NFL teams are increasingly on the lookout for three-down linebackers who play the run on early downs, but can cover tight ends and the league's ever-increasing threat of talented pass-catching running backs.
Teams want a thumper and enforcer on early downs, mixed with an instinctive and savvy cover guy on third down. The best linebackers in the NFL right now have that skillset. This draft has a few three-down type players, but also pretty good depth with a variety of skillsets for whatever teams are on the lookout for from the linebacker position.
Top 5 linebackers to watch at the Combine:
1. Nakobe Dean, Georgia, 6-0, 225
Instincts and playmaking ability are staples of Dean's game. He's one of those three-down players teams are looking for at the position in today's NFL. He should have no problem covering backs out the backfield at the NFL level because he's got speed and quickness to match his instinctive traits.
2. Devin Lloyd, Utah, 6-3, 235
Both Dean and Lloyd could hear their names called in the top 10 picks of this draft. Lloyd has an ideal frame and terrific instincts to match his dynamic physical traits. He recorded 7.0 sacks and four interceptions to go along with 22.0 tackles for loss this past season. He notched 43.0 tackles for loss over the last three years and scored three defensive touchdowns. Talk about production.
3. Quay Walker, Georgia, 6-4, 240
Walker has elite size with a good football IQ to match. His speed won't jump off the film, but he's shown an ability to cover tight ends and backs at the college level. We'll see how much that translates to the pro level. He's an effort player with a tremendous motor and a lot of upside.
4. Damone Clark, LSU, 6-3, 240
Clark was a highly productive linebacker for the Tigers with a good combination of size, speed and toughness. He recorded 135 tackles (77 solo) in 12 games this past season, with 5.5 sacks and an interception mixed in there as well. He could be a key contributor on special teams early on and another player with a high ceiling.
5. Chad Muma, Wyoming, 6-3, 242
I wrote at the Senior Bowl that Muma had a nose for the football, and that's backed up by his 142 tackles (83 solo) and three interceptions this past season. He returned two of those interceptions for touchdowns. His physical traits aren't going to jump off the page, and there's some technique stuff he needs to continue to work on, but there's something to be said about a guy who just knows how to find the football and is around it a lot.
Combine sleeper to watch: Jesse Luketa, Penn State, 6-3, 247
Coaches at Penn State raved about his team-first mentality and personal drive to better his overall game. He's an interesting prospect in that some teams could see him as a SAM or WILL linebacker, but 3-4 teams could be interested in making him an outside linebacker due to his size and skillset.
Lions need at the position: High
I put the Lions' need at linebacker right behind wide receiver and safety. It should be a priority this offseason for Lions general manager Brad Holmes.
Alex Anzalone and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Detroit's most consistent inside linebackers in 2021, are both unrestricted free agents. I expect second-year linebacker Derrick Barnes to play a much bigger role next season, but the team still needs more talent and depth around him. This could be the most overhauled position this offseason. Don't be surprised if the Lions are players in the veteran free-agent market, and also get a young linebacker early in the draft.
Key stat: The Lions were 0-6-1 this past season when allowing a 100-yard rusher. Opponents averaged 135.1 rushing yards per game, which was the fifth highest per game average in the NFL. Teams averaged 4.3 yards per carry against the Lions in 2021.