Every year, the NFL is prompted the task of analyzing and evaluating a draft class of prospects making the transition from the college game to the pros. Not every draft class is the same, however, as some wind up being deeper than others at certain positions, thus creating position scarcity for some potential needs for NFL teams while also providing value in the draft due to a plethora of talent at others. During this series, we will examine several different positions in the draft and look at the overall depth of the position and whether it is top heavy, deep in the middle rounds, or lacks high-end talent altogether.
While going through my Summer Scouting Series and breaking down prospects during the season, I initially got the feeling that the 2022 Draft Class would have a lot of value at off-ball linebacker. Several notable names separated themselves from the pack this college season, specifically Utah’s Devin Lloyd and Georgia’s Nakobe Dean. Lloyd is that long, rangy defender that is comfortable playing all over the formation and has the skill set to play sideline-to-sideline against the run, rush the passer, and drop into coverage. Tyler Wise of Steelers Depot is particularly high on Lloyd, touting him as one of the best overall talents in this draft class.
Nakobe Dean also stole the spotlight while playing for the elite Georgia defense this season. He was the vocal leader on the field and flashed that same leadership with his play, running down backs with great pursuit while also excelling in coverage against backs and tight ends. He also is a dangerous blitzer, having the closing speed and tenacity to close ground quickly. Both Lloyd and Dean are projected to be first round picks come April and Pittsburgh would likely have to spend #20 overall to get either of them if they are still on the board.
Given the needs at QB, OL, and DL, I personally don’t expect off-ball linebacker to be their top target in the first round depending on how they view the likes of Devin Bush, Joe Schobert, and Robert Spillane going forward into 2022. However, while doing the pre-draft profiles for the site and watching the players in attendance down in Mobile for the Senior Bowl, it has become quite obvious that there is a plethora of talent at the position in the middle round of this draft. Dean’s teammates Quay Walker and Channing Tindall are physical freaks in their own right, having impressive play speed and quickness that should become quality starters at the next level as well.
Along with Walker and Tindall, I have had the opportunity to scout and interview Cincinnati’s Darrian Beavers, LSU’s Damone Clark, and Wyoming’s Chad Muma who were also down in Mobile. Beavers is a conversion guy, having started his career as a DE at UCONN before moving off the ball when he transferred to the Bearcats. His size is impressive in-person and his athletic traits match up to make a tantalizing prospect in terms of a downhill thumper that can rush the passer.
Clark is also a freak of nature in his own right, having a long, ripped up frame combined with incredible closing speed and movement skills. He was the unquestioned leader of the Tigers’ defense this season and possesses the character traits you love to see in a young professional. I personally spotted HC Mike Tomlin sharing a moment with Clark during practice, along with Beavers, suggesting there may be some interest there as well from Pittsburgh in this draft prospects.
Muma also had a good showing at the Senior Bowl, displaying great instincts and recognition as a run-and-chase defender. He flows to the football exceptionally well and spoke well in interviews with Alex Kozora and me.
Other linebackers also had good showings at times down in Mobile including Nebraska’s JoJo Domann, Montana State’s Troy Anderson, and Oklahoma’s Brian Asamoah. Iowa State’s Mike Rose ended up dropping out of the showcase, but Kozora came off his pre-draft profile high on him which I can attest to having watched Rose for years as an Iowa native.
Still, there are more great prospects at the LB position that didn’t attend the Senior Bowl that are good prospects in their own right and will likely be in the thick of things in that Day Two range. Alabama’s Christian Harris has the pedigree and experience as a three-year starter since his true freshman season with the Crimson Tide in Nick Saban’s defense, possessing the athleticism and room for growth to become a quality pro player. Brandon Smith from Penn State is a H/W/S specimen in his own right, and a draft profile by Daniel Kitchen that is coming out soon will likely depict that.
Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal has fantastic size and is a menace as a pass rusher as well as a run defender. His former teammate Jack Sanborn is a quality player in his own right, having played well at the Shrine Bowl. Other names to keep an eye on that Steelers Depot’s very own Josh Carney, Owen Straley, and Dr. Melanie Friedlander scouted and interviewed in Las Vegas include Mississippi’s Chance Campbell, Auburn’s Zakoby McClain, and Navy’s Diego Fagot who particularly had a great week of practice and showed out in the game. These guy project to be more Day Three options, but still can be serviceable if called upon and likely become core special teamers at the worst.
In summary, the 2022 off-ball linebacker class appears to be a deep group with two guys solidified at the top prior to testing at the NFL Combine where several other guys in that Day Two range will have the opportunity to vault themselves into that Day One conversation. Will so many quality players that look to be quality starters at the next level, Pittsburgh must overjoyed at the possibility of having one fall into their lap on Day Two of the draft and even potentially on Day Three depending on the supply and demand of other teams picking ahead of them.
Pittsburgh felt pressured to trade up in 2019 to secure Devin Bush in a lean draft class, but this season appears to present great value in those middle rounds. Should Pittsburgh decide to address the line of scrimmage or the QB position in the first round and likely pass at the opportunity to take Lloyd or Dean, there will undoubtedly be several good options for them to pick from in the second round, and likely in the third round that could likely see the field early on in their rookie season.
Should the team make Schobert a cap casualty this offseason and look to move into 2022 with Bush, Spillane, and Buddy Johnson as the main names in the room, look for them to capitalize on the depth at the position in this draft unless they land a good outside addition in free agency.
What are your thoughts on the off-ball linebacker position in this draft class? Do you think that it is deep in the middle rounds with several guys that come in and contribute? Should Pittsburgh look to take one in the middle rounds, wait until Day Three, target one of the top guys, or sign an outside free agent and punt on the position entirely? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!