An extraordinary class of edge rushers, not to mention a defensive tackle crop high on potential, are pretty stark contrasts to a collection of off-ball linebackers that is considered average at best from a historical perspective.
The players listed below certainly have generated plenty of attention, with size and speed combinations that would seem tantalizing to the NFL, or steady production spread over a college career.
In reality, however, this year’s off-ball linebacker class offers plenty of intrigue but few sure things, which is problematic, as the position typically ranks as one of the safer groups, with plug-and-play
options often available in the middle and even later rounds.
Teams looking for help this year, however, may see little choice but investing premium selections to upgrade their roster with one of the 10 best off-ball linebacker prospects in the 2023 NFL draft.
Overview: Sanders may have emerged as the most intriguing off-ball linebacker prospect in the 2023 NFL draft as a member of the Razorbacks, but he started his college career as an edge rusher at Alabama, which signed him as the No. 1 prep prospect out of the football-rich state of Texas back in 2020. Even a highly regarded prospect like Sanders had to earn his playing time and he spent much of his freshman season on special teams and as a reserve, prior to carving out more playing time as a sophomore, starting three games and recording 24 tackles on the season, including 3.5 for loss and a sack.
Rather than wait another year to challenge for a starting role at Alabama, Sanders opted to transfer to Arkansas, where the Razorbacks asked Sanders to switch to a more traditional off-ball role. Sanders took to the new role like a ‘Hog in the mud, becoming a consensus All-American and the first Butkus Award finalist in Arkansas’ long history, leading the team in tackles (103), tackles for loss (13.5) and sacks (9.5) in one of the country’s most exhilarating breakout performances.
Strengths: An ascending talent whose best football is still ahead of him. Currently late to locate, at times, but is quick to the ball once he does. A more nimble athlete than his size and position suggest, showing impressive body control to slip through traffic on his way to the ball. Showed steady improvement as an open-field tackler as the 2022 season went on, as evidenced by the fact he was charged with 10 missed tackles in 2022 by Pro Football Focus over the first seven games of the season, with zero missed stops in the final five contests (Auburn, Liberty, LSU, Ole Miss, Missouri), prior to opting out of the bowl game. He’s a grabby tackler with active hands to poke the ball free, forcing three fumbles in 2022.
Concerns: A work in progress. He’s still developing diagnosis skills and take-on technique. Lacks the anticipation of more experienced linebackers, taking an extra second of play time to process the action, at times, and getting caught in the wash, as a result. Sanders’ height is actually a hindrance in some ways at inside linebacker as his big frame gives an even bigger strike zone for blockers to target. Further, when he misses tackles, it often is a result of Sanders hitting the ballcarrier too high — often chest-level — rather than at the waist or lower and wrapping securely.
Bottom Line: Sanders’ evaluations are all over the map in part because he is a projection as only a one-year starter at inside linebacker. His biggest issue, frankly, is inexperience, correctable with time and coaching. There might be some rough moments early with Sanders, but I see an ascending weapon who offers a lot of scheme and positional versatility with Pro Bowl upside.
Grade: Top 20
Overview: After initially committing to Auburn, Simpson ultimately elected to stay closer to home, with the Charlotte, NC. native signing with Clemson as a four-star recruit and the top-rated prospect overall that year from his state. Along with fellow 2023 NFL prospects Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy, Simpson was part of a celebrated 2020 recruiting class at Clemson, earning even more buzz when he emerged as a part-time starter and significant contributor as a true freshman, logging 32 tackles, including 6.5 for loss and four sacks over 12 games (three starts).
Simpson would go on to start 25 games over the next two seasons before opting to give up his remaining eligibility, leaving the Tigers with 165 stops, including 23 for loss and 13 sacks over three seasons. He was named a Butkus semifinalist and earned Third Team All-ACC honors in 2022.
Strengths: Simpson has a muscled-bound, coiled-up frame and is every bit as athletic as he looks, changing directions and accelerating like a much smaller man, as evidenced by his cornerback-like 4.43 second time in the 40-yard dash. Beats backs to edge and can carry them downfield in coverage with ease. He pairs his speed with an utter disregard for his own or opponents safety, sparking big collisions. Simpson is a virtual bumper car of a tackler, generating an explosive burst to and through contact that knocks ballcarriers to the turf. He’s described as a “Yes, sir, No, ma’am” type off the field.
Concerns: Not the sum of his parts — at least not yet. Just average diagnostic skills, taking a half-beat longer than other linebackers on this list to process the action. Unreliable radar in his pursuit angles, too often failing to account for traffic and getting caught up in the wash. Good speed and fluidity to run with backs and tight ends in man coverage but doesn’t look back for the ball, leaving himself at the mercy of the receiver.
Bottom Line: There is more Tasmanian Devil than technician to Simpson’s play at the moment, but the traits are special and worthy of a premium sticker price now because of what he should become a year or two down the road.
Grade: First round
Overview: A testament to dedication, Henley began his college career six years ago as an under-recruited, two-way player out of downtown Los Angeles, signing with Nevada as a wide receiver. He caught on quickly, hauling in three touchdowns as a true freshman and upping his production slightly a year later, but Wolfpacks coaches started experimenting with him on defense in 2018 and, after he missed much of the 2019 season due to an undisclosed injury, he took over as a fulltime defender in 2020, playing in all nine games of the pandemic-shortened season and finishing third on the team with 49 tackles.
He started all 12 games in 2021, leading the Wolfpack with 103 stops and proving that he didn’t forget his hands in the position switch by topping the team with four interceptions, as well. Graduated, with a year of eligibility remaining, Henley entered the transfer portal and suddenly found himself much more respected by recruiters, turning down the likes of USC, Kansas State and Washington to sign with the Cougars, where in 2022 Henley enjoyed arguably the greatest single season in WSU linebacker history, collecting 106 tackles (second most in the conference), as well as 12 tackles for loss and four sacks.
Strengths: It is easy to see where the extra weight has gone since Henley made the switch from receiver, with the defender sporting a chiseled, v-shaped frame that speaks to his commitment to the weightroom. While certainly still a work in progress in terms of his diagnostics, Henley trusts what he sees and takes sharp, aggressive angles, seeming to enjoy blasting the “former receiver” reputation with impressive physicality and selflessness to take on blocks, as well as ballcarriers.
Not only did he play on special teams in 2022, but he led the team in tackles (six). His experience as a receiver shows with his savvy in coverage, including advanced ball skills for the position, snaring five interceptions over the past two seasons (including a game-sealer vs Idaho in his WSU debut) and turning heads in one-on-one drills at the Senior Bowl.
Concerns: He’s still a relative neophyte at the position and can get tricked with eye-candy, taking false steps and leaving himself and his teammates scrambling to recover. Lighter than preferred for a traditional inside linebacker role, which is where he excelled in college. Currently relies on beating would-be blockers to the punch, struggling to disengage in time to get back into the play once they latch on.
Bottom Line: Henley took the Pac 12 by storm in his one season at WSU, becoming the first Coug ever to be named a finalist for the vaunted Butkus Award. His success in two schemes on two different teams ease any doubt I have about his future. In fact, there is every reason to suggest that Henley’s ascent continues and he winds up becoming an even better player in the NFL than he was at either WSU or Nevada.
Grade: Top 50
Overview: Undersized and surrounded by a lot of talent growing up outside of Charlotte, Williams fell through the recruiting cracks a bit, choosing to sign with Tulane as a three-star prep with limited other offers (Coastal Carolina, Troy) made to him. While his signing may not have created nation-wide ripples, Williams made the Green Wave faithful giddy — and others perhaps green with envy — when he simply led the American Athletic Conference with 98 tackles (including an eye-popping 15.5 for loss) in 2020, despite the fact he only started four of 12 games that season.
His production slipped slightly in 2021 but he rebounded in a big way for Tulane in 2022, earning consensus First Team All-AAC honors with 132 total tackles, including 8.5 for loss and 5.5 sacks, as well as the first two interceptions and forced fumbles of his career. A team captain, Williams helped guide the Green Wave to a 12-2 overall record, including a stunning Cotton Bowl upset over heavily favored USC and their Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, Caleb Williams.
Strengths: His easy athleticism is clear on tape and was confirmed during Combine workout, where he was clocked at a blistering 4.49 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Shows a second gear to close when the ball is near, surprising opponents with his explosive late burst and generated better pop than his average size might suggest. Can carry backs and tight ends in man coverage and shows the awareness, closing speed and generally reliable tackling ideal for zone, as well. Good agility to dance around would-be blockers and has quick, powerful hands to break the wrists of blockers that are able to latch on. He’s a three-year starter and it shows with his quick diagnosis of the play and knack for being in the middle of the action. Terrific against USC in the big Cotton Bowl win, earning MVP honors with a career-high 17 tackles.
Concerns: More active than instinctive with a fair amount of wasted motion. He makes some missteps and doesn’t play as fast as he timed. Lacks the sand in his pants to be a true thumper, possessing a relatively narrow and thin hips, as well as just average leg drive. Catches too many ballcarriers, falling backwards on tackles, rather than consistently bringing his hips and driving forwards through contact.
Bottom Line: While lacking ideal size and power, there is a confident bounce to Williams’ game that I like. If he played at Texas, rather than Tulane, we’d be talking about a consensus Top 100 pick. I think Williams may be that anyway and see him competing for a starting role within his first two years in the NFL.
Grade: Second-to-third round
Overview: A highly touted two-way running back and linebacker, Banks stayed in-state to sign with the Vols after earning scholarship offers from programs all over the country. He ran for 185 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman before making the fulltime switch to defense as a sophomore, showing off his playmaking chops almost immediately, intercepting two passes against Chattanooga, becoming the first linebacker from Tennessee to record two in the same game in nearly 40 years.
Banks played mostly as a reserve in 2020 before exploding in 2021, leading the team, ranking second in the SEC and finishing seventh in the entire country with 128 stops, including 11.5 for loss and 5.5 sacks. Though he remained a key component to the Vols’ defense in 2022, Banks bounced in and out of the starting lineup, dropping to 53 tackles (including 4.5 for loss). Banks was among of standouts at this year’s East-West Shrine Bowl and was brilliant at the Combine, teasing NFL scouts with his ability — and hopefully providing some clarity behind his inconsistent career at Tennessee.
Strengths: Plays with Jedi-like instincts, springing toward the ball at the snap like he was given the script in the huddle, in particular sniffing out screens like a bloodhound. Banks may not be the most imposing linebacker, but he possesses a compact frame and his natural power is evident in the efficiency with which he dispatches would-be blockers and drives ballcarriers to the turf. He is a creative, aggressive tackler with legitimate knockdown power. Excellent straight-line speed and explosiveness, as demonstrated in a spectacular combine workout (including a 4.53 second 40-yard dash, 10’7″ broad jump and 4.38 second short-shuttle times, which ranked seventh , third and third among all linebackers tested. Plays with a bit of a chip on his shoulder… Excellent communicator on the field with teammates, making the calls and pointing out locations… The first to celebrate with teammates after a big play.
Concerns: He is so quick to trigger downhill that he leaves himself and his teammates in difficult positions, taking poor angles and forcing himself to lunge at ballcarriers, and at times whiffing. Lacks ideal size for the inside, getting pushed back when blockers are successful in latching on and being forced to spin away to release, at times, surrendering yardage. Banks is a little tight in his midsection, lacking the core flexibility to really flatten out and corner, limiting some of his looping possibilities.
He’s shown poor ball skills to this point, failing to turn any of his eight career pass breakups into interceptions, with an “easy” drop in the opening moments against No. 1 Georgia. He requires a thorough character screening with an apparent pattern of issues dating back to 2019, when he was dismissed from the team by-then head coach Jeremy Pruitt following an arrest for driving with a suspended license. More character red flags were planted this past season when Banks, following reports of conflicts with teammates, did not travel with the team to South Carolina, where the Vols, then ranked sixth in the nation, fell to the 23rd-ranked Gamecocks 63-38, ending their playoff hopes.
Bottom Line: I can’t speak to why Banks has not received more pre-draft buzz, but I do know his tape shows a future NFL starter, and quite possibly a very good one at that, if he commits himself. Teams will need to do their homework before deciding if he is the type they want to bring into the building. I don’t mean to be glib, because the character concerns are serious and demand vetting, but on the field, Banks is money.
Grade: Second-to-third round
Overview: The reigning Butkus Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker, Campbell heads to the NFL on the heels of back-to-back dominant seasons at Iowa — averaging an FBS-leading 132 tackles over that time — and being named the MVP for a Hawkeyes team packed with intriguing NFL prospects. His 143 stops in 2021, his first as a fulltime starter at Iowa, led the country and were the fifth most ever collected at Iowa and the highest single-season tally since Pat Angerer recorded two more than that back in 2009. While his gaudy tackle numbers generate much of his buzz, the ability to generate key turnovers were another of the Cedar Falls’ native’s calling cards with his late fourth-quarter forced fumble and, later, an interception returned for a touchdown to steal an improbable 15-10 win over Minnesota ranking as one of the flashier, more impactful individual performances from any college defender all year.
Why Jack Campbell to the Steelers ‘makes too much sense’
Joel Klatt explains why Iowa’s Jack Campbell and the Pittsburgh Steelers would make a perfect pair. Aside from sharing the same colors, Klatt says that the organizations have a lot in common in terms of toughness, the ability to play smart, having the identity on the defensive side, and more.
Strengths: Campbell offers rare size for the position and is much more agile than his imposing frame suggests, wowing scouts with his change-of-direction skills on tape and at the combine, where his 6.74-second 3-cone and 4.24-second short-shuttle times were easily the fastest among this year’s linebackers and would be swift even for cornerbacks or wide receivers. He complements his natural agility by locating the ball quickly and taking sharp, aggressive angles to it. Campbell isn’t just quick, but also stout, maintaining proper pad level with good knee bend and take-on strength to anchor and spin off blocks. He uses his large frame like a spider’s web to snare ballcarriers, leaving his feet and running through tackles for generally reliable stops.
Concerns: Campbell isn’t the suction-cup tackler his statistics suggest, with too many missed tackles on tape. PFF charted him with nine misses each of the past two seasons and some of them were critical, including being frozen in space by a nice stutter-step from Blake Corum on his way to a game-sealing touchdown in the final moments of a Week 5 home loss to Michigan. More country-strong than explosive, lacking the knockdown power his size might suggests, as well. His big frame also gives rival blockers a large target.
Bottom Line: I’m certainly intrigued by the height and change-of-direction combination. And Campbell’s production, as well as Iowa’s track record for producing quality NFL prospects, speak for themselves. But with sub-32″ arms, Campbell is not as long or explosive as his size would suggest and that could mean trouble at the next level. I take no joy in a contrarian viewpoint on the All-American, but frankly, I view Campbell as currently more of a ‘tweener who needs a clean fit to start in the NFL, rather than the plug-in Pro-Bowler his hype suggests.
Grade: Third round
Overview: Abdullah signed with Louisville as an exciting four-star recruit out of football-rich Miami, turning down the local Hurricanes, LSU and multiple other programs to join the Cardinals. He emerged as a starter at outside linebacker as a sophomore in 2019 and never looked back, emerging as one of the most productive edge defenders in the country over the next three seasons, leaving Louisville with eye- popping production (209 tackles, including 42 tackles for loss and 23.5 sacks), including leading the ACC with 9.5 sacks in 2022 to culminate his career. Even better, Abdullah followed that up with flashy performances at the Senior Bowl and Combine, suggesting that his playmaking ways are only just beginning — if, that is, coaches can find him a clean role in the NFL.
Strengths: Abdullah has incredible flexibility, dipping and ducking through traffic with the kind of bend that would make Gumby jealous. His agility puts him in position to make impact plays and his strike zone is made even wider due to disproportionately long arms (32 3/8″), which show up on tape with Abdullah lassoing ballcarriers outside the reach of most linebackers of his size, as well as when he stacks and shed blocks. Abdullah generated a lot of buzz in the media with his 4.47-second 40-yard dash but scouts weren’t surprised, as his suddenness is clear on tape. When he opens up his hips and wants to accelerate, Abdullah can really run, showing terrific makeup speed and effort in backside pursuit down the line of scrimmage and in coverage. He’s also a turnover magnet, sparking 13 turnovers over his college career, including eight forced fumbles, three recoveries and three interceptions.
Concerns: Played a unique hybrid role at Louisville, bouncing all over to take advantage of unique matchups. Excelled off the edge, but lacks the bulk to remain here in most schemes at the next level and has limited experience playing further back from the ball in a more traditional linebacker position.
Bottom Line: Opinions will be mixed on his best fit in the NFL, but frankly, there isn’t a team in the league that wouldn’t be interested in developing a coordinated, coiled-up athlete like Abdullah, who proved at the combine (to anyone not paying attention) that his eye-popping career totals are no mirage.
Grade: Third round
Overview: Though he finished up on The Capstone, To’oTo’o began his college career at Rocky Top, signing with the University of Tennessee as a five-star recruit from the powerhouse prep program, De La Salle in California. To’oTo’o (whose last name is pronounced “Toe-Oh, Toe-Oh”) started 22 of 23 games over two seasons with the Vols, collecting a combined 140 tackles, including 12.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks before deciding that he wanted to play for Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide.
Showing off the stellar instincts and general pro-readiness that will have him rated higher with NFL coaches than the media, To’oTo’o immediately took over as Alabama’s starting middle linebacker and promptly led the team in tackles (113), with more big plays (8.5 for loss, including four sacks) than he’d posted at Tennessee. To’oTo’os numbers dropped slightly this past season, but his four-year totals speak to his steadiness, heading into the NFL with 346 stops, including 28.5 for loss and eight sacks, with one interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery each over his career.
Strengths: Like a coach on the field with his pre-snap diagnosis, frequently running towards where the ball is headed, or timing the snap count perfectly as a pass rusher. He has a nice feel as a rusher and shows good core flexibility scraping the pocket, accelerating quickly to close. Sifts through the sea of humanity to locate the ballcarrier, and delivers solid, physical blows when he can line up his target, typically fully wrapping for clean, immediate takedown tackles. Was asked to rush more often at Alabama, but shows agility and a clean compass for coverage duty, reading the eyes of the quarterback and anticipating throwing angles, breaking up four passes — and intercepting two of them — during his time at Tennessee.
Concerns: He’s undersized with relatively slim shoulders, lacking the frame to likely be able to add much bulk without a significant loss of quickness. Was protected at Alabama (and previously at Tennessee) with a lot of size and strength ahead of him and likely requires the same in the NFL. While savvy in defeating blocks, he can get washed out when opponents are able to latch on. Further, while typically in the right place at the right time, To’oTo’o isn’t always able to finish. He is almost too quick to the ballcarriers at times, getting himself slightly off-balance and being forced to lunge, with some missed tackles on tape.
Bottom Line: It isn’t often that we can call a player from Alabama underrated, but given all the attention on top-five locks Bryce Young and Will Anderson, Jr., it feels like To’oTo’o is being slept on a bit. He probably won’t get drafted until the middle rounds but I think he could push for playing time early on and ultimately prove a steal.
Grade: Third round
Overview: Overshown starred as a safety just a few hours east of the Austin campus and accepted a scholarship from the Longhorns as a three-star recruit. He first cracked the starting lineup as a true sophomore in 2019 but didn’t become a full-time member of top unit until 2020, when Overshown began a three-year run of earning post-season acknowledgment from Big 12 coaches, ascending to First Team honors in 2022. He leaves Texas as one of the more experienced off-ball linebackers in the country, having started 33 games with 50 appearances over his college career, generating 165 tackles, including 18 tackles for loss and five sacks with five turnovers caused (three fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, one interception) during that time.
Strengths: Lithe, long-armed athlete with very good speed (4.56) for the position. Looks a bit like a praying mantis with his leggy frame but is surprisingly agile and accelerates well to the perimeter, showing enough speed to beat backs to the flanks. Has shown intriguing development in his diagnostic skills, trusting his eyes more and attacking instantly, taking better advantage of his speed. Highly physical player. Doesn’t back down from a physical confrontation even when giving up 100-plus pounds. Attacks contact with aggressive hands, seeking to shed immediately. Aggressive, physical tackler with better knockdown power than his frame suggests based on his explosive closing burst and combative playing style.
Concerns: Most of Overshown’s “biggest” issues are his troublesome frame and lack of functional power. Even with the additional weight added over his career, Overshown has a frame more traditionally seen at safety with broad shoulders and relatively narrow, high hips which leave him little room for additional muscle mass. Long, spindly legs give him just average anchoring power, though, to his credit, he plays with excellent effort. He is determined in his path to the ballcarrier but is too easily knocked off course by blockers at the second level, simply lacking the ballast to hold up.
Bottom Line: At a minimum, Overshown should be a special-teams standout, as he’s a virtual heat-seeking missile who seems to crave contact. His ceiling is a lot higher than that. The team that shows a little patience with Overshown could be rewarded with quite the moveable chess piece.
Grade: Third-ro-fourth round
Overview: Following the footsteps of his older brother, Sewell signed with Oregon as a celebrated five-star recruit after a brilliant prep career in the state of Utah, turning down the likes of Alabama, LSU, Ohio State and other blue-blood programs to be one of the highest-rated prospects ever to fly with the Ducks. Sewell immediately lived up to expectations, leading the Ducks in tackles in 2020 and earning the PAC-12’s Defensive Freshman of the Year honors, as voted on by the league’s coaches. Sewell would go on to earn first- and second-team all-conference honors each of the next two seasons, before making the early jump to the NFL, once eligible. He leaves Oregon with 218 tackles, including 20.5 for loss and 7.5 sacks over three seasons, generating six turnovers (three forced fumbles, two interceptions, one fumble recovery).
Strengths: Built from granite. Sports a power-packed frame that translates into immediate knockdown power as a tackler. Slips blocks with the brush of a hand, showing both strength and awareness of what his opponent is trying to do. Played the part of a traditional run-stuffing linebacker, but has some versatility, including rushing off the edge and showing awareness in coverage with nine passes defensed the past two seasons, including two interceptions. Excellent bloodlines. His older brother, Penei, is a star offensive lineman for Detroit Lions and uncles, Isaac Sopoaga and Richard Brown, played in the NFL.
Concerns: Just average straight-line speed for the position, struggling to beat backs to the corner, at least ones with the kind of juice he’ll most often see in the NFL. Plays even slower than he times because he doesn’t trust his own eyes, hesitating while processing the action and giving up precious time and yardage.
Bottom Line: Sewell is the perfect illustration of the constant evolution we’ve seen at off-ball linebacker over the past decade in the NFL. It wasn’t too long ago that a classic Mike linebacker like Sewell might generate first-round consideration. In today’s up-tempo era, however, Sewell (and others like him) are viewed as just one- or two-down specialists. Sewell does what he does very well and I see a future NFL starter, but like a lot of the linebackers on this list, he may have a longer wait than his famous name suggests.
Grade: Third-to-fourth round
Rob Rang is an NFL Draft analyst for FOX Sports. He has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others. He also works as a scout with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.
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