The top of the 2020 linebacker class was a bit of a disappointment. Outside of Isaiah Simmons, who is more hybrid than true LB, the class struggled to impress. Both Kenneth Murray and Patrick Queen have legitimate flaws and the rest of the class just hung in there. But looking forward to next season, two 2021 linebacker prospects are absolute head turners – Penn State’s Micah Parsons and Alabama’s Dylan Moses.
The top two linebackers of the 2021 NFL Draft class
Parsons and Moses are the two linebackers that football fans have been excited to watch. The two prospects have a lot in common. Moses was the fifth overall recruit from the 2018 class, according to ESPN. While Parsons was seventh, he was actually a defensive end recruit and not a linebacker.
In his senior year of Pennsylvania high school football, Parsons tallied 42 solo tackles, 9.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles-for-loss at Harrisburg. The year before, at the IMG Academy, Moses had the same number of solo tackles at the private school in Florida.
The Crimson Tide got a freak athlete in Moses, posting a SPARQ score of 132.48 according to ESPN’s recruiting page. The Nittany Lions didn’t recruit a slouch in Parsons either. He scored a 110.07, which was just 10 points lower than Clemson’s Xavier Thomas.
Neither peaked in high school either. Moses sat out in 2019 after suffering an ACL tear last August, but he racked up 45 solo tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks in 2018 playing LB part-time behind Mack Wilson of the Cleveland Browns. Parsons finished 2019 with 52 solo tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss, and five sacks. Both are elite prospects, but they row the boat in very different ways.
Both prospects are effective movers. In a straight line, both have the range to play sideline to sideline with ease, carry backs out of the backfield, and carry the seam of any tight end in the league. But that’s where the similarities end.
Parsons possesses outstanding flexibility and uses that ability to slip blockers both at the second level and as a pass rusher. Moving laterally, his movements are efficient and he’s able to hinge his hips and open up his stride quickly. He’s also able to jump cut to avoid a block and drive downhill to attack a ball carrier, but he’s not super twitched up in change of direction or explosion. He’s more smooth than sudden when compared to Moses.
But Moses is special. In a piece written on spring testing numbers before his freshman season, he reportedly ran a 4.46, benched 405 pounds, squatted 500 pounds, and power cleaned 335 pounds. But that’s not even the most impressive thing about him athletically. He’s a Tesla Roadster. The Jerry Jeudy of linebackers. His acceleration is instantaneous. His change of direction is violent. His closing speed is a blur. But like with Jeudy, that ability is a double-edged sword. Can his knees hold up to the forced placed on them in the long term?
Parsons has some absolute vines for arms, and he uses them incredibly well to finish tackles. Even when he doesn’t or isn’t able to hit square his length and grip strength allow him to wrangle down ball carriers with relative ease. When he lands square on a runner, the play ends.
It’s much the same with Moses. He doesn’t have the same wingspan as Parsons, but he brings as much if not more boom on square shots because of how much force he brings with his size and speed. But even then, he does a very nice job finishing in a technically proficient manner instead of throwing a shoulder or dropping his head.
We live in a new era of football, and we have to get used to that. Parsons, for all his size and physicality would still much rather dip a shoulder to make a blocker miss completely or throw a shoulder to maintain space rather than a more traditional stack and shed. There are times where he’ll overrun plays moving laterally, trying to beat a blocker to a spot and dipping a shoulder just to be washed out and miss a cutback.
Moses doesn’t overrun plays as Parsons does at times, but he isn’t a consistent block shedder yet. Much like Appalachian State’s Akeem Davis-Gaither, he’d much rather use his lateral agility to make blockers whiff or land a glancing blow that he can swipe away rather than stack and play a ball carrier two ways. Neither player’s ability to get off blocks is particularly debilitating, but they aren’t strong suits in their games.
Parsons has the requisite athletic ability and prowess to play well in coverage. He typically does a good job reading his keys and being in the right place in zone coverage, but he’s susceptible to eye manipulation by the quarterback and can have his aggression taken advantage of on slant/bubble and slant/flat combos. This opens up the hook area to easy slant completions. Hopefully in 2020, he’ll receiver more man-to-man reps to clear the projection there to the next level.
Moses can man up with anybody on the field in man coverage. He’s shown the ability to mirror and close the distance when backs and tight ends do get a step on him. There’s a bit to be desired in zone coverage. The Crimson Tide runs more match man and match zone concepts than traditional spot drops, and it’s clear he’d prefer to focus on a player than space. He’s tempted to dart back and forth and let his eyes wander in spot zones.
Parsons may not be an off-ball LB at the next level, and it’s because of his ability to rush the passer. Those long arms allow him to be a force off the edge, and he knows how to use them. He possesses some nice initial rush moves, and if he can develop some counters from the edge it wouldn’t surprise me to see him as a primary rusher in the league. He’s almost unfair as a blitzer on the interior. He’s slippery and savvy enough to reduce his surface area and make himself a hard target to land, and he has impressive athleticism to outpace interior blockers.
Moses has the suddenness to threaten the edge, and he can really shoot gaps when he times up blitzes well, but he doesn’t have that same experience or nuance with his hands when asked to rush off the edge. There are a lot of reps in that area, and it’s definitely a strength compared to most linebackers, but it’s not near the level of Parsons.
Who will be drafted first next April?
Because Moses didn’t play in 2019, he’s become somewhat forgotten. But that’s a bit disappointing because his traits should be unforgettable. The visions of him darting back and forth like a shifty slot receiver shouldn’t be swept under the rug. But is that enough to supplant the awe of Parsons? Is the difference in athleticism enough to propel him to the top of the totem pole over the versatility of Parsons?
Come April 2021, it’ll probably come down to fit, because if both play as elite linebackers in 2020, evaluators will try to rank them in a vacuum. There is a good chance they could both see their draft stock in the top half of round one.