Top linebacker prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft

While the 2020 linebacker class is relatively weak, the 2021 linebacker class has the potential to be one of the best in years. Here are the top linebacker prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft.

The 2021 linebacker class looks to be one of the best in recent memories. I can see up to three players getting first-round grades from me, and up to six players potentially receiving a top-50 grade. For reference, in 2020, I only have two linebackers with a top-50 grade from me (One of which comes in at the late 40s). That said, this linebacker class is historically weak. If you consider Isaiah Simmons a safety, it genuinely might be the worst linebacker class I’ve ever seen. So, teams looking for their quarterback of the defense should probably be waiting for next year, where the class looks to be loaded.

In this class, we’ll talk about a linebacker I believe to be generational (though that can be an overused term), a player many thought would be a member of the 2020 class, but decided to return after an injury, and a former High School Player of the Year that started his college career as a quarterback. The storylines from this class are only rivaled by the upside of these players. So who are the top linebacker prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft, and how do I currently rank them?

Top linebacker prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft

Tier 3b: Small School Darlings

Carlton Martial, Troy: Carlton Martial was one of the most productive tacklers in the nation last year. He ranked eighth in the nation in total tackles and also finished in the top-10 in solo tackles. Of all players to finish top-10 in either category, he was the only underclassman to appear on either list. Martial was also productive as a pass rusher and in pass coverage, as he produced four sacks, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and three interceptions to go with his ridiculous tackle numbers. He has dominated his competition for both of the past two seasons, and his production can’t be overlooked.

Unfortunately for Martial though, the competition he’s dominated hasn’t exactly been impressive. The best team he’s faced in his career was Appalachian State this past year, as they were the only team he’s played that finished a season ranked. Similar to other small school prospects, Martial has some athletic limitations that will lower his draft stock. He’s undersized at 5’10”, 216, and while he has above-average athletic ability against his competition, I wonder how he matches up against true NFL talent. He’s going to be lesser known, but Martial could be one of the top linebacker prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Diego Fagot, Navy: The Midshipmen’s defensive MVP, Diego Fagot was one of the AAC’s most productive tacklers this past season. With 100 total tackles and 5.5 sacks, Fagot was consistently making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. At 6’3″, 240, he’s best suited as a thumper, making his living in the run game. He was also a champion shot-putter in high school, and that muscle shows on the field. I do have some concerns about his athletic ability and length, but players like Fagot will always have a place in the NFL as tone-setters.

Tier 3a: Physical Specimens

Paddy Fisher, Northwestern: Paddy Fisher was at one point viewed as a potential first-round pick. This was following his breakout redshirt freshman season when he posted 111 tackles and four forced fumbles. Fisher showed excellent athletic ability and processing, which only benefited from his elite 6’4″, 245-pound frame.

Fisher then had a slightly more productive season the following year but didn’t seem to take any steps forward as a player. He was still making the same mistakes he had the year prior and didn’t show any real strides. Due to this, Fisher decided to return to Northwestern for his redshirt junior season, a decision that may have been detrimental to his draft stock. Fisher had the least productive season of his career, and Northwestern had it’s worst season in over 15 years. Due to this, Fisher decided to once again return to college for his final year of eligibility.

As I mentioned earlier, Fisher is a high-upside player due to his physical gifts. He has elite size for the position, and his athletic ability is strong as well. He’s also a cerebral player who consistently makes plays that impress me, something that only comes with multiple career games under his belt — things like knocking a ball out before a receiver hits the ground, stripping the ball when his teammates have already secured a tackle, and trusting his instincts when shooting gaps in the run game. If Fisher can put everything together, he has the tools to be one of the game’s top linebackers.

Terrel Bernard, Baylor: You have to be fast to register over 100 tackles in the Big 12, and Terrel Bernard was able to accumulate 112. What’s even more impressive is the fact that nearly half of his tackles were solo efforts. Bernard also produced 4.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, so he really did it all for Matt Rhule’s defense. Now he’ll get to work under former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. I expect Bernard’s production to drop off some, due to Baylor losing their star defensive linemen James Lynch and Bravvion Roy. However, make no mistake: Bernard will be a force for the Bears.

Kuony Deng, California: Kuony Deng took the JUCO route before playing at Cal for the 2019 season, and his choice looked to be a strong one. Deng produced at an insane level in his first year at the Division I level. He posted a ridiculous 120 tackles, 62 of which were solo efforts. He also posted three sacks, a forced fumble, and a whopping eight pass deflections. The reasoning for those pass deflections? His ridiculous frame. Deng stands at 6’6″ and weighs in at 220 pounds. He looks like he should be playing small forward for the Cal basketball team, but he chose to play football. While I think he needs to put on weight before he can be a true linebacker, his length for the position will benefit him at all levels of the field. He can affect passing lanes and use his arms to keep himself clean on his way to the ball carrier. With some refinement, he can even use that reach as an elite tool to get after the quarterback.

Joseph Ossai, Texas: Joseph Ossai waited until the end of the season to have his best game, as he dominated in the 2019 Valero Alamo Bowl, registering nine tackles, three sacks, and six total tackles for loss. He was Texas’ top front seven defender this season and is someone who could be a major riser in the class. His combination of size (6’4″, 245) and athletic ability (sub-4.7 40 in high school) will be coveted by scouts. If he can build on this past season, and improve statistically, expect Ossai to get first-round buzz a year from now as one of the top linebacker prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft.

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