2022 NFL Draft Position Review: Linebackers

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2022 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2022 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
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This page was last updated April 13, 2022. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Position Review: Linebackers

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

Merging the 2022 and 2021 prospects
Micah Parsons
Zaven Collins
Jamin Davis
Nakobe Dean
Devin Lloyd
Quay Walker
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
Christian Harris
Nick Bolton
Pete Werner
Brandon Smith
Chazz Surratt
Divine Deablo
Leo Chenal
Chad Muma
Damone Clark

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 2022 NFL Draft has a quality class of linebackers, but it is not as good as last year for top-shelf talent, when three non-pass-rushing linebackers were selected in the top 20. One can debate, however, whether Micah Parsons is a non-pass rusher as rushing the quarterback is what he does best. At any rate, this year could have 2-3 first-rounders and a similar amount of prospects on Day 2. The 2022 NFL Draft’s class was hurt by the discovery of Damone Clark’s medical issues, which is a late removal of an early-rounder. There could still be three first-round picks at lineback in the 2022 NFL Draft, but there is more depth among the second-day prospects. There are some good options for the second and third round, plus some other decent prospects on Day 3 of the 2022 NFL Draft.

If you were to merge the two classes together, Nakobe Dean would be behind the top-three linebackers from last year. Dean, Devin Lloyd and Quay Walker, however, would still all get late first-round consideration. Christian Harris is a second-round prospect on a par with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Nick Bolton. Brandon Smith is comparable to 2021 third-round picks Pete Werner and Chazz Surratt. Leo Chenal, Chad Muma and Damone Clark could go in the Round 3 of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Safest Pick: Devin Lloyd, Utah
Previous Picks:
2021: Jamin Davis
2020: Kenneth Murray
2019: Devin White, Josh Allen
2018: Roquan Smith, Tremained 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

After Clark’s neck injury was revealed, this was an easy choice because I think Lloyd is a safe pick to be a good pro. Team sources who like Lloyd say he is big, long and athletic. They feel he has good instincts, but is not overly twitchy. He is physical and has good length to play off blocks. Lloyd made some impressive plays in coverage and as a rusher in 2021. He has a quality skill set and looks like a safe pick to be a quality starter in the NFL.

Biggest Bust Potential: Brandon Smith, Penn State
Previous Picks:
2021: Dylan Moses
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: Bernardrick McKinney, Randy Gregory
2014: Chris Borland, Dee Ford
2013: Kevin Reddick, Chase Thomas

In the shortened eight-game 2020 season, Smith played really well for Penn State, but he did not carry over that success in 2021. While Smith possesses a tremendous skill set with size, speed and athleticism, he underachieved in 2021, missing tackles and making fewer splash plays. Smith could get overdrafted because he is big and fast, but he looks like a better athlete than football player with significant bust potential for the NFL.

Linebacker Rankings by Attributes

Pass Coverage:
NFL prototype: Luke Kuechly, Retired
  1. Nakobe Dean
  2. Damone Clark
  3. Devin Lloyd
  4. Quay Walker
  5. Brandon Smith
  6. Christian Harris
  7. Chad Muma
  8. Leo Chenal

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.

Dean is a linebacker with the size, speed, and athleticism to become a three-down starter in the modern NFL. What Dean does best is blitz the quarterback, and he is phenomenal at it. Dean shows tremendous timing, vision, and anticipation on when he decides to fire into the backfield. Dean comes downhill in a hurry to catch quarterbacks by surprise, and often he catches them off guard. Pro offensive lines will probably diminish Dean’s remarkable blitzing compared to the college lines he exploited, but Dean still has the ability to make impactful plays as a blitzer.

Clark is a skilled defender in pass coverage. He is very fast as a blitzer and displays excellent diagnosis skills. Clark reads plays quickly and covers a lot of ground in zone, helped by having the speed to run down the middle seam. On dump-off passes to the flat, Clark flies into the ball-carrier and is good at making tackles in space. His size and athleticism allow him to have the potential to play some man coverage on tight ends and backs out of the backfield as a pro.

In pass coverage, Lloyd is very well suited to today’s NFL. While he has some stiffness that can be seen when he drops into coverage, Lloyd compensates with instincts and speed. He has the potential to contribute against tight ends in man-to-man coverage. Lloyd has good height and length to match up on tight ends and the speed to get down the seam. He was very good in coverage for Utah in 2021. Lloyd is also able to cover running backs out of the backfield. In zone coverage, Lloyd is skilled at picking up receivers who come into his area and keep them from getting open. He also flashed as a blitzer for the Utes when given the opportunity to rush the passer. Lloyd should be a true three-down defender in the NFL.

Walker’s instincts and discipline against the pass are impressive. He never bit on play action or misdirection, which is rare for a college linebacker, especially one coming from a conference that still features rushing attacks. Walker is able to read routes and moves well enough to execute zone coverage. He also has the skill set to handle some man-coverage assignments against tight ends.

In pass coverage, Smith is a mixed bag. He is a fluid athlete in space who shows the speed to cover ground. He also can contribute in coverage on running backs and run with tight ends down the seam. Smith lacks instincts, however, and is not ball aware.

Harris has the size, speed, and athleticism for contributing in pass coverage. He can pick up receivers in zone and keep close coverage on them in the middle of the field. Harris, however, did not always play up to his skill set. His instincts and vision seem below average as well, so that could lead to him having coverage busts and getting picked on in the NFL.

Muma does a nice job of dropping into coverage and reading the eyes of the quarterback. He is not that fluid in changing direction, however, which could limit how he defends passing attacks. Chenal was not an impressive pass=coverage linebacker at Wisconsin. He has tightness and stiffness that make him a poor fit for pass coverage in the NFL.

Run Defense:
NFL prototype: Bobby Wagner, Rams
  1. Damone Clark
  2. Devin Lloyd
  3. Quay Walker
  4. Christian Harris
  5. Chad Muma
  6. Nakobe Dean
  7. Leo Chenal
  8. Brandon Smith

Recap: As multiple scouts told WalterFootball.com at the college all-star games, the thumper inside linebacker is a dying breed in the NFL. Still, teams have to have middle linebackers who can be tough against the run. 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, although all of them need to improve in certain aspects.

Clark was a tackling machine for LSU in 2021, racking up 136 stops. He led the nation in tackles for the majority of the 2021 season and probably would have had the highest total for the year if he had played in the Tigers’ bowl game. There is no doubt that Clark is a solid tackler who wraps up ball-carriers and gets them to the ground. He also slides into some tackles, however, and does not always arrive with violence. He needs to grow more forceful and violent as a tackler for the NFL. That would help to avoid missed tackles and being dragged for extra yardage. Clark has the size and mentality to take on a block, hold his ground, shed the block, and get in on the tackle. Clark is a very good run defender and projects to be an asset to shut down and limit an offense’s ground game. Some team sources believe Clark could be a Zach Cunningham-type defender in the NFL. Like Cunningham, they would not be surprised if Clark ends up leading the league in tackles during seasons in his pro career.

Lloyd goes sideline-to-sideline against the run and has the quickness to track down ball-carriers. Lloyd has good instincts and is adept at reading his keys to explode through the scrum to take down the back. Lloyd is big enough defend against downhill runs coming straight at him. In terms of getting off blocks, Lloyd has potential becaise he is a physical defender who does not shy away from taking on blockers.

Walker is an advanced run defender entering the next level. He has quality instincts and does a nice job of reading his keys to get in proper position. That understanding of blocking schemes and run designs allows him to flow to the ball to limit backs from getting to the second level. With his size and strength, Walker is capable to work off blocks while also being a consistent and forceful tackler. He could stand to improve his ability to shed blocks more consistently. In the NFL, Walker should be an asset against the run.

As a run defender, Harris has the speed to get to the perimeter and the size and physicality forcefully tackle. He uses his speed to fire downhill, and he flashed the ability to blow up runs in the backfield. His instincts and vision, however, are lacking, and he never produced up to his skill set. The lack of instincts and recognition skills will lead to Harris getting out of position. Perhaps he can improve in these aspects with good pro coaching.

Muma was a tackling machine for Wyoming over the past two seasons. He is flow-to-the-ball linebacker who tackles well and takes good angles to get to the ball-carrier. Along with always being around the ball, Muma will deliver some hard hits to finish backs off. For the NFL, Muma will need to improve taking on and shedding blocks. Those are going to be big points of improvement for him to develop into being a starter.

Dean has the quickness to defend the run at the perimeter and is a quality tackler. He isn’t a force, and his instincts are inconsistent. At times, they are phenomenal, but he falls quiet at other times, which reflected in his underwhelming tackle totals over the past two seasons. Dean isn’t overly physical, but he has the athleticism and speed to chase down backs. For the NFL, he’ll need to improve at taking on and shedding blocks.

Chenal is very strong in the box and is tough for offensive linemen to move. He can stack and hold his ground well and shows the ability to get off blocks. Chenal, however, is a heavier linebacker who could have productivity issues in terms of chasing down pro backs. Vision and play recognition are areas where Chenal needs to get better.

Smith needs to improve his run defense for the NFL. He flashed at times thanks to having the size, speed and strength to get the job done. He was held back by inconsistent instincts, vision, recognition and technique. Smith really struggles at shedding blocks, and offensive linemen too easily sustain their blocks against him.

NFL prototype: Devin White, Buccaneers
  1. Quay Walker
  2. Devin Lloyd
  3. Damone Clark
  4. Christian Harris
  5. Nakobe Dean
  6. Chad Muma
  7. Leo Chenal
  8. Brandon Smith

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 no player stands out in a really negative manner.

Walker, Lloyd and Clark are very good tacklers. Each consistently does a good job of wrapping up ball-carriers, with solid tackling technique. Harris, Dean, Muma and Chenal are solid tacklers. They rarely missed tackles when they arrived at the back. Missed tackles were an issues for Smith at times during the 2021 season.

NFL prototype: Lavonte David, Buccaneers
  1. Damone Clark
  2. Devin Lloyd
  3. Quay Walker
  4. Nakobe Dean
  5. Chad Muma
  6. Leo Chenal
  7. Brandon Smith
  8. Christian Harris

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, I have Clark as the most instinctive linebacker, and he really stands out in this regard. His instincts are very good, leaving him seemingly often a step ahead. Over the 2021 season, Clark showed that he has good instincts, but they may not be on an elite level like a Luke Kuechly or Lavonte David.

Lloyd, Walker, Dean and Muma all possess above-average instincts. They all showed the ability to anticipate what was coming and get in position to make plays or be disruptive. Each should continue to have good instincts in the NFL after getting tuned in to the pro game.

Chenal has decent instincts, but his are more honed in on rushing the passer. Smith flashed some instincts in 2020, but took a step backward in 2021. Team sources said Harris lacked instincts in 2021 and did not play up to his skill set.

Shedding Blocks:
NFL prototype: Devin White, Buccaneers
  1. Quay Walker
  2. Devin Lloyd
  3. Nakobe Dean
  4. Christian Harris
  5. Damone Clark
  6. Chad Muma
  7. Leo Chenal
  8. Brandon Smith

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 transitioning to the the next level. A lot of the top linebackers in the NFL struggled with it early on.

Walker is the best at shedding right now, as he can take the contact, hold his ground, lose the block, and make the tackle. He still has room for improvement in this category for the NFL, but he is the best of this group. Lloyd is similar, possessing a lot of strength and physicality to do the same.

Dean, Harris, Clark and Muma 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. Muma will definitely need more work on this in the NFL. Chenal has the ability, but he could use development. Smith was inconsistent during his collegiate career.

Pass Rush:
NFL prototype: Micah Parsons, Cowboys
  1. Nakobe Dean
  2. Leo Chenal
  3. Devin Lloyd
  4. Damone Clark
  5. Christian Harris
  6. Quay Walker
  7. Chad Muma
  8. Brandon Smith

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 five.

Dean is phenomenal at blitzing the quarterback, showing tremendous timing, vision and anticipation on when to blast into the backfield. Dean comes downhill in a hurry to catch quarterbacks by surprise. NFL offensive linemen will probably diminish Dean’s remarkable blitzing compared to the college lines he exploited, but Dean still has the ability to make an impact as a blitzer.

Chenal is a tough pass rusher with a good motor and fights hard. He totaled eight sacks last year, showing real power as a rusher. Chenal has the strength to shed and uses that to put quarterbacks into the turf with some violence. Off the snap, Chenal has some burst in a straight line to get upfield. He has some stiffness, however, can have issues redirecting. His best fit in the NFL could come as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

Lloyd flashed serious pass-rush ability over the past two seasons. He collected eight sacks in 2021 and 6.5 in 2020. With his strength and physicality, Lloyd does a good job of slapping away blockers and weaving through trash to get to the quarterback. Utah used Lloyd well in the pass rush, where he is a heat-seeking demon chasing down the quarterback.

Clark also brings added value as a dangerous blitzer, and he notched 5.5 sacks last year despite dropping into coverage a lot. Clark displayed 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.

Harris can rush off the edge, possessing speed to blow by offensive tackles and close on the quarterback in a hurry. He is agile at dodging blockers and uses his length to shed blocks.

Walker, Muma and Smith did not produce much in the way of pass rush over the last few seasons because they were dropping into coverage for their teams. 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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