Early in the 2023 NFL Draft cycle, well before each position group has settled, who are some of the top breakout candidates at the linebacker position? You already know players like Noah Sewell, Trenton Simpson, and Henry To’o To’o. But there are many linebacker prospects to take note of beyond that group.
2023 NFL Draft breakout candidates at LB
Last year’s linebacker class appeared weak on the surface in the early months of the college football season. But as time progressed, more and more high-upside prospects were unearthed. And in the end, the early rounds were littered with quality players. The 2023 NFL Draft linebacker class might follow the same path with the help of these breakout candidates.
Mohamoud Diabate, Utah
When used the right way, the transfer portal can be the final piece in unlocking a prospect’s true potential. Mohamoud Diabate is intent on following that path this year. After playing at Florida for three seasons, Diabate transferred across the country, signing with the Utah Utes for his senior campaign.
Diabate has always flashed promise. His physical tools are alluring. He’s listed at 6’3″, 227 pounds, with impressive size and length for the linebacker position. He’s also a phenomenal athlete — an easy accelerator in space who’s very light on his feet. Diabate has massive upside in coverage and the size to be a dynamic, versatile piece — much like Utah star and 2022 first-round pick Devin Lloyd. At Utah, a place known for its coaching and development, Diabate could reach his highest heights yet.
David Ugwoegbu, Oklahoma
David Ugwoegbu was penciled in as a potential breakout candidate in 2021. Unfortunately, that ascension didn’t come to pass for the talented defender. His role was at times convoluted in Alex Grinch’s scheme. But now, with Brian Asamoah moving on to the NFL, there’s a void to fill at the second level. And with his physical gifts and accumulated experience, Ugwoegbu could be the man to fill it.
Ugwoegbu is listed at 6’4″, 249 pounds, with an incredibly long frame for the linebacker position. He figures to rotate between the MIKE and SAM spots this year, and he has the open-field athleticism to complement his size. Agile and explosive, with the strength to engage blockers, Ugwoegbu fits the profile of several other physical specimens at LB who Brent Venables maximized at Clemson. Perhaps he could be next in line.
Justin Flowe, Oregon
This one feels like cheating because Justin Flowe has barely played since joining the Ducks as a consensus five-star recruit. He played in one game as a true freshman in 2020 before missing the rest of the season with an injury. Then, he started his first game in 2021 and put up a dominant showing. But shortly after that, he was sidelined again due to a season-ending foot injury.
Flowe’s health will obviously be the biggest question, but there’s reason to be optimistic. While he wasn’t 100% healthy for the Ducks’ spring game, Flowe showed progress to that point. And there’s still plenty of time before the season opener. Assuming that Flowe can get back to 100%, he’s a dangerous defender and a potential catalyst for Dan Lanning’s scheme. A strong, explosive, and relentless playmaker alongside Sewell, he’s an X-factor waiting to be unleashed.
Jestin Jacobs, Iowa
Iowa has a tremendously talented defense on tap in 2022, packed with three watch-worthy linebacker prospects in Seth Benson, Jack Campbell, and Jestin Jacobs. All three could potentially be drafted at some point, but Jacobs has the highest visible ceiling of the group. After accruing more experience in 2021, 2022 could be his time to shine.
Jacobs could be a perfect fit and a highly-coveted player in a modern NFL that’s trending more toward versatility on defense. He’s listed at 6’4″, 236 pounds, with an outrageously long and burly frame. Jacobs is a long-strider in space, but he also has enough short-area athleticism to shade outside as an overhang slot defender. Plus, he can blanket receivers and tight ends alike with his size. With another year of seasoning, he could take the next step.
Kam Arnold, Boston College
I promise that my fellow draft analyst and resident Boston College fan Oli Hodgkinson is not ghostwriting this section. I understand the suspicions. But in this case, even I must admit Eagles linebacker Kam Arnold is a legitimate prospect. And now that Boston College has lost Isaiah Graham-Mobley, Arnold has a tremendous opportunity to take control of the second level.
Arnold is already far along in his ascension after leading the team in tackles as a true sophomore in 2021. But 2022 could be the setting of his ultimate breakout. Arnold joined the Eagles as a safety but has since beefed up to 6’1″, 227 pounds, and moved to LB.
At his new position, Arnold has flourished. He’s a clear natural in coverage, with fluid hips and great zone instincts. He also flashes adept play recognition, range in pursuit, and great physicality for his size. As he accrues more experience at LB, he should only keep climbing.
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