Continuing our series of the top ten prospects at each position in the 2021 NFL Draft, we'll now look at the ten best linebackers.
Once again, I have evaluated the talent on the field and how I think these players could project to the next level, without considering injuries and off-field concerns, when NFL front offices make their decisions come late April.
I have categorized the linebacker position as off-ball second-level defenders. So it won’t include edge rushers, like 3-4 outside backers, even though some of them may have been used in that role.
This NFL Draft class might not be very deep necessarily, but in terms of this top ten, in particular, it might actually be an underrated one. So, without further ado, let's have a look at the top ten linebackers in the 2021 NFL Draft.
#1 NFL Draft Prospect: Micah Parsons (Penn State)
6’ 2”, 245 pounds; RS SO
Head coach James Franklin told Micah Parsons, a top-five overall recruit at the defensive end, he would play middle linebacker. Despite starting only one game, he still became the first true freshman to lead the Nittany Lions in total tackles (82 – with four for loss).
In year two, he was just making plays all over the field and became the first linebacker for Penn State to be named in the first-team All-American selection since LaVarr Arrington. He put together 109 total tackles, 14 of them for loss, five sacks, five passes broken up and four fumbles forced. He opted out of the 2020 season to prepare for the upcoming NFL draft.
Micah Parsons primarily lined up on the weak side of a 4-3 over front in 2019, recording a nation-best 94.8 run defense grade by Pro Football Focus while playing as a fast-flowing second-level player.
You could see him shoot the gap and dip underneath the blocker, combined with a rip-through on the front side of zone runs to force cutbacks. He did so with the flexibility to square his shoulders again or redirect against the original direction when he puts his foot on the ground.
Parsons has the physical ability to back-door blockers. Even when a guard is in a good position to pin him inside, Parsons can still rip through the arms of the blocker and work across his face to chase after the play.
His start-stop ability and the way he can run guys down towards the sideline is phenomenal. He has plenty of experience with containing responsibilities on edge or off the ball when shaded outside, and he man-handles tight-ends in the run game.
Parsons was one of only two linebackers in the FBS in 2019 with 75+ tackles and less than ten misses, missing only 11 of his 188 career attempts overall. He was all over the field in the Cotton Bowl versus Memphis (his final college game), producing 14 tackles and a couple of passes broken up. He also had two sacks and fumbles forced apiece, including a strip-six off a crossdog blitz, which directly led to a defensive touchdown.
This guy is a flash as a blitzer. If you give him a clear lane off a game that you run up front or he’s not picked up right away, he will get to the quarterback in a hurry.
Parsons is a nightmare on cross-blitzes as the secondary guy because of how quickly he arrives at the QB. Penn State put him as an extra guy on the outside of the line quite a bit. But some NFL teams might ask him to play on the edge in their scheme, where he has the skillset to be that kind of hybrid player on passing downs, thanks to his bursts and strong hand-swipes.
On his 94 pass rush attempts as a true sophomore, he came up with 26 pressures and five sacks. He wasn’t asked to cover a whole lot, considering what he did as a spy and rusher. But he ended up being targeted 64 times and didn’t allow a single touchdown on any of them, forcing four incompletions and five stops in coverage. The quickness and sudden bursts are certainly there to defend backs on option routes.
However, Parsons only spent 64 snaps in man-coverage in 2019. His block deconstruction is still a work in progress, and he is more of a see-ball, get-ball player at this stage of his football career.
He gets his eyes caught up with in what’s happening in the backfield a little too much, with H-backs on sift blocks making him hesitate. Moreover, Parsons tends to work too much vertically when flowing with zone runs, which restricts his ability to gain depth when he realizes it’s play-action.
I would like to see him get deeper on his drops because he missed a lot of opportunities to make plays on the ball. But he’s just smooth in going backwards.
At Penn State, he had a lot of freedom to just keep going and turn into an add-on rusher when it wasn’t a run play. While he does have plenty of production as a pass-rusher, when offensive linemen get their hands on him quickly, the 2021 NFL Draft prospect gets hung up quite a bit.
Still, he has looked like a top-ten lock in the NFL Draft, even when there was talk about what kind of guy he is off the field and how he treats his teammates.
Nevertheless, from a purely footballing perspective, Parsons is best suited to stay in that role in the NFL or transition to the strong side in more of an on-ball role.
If NFL teams would like to make the most of his skillset, they could utilize his ability as a pass-rusher, as he may not perform well in coverage. He could have issues deciphering everything from MIKE with NFL speed, but he has the size, speed and quickness to be a game-changer in the NFL.