There’s a general consensus view that Dylan Moses and Micah Parsons are, in some order, the top two linebackers in the 2021 NFL Draft. Both are viewed as bonafide blue-chip draft prospects and are expected to be gone in the first half of the first round next year, at the very latest. But behind them, there’s less agreement. Missouri LB Nick Bolton is often viewed as the next man up, but in that role, there is a question to ask: Does he bridge the gap between the best and the rest, or does he belong with the top tier?
Analyzing Missouri LB Nick Bolton
Nick Bolton’s background
Nick Bolton didn’t start with the pedigree of a Moses or a Parsons; he was a three-star recruit in the football-heavy state of Texas back in 2017, and he was buried in a deep linebacker recruiting class.
Regardless of his standing, Bolton let his play on the field speak for itself. In his senior high school season, he put up tremendous numbers, amassing 130 total tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 5 interceptions while helping guide his team to a 12-2 record.
Bolton would wind up signing with the Missouri Tigers, choosing Barry Odom’s squad over other Power 5 contenders such as Utah, Mississippi State, and Washington. Bolton would hint at his promise early, playing in all 13 games as a true freshman, but it was in his true sophomore season — 2019 — that he truly blossomed.
Nick Bolton’s 2019 production
In 2019, Bolton was a clear standout for a 6-6 Missouri Tigers team. Bolton led not just all Tigers, but all SEC defenders in total tackles on the year (LSU’s Jacob Phillips would later pass him in the playoffs), and for the first time in his career, rose to the ranks of the nation’s elite.
All in all, Bolton put up 103 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, a sack, seven pass deflections, two interceptions, and a touchdown, producing in every facet of the game. He was a first-team All-SEC selection and was placed on two trophy watch lists for the 2020 season.
Now with a new head coach in Eli Drinkwitz, formerly of Appalachian State, Bolton will look to make a strong first impression, while at the same time building on the new ground he foraged in 2019. On film, Bolton displays all the traits necessary to expand on his success thus far.
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Missouri LB Nick Bolton on film
Bolton doesn’t have the same size that Moses and Parsons boast; he stands at a modest 6-foot-0, with a thickly-built 232-pound frame, and his play draws attention to both measurements.
Bolton doesn’t necessarily have the longest reach, hinting at a smaller than average frame. But he more than makes up for it with his speed, explosiveness, and fluidity in pursuit. Bolton accelerates very quickly and has the short-range agility to change directions in a pinch.
Bolton’s size also helps maximize his ability in pursuit, as he’s able to use his thick frame to barrel through gaps in the line and make stops against ball carriers. Despite his size, he’s tough to get a handle on for linemen because of his density and physicality, and his quick play speed allows him to shoot through lanes and splice his way into the backfield like a covert operator.
Check out the play below from Missouri’s matchup against West Virginia, where Bolton manages to keep his balance through a block from an adjacent lineman, then quickly diverts course to confront the running back and send him to the ground. Bolton’s ability not only to play fast but also to adapt quickly is what makes him such a dominant producer.
These traits from Bolton also translate in coverage, where Bolton uses his speed to cover receivers in the second level from sideline to sideline. Bolton has the necessary range to keep up, and he’s also a very smart, instinctive defender who knows what to look for.
In that same West Virginia game, Bolton can be seen here reading the quarterback’s eyes, elevating to make an interception, and taking it to the house.
Overall, Bolton may not have as much upside as linebackers with more length, but he’s at the point of diminishing returns on the scale because his athleticism, instincts, and motor already afford him a very high ceiling.
Teams looking for rangy enforcers who can make plays both against the run and the pass will find a very appealing prospect in Bolton, regardless of his height and wingspan measurements. What’s scary is that Bolton could likely trim down even more, to further maximize his athleticism and burst in the open field.
Nick Bolton’s 2021 NFL Draft outlook
Linebackers, in general, are less valuable than their defensive counterparts on the defensive line and in the secondary. However, dynamic, game-changing linebackers can be worth their weight in gold for a team, and that’s why Moses and Parsons have so many fans early in the draft process.
With that being said, one could make a case that Bolton should be mentioned in the same breath as Moses and Parsons. He has a very natural feel for the linebacker position, and he’s a plus athlete with enough density and mental acuity to be a playmaker consistently. If Bolton gets an opportunity to match his draft counterparts in 2020, there’s a chance he could challenge for an even higher ranking.