The 2020 NFL Draft’s linebacker class was a fascinating group, with elite athletes and positional hybrids stocking the top of the draft board. How does the 2021 NFL Draft‘s inside linebacker crop compare? Here’s an early look at the inside linebackers selected in the 2021 NFL Draft and how they fit with their respective teams.
Which inside linebackers were drafted in the 2021 NFL Draft?
Let’s take a look at the inside linebackers selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. It’s worth noting that inside and outside linebackers can be somewhat interchangeable, depending on role definition and schematic fit. If you’re looking for a player who isn’t listed here, check our outside linebackers piece.
Nick Bolton, Missouri | Round 2, Pick 58 | Kansas City Chiefs
In 2020, the Chiefs drafted Willie Gay Jr. late in Round 2. They adopted a similar strategy in the 2021 NFL Draft, selecting Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton. Bolton was regarded as one of the best inside linebackers in the class throughout the offseason. However, his somewhat limited physical profile kept him from rising into the highest tier.
Regardless, Bolton is an intelligent, instinctive linebacker who’s also dense, physical, and has enough speed and explosiveness to be a threat. He should be a quality addition to the Chiefs’ second level.
Pete Werner, Ohio State | Round 2, Pick 60 | New Orleans Saints
Aside from Demario Davis, the Saints came into the draft short-staffed at inside linebacker. In fact, most NFL mock drafts had New Orleans using an early pick on the position. They did just that by drafting Ohio State’s Pete Werner in Round 2.
Baron Browning received much of the hype as the most athletic linebacker in the class, but his teammate Werner wasn’t far off. Werner tested with a Relative Athletic Score of 9.52. He recorded a 4.62 40-yard dash, a 39.5-inch vertical, and a 6.9 three-cone at 6-foot-3, 238 pounds. Werner owns a ton of upside, and he’ll also get to learn from a player with a similar athletic profile in Davis.
Monty Rice, Georgia | Round 3, Pick 92 | Tennessee Titans
The 2021 NFL Draft’s inside linebacker class had a fairly large number of size-speed athletes at the top. Because of this, smaller linebacker prospects, like Monty Rice, were sometimes overlooked. Nevertheless, the Titans didn’t forget Rice on draft day.
Tennessee used a third-round pick on the Georgia product, and after the team declined Rashaan Evans’ fifth-year option, Rice’s presence carries more weight. The former Bulldog only stands around 6-foot, 238 pounds. Yet, he flashes sideline-to-sideline speed, and his 4.58 40-yard dash time confirmed his range. Rice brings a high-floor projection to a Titans franchise aiming to stay in contention.
Ernest Jones, South Carolina | Round 3, Pick 103 | Los Angeles Rams
It was a bit of a surprise to see Ernest Jones go as high as he did. The Rams selected Jones above other standout linebackers like Browning and former LSU star Jabril Cox. Regardless, Jones has some appeal, and it’s easy to see why Los Angeles was high on him.
His athletic profile is especially intriguing. The former Gamecock stands around 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, and possessses excellent proportional length, 4.72 speed, and a 38.5-inch vertical registered at his pro day. Consequently, he’s explosive and well-built. Those are two traits that teams can build off of at the NFL level.
Derrick Barnes, Purdue | Round 4, Pick 113 | Detroit Lions
He never drew much attention on offseason linebacker rankings, but Derrick Barnes could ultimately be a steal for the Lions. He has a stellar athletic profile, with a 4.58 40-yard dash, a 37-inch vertical jump, and 29 bench reps at 6-foot, 238 pounds.
With his explosiveness and density, Barnes can be a pass-rushing threat on blitzing downs. However, he projects even better into a traditional linebacker role, and with his high-character mentality, he’s a sound investment to make. Barnes can stop ball carriers in their tracks, and he also has the coverage upside to match.
Inside linebackers selected in the 2021 NFL Draft | Rounds 4-6
6) Buddy Johnson, Texas A&M | R4-P140 | Pittsburgh Steelers
7) Tony Fields II, West Virginia | R5-P153 | Cleveland Browns
8) K.J. Britt, Auburn | R5-P176 | Tampa Bay Buccaneers
9) Cameron McGrone, Michigan | R5-P177 | New England Patriots
10) Nick Niemann, Iowa | R6-P185 | Los Angeles Chargers
11) Isaiah McDuffie, Boston College | R6-P220 | Green Bay Packers
Within this group, there are several intriguing names to keep an eye on. Cameron McGrone is perhaps the most notable one. McGrone was viewed as a borderline Round 3 pick throughout the offseason. Still, over the draft weekend, he fell to the tail end of Round 5. The Michigan product will be entering an opportunistic situation in New England. With his athleticism and instincts in the box, he should be able to challenge for an eventual long-term role as an inside linebacker.
Beyond McGrone, there are a few more players to watch. Buddy Johnson is an exceptional athlete, with high-end physical tools to mold for Pittsburgh. The same goes for Niemann, who joins the Chargers’ ILB unit.
McDuffie is an intriguing athlete as well, with a robust two-down profile as a run defender. And Tony Fields II, one of the most productive college linebackers since 2017, can produce past his draft position with keen awareness and playmaking proactivity.
How many inside linebackers were drafted in 2021?
For this article, 11 inside linebackers were selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. Yet, this number is very flexible, as many linebackers offer versatility between inside and outside roles. Additionally, schematic fit plays a crucial factor in how a prospect is utilized. One player may be an outside linebacker at the WILL position in one scheme and part of an interior two-linebacker pairing in another.
In reality, how this linebacker draft class will be judged in the future will be based on the linebacker group as a whole — inside and outside combined.
Athletes like Penn State’s Micah Parsons, 3-4 OLB hybrid Zaven Collins, or Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, may be judged on the same plane as Bolton, Werner, and Barnes. Their roles are different, but that’s how the linebacker position is in the modern NFL. It’s dependent on the first and third levels of a defense. As long as coaches can find pieces to complete the puzzle, it doesn’t necessarily matter how they’re labeled.
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