With the Saints now having signed much-needed and highly-desired wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the free agency period, as well as resigning several key positional players across the board via a bit of cap magic from one Mickey Loomis, this team is looking to be in a great position to pick for the best player available at a few choice positions when the reported video feed cuts to their war room for pick No. 24.
The positions they could be choosing to reinforce are the linebacker, wide receiver and corner back slots. That goes along with, of course, building depth to pair with the assets already possessed. The Saints are no stranger to injury bugs and make it a point to be prepared with a “next man up” mentality for just those events.
With all other sports effectively stalled, and the 2020 NFL Draft set to go and rapidly approaching, it’s about time we start breaking down key positions and their corresponding draft values. First up? Perhaps the (now) most mock-drafted position for the New Orleans Saints: Linebacker.
This year’s linebacker class has some nice depth to it, and boasts a clear-cut top multi-tool defensive prospect in Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons. Then you add in players like Patrick Queen and Kenneth Murray, both likely-first rounders, along with good potential on the back-end of the class, you’ve got a solid mix of athletes and leaders in this year’s class that could go on to decent-to-good NFL careers.
One thing that should sound good to Saints fans, regardless of who they want Loomis and Co. to draft in the first round—it’s a good year to need a linebacker.
Let’s break down the top five linebacker prospects for this year’s class, and then we’ll take a slight dive into the remainder of the linebacker class who will have their names called next month.
1. Isaiah Simmons, Clemson
I want to lead off this section with a warning (lest I eat them later): anything can happen in the NFL Draft. One thing that’s almost a for-sure won’t be happening?
The Class of 2020’s best linebacker prospect, Isaiah Simmons, falling to the bottom half of his year’s first round.
As a result, that means the Saints likely won’t have a shot at signing someone who has been hailed by many in the draft community as the best pure “football player” in recent memory, thanks to his ability to cover multiple positions, including lining up as anything ranging from a MIKE, to a SAM, Strong Safety and a nickel linebacker in coverage.
His pass rush and run stuff are both excellent, and he’s by far the best linebacker in this year’s draft class. Alas, he will be gone long before the Saints are on the clock (but wouldn’t it be fun?) He slides in as a sure-fire linebacker No. 1 on our rankings.
2. Patrick Queen, LSU
Patrick Queen is another hot commodity towards the end of this year’s first round. Sliding in at inside linebacker for the LSU Tigers, Queen showcased great football IQ and solid instincts all year long, playing on what could be argued to be one of the best college football teams in history. The defense was a large part of that, and Queen showcased his ability against college football’s best. He racked up 85 total tackles, 37 of those being solo, while throwing in an interception, two passes defended and three sacks on the season.
Queen has good instincts on the field that allow him to get locked into his spot before blockers have a chance to square him up firmly. He was tasked with a lot of different roles in his time with LSU, and that versatility will come in handy for an NFL defense.
With enough sideline-to-sideline range to step into the MIKE role in his first year in the NFL, Queen provides the consistency in coverage to serve as a three down linebacker. He’s not a downhill run-through-a-brick-wall physical kind of guy, but he’s an impact starter who would serve as a great inside linebacker when paired with what the Saints currently have on the roster.
3. Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma
Murray is another linebacker built in the frame of Queen and other MIKE linebackers in this class, but is more of a physical asset than Queen.
Like the two players listed above, Murray comes set and ready to play in an NFL defense on the interior. He’s a rangy and dedicated football player who comes set to play with a lot of competitiveness and aggressiveness. One thing that really has stood out to me when watching Murray’s tape is his ability to take good angles to get to the football—they’re sharp, and they’re fast.
He hasn’t had to play as much man coverage as he has zone, but he’s got the physical tools to line up against bigger wide receivers, as well as tight ends.
The real difference between him and Queen likely comes in the physical and mental sides of their games. Neither has a real glaring weakness in either category, but Murray tends to commit and make mistakes at full speed, sometimes running himself out of plays. To one end, he can be too committed to a play, but he also has been guilty on tape of being too patient on other occasions.
Room for improvement on both, but the ability to grow is there. Don’t be surprised if they both are gone by the end of round one.
4. Malik Harrison, Ohio State
Coming in at the four spot is Malik Harrison, who projects as a starting MIKE at the NFL level, although unlike those listed above him, Harrison could struggle to have an impact at the next level when it comes to the passing game.
In the run game, Harrison is a physical thumper with plus down hill potential, and does a great job stuffing up blockers and shooting through gaps opened by his front line. He struggles a bit more in the passing game, but could improve as he moves along in his career. He’s definitely capable of performing in situations where you have him in a basic drop role, but his anticipation leaves some to be desired.
His tackling and physicality are going to be a great help for him in the future, but he’s got some work to do in the passing game in order to be more than an early down player for most NFL teams. He’s got a lot of good traits though, and as his snap share raises, I think the passing defense will come along as well.
5. Jordyn Brooks, Texas Tech
The number of players that could’ve been listed in this No. 5 spot on our linebacker rankings, just weeks from the draft, speaks to the sheer promise and depth of this linebacker class, even as we head past the first few top players.
Brooks comes out of Texas Tech having played the role of a big, physical and surprisingly rangy linebacker who really is at his best when he’s attacking downhill. As mentioned above, his range comes as a bit of a surprise considering his size, and he’s a great influencer sideline to sideline in lateral pursuit. His tackling abilities are above average for this class as well, and he’s been solid in the spy responsibility thanks to his mobility.
That all sounds great, but the biggest negative in Brooks game comes from the fact that he is completely unproven in coverage, rarely ever having to take drop steps as a part of his game. In zone coverage he has the tendency to get a little bit panicky, and fills more of a role as a see-ball-chase-ball defender. He’s a linear athlete, but thanks to his plus size and speed, he’s got a lot of potential as he heads towards the NFL level coaching and game plans.