Linebackers play less often in the modern NFL nowadays, with most teams downsizing to base-Nickel packages. But this change has made having a versatile, three-down ‘backer more important than ever.
With many teams employing so-called “offensive wizards” as head coaches, linebackers have found themselves in more difficult positions than in past eras, regularly having to cover tight ends, jitterbug running backs and slot receivers in addition to all of their responsibilities against the run.
The Raiders struggles with their linebacking corps are well documented, and the units troubles were exacerbated on Sunday when Dalvin Cook torched them for 143 yards on 20 touches. The ailing Vontaze Burfict remains a solid tackle-to-tackle run-stuffer, but his struggles in coverage have only deteriorated with age.
None of Tahir Whitehead, Marquel Lee, Nicholas Morrow or Kyle Wilber profile as long-term solutions at the position either, which has caused many Raider fans to already be looking ahead to 2020 draft class talent.
It went from bad to worse on Sunday night when the Raiders’ defense was left with only two healthy linebackers on the roster. It’s time to start looking at the 2020 linebacker crop and preparing to scream at the TV in April when your draft crush is sniped by a rival.
Isaiah Simmons, Clemson
Projected Draft Range: Mid-to-Late First Round
Simmons doesn’t just fit the mold of a modern prototype, he is the mold. The redshirt junior converted from Safety in 2017 to a hybrid Nickel linebacker spot and has been fawned over by draft nerds since.
On a Clemson defense filled with projectable pros, Simmons stands out in a variety of roles. The 6-foot-4, 230 pounder will scrape tackle-to-tackle, destroy a block with violent hands and envelop a running back with his mammoth tackle radius on one play, blitz the edge on the next, and showcase elite man-coverage chops on third-and-long.
Most “coverage” linebackers struggle with size against oncoming blockers, but with NFL-level size and strength, Simmons is able to traverse blockers with an array of stack-and-shed and rip moves.
With two first round picks at their disposal this year, the Raiders should be circling Simmons as their top target. A core of Clelin Ferrell, Simmons, Gareon Conley and Jonathan Abram, would give the Raiders a young building block at all four levels of the defense.
Dylan Moses, Alabama
Projected Draft Range: Late-First, Early-Second Round
Moses was projected to be the top linebacker selected until he tore his ACL in late August. The Junior will miss the entire year at Alabama, but is projected to be a first-round pick regardless, if his medical records check out.
Prior to the injury, Moses was considered to be the “freakiest” athlete in the draft by many, with a combination of throwback linebacker traits (instincts, block destruction, run fits, football IQ) to go with range in coverage and a “don’t blink, you’ll miss it” first step. Some talent evaluators even considered Moses to be the best defender on a stacked ‘Bama squad last season.
Any team selecting Moses must be careful to not rush him back before it is necessary, as his long-term potential could be sapped if he has a setback with his knee. If he is healthy and available, the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder will be the heart and soul of a team’s defense for years.
Troy Dye, Oregon
Projected Draft Range: Second-to-Fourth Round
Dye isn’t on the same tier as either of the aforementioned first-round talents, but the four-year starter has the tools to become a plus-starter in the NFL.
With a 6-foot-4, 225 pound build, Dye is bigger than his thin frame suggests, and his excellent lateral agility couples with a running motor that makes him an intriguing “Will” linebacker prospect. Besides Simmons, Dye might be the best coverage linebacker in the class due to innate anticipatory skills when dissecting routes.
His pass coverage instincts don’t carry over to the running game, however, as Dye is often caught off guard by blocks he didn’t see coming and doesn’t show much in the way of hand fighting. When he recognizes previously used run concepts, Dye will fly to the ball and make plays. He just doesn’t have the natural instincts of an elite professional.
If the Raiders choose to wait on a linebacker in the draft and Dye is on the board, he will be strongly considered with one of their third-round picks.
Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma:
Projected Draft Range: Third-to-Fifth Round
The Big-12 doesn’t produce much high-end defensive talent, but Kenneth Murray is an exception as a linebacker with the athleticism to hang with some of college football’s most high-powered offenses.
Like another K. Murray from Oklahoma, he’s undersized for his position, albeit at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds. Murray is a lean, mean, sideline-to-sideline player who is adept at both attacking downhill and dropping into coverage. He’s more reactionary and patient than instinctual, but his top-tier speed allows him to thrive in a run-and-chase style.
Murray is less of a thumper than Paul Guenther likes to station at the “Mike” spot, but his ultra-competitive nature and ability to play bigger than he seems could propel the Raiders to take a chance in the late-third or fourth round. If he tests well at the combine, Murray probably won’t make it past Day 2 in April.
Which Linebacker should the Raiders take in the 2020 NFL Draft?
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