The NFL game on offense has been evolving for years, and defenses are evolving with it, as teams are increasingly on the lookout for players who can play multiple roles and be hybrid defenders. This class of linebackers has a number of players who fit the mold, led by maybe the best Swiss Army Knife player to enter the league in some time in Clemson's Isaiah Simmons.
Top 5 linebackers to watch at Combine:
1. Isaiah Simmons, Clemson, 6-4, 230
The Butkus Award winner as the nation's top linebacker, Simmons checks off all the boxes of what teams are looking for at the position in today's NFL. A former safety converted to linebacker, Simmons has a rare combination of speed, length and toughness. He notched 104 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, three interceptions and eight pass breakups this past season. He's got the athletic ability to play slot corner, linebacker or line up at safety at the next level. He's the ultimate chess piece for a creative defensive mind and a likely top 10 pick.
View photos of NFL.com's top linebacker prospects attending the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine.
2. Zack Baun, Wisconsin, 6-3, 240
A former dual-threat quarterback, Baun became the key cog for Wisconsin's defense in 2019, recording 75 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks. He's an explosive athlete, who still has a ton of upside as he continues to learn the position and perfect his pass-rush technique. He can match up with running backs and tight ends in the pass game and play all three linebacker spots.
3. Patrick Queen, LSU, 6-1, 227
Posted 85 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, three sacks, an interception and broke up two passes for the National Champion Tigers in 2019. Queen plays fast and physical, covering the pass just as well as he plays the run. He plays bigger than his size, which is why LSU used him as an effective blitzer. Only a one-year starter, but there's a lot of upside to Queen's game.
4. Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma, 6-2, 234
Production is the name of the game for Murray, who totaled 155 tackles as a sophomore and 102 this past season as a junior. He also notched 17 tackles for loss, four sacks and defended four passes this past season. He's a true sideline-to-sideline player at the position and should run well at the Combine. Projects as a WILL in the NFL, which will allow him to run free and make plays along the perimeter. Also posted 36.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks over the last three seasons.
5. Malik Harrison, Ohio State, 6-3, 246
The Buckeyes' leading tackler each of the last two seasons, Harrison finished off his senior season with 75 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and four pass breakups. He checks all the boxes in terms of size, speed and physicality at linebacker. He played all the linebacker positions at Ohio State, so there's some versatility to his game.
View photos from the Detroit Lions' 2019 halftime shows at Ford Field.
Combine sleeper to watch:
Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State, 6-2, 215
Defensive player of the year in the Sun Belt Conference after recording 101 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, an interception and eight pass breakups. Really adept at slipping blocks and playing the run. He filled up the stat sheet as a do-it-all linebacker the last two seasons. He's undersized, but if he tests well in Indy, he could change some opinions about his size.
Lions need at the position: Moderate
Detroit returns all three starters – Jarrad Davis, Jahlani Tavai and Christian Jones – and key reserve Jalen Reeves-Maybin at the position. The Lions are high on Tavai, last year's second-round pick, and he'll likely see an expanded role in his second season. Detroit gave Jones a contract extension during the season.
Davis had an inconsistent third season, and will need to be much better for Detroit's defense to take the next step, but he still figures to be in team's plans on defense in 2020.
Head coach Matt Patricia values size and versatility at the linebacker position, which would make Simmons an interesting selection in the first round, but with other needs at defensive tackle, edge rusher and corner, it seems more likely the Lions address one of those needs first before looking to bolster a unit with good depth returning in 2020.
Key stat: Tavai was the only rookie in the NFL to post at least 50 tackles, five tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks and an interception in 2019, playing in 56 percent of Detroit's snaps on defense.