs in the hole, bending them backward and keeping them from falling forward. For the NFL, Davis could stand to improve his ability to take on and shed blocks. He also could stand to get faster at reading his keys and diagnosing plays. Given his lack of experience, however, those are understandable areas of emphasis, and they could easily resolve as he gains accrues more practice and playing time.

Rice has the strength, thickness and agility to be a tough defender in the tackle box. His ability against the run is boosted by his really developed mental side of the game. He anticipates the play very well, which leads to him getting in good position to make the stop. Thanks to his excellent diagnosis skills, Rice reads his keys quickly and doesn’t take false steps on his way getting to the right spot to make tackles. He is also a sure tackler who uses good fundamentals. The thick build and strength allow Rice to take on blocks, and he is a physical presence in the tackle box.

In the ground game, Cox is a solid defender. He is willing to take on blocks and is not afraid of sticking his nose in the scrum. He will need to improve at taking on and shedding blocks, but he has the potential to do that. Cox does a good job of closing ground in pursuit and working his way through trash. He has the size and strength to be a tackler, but does have a tendency at times to go for a knockout blow rather than wrapping up. That can be coached out of him at the pro level.

Britt is a tough in-the-box run defender who is strong, physical, and plays downhill. He is a hard hitter who puts running backs into the turf with violence and really does a nice job of limiting interior runs. The issues for Britt are not being fast and having limited ability to get to perimeter runs, so he lacks the the range to be a sideline-to-sideline run defender.

Moses is a seek-and-destroy run defender, but he is held back from being special by a lack of instincts. He flies sideline-to-sideline and covers a lot of ground. Moses will dynamically defend the flat and can explode into the offense to blow runs up at the point of attack. Moses shows nice vision and an ability to work through the fray to make stops. He also is inconsistent about taking on blocks.

In the ground game, Collins uses his length to get off blocks and is a good pursuit defender. Some teams, however, are knocking him over a lack of physicality and not engaging on blocks from guards and offensive tackles.

Ossai is tough run defender who finds a way to contribute by pursuing hard to the football and never quitting on plays. With his straight-line quickness, Ossai shows an ability to get in on tackles from the backside. His strength helps him to hold up, and he should be a quality run defender as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

Surratt has the sideline-to-sideline speed for run defense, and he possesses the size and strength to tackle NFL power backs. With his speed and vision, Surratt is capable of firing into the backfield and shutting down perimeter runs. He misses too many tackles, so improving his technique is a major point of emphasis for his game. Considering his late change to linebacker from quarterback, that is somewhat understandable, but he definitely has to cut down on the number of blown tackles to become a good NFL starter.

NFL prototype: Bobby Wagner, Seahawks
  1. Monty Rice
  2. Micah Parsons
  3. K.J. Britt
  4. Jamin Davis
  5. Nick Bolton
  6. Joseph Ossai
  7. Dylan Moses
  8. Jabril Cox
  9. Zaven Collins
  10. Chazz Surratt

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 because players must avoid contact in certain locations and methods of taking down a ball-carrier. The end result is seeing a plethora of blown tackles on a down-by-down basis. This group is pretty solid, and no player stands out in a really negative manner.

Rice, Parsons and Britt are excellent tacklers. Consistently, they do a good job of wrapping up ball-carriers with solid tackling technique. Davis, Bolton, Ossai and Moses are decent tacklers. You rarely see them miss tackles, and they do a nice job of bringing down ball-carriers who other linebackers struggle to get on the ground. As stated above, Cox has the size and strength to tackle but needs to improve fundamentals in wrapping up. Team sources say Collins is not a forceful tackler and needs to improve in that regard to avoid broken tackles on pro running backs. Improving his technique as a tackler is a major point of improvement for Surratt, who misses too many tackles.

NFL prototype: Lavonte David, Buccaneers
  1. Nick Bolton
  2. Jamin Davis
  3. Zaven Collins
  4. Jabril Cox
  5. Monty Rice
  6. Micah Parsons
  7. K.J. Britt
  8. Joseph Ossai
  9. Chazz Surratt
  10. Dylan Moses

Recap: Instincts are what separate 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.

I have Bolton as the most instinctive linebacker in this draft class. His instincts are good, and he seems to be a step ahead often. Over multiples seasons as a starter at Missouri, Bolton showed that he has good instincts, but they may not be on an elite level like a Luke Kuechly or Lavonte David.

Davis, Collins, Cox, Rice, Parsons and Britt all possess above-average instincts. Last season, Davis, Collins, Cox and Rice all showed the ability to anticipate what was coming and get in position to make plays or be disruptive. Each should continue to demonstrate good instincts in the NFL after getting tuned into the pro game. Team sources have told me that Parsons’ instincts are above average but not great. Britt has good instincts for the interior run game, but his speed limitations hurt him on perimeter runs and at covering in the passing game even though he may anticipate what is coming.

Ossai has decent instincts, but his are more honed in for pass rushing. Surratt flashed some instincts on some plays, but on other plays, he would seem to react a hair late and take a false step or two before redirecting. Team sources said Moses lacked instincts in 2020, but he looked more instinctive in 2018. Thus, Moses has issues with consistency.

Shedding Blocks:
NFL prototype: Devin White, Buccaneers
  1. Monty Rice
  2. Jamin Davis
  3. Joseph Ossai
  4. Nick Bolton
  5. Dylan Moses
  6. K.J. Britt
  7. Micah Parsons
  8. Zaven Collins
  9. Jabril Cox
  10. Chazz Surratt

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.

Rice 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 Rice does it the best of this group. Davis is similar, showing a lot of strength and physicality to do the same.

Bolton, Moses and Britt were able to get off some blocks in college. They showed some ability to take on offensive linemen, shed the block, and make the tackle.

Parsons, Collins, Cox and Surratt were all not physical “take on” linebackers in college. They are going to need to become more physical for the NFL.

Pass Rush:
NFL prototype: Benardrick McKinney, Dolphins
  1. Joseph Ossai
  2. Zaven Collins
  3. Micah Parsons
  4. Jabril Cox
  5. Chazz Surratt
  6. Dylan Moses
  7. Jamin Davis
  8. Nick Bolton
  9. Monty Rice
  10. K.J. Britt

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 linebackers who can blitz up the middle after the quarterback. This group has some linebackers who are very good blitzers, especially the top four.

Ossai is a strong edge rusher who displays a good motor and fights hard. He has the strength to shed and uses that power to put quarterbacks into the turf with some violence. Off the snap, Ossai possesses some speed and explosion in a straight line to get upfield. He is very stiff, however, and struggles to redirect. That stiffness makes it difficult for him to dodge blockers and utilize some typical pass-rushing moves. Ossai does not have the size, moves or wiggle to be a 4-3 defensive end and looks limited to playing as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

Collins can rush off the edge, showing speed to blow by offensive tackles and close on the quarterback in a hurry. He can agilely dodge blockers and uses his length to shed blocks. In the NFL, Collins could fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker who rushes the quarterback on a consistent basis but also is a good option to drop in coverage. That kind of linebacker makes it tough on quarterbacks and offensive coordinators to know what he is going to do post-snap.

Perhaps the aspect of the game that Parsons does best is blitz. He closes on the quarterback in a hurry and uses his vision and agility to dart through openings in the line to get pressure in the pocket. Coming off the edge or flying up the middle, Parsons is dangerous and a real threat to produce a big play for his defense. It isn’t out of the question for Parsons to grow into being a 3-4 outside linebacker.

Cox also brings added value as a dangerous blitzer. He had a burst to eat up ground and can be a hard charger who dodges blockers while flying to the quarterback. He may not blitz a lot in the NFL because of his coverage skills, but when he does blitz, he could be effective at harassing the quarterback.

Surratt also is a dangerous blitzer, possessing a serious burst to fire into the backfield and close on quarterbacks in a blur. He collected 6.5 sacks in 2020, which wasn’t a fluke, as Surratt is a good athlete with some explosion.

Moses can contribute as a blitzer, and he totaled five sacks over his last two seasons of play. He can fire into the backfield and get after the quarterback.

Davis, Bolton, Rice and Britt did not produce much in the way of pass rush over the last few seasons. They weren’t used for that in their college defenses, and in the NFL, they probably won’t be called on to blitz often.

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