With the 2021 NFL Draft in the rearview mirror, it’s time to turn the next crop of superstars who stand out on Saturday with the hope of playing on Sunday. In the latest of our series of prospect previews, we take an early look at the top inside linebackers in the 2022 NFL Draft class.
Top inside linebackers in the 2022 NFL Draft | 1-5
These are my very early rankings of the top inside linebackers in the 2022 NFL Draft class. The rankings are compiled from observations made while watching players in the 2021 class and early adventures into 2022 summer scouting. As such, they’ll be subject to change throughout the summer and 2021 college football season. For these rankings, an inside linebacker is defined as a player who will predominantly line up at middle linebacker in a base 4-3 defense or the interior of a base 3-4 defense.
1) Christian Harris, Alabama
Once a four-star recruit out of Louisiana, Christian Harris has rapidly developed into one of the top inside linebackers of this 2022 NFL Draft class. Having impressed during the spring of 2019, Harris earned a starting role as a true freshman. He led all SEC freshmen with 7.5 tackles for loss as part of a 63-tackle campaign. Harris then played a pivotal role during Alabama’s National Championship run in his sophomore year.
In his 25 appearances to date, Harris has amassed 140 tackles at 5.6 tackles per game. Furthermore, he has contributed 14.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 3 pass deflections, and 1 interception.
The 6’3″, 232-pound linebacker offers exceptional athleticism combined with desirable leadership qualities. His explosiveness and ability to win with his hands make Harris a dangerous threat in the backfield. This is evidenced by his tackle for loss numbers.
Harris also displays some coverage ability, perhaps stemming from his experience as a cornerback in high school. However, this is an area where he could improve his draft stock.
2) Ventrell Miller, Florida
Ventrell Miller could have entered the 2021 NFL Draft but opted to return to build on a productive campaign. He led the team in tackles for the first time in his career, adding 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. If he continues on that upward trend, Miller can easily establish himself as one of the top inside linebackers in the 2022 NFL Draft class.
Miller has come a long way since his three-star recruiting ranking and rocky start to his career for the Gators. The linebacker was suspended for the entire 2017 season due to his involvement in a credit card fraud. Since then, he has developed into a key piece of Florida’s defense. Miller has averaged 5.2 tackles per game, with 156 total tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, and 5 pass deflections across three years.
Miller plays fast and physical, making solid use of his 230 pounds as a strong and aggressive tackler. He displays sideline-to-sideline speed while also possessing superb short-area explosion. Miller is at his best when flowing downhill. He has flashed skill in pass coverage, yet this is an area where he could improve.
3) Devin Lloyd, Utah
Another inside linebacker who eschewed the opportunity to head to the NFL this year is Utah’s Devin Lloyd. Lloyd enjoyed a brilliant season in 2020 that led to him being a finalist for the prestigious Butkus Award. Yet, he opted to return to chase a Pac-12 Championship for the Utes. Thus, he will have the opportunity to elevate his stock as one of the top inside linebackers in the 2022 NFL Draft class.
Lloyd is a tackling machine in Utah’s linebacker corps. During his career, he has averaged 6.6 tackles per game in 22 appearances, totaling 145 tackles. His ability to impact the game in the backfield last year was particularly impressive. His 2020 contributions ensured he heads into next season with over 20 career tackles for loss.
There is a lot to like about how Lloyd plays the game. He displays imposing sideline-to-sideline ability and decent short-area explosion to attack the ball. As a former high school safety, he also showcases impressive coverage ability. At 6’3″ and 232 pounds, Lloyd has the frame to be a successful inside linebacker at the NFL level.
4) Owen Pappoe, Auburn
A five-star outside linebacker recruit in the 2019 cycle, Owen Pappoe made an immediate impact for the Auburn Tigers. However, he truly began his rise to prominence last season. With Auburn’s vocal leader at the center of the defense — K.J. Britt — sidelined with injury, Pappoe slid across to play middle linebacker and excelled.
During 2020, he accumulated 93 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks. Not only did Pappoe put together a statistically notable season, he assumed Britt’s role as the signal-caller of the defense. It’s a role that he will reprise as Britt graduates to the NFL.
Pappoe possesses elite athleticism at the position, showcasing remarkable sideline-to-sideline range. He also demonstrates stout coverage ability. One area where he needs to improve is against the run, which his size may somewhat hamper. At 6’1″ and 222 pounds, Pappoe isn’t the biggest linebacker in the class by any stretch of the imagination.
5) Edefuan Ulofoshio, Washington
Washington consistently churns out defensive talent to the NFL. All four of their draftees this year were on defense, and an early look towards next year appears promising. I’ve already discussed Trent McDuffie in our top cornerbacks’ piece, and Edefuan Ulofoshio seems to be one of the top inside linebackers in the 2022 NFL Draft class.
Although he has made just seven starts in 20 appearances, Ulofoshio has already imposed his will on many Pac-12 offensive players. He has averaged 6.9 tackles per game, more than anyone on this list. He has also exhibited a knack for creating turnovers, logging 4 forced fumbles during his short time as a starter.
It’s been a remarkable transition for a player who was unranked coming out of high school. Ulofoshio has achieved his success with a combination of speed and bruising physicality. Although not the tallest at 6’0″, he puts all of his 230 pounds into every tackle.
Top inside linebackers in the 2022 NFL Draft | 6-10
Which inside linebackers currently round out the top 10?
6) Kana’i Mauga, USC
Kana’i Mauga arrived at USC as a four-star outside linebacker who was the best high school prospect in Hawaii. He saw time outside and also on special teams, but he truly rose to prominence as an inside linebacker for the Trojans.
At 6’2″ and 245 pounds, Mauga is better built to play inside. From there, he can fly downfield and put his size to good use as a backfield disruptor. So far in his career, Mauga has produced 114 tackles, including 11 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. Mauga also demonstrated an ability to disrupt the passing game with 2 career interceptions.
A hard worker who prides himself as a film grinder, Mauga could establish himself as one of the top inside linebackers in the 2022 NFL Draft with a full season of action in the Pac-12.
7) Nakobe Dean, Georgia
The Georgia Bulldogs saw linebacker Monty Rice selected in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Now, his running mate looks to be one of the top inside linebackers in the 2022 NFL Draft. Nakobe Dean was ranked as the second-best inside linebacker in the 2019 recruiting class, and he began to demonstrate flashes of why last season.
Despite being a little undersized at 6’0″ and 220 pounds, Dean possesses stellar physical tools. His tackling statistics don’t leap off the page, but he still led Georgia in tackles and quarterback pressures last season. With Rice departed, Dean is primed for a breakout season as the leader of the linebacker unit. If he can translate some of those pressures into sacks this season, expect more people to take notice of the junior linebacker.
8) DeMarvion Overshown, Texas
DeMarvion Overshown is one of the most intriguing evaluations of all the top inside linebackers in the 2022 NFL Draft. There truly isn’t another player at the position quite like him. He came to Texas as a 6’4″, 217-pound, four-star safety and saw playing time in 17 games in the secondary and special teams.
Still, a lack of depth in the linebacker room facilitated a change of position and unleashed a monster. In his first season at a new position, Overshown racked up 60 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 1 sack, and 2 forced fumbles. Overshown hits hard, and he moves effortlessly when covering ground. His height and prior experience as a defensive back give him a natural advantage in coverage at the second level.
9) Damone Clark, LSU
Damone Clark didn’t live up to expectation last season by his own admission and that of the LSU staff. Despite that, there were flashes on film that indicate he can be one of the top inside linebackers in the 2022 NFL Draft. Clark owns impressive physical traits, including excellent sideline-to-sideline range. He moves exceptionally well for a man of his size.
That is another tick in the box for Clark. At 6’3″ and 245 pounds, he presents a bruising figure in the heart of the defense. If he can work on some technique issues to overcome blockers more efficiently, he can build on his 8 tackles for loss and 4.5 career sacks. With Jabril Cox departed to the NFL, the onus will be on Clark to lead the LSU linebacker group. Following the dismissal of Bo Pelini, a new position coach should fuel more standout performances.
10) Jack Sanborn, Wisconsin
There may be no one better in this list of the top inside linebackers in the 2022 NFL Draft than Jack Sanborn in terms of pure physicality and tackling prowess. The senior has led Wisconsin in tackles for the past two seasons. He’s accumulated 139 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles during his career with the Badgers.
Sanborn poses a threat both at the line of scrimmage and in the open field. Although he isn’t the most natural athlete, Sanborn has enough athleticism to move well laterally. He showcases this when working across the formation to locate the ball. Where he does stand out is with his football intelligence. That aspect of his game has helped Sanborn register 4 career interceptions.
There’s no reason to believe that he won’t be the driving force behind the Wisconsin defense in 2021. As a result, you should see his name become more and more prevalent as the draft process unfolds.
Honorable mentions for the top inside linebackers in the 2022 NFL Draft
Keenan Pili, BYU; DaShaun White, Oklahoma; Nate Landman, Colorado; Shane Lee, Alabama; Drew White, Notre Dame; James Skalski, Clemson; Lakia Henry, Mississippi; Isaac Slade-Matautia, Oregon; Dimitri Moore, Vanderbilt; Tyshon Fogg, Rutgers.
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Oliver Hodgkinson is a staff writer for Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @ojhodgkinson.