Top 9 linebackers in the 2021 NFL Draft

Past Day 2, the depth of the 2021 NFL Draft‘s linebacker class wanes. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of high-end talent available across the first three rounds is more than enough to compensate. There’s an especially high degree of projection involved this year, but the potential of this class is undeniable. That fact is evident on PFN’s Top 300 Consensus Board. According to our board, these are the top nine linebackers in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Top 9 linebackers in the 2021 NFL Draft | 6-9

The PFN Top 300 Consensus Board pooled opinions from NFL Draft analysts Oliver Hodgkinson, Dalton Miller, A.J. Schulte, and myself, as well as Chief Draft Analyst and NFL Insider Tony Pauline. It’s important to note that there is worthwhile talent outside the top nine.

Michigan’s Cameron McGrone just missed the cut, and Chazz Surratt and Monty Rice also have some starting appeal. Per Pauline, Purdue’s Derrick Barnes has also been a late riser. Nevertheless, the top nine slots were reserved to these names.

9) Pete Werner, Ohio State

The Ohio State Buckeyes are represented on this list twice, and coming in at the ninth spot is Pete Werner. Werner was a more consistent starter than Baron Browning, but his average ranking was around six spots lower on our consensus big board. Nevertheless, Werner was unanimously ranked as a top-100 prospect by our analysts. His highest ranking was 59 and his lowest was 93.

Werner’s pro day performance helped his cause immensely. He has good tape, especially in run defense, but there are times when he fails to convert. His pro day reaffirmed his athletic upside. He logged an elite Relative Athletic Score of 9.52, with a 4.62 40-yard dash, 39.5-inch vertical, 122-inch broad jump, and 6.9 three-cone at around 6-foot-3, 238 pounds.

All told, even if Werner isn’t quite the athlete that Browning is, he’s not far off. Additionally, Werner plays with an edge in run defense, packing tons of power and aggression into his attacks against blockers. He also has enough fluidity and explosiveness to be a stellar coverage defender once he learns how to maintain a better balance between decisiveness and patience.

8) Baron Browning, Ohio State

Baron Browning is one of the biggest first-round sleepers in this entire class. On tape, there’s noticeable room for refinement and heightened consistency. However, the flashes are completely and totally enthralling. That’s why Browning is our eighth-ranked linebacker in the 2021 NFL Draft, with an average ranking of 63.8 and a near top-50 ranking from yours truly.

With pro day testing in the rearview mirror, and with the dust having long settled, Browning is officially the highest-testing athlete in this linebacker class. He earned a Relative Athletic Score of 9.98, with a 4.56 40-yard dash, a 40-inch vertical, a 130-inch broad jump, and a 6.78 three-cone time all at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds.

Many of those quantified athletic traits show up on tape for Browning. Both he and Werner are excellent athletes, but Browning has better pursuit speed, better natural explosiveness, and greater density in his frame. Browning is also a high-character player, who showed improved instincts in coverage in 2020 and also played middle linebacker at times. He projects to have tons of versatility in the right role.

7) Dylan Moses, Alabama

Dylan Moses is one of the most polarizing prospects, not just among the top linebackers in the 2021 NFL Draft, but among the top prospects, period. There was a time when the Alabama linebacker was penciled in as a 2021 top-10 pick two years earlier. Now, however, his stock has regressed. He received three rankings below 70 on our PFN Big Board, and his highest rankings were 43 and 49.

Moses didn’t test at Alabama’s Pro Day, as he was recovering from knee surgery. That surgery aimed to repair a torn MCL that Moses played through in 2020, which occurred in early February. One can reasonably believe that Moses’ injury had a major impact on his 2020 performance. But even beyond that, there are questions. What is his recovery timeline? Can he return to his 2018 level of play?

If Moses can, then his value is incredible on late Day 2 or early Day 3, where most projections have him going at this point. There are too many concerns to warrant a Round 1 selection. However, it can’t be denied that Moses has Round 1 upside. A lot depends on his remaining athletic upside, his health, and his confidence. But in a more reactive outside linebacker role, Moses could exceed his ranking here — if he has time to rest and reset.

6) Jamin Davis, Kentucky

Jamin Davis has had an interesting offseason. Around the Senior Bowl, there was virtually no media buzz surrounding the Kentucky product. But soon, onlookers began to take note of his tantalizing physical potential on tape. One thing led to another, and now, Davis is one of the linebackers most consistently mocked in the first round.

Davis’ rankings don’t quite reflect that, however. In fact, his highest ranking is from Pauline at 41 overall. Nevertheless, Davis is oozing with upside. Had he weighed in heavier than 234 pounds, he might have tested as the most athletic linebacker in this class. His 9.93 score is still incredible, and his numbers — a 4.48 40-yard dash, a 42-inch vertical, and a 132-inch broad jump — are out of this world.

At almost 6-foot-4, Davis’ length naturally extends his tackling radius, and his closing burst at the contact point can be lethal for ball carriers attempting to evade. He doesn’t have a great deal of starting experience, so he may need some time to acclimate to the NFL. Still, his flashes of instincts, quick triggering, and physicality in the box make him worth the early investment.

Top 9 linebackers in the 2021 NFL Draft | 1-5

Now we’re on to the top five linebackers in the 2021 NFL Draft, per our PFN Consensus Top 300 Board. It’s a challenging (and sometimes painful) exercise to pit so many talented linebacker prospects against one another. But these are the players who drew the most widespread support from our analysts.

5) Jabril Cox, LSU

As one might expect, many of our linebacker rankings were incredibly close. Davis, Moses, and Browning all had average rankings within five spots of the top five, but LSU’s Jabril Cox just barely edged them out. Cox received a top-50 grade from A.J. Myself and Dalton weren’t far behind, placing Cox at 53 and 54, respectively. All analysts ranked Cox in the top 75, and it’s easy to see why.

Cox had the opportunity to show off his talents at the Reese’s Senior Bowl in January, and he was clearly the best linebacker at the showcase. He was smooth and immaculate in coverage, and also showed some physicality against blockers. Recently, Cox was able to put up his testing numbers. Although unofficial, his 4.54 40-yard dash and 123-inch broad jump, at 6-foot-4, 233 pounds, place him in the elite category.

Cox’s athletic numbers are no surprise. On tape, he’s an incredibly explosive and fluid player for his size. He also played well in his lone year in the SEC. The heightened competition wasn’t too much for him, and in fact, he displayed the mental traits necessary to be a proactive playmaker in coverage. Cox could be an elite coverage linebacker in the NFL, and he has the size to provide a multi-phase impact as well.

4) Nick Bolton, Missouri

Strangely enough, Nick Bolton might go last out of all the linebackers on this list. It’s the curse that his lesser athletic profile levies upon him. Nevertheless, Bolton received a lot of respect on PFN’s Top 300 Consensus Board. His average ranking was 36.4, and four analysts placed him inside the top 36. His top two rankings were 20 and 27, near some of the top linebackers in the 2021 group.

While Bolton’s draft position might clash with his ranking here, his play on the field may soon validate it in the NFL. He projects as one of the safest, highest-floor prospects in the entire class. Bolton isn’t even a bad athlete. His 5-foot-11, 237-pound frame weighs his score down more than his 4.6 40-yard dash. Nevertheless, his shorter length and natural explosiveness do limit his upside, relative to other players.

Bolton’s lacking length is notable, as it does decrease his tackling radius and leverage in pursuit. However, Bolton is a super dense player for his size, and he’s also smart, instinctive, and incredibly proactive when it comes to seeking out plays and dismantling them. He has one of the highest football IQs in this class, and that makes his bust potential relatively low. If you want a sure-fire starter, he’s close to a sure thing.

3) Zaven Collins, Tulsa

And then there were three. You won’t find as much consensus opinion regarding Zaven Collins, and that was what kept him from challenging the top two. Two of our analysts ranked Collins outside the top 40, while two others — myself and Pauline — ranked him inside the top 20 at 18 and 15, respectively. Nevertheless, his average made him one of the top linebackers in the 2021 class.

Collins is one of the most intriguing prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft, and his athletic profile is an absolute rarity. At his pro day, Collins registered a 4.66 40-yard dash, a 35-inch vertical, and a 122-inch broad jump at 6-foot-5, 259 pounds. At the NFL Combine, he reportedly weighed in at 270 pounds, which is absurd for a linebacker who plays primarily off-ball.

Collins’ Combine measurement may generate pause in some corners, but for me, it only emboldens his upside. Ideally, Collins will play closer to 260 pounds, but anywhere in that range, he has the athleticism and the instincts to be a versatile SAM or JACK linebacker. Whoever adds him can play him off-ball, or bring him onto the edge as an extra pass-rushing threat. He’s a chess piece, with the smarts and athletic traits to be a solid defender.

2) Micah Parsons, Penn State

Two linebackers in the 2021 NFL Draft were comfortably above the rest on our PFN Top 300 Consensus Board. Those linebackers are Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Micah Parsons. Parsons comes in at the second spot, but that’s not so much an indictment of his skill as it is a nod to Owusu-Koramoah. Parsons still had four top-15 rankings, and two analysts had him as their LB1.

I was one of the analysts who ranked Parsons slightly below JOK. The two were very close upon evaluating, but at the end of the day, Parsons’ heightened projection in coverage, as well as his reported character concerns, bumped him down my rankings just a bit. He’s no doubt an elite athlete, with a 4.36 40-yard dash at 6-foot-3, 246 pounds.

The red flags end with his maturity questions, however. On the field, Parsons is an absolute force in the box. He’s a heat-seeking missile in the run game, and he has the size and speed to dominate in the box. Additionally, Parsons was an edge rusher in high school, so he’s also the most natural and most dynamic threat rushing the passer. If he can fulfill his coverage upside, he can be an All-Pro.

1) Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame

And the crown for top linebacker of the 2021 NFL Draft class goes to Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. It was close between him and Parsons on PFN’s Top 300 Consensus Board. JOK had an average ranking of 11.4, while Parsons had an average ranking of 13.0.

The difference ended up being each prospect’s floor. Parsons’ lowest ranking was 21, while JOK’s lowest ranking was 17. JOK also received the highest overall ranking for any linebacker — from Dalton Miller, who ranked him seventh overall.

On tape, it’s easy to see why Owusu-Koramoah was so universally respected on the PFN Top 300 Consensus Board. The Notre Dame linebacker has a fiery attitude on the field, and he might have the fastest play pace of all the linebackers in this draft class. He can blanket tight ends in man coverage, and he has the explosiveness, fluidity, and instincts to man the slot or even rotate back to safety.

In run defense, JOK isn’t quite as dominant, but he still displays a hard-hitting mentality and reliable tackling ability. His three-down potential might be a bit of a question among NFL teams picking in Round 1, but Owusu-Koramoah weighed in at 221 pounds at his pro day. If he can stay over 220, his size will match up better against NFL-caliber playmakers. Additionally, JOK’s pure aggression, lightning-quick processing skills, and desire to disrupt will translate even better to the next level.

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Ian Cummings is a Draft Analyst for Pro Football Network. You can find his writing here and his voice and face on Pro Football Network Daily. Follow him on Twitter @ian_cummings_9.