Due to the uncertainty of COVID-19, more questions are being asked about the 2020 college football season. The BIG-10 and PAC-12 will not be playing in the fall, as well as some mid-major conferences. Meanwhile, the BIG-12, ACC, and SEC are planning to play this fall. More news and updates about the season should continue to be presented throughout the next few days and weeks. Regardless of what happens, there should still be a 2021 NFL Draft, so the positional ranking articles will commence as planned with the linebacker class.
This linebacker class is full of dynamic athletes who can stop the run, rush off the edge, and drop back into coverage. Last year, there was a serious drop-off in linebacker talent after Isaiah Simmons was selected with the eighth pick. This season, however, many linebacker prospects could be potential first round draft picks. The class is headlined by some former top recruits, but is full of prospects with room to improve, but with tons of potential.
1. Micah Parsons, Penn State
Even though he will not play a snap before he is drafted, Micah Parsons will (barring something crazy) stay as my number one linebacker. Close your eyes and picture a modern-day linebacker. You probably see a player standing at about 6’3″ and weighing 245 pounds. He is probably a dynamic athlete who covers sideline to sideline and the vocal leader of the defense. Open your eyes, and, in front of you will be the monster that is Micah Parsons. Parsons is a playmaker. He is hungry to make a tackle or sack on every play, so he exhorts full effort on every down. Parsons knows the position down to a tee and can make proper reads and distinctions against a run-pass option or just a straightforward play call.
Parsons is so aggressive as a pass rusher. He can shoot the A gap in the middle or the C gap on the edge. He displays a solid array of pass rushing moves and is capable moving an opposing lineman from pure strength alone. Against the run, Parsons has great instincts and can get to the ball in a hurry. He showcases a strong coverage ability against tight ends and he is fast enough to keep up with the more athletic ones downfield. Other than the fact that he can be too aggressive at times, there’s no use noting negatives for Parsons. He will be the top linebacker off the board in 2021 and most likely a top 10 draft selection.
2. Dylan Moses, Alabama
If the SEC does not play football in the fall 2020, we will have not seen Dylan Moses play a game in over 2 years. While that brings attention to questions about where his game is at, it is first and foremost unfortunate because he was dominant when on the field. A lot of NFL scouts might be wary about Moses simply due to the uncertainty surrounding his health. However, when healthy, he’s a top 2 linebacker in this draft class.
Moses was a game wrecker when on the field as an underclassman. He’s got a strong frame and has a wide tackling radius, as he covers the whole field. Moses is a force in zone pass coverage due to his top-notch instincts and solid footwork. He’s very mobile and he can pivot and turn without losing speed when in coverage.
Like Micah Parsons, Dylan Moses is aware of how good he is and can sometimes get ahead of himself from an aggressive standpoint. He can definitely rush the passer, but has some work to do on technique other than a bull rush or shooting the open gap. And, any team thinking of selecting Moses must take into consideration his injury history. This may hinder his draft stock, even though he is an incredibly talented linebacker.
3. Joseph Ossai, Texas
A quick disclaimer; yes, Ossai is more of an edge rusher. However, he was originally in my notes as a linebacker, so I did not evaluate him with the edge position. In future rankings, he will be an edge. For now, he’s a top outside linebacker prospect, despite limited media exposure compared to other prospects.
Joseph Ossai was one of my most impressive film studies thus far because I was not expecting him to be as dominant as he was in 2019. He took over the Alamo Bowl and was named the Defensive MVP of the game. He’s a bit in between positions, as he is a bit thin for an edge rusher but his pass rushing moves are so successful. Ossai is a long and physical athlete who can beat his lineman on the outside, with a swipe move to the guard, or by a bull rush.
He hits the ball carrier hard and forceful. Ossai can snuff out a disguised run or pass very well and takes a direct line to the ball. Though somewhat quietly, Ossai produced for Texas, logging 90 total tackles as a blitzing linebacker. In addition, he has shown the ability to drop back into pass coverage. He has not played man coverage, but exhibits some ability to defend the flat in zone coverage. Ossai is very underrated at the moment, but should definitely rise up draft boards in the coming months.
4. Cameron McGrone, Michigan
Cameron McGrone is the next top linebacker to come out of Michigan. McGrone was just a redshirt freshman in 2019, but still started 10 games for the Wolverines. He still has some developing to do and losing the BIG-10 season definitely hurts him, but McGrone is a good prospect. The first thing that jumped out at me was that McGrone is quick in pursuit and off the snap. He’s physical against blocks and can shoot the open gaps well as a delayed blitzer. McGrone has fluid hips and, like the names above him, can cover sideline to sideline with his range. He does show his inexperience at times, however, as he is not the most disciplined linebacker when jumping the gaps.
Against the pass, McGrone is not the best in coverage. This is likely because he has limited experience in man coverage. Michigan deploys a defensive back-heavy scheme, so McGrone was only asked to do the occasional zone drop back. He’s still effective against the pass as a quarterback spy. He shows more maturity as a quarterback spy than as a run defender, which is interesting for his development. McGrone is not as complete of a player as the names that precede him, but he is a three down linebacker who can make a big impact on an NFL defense.
5. Nick Bolton, Missouri
Nick Bolton was the SEC’s leader in tackles in 2019. He makes his presence felt on every down that he’s on the field for. Naturally, Bolton has great instincts when pursuing the ball carrier and can get down and dirty in the trenches when stuffing the run. He’s not much of a pass rusher, as Bolton does not have the pass rushing prowess that players like Parsons and Ossai have. He excels in the open field, as he is such a reliable tackler. Bolton’s technique is flawless and he does not get compromised by a runners cuts or jukes.
At the next level, Bolton will likely make a name for himself as a coverage linebacker in sub-packages. He was one of the best linebackers in the country against the pass, as he can stay hip to hip with a tight end and even receivers. He is capable of comprehending a receiver’s route tree and getting in between the target and the ball. One thing that might hurt Bolton is his size. He is listed at just 6’0″, but some people say he is shorter. All in all, Bolton has brought undeniable production to his resume and should be considered a top five linebacker in the class.
6. Chazz Surratt, North Carolina
Just over a year ago, Chazz Surratt was the starting quarterback on the North Carolina depth chart. One year later, he has become a force on defense and a great leader as a middle linebacker for the Heels. Surratt is a stud athlete, as most quarterback would not be able to transition to the role of a linebacker in just one season. Not only did Surratt make the transition, but he proved that he will be a linebacker in the NFL. Surratt is a very aggressive player who always wants to get to the ball. He is very quick and has great agility, which transitioned well from his quarterback days. Surratt takes good angles and gets to his spot quickly both versus the pass and the run.
Surratt is a little better in coverage than against the run because he is able to read quarterbacks’ and receivers’ movements to determine the route. He does struggle with missed tackles, however, which might be a future concern. His pass rushing moves are also raw and he’s not a straight line blitzer. At the next level, Surratt should be trusted more in coverage, but he still has great potential facing the run. Chazz Surratt will be an interesting commodity in the 2021 NFL Draft, as he may have one of the highest ceilings of any defender in the class, but still has a long way to go.
7. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame
This year’s Swiss-army knife, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, or JOK, will garner a lot of attention from the draft media. Some people think he will play safety at the next level, but I have kept him at linebacker for now, as his role is similar to Isaiah Simmons’ last year, who I had as a linebacker as well. JOK is very versatile and can line up all over the field. He played his best in the box, but also succeeded as a high safety and nickel cornerback. JOK is very explosive and hits the ball carrier with a force. He’s got fluid hips and solid footwork in coverage.
When rushing the passer, Owusu-Koramoah can run downhill at the quarterback much better than as a designed blitzer stationed on the line. However, he might have trouble getting to the quarterback in the NFL, as he only weighs 216 pounds. JOK has some injury history, as he missed almost his entire sophomore season due to a broken foot. He will have to become more consistent as a tackler and be able to stay on the field to be reliable at the next level. Still, his ability to play the “rover” role for Notre Dame should capture scouts’ eyes this season.
8. Baron Browning, Ohio State
Browning is a former five-star recruit and was perceived to be the next great Ohio State linebacker. While he was not exactly lived up to expectations, Browning gives plenty to be excited about. On tape, Browning really jumps out as a superior athlete to the rest of those on the field. He plays fast and downhill, always eager to hit the ball carrier. Browning was a spark plug for the Buckeyes coming off the sideline, as he constantly made some big hits on the quarterback or huge stops against the run.
Losing the 2020 BIG-10 fall season really hurts Browning, as he was expected to be given a greater role in the defense. Additionally, scouts will not be able to see if he can maintain consistency or if he can get better in pass coverage, as he sometimes loses his place when in zone. Because of this, there is a chance that NFL teams will view Browning as an edge rusher and not a linebacker. There are plenty of questions about Browning’s game, but his athletic prowess makes him an obvious candidate for a day two or early day three draft selection in 2021.
9. Charles Snowden, Virginia
Charles Snowden is impossible to miss when on the field for the Cavs. He’s 6’7″ and 235 pounds of pure athleticism at the linebacker position. The best thing about Snowden is, even at 6’7″, he still has great lateral quickness and has an incredibly wide tackle radius. Snowden can cover the whole length of the field and can hit the quarterback hard on an edge blitz. He’s not the best at rushing the power because his pass rush moves are very raw. Snowden is not the strongest in the trenches, so his bull rush is not as effective as the names above him.
I have Snowden listed as a linebacker because he is a reliable cover man. He understands how to process an incoming route and is able to get himself in a good position to disrupt the pass. His length in the passing game is so valuable, as he almost takes away the option of a slant or curl if he is in the right position. Snowden can afford to add some more weight if he wants to rush the passer more effectively, but his pursuit and tackle ability will get him drafted in the 2021 NFL Draft. Snowden has all the potential in the world, so 2020 will be a big year for him to showcase his talent.
10. Erroll Thompson, Mississippi State
Rounding out the top 10 is Erroll Thompson, an underrated prospect who I think will make a name for himself in 2020. His predecessor, Willie Gay Jr, was a second round draft selection in April’s draft. Thompson can easily follow in Gay Jr’s footsteps next year. Thompson plays the MIKE in Mississippi State’s 4-3 defensive scheme. I love the way he plays at the line of scrimmage. He gets a lot of work done at the line against the run, as he is a great processor who can decipher holes in the line well. Thompson is very physical and welcomes contact. He has great hand counters and can drive a bigger lineman back when pursuing a ball carrier.
Thompson’s powerful and explosive first step against the run benefits him against the pass as well. He has good field vision and is a useful quarterback spy. Thompson is not the best in coverage, as he is more of an old-fashioned linebacker. Still, he impacts that aspect of the game simply due to his physicality. And, Thompson is among the best in college football with footwork mechanics, which should catch scouts’ attention this season. Thompson could be a name climbing up draft boards throughout the 2020-2021 season.