NFL teams are wrapping up the preseason, and they aren’t the only ones about to begin official games. The 2021 college football season kicks off this weekend, with the first games starting August 28. That will begin the movement up and down boards for all draft-eligible prospects, which will continue up until April 28.
So before the season begins, I’m going position-by-position through the 2022 class, and previewing some names to know and be watching for throughout the college football season from a draft perspective. This is not an exhaustive rundown of every draft-eligible player, but a look at some of the more prominent and interesting names to watch this upcoming season, and where they are currently projecting for the upcoming draft. This preview continues on defense, with the linebackers. These will primarily be inside linebackers, with the EDGE players covered in yesterday’s listing of the defensive line. There may be some players listed today, though, who could profile as either.
Steelers’ Need: Non-Existent
Even with how much depth the Steelers have accumulated along the defensive line, there was still a minimal need in the form of needing a replacement for Tyson Alualu in the near future. At inside linebacker, the team’s recent trade for Joe Schobert renders a need at the position non-existent at this moment in time.
Schobert is a former Pro Bowler and someone easily capable of soaring past 100 tackles per season. His arrival pairs him with Devin Bush, who played like a superstar as a rookie before a torn ACL cost him most of his second season. If Bush falters in his return from the injury, a need for an impact player could develop, but for the time being, Pittsburgh is locked in for its starting pair.
Below those two, there is plenty of depth as well as a ready-made starting replacement in Robert Spillane, who had the job all through the offseason and camp prior to the surprise trade for Schobert. Adding to the team’s backup options are fourth-round pick Buddy Johnson and converted safety Marcus Allen. Never count the Steelers out on taking a flyer on a linebacker, specifically on Day 3, but the current depth chart is more than fine without adding to it.
Christian Harris, Alabama: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Alabama has a first-round prospect at inside linebacker. The latest incarnation is Harris, a rangy player who can handle all responsibilities of the position, including playing in coverage and getting to the backfield on a delayed blitz, and is a sound defender staying in front of the run. Harris relishes the chance to deliver big hits to anybody and is physical in coverage. Has 142 tackles, 14.5 for a loss, and 4.5 sacks in two seasons, one as the team’s starter.
Ventrell Miller, Florida: Miller has made a tall climb back to being a key defensive player for the Gators after he was suspended his entire first year as part of a group of Gators using stolen credit cards. The redshirt senior has been a starter each of the last two seasons, and had 88 tackles and 7.5 for a loss last year. A big body, Miller is at home in the box and can put tremendous stress on the line and disrupt inside carries, with the physicality to engage and out-work offensive linemen. He is more limited in coverage, where his athleticism won’t let him match up with everybody and where awareness in zone could be more consistent.
Mike Jones Jr., LSU: A transfer from Clemson playing his first year with the Tigers, Jones managed eight tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and two interceptions over his last two seasons playing as a backup, showcasing his upside. Jones is very skilled in coverage, one of his biggest strengths right now, and is the type of linebacker who could attempt to fill that hybrid-style role in a defense using it. How he does in a bigger role at LSU will determine whether he gets drafted high or not.
Other Names To Know
DeMarvion Overshown, Texas: What stands out first about Overshown is his size: 6’4″, 223. And then what stands out is how he plays defense. Overshown is a high-motor player who is aggressive in attacking the run early, which leads to occasional mistakes but also disrupts plays. His size gives him an advantage in shedding blocks or making contact despite them, and he is an asset in coverage. Had 60 tackles, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and an interception in his first year as a starter in 2020, another season of similar play and growth will help him rise.
Payton Wilson, North Carolina State: A highly productive All-ACC player since arriving for the Wolfpack, Wilson has 177 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and three interceptions in two seasons, despite only starting one of them. Another big body (6’4″, 235), Wilson has the size and skill to play any linebacking spot, inside or along the edge, and is a proven producer who can rack up the tackles in the middle of a team’s defense.
Owen Pappoe, Auburn: Pappoe has the experience — he earned the inside linebacking job as a true freshman for Auburn, and has retained it since. He also has the production, nearly hitting 100 tackles last season and recording 142 of them (nine for a loss) and six sacks in his two seasons. Pappoe is a sound player who stays centered on the action and avoids major, costly mistakes. He just needs to reach that next level of playmaking ability to elevate his stock with some of the other names in the class.
Devin Lloyd, Utah: It’s hard to find a more productive linebacker in the class than Lloyd. A multiple-time All-Pac-12 player for the Utes, Lloyd has started two of his three seasons. In that time, he has 139 tackles and 8.5 sacks, but where his numbers jump out is tackles for loss, where he has 21. Ten of those came in only five games last year, and Lloyd was on a 10 tackles per game pace that season, shortened by COVID-19. He is another who is limited in coverage, but Lloyd is a standout run defender who knows how to attack the line and hit gaps to get to the ball.
Henry To’o To’o, Alabama: To’o To’o’s status could absolutely soar this season, as after a pair of seasons starring for the struggling Tennessee Volunteers, he transferred to first-round pick factory Alabama and Nick Saban’s coaching this season. An SEC all-star and like his new Tide teammate Harris a freshman All-American, To’o To’o has a pair of 70-tackle seasons and had 10 tackles for a loss last year. A year at Alabama should help him become more decisive and aggressive in his decision-making, which will pair well with his quick break downhill and ability to sort through traffic to get to the ball.
Brandon Smith, Penn State: A highly-touted prospect (the best at his position in the country), Smith got his chance to start as a sophomore for the Nittany Lions, where he had eight tackles for loss but only 37 total across nine games while the Lions used him on the outside more and inside less. An excellent athlete in every category who will wow at the Combine, Smith can stick in coverage and explode on a blitz or downhill on a runner and lay a big hit, but needs to do so more often this season to reach a high ceiling. Could elevate his stock considerably, for this draft or next, if he puts it all together.
Who I’m Watching
It’s not a tremendously strong class thus far for inside linebackers, with plenty of room and need for a couple more names to rise up boards with impactful 2021 seasons. Harris is the obvious eye-catcher and is likely to remain in the top spot from now through to the pre-draft process. Even the other names who could flirt with the first round aren’t that close to topping him, with Jones perhaps the closest thanks to his skills in coverage and chance to play more often for LSU.
Among the other names who could climb into the spots below Harris, Overshown is the one with the fewest big weaknesses that could put a hard cap on his draft ceiling. Like almost every name on this list, he needs a big season to lock in a high ranking. Lloyd and Wilson look the part early of potential safe picks who teams can plug in and watch them rack up tackles on the inside and outside, respectively.
To’o To’o and Smith are names to monitor — the former because of his talent and getting a major upgrade in situation from Tennessee to Alabama, and the latter because of his athleticism and very high potential. Neither is there yet, but either could climb toward the first round if it all clicks for them.
For the Steelers, whomever rises to the top few spots in the class is out, barring a burnout from either or Schobert or Bush. Anyone below the top tier, or who remains on the board after the early rounds, is fair game, and is a possible pick if Pittsburgh’s coaches become enamored with them, and there is normally one every draft season that fits that bill. A player like Smith is a perfect fit if he struggles this year but still declares, given the athleticism the Steelers love in their linebackers and the incredible value the pick would provide if he pans out in the NFL.