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What types of linebackers have success in Patrick Graham’s system?

Finding linebackers who fit the DC’s mold

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Arkansas at Missouri
Drew Sanders
Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As the Las Vegas Raiders gear up for the NFL Draft and we spend our timing scrounging through mock drafts until our thumbs get carpal tunnel trying to figure out who they’re going to pick, it’s important to look at historical data. That can provide us with key takeaways like what linebackers have had success in Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s scheme.

Previously, we looked at cornerbacks and spotted a few traits and trends of the five corners that have recorded the highest PFF Grades under Graham. Today we’ll go through the same process, only moving up a level of the defense and looking at what feels like a perpetual need for the Raiders; linebackers.

Below is the list of the five highest-graded linebackers from the 2019 Miami Dolphins, 2020 and 2021 New York Giants and last year’s Raiders. In other words, the four defenses Graham has been the coordinator for.

  1. Blake Martinez 2020 (75.9 grade)
  2. Denzel Perryman 2022 (74.2)
  3. Jaylon Smith 2021 (66.3)
  4. Raekwon McMillan 2019 (63.9)
  5. Reggie Ragland 2021 (61.2)

One finding that I have to point out before even getting into the details is that Graham does not play natural or true linebackers much. Martinez is an outlier here because he is the only one to have success and record over 600 snaps and play a full slate of games in a season. For comparison, Martinez logged 1,063 snaps, Perryman had 555, Smith 329, McMillan 516 and Ragland 474 in the years referenced above.

New York Giants v Washington Football Team
Blake Martinez
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Building on that, only three other linebackers have participated in over 600 plays for Graham and all three posted below-average grades. In 2019, Jerome Baker logged 1,080 snaps with a 46.7 grade and Sam Eguavoen earned a 50.2 grade on 621 snaps. Tae Crowder took 1,099 reps in 2021 and posted an abysmal 29.1 mark, and no linebacker outside of Martinez even played enough to qualify in 2020 or 2022.

So, linebacker isn’t a position Graham is going to lean heavily on. However, the Raiders are still looking to replace their top performer and the only player at the position to record an above-average grade last season. Also, Graham does like to have at least one stud in the middle of the defense, meaning it’s still relevant to find a few common traits among the backers who have had success playing for him.

One of the first obvious trends has to do with size. Perryman is a bit of an outlier here as he’s just under 5’11”, but everyone else floats around 6’1” or 6’2”. Martinez is 6’1 5/8”, Ragland is 6’1”, McMillan is 6’1 7/8” and Smith is 6’2”.

Also—and Perryman even fits into this category—they’re all around 235 to 240 pounds with Smith being the lightest at 223 pounds and Ragland being the heaviest at 247 pounds. Martinez and Perryman were 237 and 236 pounds, respectively, coming out of college, while McMillan was 240.

It’s important to note that Smith was recovering from a nasty knee injury he suffered in the bowl game before weighing in at the combine to explain why he’d be on the lighter side. Notre Dame had him listed at 240 during his last season in South Bend and that’s what he’s currently billed at.

While long speed or the 40-yard dash isn’t as important for linebackers to have success in Graham’s system, short area quickness or acceleration is and that can be measured by a player’s 10-yard split. Martinez and McMillian were the fastest of the bunch with 1.61-second split times, followed up by Ragland at 1.65 and Perryman at 1.67. Again, Smith was injured so we don’t have testing numbers on him, but this was one of his strengths coming out of college.

So, the Raiders are likely going to be looking for linebackers whose 10-yard split falls between 1.6 and 1.65 seconds, or better.

Arizona Cardinals v Las Vegas Raiders
Patrick Graham, Josh McDaniels
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

One way that short area quickness or acceleration can translate to on-field production for backers is via defensive stops*. That correlates to another trend at the position in Graham’s system as, of the players analyzed in this study, Perryman had the highest rate of stops on run plays at 10.8 percent, McMillan is next at 10.4 percent, then Martinez at 8.9 percent and Ragland rounds out the group with 8.3 percent.

The key takeaway here is we need to find linebackers whose defensive stop rate against the run is around the nine percent mark.

[*PFF defines a “defensive stop” as a tackle that prevents the offense from obtaining 45 percent of the line to gain on first down, 60 percent on second down, or a tackle that prevents a third or fourth down conversion.]

In coverage, it was more of the same as Graham places a higher emphasis on linebackers who can generate stops rather than prevent completions. For example, Perryman had the lowest completion percentage allowed of the five players at 71.4 percent, but he racked up 11 defensive stops on the 20 completions he surrendered.

Martinez followed the same trend—74.6 percent completions allowed and 23 stops on 47 receptions—and so did Smith, yielding an 83.3 percent completion rate and logging eight stops on 15 receptions. Now, Ragland and McMillan fell short of these metrics, but their coverage grades held their overall grades back with sub-par marks of 57.5 and 43.3, respectively.

So, we can ignore completion percentage when looking at backers in the draft and need to find players who record a defensive stop on roughly half of the completions they allow.

Now that we know linebackers who are 6’1” or taller, weigh around 235 to 240 pounds, have a 10-yard split time between 1.6 and 1.65 seconds, and are good at getting defensive stops against the run and in coverage, which linebackers in this draft class meet the requirements?

Below is a look at the Top 10 players at the position according to NFL Mock Draft Database’s consensus big board:

  1. Drew Sanders, Arkansas: 6’4 3/8”, 235 pounds, 1.61 10-yard split, 7.7% run stop, 81.0% coverage stop
  2. Jack Campbell, Iowa: 6’4 5/8”, 249 pounds, 1.58 10-yard split, 7.8% run stop, 47.4% coverage stop
  3. Trenton Simpson, Clemson: 6’2 3/8”, 235 pounds, 1.48 10-yard split, 5.9% run stop, 66.7% coverage stop
  4. Daiyan Henley, Washington State: 6’0 7/8”, 225 pounds, 1.58 10-yard split, 7.8% run stop, 58.8% coverage stop
  5. Henry To’oTo’o, Alabama: 6’1”, 227 pounds, 1.55 10-yard split, 10.5% run stop, 48.1% coverage stop
  6. Noah Sewell, Oregon: 6’1 1/2”, 246 pounds, 1.56 10-yard split, 5.3% run stop, 44% coverage stop
  7. DeMarvion Overshown, Texas: 6’2 5/8”, 229 pounds, 1.55 10-yard split, 10.5% run stop, 61.5% coverage stop
  8. Dorian Williams, Tulane: 6’1”, 228 pounds, 1.52 10-yard split, 9.8% run stop, 93.3% coverage stop
  9. Owen Pappoe, Auburn: 6’0 1/4”, 225 pounds, 1.5 10-yard split, 5.3% run stop, 28% coverage stop
  10. Ivan Pace Jr., Cincinnati: 5’10 1/2”, 231 pounds, 1.7 10-yard split, 11.3% run stop, 150% coverage stop (had at least six coverage stops where he wasn’t the primary defender in coverage)

The first name I’d cross off the list would be the last one on it, Pace Jr. While he certainly has the production, he’s both smaller and slower than the prototypical linebacker we’re looking for, meaning the stats likely won’t translate. It’s also worth noting that he put those numbers up against a lower level of competition in the American conference.

Size-wise, the next two to eliminate would be Henley and Pappoe. The Washington State product is on the fringe, just an eighth of an inch and 10 pounds below the threshold, however, his production doesn’t stand out enough compared to the other backers who already meet the criteria. As for the Tiger, not meeting the size and production requirements makes it easy to skip past his name.

It’s a bit surprising to see Sewell well below the run-stop mark. While very few of the linebackers above do cross the threshold, he’s tied for the lowest run-stop rate on the list and is 3.7 points below the benchmark. He wasn’t much more productive in coverage either, so he could be off the Raiders' radar.

Sanders is the most interesting name at the top of the list as he meets nearly every criterion. The run-stop percentage is the only category he falls short in and he’s not too far off, which is impressive considering this was his first year playing as an off-ball linebacker. That’s where some wiggle room can factor into the threshold after applying some context to his situation.

Finally, my last takeaway from the list above is there are a handful of mid-round linebackers Las Vegas could bring in. To’oTo’o, Overshown and Williams all meet or are close enough to the benchmarks that the Silver and Black don’t have to spend a premium pick at the position to find someone who fits Graham’s profile.

Now, it’s time to play the waiting game and see what happens at the end of the month!