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NFL Combine Prospect Preview: Linebacker

The Falcons are in a strange place at LB, with a star in Deion Jones and a solid rotational player in Foyesade Oluokun, but with nothing but unproven depth behind them. We take a closer look at the LB group participating in the 2020 NFL Combine.

NFL Combine - Day 4 Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The NFL Combine officially kicks off on February 24, and all eyes will be on Indianapolis to see which draft prospects are able help or hurt their stock with their performance. We’ve already covered the wide receivers and tight ends. Now we move on to the defensive side of the ball, which starts with the defensive linemen and linebackers. These groups will officially participate in on-field workouts starting on Saturday, February 29.

To prepare everyone for the flurry of activity that is the NFL Combine, I am back to once again provide you with my Combine Prospect Previews—brief summaries of some of my favorite prospects in each position group. These are players who I believe the Falcons will be most interested in come draft day. Hopefully, these names will give you a little bit of guidance about who to watch when the players hit the field.

If you missed any of the other prospect previews, you can find them below:

WR | TE | RB | C/G | EDGE | DT | LB | CB | S

For added context, I’ll be incorporating player rankings from The Draft Network. This way you can have a general idea of where a current consensus of scouts ranks a particular player. Today we take a closer look at the linebacker group, where the Falcons have a star in Deion Jones and a solid rotational starter in Foyesade Oluokun. Behind them, however, is nothing but unproven depth players—and 2019 starter De’Vondre Campbell is almost certainly departing in free agency.

Jordyn Brooks, Texas Tech

6’1, 245 | 108 total tackles, 20.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 FF

TDN Prospect Rank: 90 (3rd Round)

The Falcons still need a long-term partner next to Deion Jones who can play all three downs, and one of my favorite prospects for that spot is Texas Tech’s Jordyn Brooks. His stock has been steadily rising as more and more analysts get a look at his 2019 film, which is pretty awesome. I’ve selected him for the Falcons in several mock drafts, most recently in the third round, and here’s how I described his game:

Brooks is a tremendous athlete with good size for the LB position at 6’1, 245. His range is exceptional and he’s got a ton of experience in coverage. Strong leadership qualities and physicality coupled with a non-stop motor make him a blast to watch on tape. Brooks does have issues stacking and shedding blocks, but his ability to read plays generally helps him take advantageous angles to the ball. He’s a perfect fit in Dan Quinn’s defense next to Deion Jones and would give Atlanta a super athletic LB duo for years to come.

Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State

6’2, 219 | 101 total tackles, 14.5 TFL, 5.0 sacks, 1 INT, 8 PD

TDN Prospect Rank: 118 (4th Round)

If the Falcons elect to wait until Day 3 to add depth at LB—which wouldn’t be surprising considering their long list of needs—a top candidate could be Appalachian State’s Akeem Davis-Gaither. Davis-Gaither had a breakout season in 2018 when he finally got an opportunity to start, and followed it up with an even more productive senior campaign. At 6’2, 219, Davis-Gaither is a bit on the small side for a LB, but makes up for it with standout athleticism and sideline-to-sideline range.

As his production numbers suggest, Davis-Gaither is lightning-quick and capable of blowing up plays in the backfield with his burst. Despite his size limitations, he’s a physical hitter and a powerful finisher when he gets his hands on an opponent. I like his upside in coverage—his change-of-direction skills are smooth and his instincts in zone are strong. Davis-Gaither has short arms, however, which when combined with his size give him considerable difficulty at beating blocks. He’ll likely need to put on about 10 pounds to take on a true 3-down role at the NFL level, and it’s unclear how that might affect his athleticism. Still, he’s got immediate starting ability in passing situations and his athleticism gives him appealing upside—particularly for a player you can add early on Day 3.

Troy Dye, Oregon

6’4, 225 | 84 total tackles, 9.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 INT, 4 PD, 2 FF

TDN Prospect Rank: 77 (3rd Round)

One of the most popular LB picks for the Falcons over the course of the 2019 season, Oregon’s Troy Dye probably reminds a lot of people of De’Vondre Campbell due to his large frame (6’4, 225) and athleticism. Dye looks like a better athlete than Campbell, but he’s lankier and would benefit from adding a bit of weight to get up into the 230s. He’s also far more polished and experienced in coverage—something that Campbell never really got comfortable with.

Dye’s speed and range make him a natural fit in the Falcons attacking-style defense. He’s an elite player in pursuit and can fly around the field making tackles. However, Dye is much more of a run-and-chase player than a physical hitter: his strength and power at the point-of-attack are average at best. His biggest weakness is his mental processing and ability to read-and-react quickly. Dye struggles to avoid blockers and takes time to react to plays. If the Falcons think he can be coached up in this area, Dye would be a high-upside addition late on Day 2.

Malik Harrison, Ohio State

6’3, 246 | 75 total tackles, 16.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 4 PD

TDN Prospect Rank: 76 (3rd Round)

Another common pick for the Falcons on Day 2, Ohio State’s Malik Harrison improved his stock tremendously with a standout senior season in 2019. Harrison is definitely a bigger-body at the LB position at 6’3, 246, which the Falcons have traditionally shied away from under Dan Quinn. However, Harrison pairs his size with solid athleticism and enough speed and range to flow to the ball in Atlanta’s defense. He might be best served by actually dropping a little weight to increase his flexibility.

In terms of physicality, Harrison is one of the biggest hitters in the class. He’s an absolute thumper against the run and is capable of laying out ball carriers one-on-one. Harrison really improved his instincts in 2019, and he’s much quicker at reading and reacting to plays. Atlanta has lacked a LB capable of stacking-and-shedding blockers in recent years, and Harrison would immediately become their most effective player in this area. However, his coverage skills are fairly mediocre at this point. He’s not an outright liability here, but he needs more development in this area before he’s capable of being a plus player on third downs. If the Falcons are looking to inject some size and physicality into the LB corps to complement Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun, Harrison could be the answer late on Day 2.

Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma

6’2, 234 | 102 total tackles, 17.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 4 PD

TDN Prospect Rank: 28 (1st Round)

There are only three LB prospects in this class who are currently projected first rounders in the TDN Prospect Rankings. While I don’t think the Falcons will be in the mix for any of them at 16—unless Isaiah Simmons somehow falls—it’s worth talking about them in case one falls into the second. Kenneth Murray is the first one we’ll discuss, and it’s easy to see why he’s so highly regarded: he’s the full package, with great size at 6’2, 234 and excellent athletic ability.

Murray is a physical, downhill player against the run. As his TFL numbers suggest, he’s more than capable of exploding into the backfield to stop plays before they happen. I like his long speed and he’s got some good initial burst, but he’ll struggle if asked to quickly change directions. In coverage, Murray is adequate but still a work-in-progress technically. He really needs to improve his instincts in zone, but I think he’s got a lot of upside in man coverage—particularly against TEs. The big issue for me with Murray is that he seems a little slow to read-and-react at times, which could be a significant issue at the NFL level. Long-term, I think Murray can be an impact starter, but I’m not sure he’s capable of taking a lot of passing down snaps during his rookie season.

Jacob Phillips, LSU

6’4, 233 | 113 total tackles, 7.5 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 1 PD, 1 FF

TDN Prospect Rank: 172 (6th Round)

If the Falcons are forced to wait until later in the draft to add depth to the LB position, LSU’s Jacob Phillips is an interesting developmental prospect to consider. He reminds me a bit of De’Vondre Campbell coming out: great frame, solid athleticism, but pretty raw technically and in need of some development. Physically, he’s got all the traits you’re looking for from an NFL LB. He’s got excellent explosiveness and can close quickly on ballcarriers. I like his physicality as a tackler and he’s got some pop when he hits his opponent.

At this point, however, Phillips has pretty significant limitations with his mental processing and coverage ability. He’s got a decent feel for zone, but looks lost at times when asked to play in man coverage. Athletically, he’s pretty stiff when asked to change directions quickly, which limits his upside in this area. Phillips has all the traits to be an effective penetrator and TFL machine, but he’s slow to diagnose plays and is routinely late to the ball. Still, for his projected late-Day 3 price tag, it might be worth taking a shot to see if the Falcons can develop him into something down the road.

Patrick Queen, LSU

6’1, 227 | 85 total tackles, 12.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 INT, 2 PD

TDN Prospect Rank: 25 (1st Round)

The other LSU LB, Patrick Queen had a breakout season in 2019 on one of college football’s best defenses. Unlike Jacob Phillips, Queen is on the smaller side of the LB spectrum at just 6’1, 227. However, Queen is a fantastic athlete and has a more advanced feel for the position, which is why he’s projected to go in the late first round at this point. Queen is a much more prototypical fit for the Falcons defense: he’s lightning quick, fluid at changing directions, and has impressive sideline-to-sideline range.

Queen is excellent at closing quickly on the ball and brings the wood when he arrives. He’s a strong tackler and has pretty good length despite his shorter stature. Queen’s motor is constantly running hot and he diagnoses plays quickly due to impressive football IQ and processing skills. His coverage skills in both man and zone are well-developed, and he’s got immediate starting potential on third down. Queen is an instant-impact player who can help a team early on in his career, but the Falcons likely won’t get a shot at adding him unless he falls into the second round.

Isaiah Simmons, Clemson

6’4, 230 | 104 total tackles, 16.5 TFL, 8.0 sacks, 3 INT, 8 PD, 2 FF

TDN Prospect Rank: 6 (1st Round)

The cream of the crop and one of the most unique players I’ve scouted in recent years, Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons truly is a “do-it-all” player on the defense. His size (6’4, 230) gives him the ability to line up just about everywhere and do just about anything. Normally, that kind of versatility and playing at multiple spots would lead to a player being underdeveloped, but Simmons is so smart that it simply doesn’t matter. He’s also got truly rare athletic ability, particularly when combined with his size.

He’s possibly the smoothest mover I’ve ever scouted at 6’4—he’s that impressive as an athlete. Simmons changes directions effortlessly and has unbelievable range. He’s been productive everywhere: his 8 sacks show his comfort rushing the passer and blitzing ability, his 16.5 TFL prove his strength as a penetrator and gap-shooter, and his 8 PD and 3 INT show his upside in coverage. Simmons is the perfect chess-piece defender in the modern NFL who can transform a defense with his versatility. It’ll take a smart, creative DC to maximize his talents, but Simmons is an elite prospect with franchise-altering talent. If he somehow makes it out of the top-10, I would not hesitate to try and pull the trigger on a trade-up for Simmons.

Justin Strnad, Wake Forest

6’3, 235 | 69 total tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 INT, 4 PD

TDN Prospect Rank: 149 (5th Round)

Another option for the Falcons on Day 3, Wake Forest’s Justin Strnad was putting together an impressive senior season before suffering a season-ending biceps injury. If not for that injury, I have a feeling we’d be talking about Strnad as a Day 2 candidate due to his ideal size (6’3, 235) and excellent athletic traits. He’s a dynamic athlete in space, with strong burst off the ball and advanced coverage skills.

Strnad showed significant improvement as a processor in 2019, reading and reacting to plays much quicker than in previous seasons. That, when combined with his athleticism, gives him starting upside in the NFL. He’s a natural in zone coverage and has some untapped upside in man due to his size. I like Strnad’s overall physicality and he’s a consistent high-motor player, but his tackling technique needs work. He’s also pretty underdeveloped as a block shedder and can get washed out of plays—though his size and strength give me confidence he can improve in this area. Strnad is a Day 3 sleeper who could fall through the cracks due to his injury. If the Falcons wait to address LB, or simply want to add additional depth, Strnad could be a strong fit.

Logan Wilson, Wyoming

6’2, 241 | 105 total tackles, 8.5 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 4 INT, 7 PD, 1 FF

TDN Prospect Rank: 270 (UDFA)

My favorite late-Day 3 sleeper at LB—thanks to some of our commenters for informing me about him—Wyoming’s Logan Wilson offers intriguing depth potential at an exceptionally low cost. He’s got plenty of size at 6’2, 241, versatility from his history of playing multiple DB positions, and tremendous football IQ and mental processing skills. I had the Falcons taking Wilson in the seventh round of my most recent mock draft, and here’s how I described his skillset:

Atlanta can still add a dependable depth player late on Day 3 in Wyoming’s Logan Wilson, who coincidentally also has experience as a defensive back. Wilson has a ton of experience, both at LB and DB, and has been extremely productive at Wyoming. He’s smart and quick to process plays in front of him, and has plenty of strength to finish plays. However, Wilson is a limited athlete—which probably caps his ceiling at “solid starter” or “dependable backup” in the NFL. That’s still valuable to a team—particularly a team as cash-strapped as Atlanta—and adding him late in the draft would prevent losing him in the UDFA scrum.

What are your thoughts on the LB group participating in the 2020 NFL Combine? How highly do you view the need at LB, particularly if the Falcons don’t bring back De’Vondre Campbell? Who are some of your favorite prospects at the position?