Every year, there are prospects who go overlooked through the NFL draft process, only to emerge later on. We’ll try to help you get ahead of the curve with a look at some of the top 2023 NFL Draft sleepers at linebacker. Who deserves more hype than what they’re getting right now?
2023 NFL Draft sleepers at LB
Right now, names like Noah Sewell, Trenton Simpson, and Henry To’o To’o make up the top linebacker groups throughout the consensus. There are also talented players waiting to break out with another year — prospects like Justin Flowe, Mohamoud Diabate, Kam Arnold, and Jestin Jacobs. But what about those who’ve already produced and still fall under the radar? This list is devoted to those players.
Jalen Graham, Purdue
Purdue has quietly generated a good amount of linebacker talent over the past several cycles. Two drafts ago, Derrick Barnes was selected by the Detroit Lions, where he flashed as a rookie. And in the 2022 NFL Draft undrafted free agent frenzy, Jaylan Alexander joined the Chicago Bears. Barnes was drafted in Round 4, but the Boilermakers might have an even better prospect coming in the 2023 cycle with Jalen Graham.
A former safety, Graham is now a hybrid linebacker with a long 6’3″, 220-pound frame. That former safety experience no doubt helps, as Graham is one of the best coverage linebackers in college football. In 2022, he logged 64 tackles, four tackles for loss, and a sack, while also tacking on two picks, seven pass deflections, and a forced fumble.
With his length, burst, and agility, Graham can manage space as the WILL or play the overhang slot. But Graham isn’t just a coverage specialist. He could stand to add more weight, but he’s tenacious and physical in the box. If he can get stronger, look for Graham to become an all-encompassing playmaker in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Jeremy Banks, Tennessee
Positional converts are always factories of intrigue at LB. But most often, players convert to linebacker from safety. You don’t see other transitions quite as frequently, but Jeremy Banks is one of those — having switched to linebacker from running back in 2020.
Before that point, Banks was a ball carrier, who ran for 185 yards and three scores in 2018. But 2020 marked the next chapter of his football career, and it’s been all up from there. It’s why he’s one of the top 2023 NFL Draft sleepers.
In 2021 — just his second year at LB — Banks was an unyielding force for the Tennessee defense. Though he’s a bit undersized at 6’1″, 224 pounds, Banks blew up the stat sheets with 128 tackles, 11½ tackles for loss, 5½ sacks, an interception, and four deflections.
Banks has great twitch and range at the second level but also surprising utility in the box. Being a former RB, he has the instincts to sift through congestion, sear through lanes, and make plays in the backfield. 2022 could see him emerge as one of the best MIKEs in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Shaka Heyward, Duke
It can be hard to get into Duke football. But the program quietly has NFL talent on defense. The secondary has a conveyor belt of talent worth monitoring, and edge rusher R.J. Oben is an ascending player. But the most compelling defender on the Blue Devils’ roster might be linebacker Shaka Heyward, who’s returning for his redshirt-senior season.
Heyward doesn’t have nearly the same buzz that other LB prospects do, likely because of Duke’s lackluster performance in ACC play in recent years. But he’s a prospect you need to know.
Heyward sports a looming frame at 6’4″, 220 pounds, but he’s a very easy lateral mover. He also shows a torrid second gear when closing on plays. Moreover, Heyward flashes legitimate pass-rushing ability as a blitzer.
With 25½ tackles for loss and 9½ sacks over the past three years, it’s a known fact that Heyward is a dangerous threat in the box. But at his peak projection, he can be a legitimate X-factor on the second level.
Tatum Bethune, Florida State
A great many defenders entered the transfer portal this past cycle, but few transfer additions may be more impactful than that of Tatum Bethune for Florida State. Bethune was a standout for UCF in 2021, amassing 108 tackles, 5½ tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, a deflection, and a forced fumble in 12 games.
Now, Bethune heads to Tallahassee, where he’ll likely take on an early leadership role for the Seminoles’ defense. At 6’1″, 225 pounds, Bethune is a bit undersized. But he’s a physical, high-energy player whose motor in pursuit never dies. He brings a great deal of range to the second level, and as a tackler, Bethune plays larger than his frame at the contact point.
Trey Cobb, Appalachian State
At this point, the depth of the 2023 NFL Draft LB class is questionable. But there are a few definite sleepers lurking in the Group of Five ranks, one of whom being Appalachian State LB Trey Cobb. Cobb was one of the leading tacklers for the Mountaineers last season, accruing 72 total tackles, along with six tackles for loss, four interceptions, and three passes defensed.
Now a fifth-year senior, and set to be a four-year starter, Cobb will be called on to grow as a playmaker for an Appalachian State defense that lost D’Marco Jackson, Demetrius Taylor, and Shaun Jolly.
Cobb’s experience shows up on film — he’s frequently communicating before the snap. But he’s also a visibly talented player. He needs to add more weight to his 6’2″, 220-pound frame, but he has the athleticism, natural coverage ability, and instincts in congestion to end on a high note with added responsibility.