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NFL Combine position of need watchlist: Linebackers

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3 Combine participants to watch at Saints positions of need.

Appalachian State v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

I took to Twitter this week to ask Saints fans what the biggest three needs are for the Saints this season. You came through and to no surprise the four most popular answers were Wide Receiver, Interior Offensive Line (preferably with some versatility), Linebacker, and Cornerback. With that, I thought it would be fun to put together a series of some players to watch at each of those position, plus the addition of an author’s choice: Interior Defensive Line.

In this series you will see three names to each position. A day one candidate and two day two/three candidates. The information, based on the fast-approaching NFL Combine this week, you will find will include; what we know about each prospect, what is left to learn, and my most anticipated combine moment for each player. We will start each entry into this five-part series with a quick run-down of the six major combine workouts and what the tell us. Then dive into each position’s three players to watch.

I will mention positional drills and workouts like the Gauntlet, W drill, and the new Figure-8 drill when appropriate although not listed below. Let’s get it.

Combine Workouts and What They Tell Us

40 Yard-Dash Broad Jump Vertical Jump
40 Yard-Dash Broad Jump Vertical Jump
Speed Explosion Leaping ability
Explosion Lower body strength Explosion
Center of gravity Balance Lower body strength
Bench Press 3-Cone Drill Short Shuttle
Upper body strength Change of direction Lateral quickness
Endurance Bend/Flexibility Short area explosion
Intangibles Acceleration/Deceleration Distribution of weight and power

Linebackers

After years of coming up short at the second level for the Saints defense, a revitalization at the position was lead with the additions of linebackers coach Mike Nolan in 2017 and former Jets/Browns LB Demario Davis in 2018. Since then, New Orleans has seen much improved production in its run defense, sitting near the top of the league throughout the last two seasons, more reliable play up the middle in coverage, and greater comfort in communication all throughout the entire unit. However, a litany of injuries at the position and lack of availability leave something to be desired. That which could be added by a prospect in this year’s draft.

Mike Nolan may be gone now. Headed to Dallas to be the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator, but the emphasis he put on the LB corps speed, agility, and athleticism are sure to still be the focus for his replacement in the Big Easy, Michael Hodges. With that in mind, some of the key drills you will want to watch today include the 3-cone and shuttle agility drills, the 40-yard dash as always but with a specific emphasis on the 10-yard split. Short bursts in the short field are key in coverage and can give you an idea of what these guys to do going sideline to sideline. Likewise, the positional drills will be very important.

Combine On-field Workout Schedule: Saturday, February 29th. 3:00 PM – 11:00 PM. Will workout with Interior Defensive Linemen and Edge Rushers.

Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma

Tulane v Oklahoma Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

Combine Measurements: 6’2” 241 pounds
2019 Stats: 102 total tackles, 17 for a loss, 4 sacks, and 4 passes defended
What to watch: Positional Drills

What we know about Murray: Yes, I could have gone with LSU’s Patrick Queen here who is sure to blaze a trail in the 40-yard dash, but Murray may not be too terribly far behind him. With our focus on Murray for this article, he gives you a ton. He is athletic, he is speedy, he is a big time disrupter in the run game who can also affect the game as a blitzer. He is your Round 1 guy. His speed and agility allow him to move through space, get around would-be blocker, and attack the ball. Perhaps the best part is that when he gets his hands on a defender, he does not often miss tackles. That boost his confidence to a place in which he is always ready to go all out to make a play. However, his aggressiveness has gotten him in trouble.

As with many young players, one of the biggest criticisms you will hear about Murray’s game are his instincts. Sometimes he will get caught out of position after aggressively biting down on a play action or some misdirection from the offense. That can be cleaned up with reps and good coaching, though. Murray has a bit over everything in his game and while his coverage skills could stand to be improved, he certainly has all of the tools and talent to become a great addition at the next level. His fit with New Orleans may be that of a WILL LB, the position that Demario Davis usually holds in the defense. However, Davis can play multiple positions. Either way, between Davis and Murray the Saints would have a couple of solid three-down guys at the position.

One of the other elements that makes Murray so appealing is that he’s appeared in every game for which he was eligible in college including bowl/playoff games. An injection of health into an otherwise woefully injured group over the last few years.

What’s left to learn: Simple. How has he improved his composure and control under pressure? The tricky part is that it is hard to really evaluate that at the combine in terms of keying and diagnosing an offensive attack utilizing misdirection and play action. However, watching his coverage drills at the Combine will give you a sense of his reflexes and instincts.

Most anticipated combine moment: We will learn a lot from Murray during his positional drills. We will get to see his range on display as well as the aforementioned coverage drills that can hopefully give us a glimpse into some of those instinctual adjustments we will look for. Murray is likely to test well in his agility drills and already tied for 5th in the bench at his position.

Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 Appalachian State at South Carolina Photo by Mary Holt/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Combine Measurements: 6’2” 224 pounds
2019 Stats: 101 total tackles, 14.5 for a loss, 5 sacks, 1 INT, and 8 passes defended
What to watch: 40 and Agility Drills

What we know about Davis-Gaither: Talk about athleticism, Davis-Gaither has it for days. He’s exactly the type of linebacker the Saints will likely look to add this offseason. Rangy, quick, proficient in the coverage game, can tackle, and has the quick hands and speed to get around the edge as a pass rusher and win in run pursuit. If you are not into the idea of spending a first round pick on a linebacker, Davis-Gaither is your guy in day two.

A leader of his defense at App State, he has all the intangibles to go along with his ridiculous testing result that are sure to be on the way this afternoon. He has the “tweener” build that NFL defenses love and can produce in a multitude of ways for a defense that should put him in position to be a three down backer early in his career.

What’s left to learn: Smaller for his position, which comes with the “tweener” size. But shows his strength tying Kenneth Murray with 21 reps on the bench. Despite that, there should be some open evaluation in regards to how he will match up against the size of the pros. Can he use his speed and athleticism to aid in that? Or if he stays at LB in the NFL, can he add the weight he needs to not be easily moveable but still access his range and speed?

Most anticipated combine moment: I really simply am just excited to see this guy go through his agility tests. He likely will not blow the doors of the 40 but should put up respectable numbers that people will notice. his size should certainly aid that.

Malik Harrison, Ohio State

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 07 Big Ten Championship Game Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Combine Measurements: 6’3 247 pounds
2019 Stats: 75 total tackles, 16.5 for a loss, 2.5 sacks, and 4 passes defended
What to watch: 3-Cone

What we know about Harrison: Rather a run-stopping thumper at the SAM in place of A.J. Klein who is a free agent this offseason? Harrison is a solid choice, especially with a round projection by PFF in the 5th. Plus, you know I had to eventually get a Buckeye on here. It is the Saints draft after all. Harrison would have a clear fit with the team if Klein were to sign elsewhere or not be retained in New Orleans. He is a big, powerful tackler with fantastic downhill burst. He translates that burst into some punishing hits. He has long arms (32.75”) that allow him to establish some distance against climbing blockers or ones that meet him on the blitz.

Now, while he would be a fit at SAM, it is worth noting that Harrison has played all of the LB spots in the Ohio State defense. So he has the familiarity to him to be versatile along the second level. He also has quite a bit of special teams experience which is a nice path to the active roster to start the season. Fun fact: Harrison played quarterback, safety, and punter in college. He is not much of a coverage guy but is effective in zone, having the wherewithal to cause the QB to make decisions about ball placement. Got an interception in the Senior Bowl off of an arrant pass caused by a Bradlee Anae pass rush. He will capitalize on his chances.

What’s left to be learned: Just how agile can he be and where does that limit him at the next level? If he has trouble keeping up in small spaces in man coverage, his experience at all LB spots will not be as valuable. He may then land and stick at SAM with some opportunities to fill in at the MIKE when he learns a system well enough to communicate it.

Most anticipated combine moment: The agility drills as you may have guessed. I want to see how he moves in small spaces like the 3-Cone and Short Shuttle. But I am also interested in his ability to change direction in those drills as well. can he get enough speed on him to clock in respectfully but also maintain that speed through his cuts and breaks?


Wide Receivers
Interior Offensive Linemen

Check back soon for the rest of the position groups voted on by Saints fans and some names to watch at the combine.