Linebackers are kind of like running backs when it comes to the NFL Draft. While every team needs a good one (or more), they aren’t valued nearly as high as premium positions like pass rushers, cornerbacks, offensive tackles, or wide receivers.
The general theory is that good running backs and linebackers aren’t that hard to find. Most draft classes have a logjam of quality prospects at both positions who can be picked on Day 2 and plugged into a starting lineup as a rookie.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t first-rounders from these positions. And in the case of the 2021 NFL Draft linebacker class, there could be as many as three picked in the top-32.
ESPN senior NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. was asked to rank this year’s top of the class at the position in a recent Q&A with fans, and he said his top three are (1) Micah Parsons, Penn State; (2) Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame; and (3) Nick Bolton, Missouri.
“More and more, I think Parsons will end up as a middle linebacker, though he has the athletic traits to be an edge rusher too,” Kiper wrote. “He can make the most impact as an off-ball linebacker. Owusu-Koramoah is a heat-seeking missile who can wreck plays. Bolton doesn’t get a ton of publicity, but he’s a really solid player. I wouldn’t be surprised if he snuck into the bottom of Round 1.”
I agree with Kiper’s assessment of Parsons, who I currently have as a top-five player in this year’s class. That could change as more players are evaluated, but fans are overlooking just how incredible of a prospect Parsons is. He has some off-field issues that need to be vetted, but he’s an explosive playmaker who can take over games. He’s my LB1.
Where I disagree with Kiper is on LB2. I have Tulsa’s Zaven Collins as the next-best guy at the position and I don’t see that changing. I gave him a first-round grade. Here’s part of his scouting report:
He’s bigger than the other highly ranked linebackers in the 2021 draft while having nearly as much athletic ability as a pass-rusher and cover guy. Teams looking for pure juice and speed at inside linebacker might knock Collins down a few spots, but players like him often find themselves in an NFL starting lineup for a very long time. Collins is a safe pick who will upgrade a defense in Year 1.
Owusu-Koramoah checks-in third on my linebacker rankings right now, but I’m not nearly as comfortable with him as some of my colleagues. I’m always wary of position-less players, and Owusu-Koramoah feels like that guy right now. There’s no denying his incredible juice and athleticism, but he looks more like a safety than a true NFL linebacker. That worries me.
As for Bolton, I’m a fan. He has a solid second-round grade from me and projects as a quality starter in the NFL.
We’ll have our complete 2021 NFL draft rankings published later this month.