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Evaluations

Thor's Linebacker Rankings

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: April 21, 2020, 6:11 pm ET

My previous entries in this scouting series examined the quarterbackrunning backwide receivertight endtackleinterior OLinterior DL and EDGE classes. Spiderweb graphs sourced from mockdraftable.com, SPARQ scores from Three Sigma Athlete, adjusted SPARQ from Rotoworld's Hayden Winks and RAS from Kent Lee Platte


1. Isaiah Simmons (Clemson) | 6'4/238

simmons

SPARQ percentile: ~98

Adjusted SPARQ: .98

RAS: 10

Comp: Derwin James-plus (Danny Kelly)

It sure seems like this Tiger has the world by the tail, doesn’t it? Would you believe that four years ago, Simmons couldn’t even get Arkansas to make him an offer? The Razorbacks were Simmons’ first choice, but – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – Arkansas’ staff reportedly couldn’t decide what position they’d play Simmons at. So they passed. Simmons, from the same Olathe North High School that produced the likewise criminally overlooked Darren Sproles, was being pursued, but perhaps not doggedly, by local schools Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri. His process picked up late when Jim Harbaugh made a home visit.

And then fate interceded when Clemson DC Brent Venables called recruiting analyst Jeremy Crabtree, located in Kansas City, and asked if there were any overlooked LB/S types in the area. Venables had one scholarship left to give out for the cycle and was looking to flesh out his defensive class. Crabtree had seen Simmons live and couldn’t understand why he hadn’t been nationally recruited from the start. And that’s the story of how college football’s most creative big-game defensive coordinator got matched up with college football’s most devastating defensive chess piece. Jeremy Crabtree, millionaire matchmaker, probably deserves a championship share.

Simmons is listed as a linebacker, but that’s highly misleading. You don’t draft him to play a traditional off-ball role. You draft him to move him all over the place, erase opponents, and tick off opposing offensive coordinators. He’s a defensive weapon. He primarily played safety as a freshman and primarily in the slot as a sophomore. In 2019, per PFF, Simmons played 100-plus snaps at EDGE, linebacker, strong safety, free safety and slot while managing to grade above 80.0 as a run defender, tackler, pass rusher and in coverage. He played 823 snaps total, essentially dividing his time as an interchangeable piece between five spots – and excelled at each in every phase of the game. That’s ridiculous.

This versatility shows in his stat line: Last year, he became to the first FBS player since Khalil Mack in 2013 to record at least 100 tackles, 16 TFL, eight sacks and multiple interceptions in a season. A former track star and Kansas state long-jumping champion, Simmons is a special athlete among special athletes. He ran a 4.39 forty (No. 1 among LB) at the NFL Combine with an 11-foot broad jump (No. 2) en route to a perfect 10.0 RAS score – which means he’s the most athletic linebacker Kent Lee Platte’s system has ever scored. Simmons’ versatility on the football field is almost unheard of.

He’s long and fluid in coverage, with the size, speed and feet for any assignment. He’s posted PFF cover grades of 90.0 and 88.2 over the past two years despite all that time in the slot while allowing a career quarterback rating against of 77.2. He’s dangerous coming off the edge -- a defender in Calvin Johnson’s athletic profile neighborhood -- with the agility to evade and the burst to get home. And he’s strong in run defense, with the athleticism to track down any ball carrier coupled with an 81-plus inch wingspan for a tackling strike zone, which also comes in handy in coverage.

Simmons is an utterly unique defensive prospect. He’s a toy that all 32 NFL defensive coordinators would kill to have – Venables gleefully moved Simmons around the field as matchups dictated as though he was playing a game of Battleship. I see Simmons as a top-five prospect overall. 


2. Patrick Queen (LSU) | 6'0/229

queen

SPARQ percentile: 83.8

Adjusted SPARQ: .81

RAS: 8.1

Comp: Thomas Davis (Lance Zierlein)

Queen hails from Livonia, across the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge. Through high school, he was just as good at baseball as he was at football, batting .380 as his team’s leadoff man. The outfielder was a Division-I baseball prospect until it became clear that football was Pat Queen’s future – he was also a top-300 overall football recruit. Once LSU offered– making Queen the first player in Livonia history to receive such an offer – that was that.

Queen didn’t play much as a freshman. He worked into the rotation as a sophomore, garnering his first career start in 2018 against Alabama when Devin White was suspended in the first half for targeting. Queen flashed for the first time at the end of that season in the Fiesta Bowl against UCF – one of the schools that had pursued him on the baseball side – with nine tackles and two TFL. Last year, as a first-year starter, Queen posted 85 tackles, 12 TFL, three sacks, an interception and two breakups.

Queen is a sleek athlete who ran a 4.50 40-yard dash (94th percentile) with a 10-4 broad jump (91st) and 35-inch vertical jump (64th) at the NFL Combine before a hamstring injury cut his day short. Those wheels are on display every time he steps onto the field. Queen diagnoses quickly and then he’s gone, racing past the blocker who was supposed to meet him a little further upfield and exploding from a perfect base through the hips of some poor running back.

The most impressive aspect of his game – by far – is coverage. Only Simmons has more potential in this phase in the class. In 2018, per PFF, Queen allowed only 49 yards on 92 coverage snaps. Last year, jumping up to 393 coverage snaps, he recorded an 82.0 PFF coverage grade that ranked No. 4 among my top-30 linebackers. According to PFF, Queen didn’t surrender a reception longer than 20 yards over 488 career coverage snaps in college. He’s just so dang fast and fluid in space, with hoola-girl hips.

Queen is still inexperienced and raw. And while his flashes in run defense are extremely impressive, he remains below-average in this phase. Queen’s PFF run-defense grade of 64.7 last fall was poor, and it was similar to his showing the year before in part-time duty. Queen sizzles when he finds daylight to race to the ballcarrier and drop him. Because of his size, he gets swallowed up when blockers get their hands on him. Still only 20, there’s time to add a little muscle to his frame.


3. Zack Baun (Wisconsin) | 6'2/238

baun

SPARQ percentile: 55.0

Adjusted SPARQ: .6

RAS: 8.75

Comp: Uchenna Nwosu (Jeremiah)

Baun was a three-sport star at Brown Deer High School in Wisconsin, a two-way dual-threat quarterback and defensive end on the football team, a starter on the state championship basketball team, and a state qualifier in track. He earned a three-star recruiting designation but was overlooked, only garnering a single FBS offer – from the Badgers, who originally intended to grayshirt him. Baun took a redshirt as a freshman in 2015 instead. He played sporadically the next year as a redshirt freshman before missing the entire 2017 season with a foot injury.

He returned to contribute regularly on defense for the first time in 2018, starting 13 games and posting modest stats; 2.5 sacks and 7.5 TFL, though PFF liked his work (82.0 grade). Last fall, Baun went ballistic, recording 12.5 sacks and 19.5 TFL (89.2 grade). Promisingly, Baun also showed out well in coverage in college. He played mostly zone, displaying sharp instincts. In the pass-happy NFL, that’s a nice piece to have. Over his two years as starter, per PFF, Baun generated pressure on 16.5 percent of his rushes (tied for No. 6) and allowed only 112 yards on 195 drops into coverage.

He’s a fiery pass-rusher who’ll never cheat you on effort. A sudden athlete with burst and shake, Baun packs surprising power for his size and a deep well of pass-rushing moves. He has the flexibility to snap the edge clean and punish slow-footed tackles, and he can maintain his balance when jarred by mountainous men even when rounding precarious corners.

In coverage, he’s very smooth, easing into drops quickly with light feet, prepared to cover more than his fair share of terrain. Baun’s agility, burst and anticipation make him something of a pest in zone coverage, where he reads quarterback’s eyes like he’s sitting at a poker table and breaks on balls violently. He isn’t going to have any issues running with running backs or tight ends in the NFL, but Baun’s cover skills outside of Wisconsin’s zone at this point are at best unproven. And if there’s an element of risk in the profile, that’s where it’s introduced.

Baun was a banshee of an edge rusher at Wisconsin, multi-faceted to boot, but he lacks the frame to settle at that position full-time in the NFL. So he’s likely headed for an off-ball role in the NFL, blitzing in nickel. It might take a year to get him up to speed, depending on the scheme of the drafting team. Outside of his comfort area in Wisconsin’s zone, at the Senior Bowl, Baun struggled to acclimate to coverage responsibilities as an off-ball linebacker. It was new to him, and a small sample, but worth noting. Baun is also is a medical risk, with a torn meniscus (2016) and Lisfranc (2017) surgeries in his recent past.


4. Kenneth Murray (Oklahoma) | 6'2/241

murray

SPARQ percentile: ~94

Adjusted SPARQ: .88

RAS: 9.93

Comp: Deion Jones (Kelly)

Kenneth Murray is the son of a preacher, and the brother of three adopted special-needs children. His siblings were all born with a chromosomal abnormality, missing the lower arm of the eighth chromosome. Lenny and James are non-verbal. Lenny, the sports fan of the three, is confined to a specialized wheelchair. "It taught me the true meaning of being grateful," Kenneth said. "... I'm blessed and gifted with an ability to simply walk. To simply talk. If I feel sick, I can communicate with my parents and tell them. That's not a privilege these kids have."

When Murray recorded a school-record 28 tackles against Army with a shoulder stinger and then made a point after the game to find as many Black Knight players as he could to shake their hands, that’s where the football character comes from. The athleticism? That’s from the upstairs that Murray’s father talks about in his sermons. Prior to hurting his hamstring on his second 40-yard dash attempt, Murray turned in a 4.53 forty to go with a 38-inch vertical and a 10-8 broad at the NFL Combine. His SPARQ scored ranked No. 4 among LBs.

The athleticism jumps off the screen. Murray is a sideline-to-sideline cheetah, maniacally chasing the ballcarrier and arriving with unbridled ferocity. He accelerates immediately, and brings with him a large tackling strike zone because of his 80-inch wingspan. His motor doesn’t quit, and, as the Army anecdote attests, he’ll play through pain. The combination of elite athleticism and elite effort is something to behold – he never stops, and he never seems to slow. It’s no wonder that he piled up 254 tackles and 29.5 TFL over the past two years. He’s very dangerous on the blitz, a kamikaze who explodes off the edge and fluidly sets himself in a direct line for a kill shot to the quarterback once he beats the tackle. And Murray’s athleticism shines in coverage, where he posted an 80.6 PFF coverage grade last fall.

For all the good, there’s risk here. Murray is a film rat, but his instincts remain a beat or two off, such that he needs his athleticism to play catch-up when he loses a step a or two during the diagnostic process. In the NFL, that issue could be exacerbated by his difficulties shedding offensive linemen who can get their hands on him at the second level. He’s also the type of player who is always in the vicinity but not always making the play, be it a missed tackle or at the catch point.

Murray missed 20 tackles in 2018, and another 13 in 2019. And while he’s gotten by on athleticism in coverage in Oklahoma’s zone scheme, he needs work in this area to become the top-flight cover man his athleticism suggests he could become. Murray only defended six passes and didn’t intercept any in college despite starting 42 games. Quarterbacks can manipulate him with eye movement. The good news is that Murray has all the physical gifts in the world, and nobody works harder. But that’s also been the case to this point.


5. Akeem Davis-Gaither (Appalachian State) | 6'1/224

davis-gaither

SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: N/A

RAS: N/A

Comp: Maurice Alexander (Zierlein)

A forgotten recruit made good, Davis-Gaither was the No. 2,156 prospect on the 247Sports composite board in 2015 and by 2018 was second-team All-Sun Belt. Last year, he was named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. Davis-Gaither collected over 100 tackles each of his final two seasons.

He plays like that recruiting ranking is tattooed on his soul. With a game marked by chip-on-the-shoulder determination and hard-earned craftiness, Davis-Gaither is a mighty mouse powerhouse with an uncanny ability to ditch running backs and tight ends chipping on the blitz and bounce off offensive linemen who have him seriously out-bulked while keeping on his path.

In conjunction with his “Tonight we dine in Vallhala” playing style, Davis-Gaither is like a murderous pop-up doll that keeps advancing towards you no matter how many times you try to knock it over. He’s very slippery, and very difficult to corral, with outstanding agility, quick feet and sound instincts. Davis-Gaither is dangerous on the blitz, with 23 quarterback pressures in 2019, and ultra-reliable against the run, with a PFF run-defense grade of 87.0 last year.

His straight-line aggressiveness serves him well, but Davis-Gaither could stand to clean up his tackling technique to improve his percentage of downed runners. Per PFF, 15+ missed tackles each of the last two seasons. He has a bad habit of flying in at 100 mph and launching prematurely. You love the effort and aggression, just need the kid to understand we’ll trade a bit of wallop for less missed tackles.

Davis-Gaither is slight, with a safety’s build. And despite his athleticism, he was thoroughly mediocre in coverage in college. He has all the tools to develop into a plus in this area theoretically, but keep in mind that he was a below-average Sun Belt cover linebacker last fall, so there’s work to do. I’m willing to bet on him.


6. Willie Gay Jr. (Mississippi State) | 6'1/243

willie gay

SPARQ percentile: 98.1

Adjusted SPARQ: .94

RAS: 9.68

Comp: Thomas Howard (Mike Renner)

Willie Gay grew up in Starkville. Coming out of high school, he ran a 4.53 forty with a 39-plus inch vertical for a 128.22 SPARQ score that was near the top of his entire class. Mississippi State fended off arch-rival Mississippi in a classic recruiting battle to keep the prized four-star local product home. He had a star-crossed career, ultimately playing only 846 snaps in large part due to suspension and an early declaration.

Last year should have been his national coming out party, but Gay was suspended eight games for academic fraud. His first game back, he got ejected against Kentucky for two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Then, prior to the Bulldogs' bowl game, he reportedly broke starting quarterback Garrett Schrader’s orbital bone during an altercation, causing Schrader to miss the game. Incredibly, he wasn’t suspended for that, and went out and made 11 tackles with one TFL against Louisville.

The character concerns and inexperience add risk to the profile. But Gay’s high-octane athleticism buys him a lot of leash. Most years, he would have tested top in show among linebackers, but he came out in Isaiah Simmons’ class. Gay’s a blazer, with the ability to reach top speed quickly and change directions fluidly while in pursuit. He’s proven exceptional in coverage, posting PFF grades of 87.7-plus in all three years on campus and allowing a career NFL passer rating against of 47.7. In run defense, his instincts are questionable and he needs to be kept clean, but his range is ridiculous and he drops the hammer when he gets home. Gay is a boom-or-bust prospect, but the ceiling is high enough that it almost demands that he be ranked this high.


7. Logan Wilson (Wyoming) | 6'2/241

loganwilson

SPARQ percentile: 60.8

Adjusted SPARQ: .63

RAS: 8.98

Comp: Nick Kwiatkoski (Kyle Crabbs)

A decorated G5 warrior who is flying under the radar, Wilson was a four-year starter at Wyoming who stuffed the stat sheet with 421 tackles, 35 TFL, seven sacks, 10 interceptions and 24 passes defensed over 3,618 snaps on campus. Wilson is one of the class’ best at immediately reading and reacting to the offense's intentions, very quick to crash down in the run game and rarely fooled with trickery. He takes efficient routes to the ball and is a slick and coordinated athlete moving laterally. Wyoming didn’t ask him to blitz a ton, that was used more as a disguised-blitz changeup, but he hit the quarterback on 29.4% of his total pressures.

Wilson took a big step forward in coverage the past few years in Wyoming’s 4-2-5, posting strong PFF coverage grades of 81.4 and 81.3, respectively. Because he didn’t blitz much, he’s extremely seasoned in zone coverage, and the former receiver who signed with the Cowboys as a safety has great ball skills for a linebacker. If there’s a concern, it’s that we haven’t seen him in man coverage. But I’d be very comfortable taking him on Day 2 if I ran a zone – Wilson profiles as a plus cover linebacker in that scheme who is going to be a standout against the run.


8. Troy Dye (Oregon) | 6'3/231

troy dye

SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: N/A

RAS: N/A

Comp: Alec Ogletree (Crabbs)

Dye is the Rodney Dangerfield of the LB class, getting no respect despite earning all-conference citation each of his four years on campus. The former safety runs like a defensive back and is one of the class’ best cover linebackers. Dye is very smooth in coverage, comfortable backpedaling and making a swift 180 to run with his man, calm with the ball in the air and equipped with long arms to make a play on it. He defended 21 passes and picked off five over the past four years. He’s under-appreciated despite his ample four-year success for a big program and plus athleticism because of a finesse game.

Dye has a thin build, and he lacks plus play strength. He doesn’t destroy ballcarriers, more of a wrap-up tackler with those long arms. On the plus side, he has a large tackle strike zone. On the minus, power runners will bowl through his arm tackles or wear him for a backpack unless he squares up more efficiently. In a class where the linebacking talent dries up quickly, Dye, one of the nation’s more consistent cover linebackers over the past four years with length to spare, could be a steal. 


9. Malik Harrison (Ohio State) | 6'3/247

malikharrison

SPARQ percentile: 77.2

Adjusted SPARQ: .73

RAS: 9.55

Comp: Germaine Pratt (Kelly)

Harrison’s game took a leap last fall, putting him in range to potentially get popped on Day 2. A former elite athlete recruit, Harrison originally intended to play receiver in Columbus. His build and athletic profile had other ideas. Harrison is a bruising run defender who graded out as one of the nation’s best linebackers in run defense last year (87.1). He took a step forward in PFF’s coverage grades (68.1 to 77.1), but this area of his game remains problematic. Harrison is a straight-line athlete who plays upright and stiff. He can be hidden in zone, but he’ll get torched in man. Harrison projects as an early-down run enforcer who’ll chip in value on special teams.



10. Tanner Muse (Clemson) | 6'1/230

tanner muse

SPARQ percentile: 93.9

Adjusted SPARQ: 0.91

RAS: 9.97

Comp: Kyzir White (Lindy’s)

Muse was listed as a safety in college, but his transition to linebacker won’t be as treacherous as you might think. First off, that’s just his build. Secondly, Muse actually played double the snaps in the box (710) as he did at safety (353) the past few years. Muse wowed at the NFL Combine with a 4.41 forty at 230 pounds and ended up turning in 90-plus percentile workouts by any metric – as a safety. Muse is a straight-line athlete with good instincts and picture-perfect form when burying a ballcarrier. You want him attacking downhill. Lower-body stiffness makes it difficult for him in coverage, where he gets shaken in space.

Promisingly, PFF’s numbers showed that Muse was far better in coverage when starting inside the box than he was when starting outside of it, a datapoint that would suggest he could become a solid cover guy on the second level. We already know he can track down runners, and Muse is also a good blitzer. As an added bonus, he’s a seasoned special-teamer who will chip in on coverage and block units. I smell some sleeper appeal here.

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is Rotoworld’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!