NFL Draft: Top Defensive Players By Position
The changing nature of linebacker evaluations and your draft day cheat sheet for the defensive side of the ball
It’s draft week! Hopefully by now you’ve had a chance to check out Simon Clancy’s 2022 Draft Guide, available exclusively to premium subscribers of The Read Optional — chock full of 400-plus player reports and all the rankings your heart could desire.
I’ve already published my own rankings for the top offensive players in the draft, breaking down the skill-sets and how those could transition to specific NFL schemes. Now, it’s time for the defensive prospects.
But first: The changing nature of NFL defenses has made the evaluation of college prospects — and their potential transition to the NFL — tougher than ever before.
They’re no longer two different levels of the same sport; they’re two different schematic worlds. What has happened on the defensive side of the ball over the past three years is similar to what happened when the spread-option took over on the offensive side at the beginning of the last decade — and is the result of defenses trying to find answers to the spread-option takeover, and the resulting RPO onslaught that followed. During that transition, you heard endlessly about quarterbacks who didn’t take snaps from under center, who didn’t huddle, who didn’t play with the rhythm and timing essential in an offense built on west coast principles, who might struggle to translate from quarterback-proof college schemes into sophisticated, multi-layered, progression-based pro offenses. You are reading and hearing much of that talk with this very quarterback class.
Those same conversations are now happening in meeting rooms throughout the league when discussing defensive prospects. Can that 4i transition to an edge defender? Will he be a one-gap-and-go, three-tech at the next level? They fit the run with three down linemen and a rotating safety; We play with seven defenders in the box? How do we figure out who can translate and who cannot? The spacing is different? The assignments are from another planet? Does he understand what we’re asking for compared to what he ran? Does he get it? Can he execute it?
(You hear little talk nationally of how defenses prospects will transition from a three-down, three-deep defense into a ‘pro-style’ defense, whatever pro-style means. Discussions about how run fits have changed from one level to the next, I confess, do not necessarily translate as great TV compared to debating QB prospects.)
Throughout these rankings, I’m going to dig into some of those wider college-to-pro questions throughout the position groups. Take this linebacker class, for instance.
There has been a bifurcation of what is asked of linebackers at the college (and between individual colleges) and NFL levels (and between individual NFL schemes), presenting dilemmas and opportunities for pro teams when evaluating prospects.
(Of course, there has always been a gulf — teams run all different kinds of schemes at every level. But there was always some crossover that teams could look for — body types, run fits, and so on. A team might be running a 4-2-5 with a nickel on the field each and every snap, but an NFL scout could still evaluate how the off-ball ‘backer fit within in a single-gap system.)
Scheme has always played a key role in the evaluation of linebackers. But there is even more emphasis on the specifics of what a linebacker is asked to do within their scheme as the two strands of the sport push in different directions. What the bulk of linebackers are being asked to do in college is different than what’s happening asked of the majority of linebackers in the NFL: College sides have tipped increasingly to three-man fronts; the NFL has had to embrace five-man fronts. The run fits are different – and those fits are different from team-to-team in the NFL. The spacing is different, too, particularly if the college defense is playing with a three-man front and with three safeties on the field. There is crossover in the coverages, but the coverage paths are different — a back-pedal, clogging a passing lane vs. playing top-down.
Finding translatable skills is tough.
That means two things: There are going to be more busts taken high in the draft, star names who might fit into one system but are poor fits in another; there is a ton of value in the later rounds. Each team’s board will be different. If, like the Patriots last season, you’re running an old-school ‘Okie’ front, with uncapped guards, where your linebacker is asked to drive early and unload on guards, you have no need for Nakobe Dean, a 5-10 speedster whose job is to fly around at the second-level and penetrate to the backfield if there’s a clear opening.
Conversely, if you’re running a 6-1 front on early downs, asking your linebacker to play a sift-then-find role, sitting as the lone second-level defender, you don’t need a linebacker whose stand-out skill is driving downhill and flitting between gaps in the offensive line to make plays behind the line of scrimmage, or someone whose main asset is their first-step burst.
That has always been the case — somewhat. But the differences between pro and college schemes can now be found both in the macro and the details — both are using 4i’s at an increasing rate to close the so-called ‘B-Gap Bubble’, but NFL teams cannot live in a three-down, three-deep structure the way the finest teams in college can. The two are splintering by trying to find different solutions to the same problem: Defending space.
Those differences mean that as NFL teams search for traits or flashes of what could fit in their individual system, their position-specific boards will be all over the place. There will be linebackers that are considered overdrafted compared to the consensus board, but who ranked as one of only a handful of players who fit what a team is looking for from the position.
Some teams will have Wyoming linebacker Chad Muma as the second overall linebacker on their board because of what they specifically ask of their linebackers. But they might be able to snag Mumma in the second, third, or fourth round, with four or five linebackers already off the board. Alabama’s Christian Harris might the top overall linebacker for a team persisting with an Okie front, and in the double-digits for a team preferring a Bengals-style roaming 5-2 wall. That doesn’t necessarily mean a team missed on Muma or Harris or were wrong in their evaluation, but that they didn’t need his skills or his body type within their structure — or felt that there wasn’t enough crossover from his college scheme to their style.
There will be shocks from this linebacker group, in terms of where the players are selected compared to other positions and the order in which the linebackers fall.
Given that, trying to piece together an ‘overall’ ranking of linebackers is a touch silly. But this is silly season.
Onto the rankings.
1. Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon
The conventional wisdom throughout the college football season was that Thibodeaux would be the sure-fire first overall pick in the class – regardless of what team landed in the top spot. As the process has wriggled along, that’s flipped. Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson is now expected to be the top pick… or Georgia’s Travon Walker, with Thibodeaux slipping down draft boards for… reasons?
Media speculation has cited off-the-field concerns related to that most overstated of intangibles: Heart. And it’s somewhat true. There are times when you want to shout at the screen. Come on, man. Give me MORE! FIGHT!
You’re looking for Von Miller, but sometimes you have to step back and realize Von Miller comes around once in a franchise. Thibodeaux is something different; he’s just as athletically gifted, and can play a touch bigger (at times), yet he’s only interested in rushing the passer. He might not be as clean a prospect as Miller or Myles Garrett or the league’s elite, every down edge-defenders. But that doesn’t mean he cannot be a valuable, double-digit sack guy. And in the modern game, that’s more than enough to be one of the five best players in any given draft class.
Thibodeaux is the smoothest, most agile edge-rusher in the class. He has All-Pro everything: size, get off and lateral quickness. There is no other pass rusher in this class who can hang with Thibodeaux’s combination of first-step quickness, dip, and in-out agility. It should be illegal for a man so large to be able to move in such sudden directional jolts.
You see flashes with Walker. He profiles as an edge-swooper. Hutchinson is more of a nuanced pass-rusher than the cliches about his game often indicate. But Hutchinson isn't a classic dip-and-rip guy; nor was Walker in college. He might be in the pros, but Georgia’s scheme and his role within it limited what he was able to do as a prototypical edge-rusher.
In terms of the classic traits teams look for, Thibodeaux is the one who stuck the most on tape — MP4, really.
Thibodeaux is not the perfect prospect. He isn’t an overly sophisticated rusher; he makes up his mind and then goes for it; there’s little set-up for pay-off plays or real fight once he is engaged. Yet even at the end of his time at Oregon, he was only scratching the surface of his potential – the Oregon staff routinely dropped him into coverage, something that will be a no-no at the next level. The sky’s the limit with Thibodeaux’s tools. If you want twitch on the edge, and someone who can out-athlete just about everyone, Thibodeaux is the one.
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