Zach's Draft Corner: Top Linebackers in 2019
Image Credit: University of Alabama
Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.
Continuing my prospect preview series, this week we are going to stay on the defensive side of the ball and round out the front seven with the linebackers. Here are the names at linebacker you are bound to hear about early and often going into the 2019 college football season.
Shaquille Quarterman, University of Miami
6'1", 240 pounds
2018 Stats: 82 tackles, 14.0 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
Miami is weird. They play Quarterman in the true “Will” (weak-side linebacker) position, allowing Quarterman to roam around and make plays. Quarterman rewards them, as he is a strong linebacker with great quickness. A starter since he was a freshman, Quarterman is still not very fluid in coverage, and his size is a concern against bigger tight ends. However, he is an athletic, sideline-to-sideline playmaker in run defense and a reliable tackler. Unfortunately, unless he improves in coverage, he might be a run-stopping specialist, limiting his upside. I want to see him improve in coverage to truly earn a high grade
Michael Pinckney, University of Miami
6'1", 228 pounds
2018 Stats: 74 tackles, 11.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 1 interception
So why is Miami weird? Miami runs a relatively traditional defense where they ask Quarterman, the 4-star recruit, to be the playmaker and for Pinckney, the 3-star recruit, to take on blockers and be the cleanup guy. Pinckney plays that role decently, but not nearly well enough to do it at the pro level. However, in the few plays where they have asked Pinckney to be the playmaker is where I'm impressed, and I think he would excel in such a role if given the opportunity to do it full time, maybe even more than Quarterman because he is a better cover linebacker. Further, the thicker Quarterman is actually built better for, and succeeds more often at, taking on blockers, but the better recruit gets the spotlight while the lesser recruit in Pinckney plays out of position. I was really hoping that Quarterman left for the NFL so Pinckney would get his chance to shine, but with both returning, he's relegated to a support role yet again. I think that he could be a steal in the later rounds. Pinckney is a bit of a sleeper for me.
Markus Bailey, Purdue University
6'1", 240 pounds
2018 Stats: 115 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble
Bailey is a similar story to a lot of the modern linebackers. He is undersized when compared to the stud linebackers of the aughts and prior, and if kept clean, can be a great pursuit linebacker. He is a strong tackler. He is good in coverage. He is a decent pass rusher. However, he gets eaten up by blocks by anyone but running backs. Bailey will really need to improve his strength, but should still be taken relatively early in the 2020 draft.
Isaiah Simmons, Clemson University
6'4", 225 pounds
2018 Stats: 88 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, 1 interception, 3 forced fumbles
Some places might call him a safety, while others call him a linebacker. That’s because he was recruited as a safety and plays all over the field. Simmons is even bigger and more athletic than Derwin James, and he really can do it all. On most downs, you'll find him as a linebacker, but he'll also move over into coverage or even play deep zones. Simmons was a safety in high school, but had the frame to put on more weight and moved to linebacker in 2018. It will be interesting to see what he does at the next level. He could easily put on more weight and stay at LB,à la Telvin Smith, or he could move back out to safety and play a Derwin James role. I honestly think his best fit might be safety, where he can truly just attack and make plays, but I'm putting him here because of his current listed position.
Paddy Fisher, Northwestern University
6'4", 245 pounds
2018 Stats: 116 tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, 1 interception, 4 forced fumbles
Shockingly, even with that number of tackles, Fisher left some more on the field with some missed tackles. His big issue, at this point in his career, was that he seemed to overly process things, leading to slower reactions and trying to make tackles from less than optimal positions. We also may have not seen his peak athleticism, given that the processing slows him down from going all out. Fisher might be the best leader of this group, and you can tell his motor is just different. I want to see him play with confidence this year rather than analytics. He could also improve his coverage a little more, but I think that all goes hand in hand with his processing. He needs to play with instincts as opposed to waiting for his eyes to see it.
Dylan Moses, University of Alabama
6'2", 235 pounds
2018 Stats: 86 tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble
Don’t let his size confuse you. Moses is just a bigger, albeit more athletic, version of a lot of undersized linebackers you see nowadays. He is fast and is programmed to pursue ball carriers from sideline to sideline relentlessly. His mind is set on one thing, and that's to run after and tackle whoever has the ball. Think of him as a 2019 version of Bobby Boucher. Unfortunately, this is also a negative, as Moses looks lost in coverage, can easily be eaten up by blocks, and is too often fooled by misdirections. His athletic ability hides a lot of warts, but those warts will only grow bigger in the NFL if he doesn't chop them off. That being said, Moses has one of the highest ceilings due to his size and athletic ability, but he will need to do a better job on the mental processing aspect of playing the game.
Charles Snowden, University of Virginia
6'7", 225 pounds
2018 Stats: 62 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
It’s not surprising that a 6’7” football player was once a basketball player, but it is surprising that he chose to move to the defensive side of the ball instead of continuing to play receiver or tight end (his high school positions). Snowden still has those skills, and puts them to good use in coverage. Snowden may be the best pure cover linebacker of this group. In that way, he very much reminds me of a Fred Warner type player. Snowden has the athleticism of a basketball player, which shows in the quick burst he has in attacking in coverage or off the line of scrimmage. He’s also a surprisingly good pass rusher, with his length giving him an effective bull rush, and he excels at rushing the passer with his flexibility. Still, in run support, if the lineman gets into him, his surface area and lack of strength makes him easily disposed of. Snowden is still very early in his development, so it will be interesting to see where his body and skillset takes him.
Tuf Borland, Ohio State University
6'1", 232 pounds
2018 Stats: 67 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
While a linebacker named Borland might give some 49er fans PTSD, Tuf has no relation to Chris. He does have a much cooler name, though. Borland is a very instinctive run defender, navigating through traffic well to almost always be in position to make the play. Even better, he finishes his tackles. However, Borland does not have the strength to shed blockers, and his instincts do not carry over into coverage. Being a productive player at a blue chip program with a great name, you'll hear his name a lot. Ultimately, his role might be an early down only linebacker with special teams upside.
Malik Harrison, Ohio State University
6'2", 245 pounds
2018 Stats: 81 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery
Harrison is going to be a combine warrior for some flashy drills (like the 40 and the bench). That’s because Harrison is very strong and very fast in a straight line. Unfortunately, he is bad at changing direction and is not nearly as instinctive as Borland. This problem captures his biggest issue, which is that he doesn't adjust well to anything. The playbook dictates that Harrison has an assignment on the play, and he executes what he is told to do. However, when something goes away from the script, he flounders. This combination makes him relatively safe, but also limits his big play ability to be a true game changer on defense.
Joe Bachie, Michigan State University
6'1", 238 pounds
2018 Stats: 102 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, 1 interception, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
Nobody epitomizes the player who is unimpressive but always manages to be in the exact right spot at the exact right time like Joe Bachie. It's almost as if he knows the offensive play that's being called, knows how it will develop, and puts himself immediately in the path of the ball. This is good, because he is unathletic, unable to succeed in a true pursuit role, and will get dominated in man coverage. However, there is something to say for someone who has his type of instincts, including in zone coverage. His production will cause someone to take a look, and then we'll see if his college luck is by fluke or the truth.
SMALL SCHOOL SLEEPER
David Woodward, Utah State University
6'0", 235 pounds
2018 Stats: 134 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles
Woodward checks a lot of boxes for what I want from a small-school prospect. He had one of PFF’s highest grades at linebacker last season. He comes from a school known for putting out top end linebackers (Bobby Wagner and Kyler Fackrell both went to Utah State). You want to see pure domination, and Woodward is easily the player that pops in any tape of Utah State's defense. Woodward is strong enough to shed blockers, fast enough to pursue sideline to sideline, and very reliable open-field tackler. He is equally as effective in run and pass defense. All in all, Woodward does it all and does it exceptionally well. His game really does remind me of a Bobby Wagner or Ryan Shazier type linebacker, who can be a cornerstone for a defense. This doesn’t happen often, but my “small school sleeper” is currently my favorite pure linebacker in this class (with Simmons being counted as a safety).
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