2023 NFL Draft

Tweeners At The Top? Top Linebackers In The Draft Require Open Mind On Projection To Pros

According to the Oxford dictionary, the word tweener is used to describe a person or thing considered to be in between two other recognized categories or types. The word tweener gets thrown around a lot in football, especially when scouting college prospects as they make their transition to the pros. Often times, a player may have success regardless of their measurables at the college level, but their height, weight, and length become benchmarks for teams at the professional level in attempt to weed out the outliers that normally don’t excel due to their measurables in comparison to their competition.

We haven’t seen many of those WR/RB hybrids, also called “gadget guys” often succeed in the league due to a lack of size or nuanced route running, lacking an actual positional fit. We have also seen the undersized edge rusher fail to make an impact in the league due to a lack of size to hold his own at the point of attack or the arm length to keep blockers off his chest.

In the NFL Draft, we find tweeners every year at multiple position groups. This year, the inside linebacker class has several prospects that fit this classification with a few of the top names at the position standing out.

Clemson LB Trenton Simpson is one guy that fits the tweener mold, having the size of an off-ball linebacker (6’3, 235lb), but was deployed all over the field for the Tigers during his time in Death Valley. Simpson played like a safety/linebacker hybrid, lining up in the box, as the overhang defender, in the slot, and even on the edge as a pass rusher. His best tape came in 2021 when former DC Brent Venables used him all over the defense, manipulating hm like a chess piece on the board to maximize his coverage capabilities as well as his pure athleticism. Simpson was respectable playing as more of a pure ILB in 2022 with some work out on the edge, but his splash plays did decrease.

Drew Sanders stared in his lone season as an ILB after transferring from Alabama to Arkansas this past season. He primarily played out on the edge during his time with the Crimson Tide, but he got mixed in at off-ball LB for the Razorbacks in additions to seeing work on the edge. Sanders doesn’t lack the length for the position (6’5, 233lb), but he is fairly slender given his frame for the ILB position. Still, Sanders lit up the stat sheet in his first season of exposure inside, posting 103 tackles, 40 solo, 13.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks, one INT, five PBU, one FR, and three FF in 12 games played.

While Simpson and Sanders have at least gotten some run at ILB, Georgia OLB Nolan Smith is a complete projection when it comes to playing off-ball. He is a solid prospect in his own right as an EDGE, having the athleticism, strength, and explosiveness to make an impact at the next level. Still, Smith lacks ideal measurables (6’3, 235lb) to be seen as an every down pass rusher in the NFL and may be regulated to a rotational role. However, while Smith hasn’t seen any time at ILB, his size, frame, play speed, run defense, block shedding, pursuit, and coverage skills suggest he could thrive off-ball if he is comfortable playing in the box.

The ILB class also has former DB converts in Texas LB DeMarvion Overshown and Sacramento State LB Marte Mapu who both had flashes down in Mobile at the Senior Bowl. While players like Sanders and Simpson rank as the top two players at the position for most draft analysts, their respective evaluations still require a bit of a projection to the next level regarding their fit as a full-time off-ball LB. Personally, it would be best if the teams that draft these tweeners would deploy them in a similar way to how they were used in college, allowing them to move and play different roles for a defense rather than staying stagnant in one spot.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a big question to solve this offseason at off-ball linebacker. Devin Bush has likely played his last down in Black and Gold and Robert Spillane is currently a free agent. The team has Myles Jack and Mark Robinson yet in the room, but Jack is coming off a disappointing season while Robinson still is pretty raw when it comes to being a three-down LB in the league.

Pittsburgh could opt to address the position in free agency with a proven veteran to stabilize the room prior to the draft. However, even if they do go that route, the Steelers should do a deep dive into the tape of these tweeners at ILB to see if their respective skill sets can be maximized in their system or if they wouldn’t be able to capitalize on the traits that each one of the names listed brings to the table.

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