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6 Linebacker prospects who should intrigue the Broncos

If the Broncos want to add a linebacker in 2021, these NFL Draft prospects are worth considering.

Notre Dame v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

By now it seems everyone in Broncos Country is familiar with the name Micah Parsons. Even after the Nittany Lion opted out of the 2020 season, he’s lingered atop most draft boards as the best linebacker prospect in this upcoming class. Even with concerns about his maturity and off-field issues, he’s an interesting fit for the Vic Fangio defense.

There are others. In fact, I’d say this off ball linebacker class looks like the best in recent memory. Over the last week I’ve made an effort to familiarize myself with a number of them, and while I’m still busy enough sifting through tape to really stack a board, I thought it time to share a few thoughts. So here are six linebackers and my early thoughts on their fit with the 2021 Denver Broncos.

Nick Bolton - Missouri

What stands out most: Mental processing

I’m going to contradict myself from the start here because I hate player comparisons and can’t help but see aspects of Jonathan Vilma in Bolton’s game. Both played at around 6’ and 230 lbs, and while Vilma was an underrated athlete at the position, his ability to anticipate the play and read the field post-snap is why he played for 10 years and made the Pro Bowl as both a Jet and a Saint. Having watched two games of Bolton so far, I see a similar strength for the Tiger: he wins with his eyes.

It will be interesting to see how Bolton’s testing numbers compare to other members of this linebacker class. He doesn’t look like the same kind of athlete in space you’ll find further down this list and there’s certainly bigger backers. Few have found the same type of success Bolton has against the run because he’s so quick to suss out what’s happening and get to the right spot. This mental processing helps him to see blockers coming, which helps to mitigate the issues his length and size could be. He displays active hands to work past opponents when necessary and he’s very good at leveraging gaps. Bolton is a standout run defender because of his ability to diagnose as well as his understanding of pursuit angles.

Keep in mind I have a ways to go with Bolton, but I like how he fits with the Broncos. His play strength and size could show up when teams choose to run right at him in the league, but he’s a capable do-it-all player where the sum is greater than the parts.

Zaven Collins - Tulsa

What stands out most: Freakiness

Like Bolton, Collins has been on my radar for awhile. He’s been a constant in first round mocks and won the Nagurski award in 2020 as the best defensive player in college football. Unlike Bolton, Collins looks like a safe bet to blow up the T-shirt and shorts part of the pre-draft process. His size immediately pops off the tape and he reportedly stands 6’4” and 260 lbs.

As I watched Collins, I kept expecting Alexander Johnson-esque plays where he completely destroyed an opponent, such as when Johnson dismantled Quenton Nelson on a blitz in 2019. He has all the requisite tools to become a freaky hybrid with the length, range, and force to own the second level. So far those tools haven’t led to consistent tape in this regard.

The athleticism Collins displays at his size makes it easy to imagine what he could become under Vic Fangio, but I wonder if a linebacker duo of Johnson and Collins would still leave the Broncos with limitations in their pass defense. Collins does a nice job in his drops and does not look like a fish out of water in coverage, but I wonder if he has the twitch to survive long when isolated on the quick tight ends and backs he would face in the AFC West.

Baron Browning - Ohio State

What stands out most: Athleticism and usage

The Buckeye backers are peculiar because of OSU’s defense. They routinely played with four backers and four defensive linemen. When they did bring another defensive back onto the field, it was usually Browning who came off. For that reason and what he was asked to do on the field, his tape is a little more projection than some of the other prospects in this class. It also means he was often tasked with different responsibilities than you would typically expect from an inside linebacker prospect.

Browning has all the athletic tools you yearn for in a linebacker. He’s reportedly 6’3” and 241 lbs. and he’s fluid in space. His phone booth quickness is very good and his play strength is on the better end of this class. He routinely played the force for the Buckeyes defense and stood out in this regard. While he’s still developing an NFL rush repertoire, he was a disruptive part of the Buckeyes’ pressure packages and they didn’t hesitate to ask him to do so from the edge or A-gap. In what I’ve watched, Browning’s coverage responsibilities mostly consisted of zone drops off the edge or from the line to clog a passing lane, so he may need growth in this area.

Thanks to the Buckeyes’ 4-4 defense, Browning has played a significant time in an overhang role that is closer to what Will Parks played down the stretch this past year. Browning’s relative inexperience creates some concern as to his ability to process the game as we haven’t seen him do it yet. How he would fit into the Broncos’ run defense is also projection due to the fact he has more snaps along the edge than box.

I’ve little doubt he has the physical skillset and do believe Vic Fangio could coach him up. It could simply take some time to see his real ceiling. In the interim he could still find his way on the field as a designated pass rusher on obvious passing downs. Long-term, his value as a pass rusher combined with the physicality and range could make him the best backer in this class.

Pete Werner - Ohio State

What stands out most: Coverage

I went back to watch Werner late because I kept kicking around Browning’s playing time. It struck me as odd that some project Werner to have a lower draft stock at present when he helped to keep his teammate off the field. This is something I hope to explore more. As for Werner himself, he looks like a player who found his way onto the field for his ability to cover tight ends. Probably because he was. He has the size and physicality to be an asset in this regard at the next level, though he does not appear to have the short area quickness to stick with the best tight ends Denver will face in the division. Mind you, very few do.

The issue Werner has that I need to dig into further stems from his run defense. In the tape I’ve seen, there are instances of him losing the back post-snap as well as missed gaps. Some of this comes from overestimating his own speed relative to the competition. This won’t get any easier in the league, so it’s something I need to spend more time on.

Right now I’m fairly cool on Werner relative to the mock machine at The Draft Network.

Jabril Cox - LSU / NDSU

What stands out most: Coverage

When I study draft prospects, I try to work out in my mind what I believe the Broncos are looking for. This becomes a huge part of the eventual board I make before the NFL Draft. While there are some prospects who enter the league with near universal appeal, fit is a huge part of the evaluation process for every NFL team. My role in this is some educated guesswork, such as identifying traits that Elway showed a preference for in the past.

At various points last year the Broncos were reportedly interested in Joe Schobert, Corey Littleton, and Patrick Queen. What these three players have in common is their strengths in coverage, even if the run defense would suffer for them. I studied Schobert extensively when I was a student in The Scouting Academy in before the 2019 season. These are a few notes I made at the time:

  • Can be counted on to stick on most tight ends and slower receivers.
  • Capable of deep drops down the seam in a Tampa 2.
  • Reads QB’s eyes and uses body to interfere with passing lanes.
  • More scheme dependent than goal line stopper.
  • Gap blocks- he’ll try to anticipate and get caught out by a blocker, giving up his area.
  • Doesn’t respect “outs” bounce/cutbacks.
  • Gets out of control which hurts his ability to tackle in space. Film is littered with these.
  • He’ll play through the receiver in coverage.

Ultimately I came to the conclusion that Joe Schobert was a linebacker who wins in coverage. In a passing league he’s good enough in this area that you can accept a “loss” in run defense. Everything I’ve seen or read about Littleton suggests much the same. He was a former safety who became a linebacker and plays like one. Patrick Queen was the best linebacker on my board last year and he has experienced similar issues so far in his career with the Ravens, though I remain optimistic on his long-term development.

Queen was never far from my mind as I watched Cox. Part of that was surely due to their uniforms, but they also have many overlapping traits. Cox is fluid in space and was often leaned on to isolate with different pass catchers for the Tigers in 2020. In zone coverage he can still improve at playing both the QB and receiver, but I am quite high on his ability to mirror. The jump from North Dakota State did not look like a big one.

Cox has the range and shows the ability to process quickly enough to become good in pursuit and attacking the ball on the boundary. The areas where he will prove himself ae related to his ability to defeat blocks in the box. He’s done it, but I would like to see it more often.

So far I’ve found two players in the 2021 Draft class that have left me gobbling up their tape like a hungry hippo. Georgia’s Aziz Ojulari is one and Cox is the other. If the Broncos are trying to find the best pass defender from this class to pair with Alexander Johnson, he makes a ton of sense.

Chazz Surratt - North Carolina

What stands out most: Peaks and valleys

If you rode back in time to tell me Chazz Surratt was the best linebacker in this draft class in three years, I’d believe you.

If you told me, “Just kidding, he washed out of the league,” I’d also believe you. From game to game and play to play, he shows off hints about how he sees the game from a quarterback’s perspective but mixes it with the kind of issues that are elementary.

Surratt has the athletic tools to be a sideline-to-sideline force at the next level and the play strength and physicality to wreck as a blitzer in time. He’ll also misplay a blocker when he needs to force a back to his help, which leads to big plays. When he’s on in coverage he shows the ability to keep an eye on the QB with a feel for the routes around him, so he could become a ball magnet at the next level. He’ll also misplay his leverage and allow easy completions. It doesn’t hurt that he’s the kind of guy who will get a hit on the quarterback right at the whistle.

It will be fascinating to see where Surratt and Zaven Collins land because their respective ceilings look so dependent on their landing spots. Collins will need to find a team who can blend his strengths into their defense to utilize his versatility and avoid taxing him with bad matchups in coverage. Surratt is at his best in chase mode against the run, so he may never be as good at stacking blocks as other backers in this class. More than other prospects in this class, Surratt stands out to me as the guy who will need an organization with a plan for his development.