PewterReport.com analyzes the top players in the 2021 NFL Draft with its’ position previews. Taylor Jenkins previews the linebacker position with a comprehensive look at what the Bucs have and what they need at off-ball linebacker, while also providing a detailed list of this year’s top edge linebackers. In addition, Scott Reynolds offers up the team needs and the annual PewterReport.com Bucs’ Best Bets – the most likely linebacker for the Bucs to select in Rounds 1-3, and in Rounds 4-7.
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What The Bucs Have At Linebacker
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The Bucs currently have one of the most dominant linebacker duos in the NFL. With a perennial All-Pro caliber veteran in Lavonte David and a rising star in Devin White, the position group is among the best in the league. The 31-year old David re-signed for two more years this offseason.
Bucs LBs Lavonte David and Devin White – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Behind White and David the Bucs have veteran Kevin Minter. Originally drafted by Bruce Arians in Arizona, Minter joined the Bucs in 2018. He has served as a crucial veteran backup and was Tampa Bay’s special teams captain last year. While better served defending the run than playing in coverage, Minter is able to step in as a viable starter in a pinch and has made four starts in White’s absence over the past two seasons, including one game in the playoffs.
What The Bucs Need At Linebacker
The Bucs are about as comfortable at linebacker as they are at any position on the roster. While White will surely be their off-ball linebacker of the future, Tampa Bay likely expects David to be around for at least a few more years as well. This leaves the Bucs primarily looking for depth.
With the Bucs moving on from oft-injured Jack Cichy and Deone Bucannon, the team has a hole in the roster. Tampa Bay will need to draft another inside linebacker for depth and for special teams. Given the fact that both David and Minter are 31, getting a potential starter in the draft to groom to play next to White needs to happen sooner rather than later.
Top Linebackers In 2021 NFL Draft
1. Penn State LB Micah Parsons – Junior – 6-3, 246, 4.36
While limited in coverage experience, Parsons absolutely has the kind of size and explosiveness that the league loves at the position. He’s dangerous when rushing the passer, he’s a sure-tackler with just 11 missed tackles over his two seasons in college and he earned the second-highest run defense grade that Pro Football Focus has ever given out at 94.8. Add in the fact that the former five-star recruit posted a 4.39 40-yard dash at nearly 250 pounds and Parsons is all but a lock to go in the top half of the first round this year, despite opting out of the 2020 season.
Owusu-Koramoah is the most versatile linebacker in this year’s draft, playing 212 of his 2020 snaps in the box, 331 at slot corner and 88 along the defensive line. To mix that level of coverage ability with his ability to also blitz up the middle and make plays all over the field in the run game, he can match nearly everything an offense wants to do. But despite such a positionally fluid skill set, Owusu-Koramoah would be one of the smallest linebackers in the NFL at just 221 pounds.
At 260 pounds, Collins is the antithesis to Owusu-Koramoaha the linebacker position. Massive and athletic, Collins will be best suited playing downhill as a blitzer or in the run game but also added four interceptions in eight games last year. He moves around the field smoothly and while some have suggested a transition to edge defender due to his size, that’s just not Collins. He’s a versatile linebacker who can patrol the middle of the field effectively in a number of ways.
Davis proved himself as one of the best run defenders in the SEC. With plus speed and range at the position, Davis has shown his potential but also comes with a limited sample size. He plays aggressively downhill and works through traffic well but there are still questions regarding his ability to play in coverage. If a team is willing to take a chance on Davis, they could find themselves with a high-upside linebacker.
5. Ohio State LB Pete Werner – Senior – 6-3, 245, 4.55
Werner is a three-year starter at Ohio State with prototypical size for the linebacker position at the NFL level. While he comes with versatility and the ability to execute most things asked of him as a linebacker, he doesn’t necessarily possess and elite individual trait. Starting as a SAM linebacker before transitioning to a more every-down role, Werner should prove to be a good enough all-around player to find quick work with an NFL team.
While he’s not the biggest or the fastest linebacker in the class, Bolton has been an impact player over the middle of the field for Missouri the past two seasons. He plays the game hard and personifies the position, racking up the most stops of any SEC linebacker the past two years. He’s got average size and speed at the position but reads the field well, can make plays in coverage and is a force when playing downhill.
Browning brings next-level physical attributes but a skill set that has needed to grow throughout his time in college. Once his role was simplified with the Buckeyes he began playing faster. He is at his best when rushing the passer. Browning’s tools alone make him an attractive prospect at the next level but his consistency at the position remains a work in progress.
Barnes is an interesting prospect, falling somewhere between edge defender and true off-ball linebacker at the college level. He started with a hybrid role in 2018 before transitioning to a full-time edge defender in 2019. He racked up 7.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss – and then moving to linebacker in 2020. Barnes is dangerous at the line of scrimmage. He is be best suited in a scheme that takes advantage of that. But he remains a project player with some physical limitations at off-ball linebacker.
9. LSU LB Jabril Cox – Senior – 6-3, 237, 4.59
Transferring from North Dakota State to LSU, Cox continued to prove his coverage ability at the FBS level last season. While he’s on the smaller side and has issues defending the run, Cox can handle pretty much every responsibility he’s tasked with at the linebacker position in pass defense. Cox has smooth movement skills with good length and can excel in zone or when matched up on tight ends in man. He makes plays on the ball downfield with three interceptions in 2020 and has now shown at two different levels how well he can fill that coverage role at the position.
Surratt is another player who still needs to grow at the position as he moves to the NFL. After transitioning from quarterback to linebacker, Surratt racked up 56 stops in his first year as a starter but also totaled 27 missed tackles. That number shrank to just 11 in 2020 and he had just one missed tackle in his final five games. He plays fast and aggressive in the run game and he has great athleticism at the position, but with such a limited time spent at linebacker he still has work to do polishing the edges of his game.
Rice was able to find playing time over his entire four-year career at Georgia, but never quite took that next step. And by his senior season was losing playing time to teammate Nakobe Dean. Rice has sideline-to-sideline range with good play speed and totaled 40 stops in 2019, but unfortunately he also missed 16 tackles as a starter that year and allowed 22 receptions on 23 targets in 2020.
12. Boston College LB Isaiah McDuffie – Junior – 6-1, 227, 4.58
Boston College LB Isaiah McDuffie – Photo courtesy of Boston College
McDuffie has a lot of the physical attributes to play at the position, despite being a bit undersized, and was decent in both coverage and in the run game but plays far too reactive in both. He’s got quickness, good closing speed and plays hard but he simply needs to process the game at a higher level. Fortunately for McDuffie he was a regular participant on special teams at Boston College as that may be his best way to crack an NFL roster early in his career.
13. WVU LB Tony Fields II – Senior – 6-0, 222, 4.63
Fields was a three-year starter at Arizona before transferring to West Virginia for his senior season. With over 2,800 snaps in college he has a ton of experience at the position and played well in nearly all facets of the game, but he’s not a next-level athlete and failed to truly stand out in any one way. As a smaller linebacker with an average physical profile he just doesn’t bring anything overly special to the table with the exception of his versatility and solid production for four years at the college level.
Moses is a great athlete who played more snaps than any linebacker in the country over his four years at Alabama. He’s a sure tackler with explosiveness, power, sideline-to-sideline range, good closing speed and experience at all three linebacker spots. In a limited role where he’s tasked with making simple reads and attacking, Moses could prove to be a productive player at the NFL level. Yet he’ll likely slide in the draft due to injuries.
15. Michigan LB Cameron McGrone – 6-0, 234, N/A
As with many linebackers going late in the draft, McGrone is another supremely athletic player with a lot of range but he’s far from a finished product. His experience is limited with just one season as a starter before a COVID-shortened 2020, but at just 20-years-old has plenty of time to grow as he transitions to the NFL.
16. Texas A&M LB Buddy Johnson – 6-0, 229, 4.59
Johnson was a starter for just one year at Texas A&M before surprisingly opting out of the 2020 season and declaring for the draft. He’s got good length, explosiveness and athleticism at the position but often gets caught playing the game overly aggressive, forcing him to overcommit and miss tackles at time. It likely would have been beneficial to add one more year of playing time to get more comfortable and play more controlled, but as he stands now, he leaves college with a good amount of issues that will need to be corrected. Johnson could be a late round steal in the draft.
Bucs’ Best Bets: Linebacker
Bucs’ Best Bet – Rounds 1-3: Purdue ILB Derrick Barnes
Barnes was a versatile defender at Purdue, playing outside linebacker and defensive end as a sophomore and a junior before moving to middle linebacker as a senior. Compactly built at 6-foot, 238 pounds with a muscular frame, Barnes packs a wallop when he hit. He recorded 92 tackles and three sacks as a blitzing linebacker in 2018 before notching 7.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss as an edge rusher the next year. Barnes posted 54 tackles and an interception in six games as a senior.
Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles needs versatile linebackers for his 3-4 hybrid defense. Barnes can definitely blitz and rush the passer, in addition to playing the run. He’s still developing his ability to drop in coverage, but his 4.57 speed allows him to cover most tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. Barnes would be an ideal pick in the third round in the draft to potentially replace Lavonte David in a few years while starring on special teams.
Bucs’ Best Bet – Rounds 4-7: Boston College ILB Isaiah McDuffie
Boston College LB Isaiah McDuffie – Photo courtesy of Boston College
Tampa Bay only has three inside linebackers on the roster right now and needs to add a fourth. McDuffie was a three-year starter at Boston College and has the speed the Bucs crave at linebacker. He goes full speed all the time. Although undersized at 6-foot-1, 227, McDuffie plays bigger and is aggressive against the run, evidenced by 230 career tackles and 15.5 tackles for loss. McDuffie averaged 8.2 tackles per game over his last three years at Boston College.
What’s intriguing about McDuffie is his ability to blitz. He notched 8.5 career sacks over the last three years, including three last year as a redshirt junior. The Boston College coaches rave about his passion for football and work ethic. McDuffie would be an interesting developmental linebacker as a Day 3 selection in the draft. He could be an instant impact player on special teams as he learns from some of the best linebackers in the league in David and Devin White.