Recently, we’ve looked at the top-ten interior defensive linemen and edge rushers in the 2020 NFL draft. Today, we’ll complete the front seven; we’ll look at the top linebackers in this draft class. I’ve very fascinated by this group of linebackers, as they are a lot of athletic freaks, but for whatever reason, only the top player on this list is a developed player, and he’s not even a true linebacker. Nevertheless, there are a lot of closely knit players on this list, which means that teams could evaluate these prospects as first-round players, or as day-three prospects. Therefore, it’s a very polarizing group of players, and overall, gathering as much information of these players was so interesting- these players are viewed so differently, depending on the evaluator. So, who do I personally feel are the best linebackers in this draft class? Let’s take a closer look.
#1: Isaiah Simmons, Clemson
Year: RS Junior
Height: 6’4″ Weight: 238 lbs
Pro Comparison: Derwin James
Best Fits: NYG, DET, CAR
Overall Grade: 92.325 (Top 3)
If you searched up the word “unique” in the dictionary, Isaiah Simmons’ picture should come up- he’s an absolute unicorn. As evidenced by his 4.39 40-yard dash, he’s an athletic freak and is super explosive, and you don’t have to worry about his sideline to sideline range. He’s not just a straight-line runner though, as he changes directions with ease, and will thrive versus outside runs and screens. Meanwhile, his length and range allow him to make a severe impact in the passing game, and he has the ball skills of a defensive back. In the running game, he’s able to shed blocks with his length, and heck, he has the explosiveness and length needed to even rush the passer at times. To sum it up, you’re getting a high-end linebacker, safety, and edge rusher with just one player, which is probably the best way to illustrate Simmons’ unprecedented versatility- he’s a rare prospect.
Simmons could afford to be a bit more powerful in the running game as a downhill linebacker, and needs to refine his abilities in zone coverage. Really, however, his only concern is that the team that drafts him sticks him in one position, which won’t work. You’re wasting his abilities by having him be strictly a linebacker or a safety, as he goes from a rare talent to just a decent player. That’s not a weakness by any means, but if you draft Simmons, you better have a plan as to how to properly maximize his skillset.
Isaiah Simmons’ versatility, length, and athleticism is incredible, as he can play three positions at a high level, and can change the outlook of any defense. In today’s NFL, we’re getting closer to closer to playing positionless football, as the Ravens have mostly done. There’s no better player to have as the face of a defense than Simmons, as he impacts the game in any way, and for teams at the top of the draft like the Giants, Lions, Dolphins, Panthers, Jaguars, and Browns, he’s a game-changer. In a way, he could end up being the most valuable defensive player in all of football, and it’s critical that the team that drafts him doesn’t regulate him to one specific role.
#2: Willie Gay Jr., Mississippi State*
Height: 6’2″ Weight: 240 lbs
Pro Comparison: Nigel Bradham
Best Fits: SEA, KC, BAL
Overall Grade: 86.2 (Late 2nd/Early 3rd)
If we were just analyzing a player’s overall talent, Willie Gay Jr. would undoubtedly be a first-round pick. He’s an elite athlete who ran a 4.46 40-yard dash and dominated the combine, so he certainly fits the mold of a modern linebacker. Plus, as evidenced by his elite coverage grades from Pro Football Focus, he has the instincts and change of direction skills needed to thrive in coverage, so he has the skillset that every team is looking for with their linebackers.
Unfortunately, Gay was suspended several times at Mississippi, including this season, so he may not be a player that can be controlled. The off-field concerns are massive, and even when he’s able to play, it’s not as though he’s a polished player. He’s currently a liability in run defense, as he doesn’t engage with blockers, so he’s not a player you want to play between the tackles or on early downs.
Based on his elite coverage skills and athletic traits, I truly see Willie Gay Jr. as a first-round talent. However, he’s the opposite of reliable, so teams will have to be super confident in their culture before drafting them. This could be a prime opportunity for strong-cultured teams like the Seahawks and Chiefs to find the athletic linebackers they’ve long needed, though on day two, any team should definitely look into him, based on his talent.
#3: Patrick Queen, LSU
Height: 6’1″ Weight: 227 lbs
Pro Comparison: Kwon Alexander
Best Fits: NYG, GB, CIN
Overall Grade: 84.275 (Early 2nd)
The most fun to watch linebackers in the league are the players with elite sideline to sideline range and vocal leadership, and LSU’s Patrick Queen fits that mold. He’s a super aggressive and instinctual player, and will excel in space with those qualities, as well as his excellent movement skills. He projects well against outside zone runs and screens, but most of all, he’ll excel in coverage. He has fantastic feel for the game in zone coverages, and is able to close on gaps with his explosiveness- he earned a 92 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus. Plus, since he’s just 20-years-old, there’s plenty of time for him to develop further, which is great news considering his upside.
Oftentimes, Queen’s aggressiveness gets the best of him, as he struggles to play under control, especially as a run defender. For the most part, his major flaw is his inexperience, as he’ll need to work on diagnosing plays, better hand technique, and better downhill timing. That’s demonstrated with his lackluster 63.7 run defense grade, as he was simply too inconsistent this season at LSU.
Patrick Queen isn’t a very lengthy linebacker, not is he refined by any means. He is, however, a true sideline-to-sideline player with excellent leadership, and has all the traits you’re looking for from the prototypical linebacker. He’s very unrefined at the moment, but at the end of the first round, or more preferably, in the second round, he has so much potential.
#4: Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State
Year: RS Senior
Height: 6’1″ Weight: 224 lbs
Pro Comparison: Jaylon Smith
Best Fits: BAL, CLE, NYG
Overall Grade: 84.25 (Early 2nd)
He didn’t participate in any of the combine drills, outside of the bench press, but that doesn’t matter- we know for a fact that Akeem Davis-Gaither is an athletic freak. His lateral agility is utterly insane, as he’s able to transition and change directions extremely well, which should translate really well into the NFL. His instincts are also strong, and similarly to Queen, he definitely trusts them, which guides him in coverage and run defense. Overall, he’s a natural playmaker, as he can even dominate as a pass rusher with his ability slip through gaps.
Davis-Gaither’s overall mobility is always on display, but so is his lack of power. He’s a tweener that is built more like a safety, so he struggles to shed blocks and will often opt to simply true to avoid blocks altogether. He’s also often too aggressive, similar to Queen, which leads to a lot of missed tackles, in addition to his lack of strength. Plus, for all of his traits, he earned just a 61.5 grade in coverage, so he’s clearly not developed in that area.
With his elite playmaking traits, silly athleticism, and ability to even win as a blitzed, Akeem Davis-Gaither projects well as a starting linebacker in the NFL. He’ll need to add more mass, as well as refine his tackling and coverage abilities, but in the second-round, he’s an excellent pick for any team in need of an athletic presence in the middle of the field.
#5: Zack Baun, Wisconsin
Year: RS Senior
Height: 6’3″ Weight: 236 lbs
Pro Comparison: Joe Schobert
Best Fits: DET, NYG, MIA
Overall Grade: 84.225 (Early 2nd)
At the moment, it’s unclear if Zack Baun will be an edge rusher or off-ball linebacker, but luckily for teams, he’s able to fill both roles. He’s got plenty of athleticism to win off the edge with good bend and flexibility, especially with a very explosive first step. However, his future appears to be at off-ball linebacker, as he has great range in pass coverage, a large tackle radius, and good pursuit in run defense. Plus, even if he can’t win consistently as an edge rusher, his pass-rushing skillset can be used excellently in an off-ball role in certain packages, or in a hybrid role. Regardless, he has the athleticism and production in coverage in limited samples that should translate well in an off-ball role; his versatility is a clear bonus, rather than a concern.
If a team drafts Baun to be a pure edge rusher, they’ll be disappointed- he lacks the length and power to win consistently off the edge. Meanwhile, he’s a complete projection in terms of how he’ll fare as an off-ball linebacker, and perÂ Pro Football Focus,Â he looked raw in the role during the Senior Bowl. Oftentimes, the problem with being a hybrid player is that you can’t stand out in any particular way, and right now, Baun doesn’t have a clear strength other than his versatility.
In a Patriots’ style defensive scheme or in any scheme that likes to blitz their linebackers, Zack Baun is a useful versatile weapon that can be utilized in a variety of ways. He’s not someone I’d trust to be a three-down linebacker right away, but he should at least be a strong run defender right away, and overtime, he has the tools to develop into a solid coverage defender. Any team that drafts him needs to focus on putting him in positions to succeed, and if they do so, they’ll be getting a player who can have an immediate role, with plenty of room to develop as an all-around player.Â
#6: Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma
Height: 6’3″ Weight: 245 lbs
Pro Comparison: Mychal Kendricks
Best Fits: KC, DET, PHI
Overall Grade: 83.65 (2nd)
With excellent sideline-to-sideline range and explosiveness, Kenneth Murray, similar to Queen, is a linebacker prospect who could be drafted in the first round just of his sheer upside. He’s a super aggressive player who trusts his instincts, and in his best moments, is all over the football with a hunting mindset. Furthermore, his a very powerful hitter who is able to initiate contact with length, and his overall frame means that he should be able to disrupt passing windows at the next level. Wheras players such as Queen and Akeem-Gaither are just pure athletic freaks, the Oklahoma product has comparable athleticism but is much more physical, so it’s likely that many teams could view him as the second-best linebacker in this class, after Simmons.
Murray’s aggressiveness is also a weakness, as he tends to take poor angles to the ball in the rushing game, and thus missed a lot of tackles. Despite his power, he also can struggle to get detached from blocks at times, so he’ll need to refine his hand usage to be able to be a more consistent run defender. Additionally, although he has plenty of upside in coverage, he’s still developing a feel for zone coverage and doesn’t have ideal ball skills, which is what prevents him from ranking near the top of this linebacker class in my opinion.
Kenneth Murray could one day thrive as either a 4-3 outside linebacker or 3-4 middle linebacker, but right now, he’s way too unrefined to draft in the first round. He’s currently not a standout in coverage or run defense, as he makes plenty of processing errors, and overall, plays with that type of profile don’t usually work out in the NFL. He’s very much worth a day-two pick, but drafting in the first-round in a loaded defensive back or wide receiver class, or even over the other players ranked ahead of him, would be a mistake.
#7: Troy Dye, Oregon
Height: 6’4″ Weight: 224 lbs
Pro Comparison: Cory Littleton
Best Fits: LAR, HOU, GB
Overall Grade: 83.625 (2nd)
A four-year starter at Oregon, Troy Dye has had plenty of opportunities to showcase his skills on a grand stage, and should be rewarded with a high selection in the draft. He’s super smooth changing directions and is very length, and for that reasons, should be an excellent coverage linebacker in the NFL- he has the upside to be a tight end eraser. Therefore, he’s the perfect modern linebacker, as his range and coverage ability will work excellent in today’s game.
Although Dye is great in coverage, he’s a total liability in the running game. Not only does he not have the strength or physicality to take on blocks, but he also isn’t aggressive at all, and is thus reluctant to commit himself to being a strong run defender. He’s also not disciplined in terms of his gap integrity, so when it’s all said and done, some defensive coordinators won’t be comfortable putting him in on early downs.
Troy Dye may not be a strong run defender, but that’s okay. Cory Littleton of the Rams has been a liability in that department throughout his entire career, yet will be one of the hottest commodities on the free agent market. As long as he’s protected behind a strong defensive line, Dye will be able to thrive in a money-backer role, and so many teams could use his coverage ability. The Rams, who don’t have a first-round pick yet need to replace Littleton, are a great fit, but so are some of the top suitors for Littleton when he hits the free-agent market- the Packers, Texans, Raiders, Eagles, Bengals, and Giants.
#8: Logan Wilson, Wyoming
Height: 6’2″ Weight: 250 lbs
Pro Comparison: Josey Jewell
Best Fits: BAL, CHI, ARI
Overall Grade: 83.4 (Late 2nd)
Linebacker is a position that requires intelligence and leadership, which are two traits that Wyoming’s Logan Wilson clearly has. Therefore, even if he doesn’t have the ideal athletic traits, he’ll hold his own in pass coverage, as his anticipatory ability and ball skills are terrific. Where Wilson will definitely succeed in as a run defender, as he’s a super technical tackler, and is a lock to be a sturdy run defender. Plus, his blitzing ability could allow him to be a three-down linebacker, as teams uncomfortable with his athletic limitations in coverage could have him rush the passer on obvious passing downs. He may not fit the prototypical modern linebacker build, but Wilson is a highly accomplished player who improved every single season, and will have a role in today’s game.
As mentioned, Wilson doesn’t have the desired physical traits, and will likely slip to the third day of the draft as a result. Unlike players such as Murray and Queen, he’s not aggressive at all as a run defender, which means that his upside is very limited. Overall, he has certain restrictions with his change of direction, block shedding, and body control that’ll prevent him from ever being a top linebacker; you can only rely on your intangibles to a certain point.
Logan Wilson may not have the athleticism or aggressiveness that teams covet from the linebacker position, but thanks to his excellent recognition skills, he may be able to be a strong enough pass defender to be a three-down linebacker. He isn’t a very exciting prospect, but he’s super reliable, and for teams looking for an immediate contributor, he has a high floor as a 10-year starter at the position, even if he never becomes much more than that.
#9: Markus Bailey, Purdue
Year: RS Senior
Height: 6’1″ Weight: 240 lbs
Pro Comparison: Vince Williams
Best Fits: BAL, PIT, NO
Overall Grade: 83 (Early 3rd)
Honestly, Markus Bailey is nearly an identical prospect to Wilson. He’s an extremely intelligent player, which compensates for some athletic limitations. In coverage, he has a natural feel for what’s around him, so even if he’s not fast physically, his rapid processor lets him stick with more athletic players. Furthermore, his controlled and smooth style of play helps him out tremendously, and to his credit, he’s an extremely physical and powerful player. That’s especially true with regards to his pass-rushing ability, as he’s been a superb off-ball blitzer throughout his college career, which like Wilson, makes him a much more valuable player.
Many will dismiss Bailey as a two-down player due to his poor athleticism, as his change of direction skills aren’t pleasant all. He’ll also be 23-years-old when drafted, which will hurt his draft stock, as will the ACL injury he suffered after just two games last season. He’s essentially Wilson, but without much to go off of from his last year in college, and when it’s all said and done, I expect his red flags to drop him to the later rounds of the draft.
Despite his injury, I’ve seen enough for Bailey to believe he has a legitimate shot to be a three-down linebacker in the NFL. He’s destined for a blitz-heavy team such as the Ravens, Steelers, or Saints, but for any team looking for a pretty versatile player who’ll at the very least be a productive run defender and competent in coverage, he fits the ball. Assuming he falls to the third day of the draft, he’ll provide massive surplus value given the likelihood he becomes a starter quick into his NFL career.
#10: David Woodward, Utah State
Height: 6’2″ Weight: 230 lbs
Pro Comparison: Jake Ryan
Best Fits: BAL, GB, CHI
Overall Grade: 82.25 (Late 3rd)
David Woodward is another linebacker in this draft class with tremendous instincts, which he uses to survive in coverage and in run defense. He’s got a good nose for the football, and with his high effort, thrives in space with excellent lateral agility and with solid body control and leverage. Furthermore, he’s also one of the most consistent tacklers in this draft, and has the proper type of patience needed at the linebacker position- he won’t be baited, and won’t ever be someone defensive coordinators have to be concerned about.
Woodward is more athletic than Wilson and Bailey, but he’s also a far less powerful player, which hurts him in run defense. Plus, it’s not as though he was facing the best competition at Utah State, so although he appears adequate in coverage and run defense, there’s no way to be certain; he has enough athleticism, but still lacks some key physical traits, and has a significant injury history.
David Woodward isn’t a high-end talent, and isn’t someone that I’d consider drafting until the end of day two, or beginning of day three. However, he’s a balanced player with excellent lateral agility and intelligence, and with that, he’s another prospect with a super high floor. He’ll have to be cleared medically and isn’t a flawless player by any means, but he’s an underrated linebacker prospect likely to be available on the final day of the draft.
Here are the other linebacker prospects that were analyzed and considered for this list, ranked with their overall grade:
11) Jordyn Brooks, Texas Tech (82.15, Late 3rd)
12) Khaleke Hudson, Michigan (81.875, 4th)
13) Francis Bernard, Utah (81.175, Late 4th)
14) Cam Brown, Penn State (81.075, Late 4th)
15) Malik Harrison, Ohio State (78.85, Early 6th)
16) Davion Taylor, Colorado (78.425, Early 6th)
17) Michael Pinckney, Miami (77.275, Late 6th)
18) Justin Strnad, Wake Forest (77.05, Late 6th)
19) Kamal Martin, Minnesota (76.8, Late 6th/Early 7th)
20) Jacob Phillips, LSU (75.3, Late 7th)
21) Shaquille Quarterman, Miami (75.275, Late 7th)
22) Evan Weaver, California (73.45, UDFA)
After Simmons, who’s not really a linebacker and may just a dynamic football player, there isn’t another blue-chip linebacker in this class. What there is, however, are plenty of players with a ton of upside, with Queen, Gay Jr., Davis-Gaither, Murray, and Dye standing out for their athletic traits, while Baun is an intriguing versatile playmaker. For teams who need a more safe player, Wilson, Bailey, and Woodward are all future starters who should be three-down linebackers, so there’s plenty of talent to fit whatever teams are looking for. Simmons is the only player who should be drafted in the first round, but there are ten players who could provide strong value as day-two picks, which is an enormous amount; the Bengals, Packers, Ravens, Rams, Bears, Saints, Eagles, Texans, Chiefs, Seahawks, Lions, Giants, and Colts should all be able to improve their linebacking corps, regardless of if they can land free agents like Littleton or Joe Schobert.