One of life’s little pleasures in the off-season is playing matchmaker, and whether you’re making draft prop bets or trying to stay ahead of the IDP trade market, having a good idea of rookie landing spots in the NFL Draft is an enjoyable – albeit totally futile – exercise.
Just about every team could stand to bring in a linebacker, and I’ve listed half the league in this article. For fantasy’s sake, I really hope we don’t see Arizona, Chicago, Green Bay, Jacksonville, Kansas City or San Francisco spend anything more than a sixth-round pick at the position, but you could make a good argument for any of the ten teams not listed that they should at least think about it before turning out the draft room lights after day two.
It’s healthy to stay humble. With that in mind, here are my no-doubt locks for rookie linebacker homes.
Trenton Simpson, Clemson
Ideal landing spot: Minnesota Vikings (first round, pick No. 23)
I wouldn’t call Minnesota desperate for a linebacker. And how aggressively the Vikings play the position will likely depend on how they feel about sophomore Brian Asamoah. And if they do like Asamoah to play a large role, aging veteran Jordan Hicks likely won’t be around post-2023.
Enter Simpson as a potential difference-maker for Brian Flores’ defense. We of course ultimately don’t know if Simpson can handle a full-time linebacker job following a college career that saw him play overhang, slot defender and edge rusher in addition to inside linebacker. But given his experience and success as a pass rusher, Simpson could find early success as a frequent blitzer.
Jack Campbell, Iowa
Ideal landing spot: Buffalo Bills (first round, pick No. 27)
Tremaine Edmunds’ departure in free agency leaves a big hole at linebacker in Buffalo. Veteran Matt Milano is locked up long-term, but the Bills run a two-linebacker scheme and – at the risk of seriously angering Terrel Bernard fans – there’s not another starting-caliber linebacker on the roster. (Let’s be real about Bernard: When Edmunds was injured in 2022, Bernard couldn’t beat out Tyrel Dodson.)
Edmunds was the defensive signal-caller and, while he perhaps never lived up to the hype and draft capital, developed into a good tackler and very good coverage linebacker during his five years. This is a bigger need than a lot of people think, and Campbell has the most potential to slide into a full-time starting linebacker spot early in his rookie season. Campbell isn’t a perfect prospect – his shorter (sub-32-inch) arms work against him when trying to shed blocking linemen – but he has very good size at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds. He’s a solid tackler and reacts quickly in zone coverage. Campbell didn’t play like the elite athlete his testing shows, but he may have been slowed by a knee injury during the 2022 season.
A noted tape junkie, Campbell is a safe pick (he was a team captain during both his junior and senior seasons) whose surprising athletic measurables may well push him into the tail end of the first round.
Drew Sanders, Arkansas
Ideal landing spot: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (second round, pick No. 50)
Devin White’s recent trade request makes this a spicy spot for Sanders.
College football fans are familiar with Sanders as one of the headliners (along with Will Anderson and Bryce Young) in Alabama’s 2020 signing class. Sanders transferred to Arkansas for his final collegiate season, converted to off-ball linebacker, and brought his same pedal-to-the-metal mindset to his new position. Watch Sanders and you’ll be impressed with his quicks and physicality. You also can’t help but notice the missed tackles – 22 in 2022, according to Pro Football Focus – something that he’ll need to clean up as he continues to learn how to play as a stack ‘backer.
The Buccaneers of course frequently send White on blitzes (he led all off-ball linebackers last season with 65), an area Sanders could excel given his pass rush background.
Regardless of White’s unhappiness with the Bucs, both he and veteran Lavonte David are on one-year deals, and the depth behind them is low quality. If White doesn’t get moved before or during the draft, this one’s going to look like a bummer from a rookie year perspective, but Sanders could still provide value as a subpackage edge rusher while learning the ropes from David and picking up third linebacker/backup snaps. And White would be a candidate to get moved in-season, a la Roquan Smith in 2022.
Daiyan Henley, Washington State
Ideal landing spot: Los Angeles Chargers (third round)
Eric Kendricks is set up nicely for 2023, but at 31 he’s a short-term play in Los Angeles. Kenneth Murray busted and is on the final year of his rookie deal, and is sure to move on next off-season. With little depth behind those two, now looks like a good time to bring in a young option to see if he can develop quickly and be ready for a larger role in 2024.
Henley certainly has a little developing to do, and that’s not surprising given he began his college career as a receiver before switching to safety, and finally linebacker. At 225 pounds, Henley is light for a linebacker but uses his long 33-inch arms to keep blockers from eliminating him from run plays. And while he’s quick and fast, he’s not laterally agile – I was disappointed but not surprised he passed on running the short shuttle and three-cone drills at both the combine and Washington State’s pro day. I like Henley a lot, but he has limitations.
Henley grew up in Los Angeles, so seeing him head back there to begin his professional career would make for a nice story.
Nick Herbig, Wisconsin
Ideal landing spot: Philadelphia Eagles (third round, pick No. 94)
I don’t know that Philadelphia has to attack linebacker in the draft – even after losing T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White in free agency – but it wouldn’t be a bad idea. Fantasy breakout candidate Nakobe Dean tops the depth chart, and Nicholas Morrow looks serviceable as a number two option. The latter is on a one-year deal though, and quality depth is nonexistent after Morrow.
Herbig is an off-ball projection as he’s converting from college edge rusher. From a size perspective (6-feet-2, 240 pounds), he would serve as a nice complement to the smaller Dean, and would bring better speed and athleticism to the spot previously occupied by Edwards, another former Badger.
The Eagles just lost Herbig’s older brother, Nate, in free agency to Pittsburgh – another potential landing spot for Herbig.
DeMarvion Overshown, Texas
Ideal landing spot: Seattle Seahawks (fourth round)
Bobby Wagner is back where he belongs, but it’s only on a one-year pact. The chances of Jordyn Brooks playing in 2023 seem poor. The chances of Devin Bush turning his career trajectory around also seem poor, and he’s also coming in on a one-year deal. Immediate depth and potential long-term solutions at the position are needed.
Overshown has the body type of a safety and honestly still kind of plays like one with his reaction speed, attacking mindset, and tendency to get eaten up in the box by bigger blockers when they get their paws on him. I’d like to see him work into the box rotation in Seattle and see if he can wreak some Jamal Adams-like havoc.
Noah Sewell, Oregon
Ideal landing spot: New England Patriots (fourth round)
New England isn’t an appealing landing spot for any linebacker from a fantasy standpoint, but the Patriots are sure to add youth to a room that consists of average to below-average NFL talent – Ja’Whaun Bentley, Mack Wilson, Raekwon McMillan, Jahlani Tavai and Chris Board – all of whom, other than Board, are on expiring contracts.
Sewell is a 6-foot-1, 248-pound run-stuffing linebacker who doesn’t carry much excitement from a fantasy standpoint. It’s ideal when an unexciting prospect lands with an unappealing destination, and this match just makes perfect sense.
Henry To’oTo’o, Alabama
Ideal landing spot: New York Jets (first half of day three)
If New York sees itself moving on from C.J. Mosley after 2023, the Jets are a prime (and appealing) landing spot for a top linebacker prospect to learn the ropes and Gang Green scheme. Number two linebacker Quincy Williams just re-signed on a deal that locks him in place for a couple of years, but there’s little to get excited about after Mosley and Williams, unless Jamien Sherwood or Hamsah Nasirildeen float your boat.
To’oTo’o may not fit the profile of a top linebacker prospect, but he’s at least in the conversation for tier two. He’s not the biggest and definitely not the best in coverage, but To’oTo’o knows what he’s doing on run downs and can serve an apprenticeship with fellow Crimson Tide linebacker alum Mosley for a season or two.
Yasir Abdullah, Louisville
Ideal landing spot: Baltimore Ravens (first half of day three)
It’s hard to believe but Patrick Queen is already playing the final year of his rookie contract. After spending big money to lock up Halloween trade acquisition Roquan Smith, it doesn’t seem likely Baltimore will pick up Queen’s fifth-year option or entice him with enough money for an extension. I’d expect Queen to hit the free agent market next off-season, and find a few suitors willing to invest in big plays and upside. And with depth pieces Malik Harrison and Del’Shawn Phillips playing on one-year deals, the Ravens should be looking for capable depth for this season and a future Robin to Smith’s Batman.
Abdullah is a projection as an inside linebacker assuming he is indeed switching from edge, where he’s seriously undersized. Abdullah has athletic explosiveness working for him, and he’ll fit in as Queen’s replacement with nice upside as a blitzing ‘backer with coverage traits in Baltimore.
Ivan Pace Jr, Cincinnati
Ideal landing spot: Las Vegas Raiders (first half of day three)
I’m still relatively optimistic about Divine Deablo as a three-down linebacker. Robert Spillane and Luke Masterson (I think) are both capable two-down guys, but depth and/or an upgrade is needed here. Pace would bring a fiery presence and warrior attitude that Raiders fans would eat up, no doubt. If he can play professionally at a level that silences critics of his size limitations (5-foot-10, 230 pounds, and short 30.25-inch arms), Las Vegas will get an emotional leader with a three-down skillset who can fill in as an immediate rotational piece.
Owen Pappoe, Auburn
Ideal landing spot: Washington Commanders (first half of day three)
The jury is still out on former first-round pick Jamin Davis, who enters his third season. Otherwise, the linebacker depth chart is led by Cody Barton and David Mayo, both on one-year deals. If you find these options not very exciting, you’re in good company. This unit needs a difference-maker, and Pappoe at least brings that level of potential given his elite athleticism, downhill aggression and physical presence. At 6 feet and 225 pounds, Pappoe’s size (not strength) is a concern, and he needs to show a better ability to “read and react.”
Dorian Williams, Tulane
Ideal landing spot: Los Angeles Rams (fifth-round compensatory pick)
The Rams’ depth chart at all positions looks paltry, and it’s hard to fathom that this franchise hoisted the Lombardi Trophy just 14 months ago. After serving an apprenticeship his first two years in the league, Ernest Jones looks set to have a go at the full-time linebacker gig. You need more than one, though, and outside of some undrafted back-end-of-the-roster types, L.A. doesn’t have any other options.
Williams is an explosive athlete, but like many other linebackers in this class tips the scales at less than 230 pounds. One thing (well, two things) Williams has going for him are his long arms, unfortunately he doesn’t use them to his advantage when attempting to shed blocks. If he can figure out how to utilize his length to better disengage from blocks, and speed up his play recognition skills, Williams has starting potential. The Rams are a hard team to figure out, and I’m just grasping at straws with this pick knowing they need bodies at the position.
SirVocea Dennis, Pittsburgh
Ideal landing spot: Tennessee Titans (middle of day three)
Tennessee’s front office has some work to do after the team swung and whiffed on corners like Caleb Farley and Kristian Fulton. The void of depth and long-term answers are most notable at corner and linebacker. While I do like Azeez Al-Shaair, he’s playing on a one-year deal. I expect him to be the primary linebacker this season, but not necessarily beyond 2023. Monty Rice got a good look as a sophomore and showed he wasn’t up to the task. Jack Gibbens looked like a capable backup as an undrafted rookie.
The franchise as a whole looks like it’s pressing the reset button, and with some time to develop younger players, Tennessee looks like a good home for Dennis. He’s one of the top run defending ‘backers in the draft, and sports good sideline-to-sideline range. At 6-foot, 226 pounds, Dennis is on the smaller side, but lack of prototypical size doesn’t seem to bother the Titans.
Isaiah Moore, N.C. State
Ideal landing spot: Cincinnati Bengals (late day three)
Cincinnati is likely more of a depth landing spot for a linebacker, even though Logan Wilson is set to play out the final year of his rookie contract. Germaine Pratt returned on a three-year deal to be the second linebacker, so as long as the Bengals can keep Wilson around with a second contract (and I expect they will, even though I know they have long-term contracts to work out for offensive stars Joe Burrow, Tee Higgins and eventually Ja’Marr Chase). After Wilson and Pratt, Akeem Davis-Gaither, Markus Bailey and Joe Bachie are fine depth options. All are on expiring contracts though, and bringing in a future top backup option now makes some sense.
Linebacker play was the heart and soul of a very good N.C. State defense, and Moore was the heart. A smart leader capable of solid play in all phases, Moore can fill in as an immediate backup for Wilson. There’s some post-rookie season appeal of course should Wilson reach free agency and move on.
Anfernee Orji, Vanderbilt
Ideal landing spot: Indianapolis Colts (late day three)
Finding a quarterback is Job No. 1 in Indianapolis, but the Colts also have a lot of holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball, notably cornerback. So if we see Indy nab a linebacker on Thursday or Friday of the NFL Draft, we can read into it a very bad omen for the return of one Shaquille Leonard. Zaire Franklin and E.J. Speed are under contract for another two years, but a late-round depth addition/upside pick such as Orji would make sense.
An elite athletic tester, Orji has the attitude and play speed you love to see at linebacker. If he can ever figure out the passing game and his coverage responsibilities (considering he’s a converted safety, it’s questionable), he has high upside when looking through a fantasy lens.
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