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2022 NFL Draft Preview: Ben Fennell’s Top Linebackers

Top Linebackers
This is the ninth part of our 11-part positional breakdown of the April 28-30 NFL draft. Today: the linebackers.
Ben Fennell is an Emmy award-winning producer, editor and analyst across several sports and media platforms. He has been involved in the production of the last eight drafts for NFL Network and also is a producer for the NFL on CBS. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenFennell_nfl

Linebacker is one of the most difficult positions for NFL scouts to properly evaluate.

“The linebacker spot is so fluid in transitioning from Saturday to Sunday,” NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell said. “ It’s rarely ever a one-for-one. Just because you played MIKE [in college] doesn’t mean you’re going to play MIKE [in the NFL].

“It’s a lot like quarterback. You have to figure out what was asked of these guys. Some are put in positions to be successful at the college level without having to think a lot. Then they get to the NFL and you realize, damn, he doesn’t know what the heck he’s doing.

“A lot of maximizing potential is figuring out how best to tap into a player’s athleticism and explosiveness. Sometimes it’s dumbing them down. A lot of times, it’s using them differently than they were used in college.’’

Occasionally, that means shifting them to a different position. Sometimes that means moving a MIKE to WILL or SAM. Sometimes that means moving him back to safety or up to the line of scrimmage.

“There are a lot of guys in this [linebacker] class whose positional home at the next level is still up in the air because they’re undersized,” Fennell said. “They may have good experience, good length, good speed, but might be a better fit at safety.

“You’re starting to see guys with a little more fluidity in space at 220-225 pounds, like the Patriots’ Kyle Dugger, who has the size of a linebacker (6-2, 220) but isn’t playing linebacker. And like the Packers’ Adrian Amos who is a quarters safety at almost 225 pounds. There are a lot of people with ability that you just need to figure out where you’re going to play them.’’

Even without the players who might wind up as safeties, or the bigger off-the-ball linebackers who might end up as edge-rushers, this still figures to be a good linebacker class. It’s headed by Utah’s Devin Lloyd and Georgia’s Nakobe Dean, who both are expected to be first-round picks.

“It’s a good class,’’ Fennell said. “Maybe a little bit top-heavy, but a good class. Lloyd, Dean, Christian Harris (Alabama), Damone Clark (LSU), the other Georgia guys like Quay Walker and Channing Tindall, who could be a Day 2 pick even though he never started a game in his career.

“You’ve also got Troy Anderson (Montana State) and Chad Muma (Wyoming), who could go on Day 2, but  because of where they played, there are a couple of questions about their [college-to-pro] conversions.’’

Fennell’s top 5

1—Devin Lloyd, Utah, 6-3, 227, Rd. 1

2—Nakobe Dean, Georgia, 5-11, 229, Rd. 1

3—Christian Harris, Alabama, 6-0, 226, Rd. 2

4—Chad Muma, Wyoming, 6-3, 239, Rd. 2-3

5—Damone Clark, LSU, 6-2, 239, Rd. 3-4

The Best

Devin Lloyd

Utah

6-3, 227

Arms: 33 inches

40 time: 4.66 seconds

Vertical jump: 35 inches

Ben’s take: “He’s a do-it-all linebacker. He reminds me a lot of Fred Warner when he came out of BYU. He played some MIKE, played some WILL, played some SAM off the line of scrimmage.

“He’s a very good pass rusher. Really good in coverage as well. He’s not so much a coverage player as he is a zone-dropper and a guy who knows how to play the passing lanes. He snagged one out of the air against Stanford and had a nice one against Oregon State.

WATCH: MIKE TANNENBAUM’S DEVIN LLOYD SCOUTING REPORT

Lloyd’s a guy who’s played a variety of positions. He was a captain. Has long limbs. He’s rangy and athletic in space. He’s rarely on the ground and is a good special-teamer.

“He’s just that prototypical linebacker that every team would love to have. He doesn’t rely on incredible tools. He’s not a guy who is going to Incredible-Hulk you. But he’s a very instinctual player. Captain-of-the-defense type. A locker room leader in a Fred Warner package. If you can’t find a use for him, that’s a you problem not a him problem.”

Round projection: 1

The Riser

Nakobe Dean

Georgia

5-11, 229

Arms: 31 7/8 inches

40 time: N/A

Vertical jump: N/A

Ben’s take: “Dean is a squatty, explosive MIKE. Another captain of the defense team-representative type. He’s one of those kinds of guys you could see running for president some day. Just a very polished kid. He has explosive speed. Is a really good blitzer and closes ground in a hurry.

“Everyone on Georgia can stack-and-shed and play off blocks. He lacks the length, lacks the height that you really like. He’s only 6-foot, 225. But that’s big enough. He’s in that Jonathan Vilma-Ernie Sims mold in that they don’t have crazy length or size but they get from A to B in a hurry and they play really tough.

“He overwhelms running backs and tight ends in pass-pro. He’s just OK in coverage. He’s made a couple of highlight plays in coverage, but looks a little clunky at times. Very, very smart player. He’s a guy who can be like a D’Qwell Jackson, who played a lot of football in this league.”

Round projection: 1

 

The Sleeper

Troy Anderson

Montana State

6-3, 243

Arms: 32 1/8 inches

40 time: 4.42 seconds

Vertical jump: 36 inches

Ben’s take: “This guy has taken a really interesting path to becoming an NFL prospect. He actually started out as a quarterback. Not just in high school, but at Montana State. He was All-Big Sky as a quarterback in 2018. Broke the school record with 21 rushing touchdowns. He was very good.

“Then he moves to linebacker and becomes a two-year starter at linebacker. Would’ve been a three-year starter but they didn’t play in 2020 because of COVID. This kind of conversion is becoming more frequent. Chazz Surratt at North Carolina last year. He played quarterback for two years and then moved to linebacker. Joel Lanning at Iowa State. The Cardinals’ first round pick last year, Zaven Collins, was initially a quarterback at Tulsa.

“Anderson had a really good Senior Bowl and then tested really well. He’s 6-3, 240-plus pounds with good athleticism. He has excellent sideline-to-sideline speed. Good length. He has good ball skills. Take good angles to the football.’’

Round projection: 3-4