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2022 NFL Draft: Ranking the top off-ball linebackers in this year’s class

With only one linebacker signed beyond this season, the Detroit Lions should be in the market to to add through the draft. Here’s how the linebackers in this draft class stack up.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 Utah at USC Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When looking at the remaining needs for the current Detroit Lions roster, linebacker has to be near the top of the list. As things stand, the team only has one linebacker (Derrick Barnes) under contract through next year. In free agency, the team was focused primarily on bringing back players from last year’s roster on one-year deals, like re-signing Alex Anzalone, Shaun-Dion Hamilton, and Josh Woods.

The Lions did welcome back former Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis, after failing to re-sign him last year, and signed LB Chris Board to a one-year deal as well. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, arguably the Lions’ best performing linebacker last year, was lost to the Texans on a two-year, $7.5 million deal.

I guess you could say that, at best, the Lions’ linebacker room is as good as it was last year, maybe even worse. Considering last year’s group was one of the worst-performing units in the NFL, I’d expect the Lions to target a linebacker early in this year’s draft.

Let’s take a look at this year’s linebacker class and how the top prospects are shaping up:

Tier 1

Devin Lloyd (Utah), 6-foot-2 12, 237 pounds

Lloyd is the epitome of what you want in a modern day middle linebacker. He has the prototypical size, athleticism, and versatility that all 32 teams are going to covet. Though he does not have the elite 4.4 speed that some of the other linebacker prospects in this class have, he is still an elite all-around athlete, and that much is obvious when you see him take the field.

During his career at Utah, Lloyd finished with 255 total tackles, 43 tackles for a loss, 16.5 sacks, a forced fumble, 13 pass deflections, and 5 interceptions. 10 of those PDs and 4 of his INTs came in 2021, where he finished with an impressive 81.8 coverage grade via Pro Football Focus.

Lloyd’s instincts and production when dropping back into coverage are tremendous, but it’s his impressive ability to sift through blockers and close on his targets for a TFL or a sack that sets him apart from the rest of his peers. He has an uncanny feel of where to be when he enters the trenches and almost always finds his way to finish the play on his terms.

What you’re getting with Lloyd is someone you’ll never have to take off the field on defense and someone who can fit any scheme you throw at him. Outside of his inconsistent tackling efficiency (12.5% missed tackle rate over his career), he doesn’t have many holes in his game.

Unfortunately, the Lions will probably not be in the range to take Lloyd unless they trade back from the second overall pick or trade up from 32. Crazier things have happened, though, as there are a few mocks out there that have mocked Lloyd to the Lions at 32.

Round grade: Top-20 pick

Nakobe Dean (Georgia), 5-foot-11, 231 pounds

Most of Dean’s limitations are centered around what he can’t control, like being undersized for a linebacker. He will occasionally get swallowed up by blocks in the run game or get bullied in coverage by bigger tight ends. He might also try to overcompensate for his lack of length by taking a poor angle and overrunning his target, but these are things you live with when you have a player of his caliber that can make such a huge impact on the game.

Naturally, as a speedy and undersized backer, Dean will likely project to the next level as a 4-3 WILL that thrives in pursuit. But he’ll be around the ball no matter where you put him because he’s so damn quick when keying and diagnosing the play. You’re also going to want Dean rushing the passer from time to time, because he’s as explosive and smart as they come and did a fantastic job when given the green light in college. You have to wonder how he’ll perform in that role without that dominant Georgia D-line, but I think the traits speak for themselves.

Lloyd will likely have the edge over Dean on most teams’ boards, but one thing that Dean has going for him over Lloyd is that he’s a full two years younger at 21 years of age (Lloyd will turn 24 in September).

Dean might be lower on some teams’ boards due to his lack of size. Some teams might even have him off of their board completely. All it takes is one team to fall in love with him, though, and that team will reap the rewards from one of the best playmaking defenders in this class. Could it be the Lions? Maybe. I can see him being available with the 32nd or 34th overall pick, but he might also go a few spots earlier.

Round grade: 1st round

Tier 2

Chad Muma (Wyoming), 6-foot-2 12 , 239 pounds

If the Lions don’t manage to pick up Lloyd or Dean at the top of the draft, then that’s perfectly fine, because this linebacker class is littered with prospects worthy of a Day 2/Early Day 3 selection. Not only that, but most of those guys tested extremely well at the combine or at their pro days. It’s the perfect year to want a speedy linebacker.

Chad Muma is one of those guys.

It’s not just testing and numbers with Muma, though. He’s got the tape to back it up.

As a run defender, Muma doesn’t let many ball carriers slip by him. In 2021, he finished with 50 run stops and a missed tackle rate of only 8.1 percent. He also improved on his coverage skills last year and ended the year with three interceptions thanks to his stellar instincts and understanding of routes developing in front of him.

Muma is a scheme-versatile linebacker and has two years of starting experience as a middle linebacker in Wyoming’s 4-2-5 scheme, making him a great fit for the Lions as they switch to a four-man front in 2022. Muma will likely be available in the second or third round if the Lions are interested in beefing up their front-seven.

Round grade: 2nd round

Christian Harris (Alabama), 6-foot-0, 226 pounds

Harris is the first linebacker on this list that has all the tools, but no toolbox just yet. His struggles in coverage and inefficient tackling numbers give you great pause, but the elite athleticism and impressive physicality will give coaches plenty to work with.

I think Harris has the potential to play in any linebacker role, especially if he can clean up the mistakes, but his best role might be as a 4-3 WILL—a role he is pretty familiar with already—with his size and speed.

Round grade: 2nd-3rd round

Quay Walker (Georgia), 6-foot-3 12, 241 pounds

Walker marks the second Georgia linebacker on this list and we won’t be stopping there. Like all of the other Georgia defenders in this class, Walker put on a show at the combine and made it look even more impressive while doing it with his beefed-up frame.

His size and physicality are what jump out at you the most on film. Walker is a force against the run and only missed 7 tackles during his entire collegiate career. The are other areas of his game that still need some fine-tuning and he can look a bit lost in coverage at times, but the potential is there, and if he puts it all together, we might be talking about Walker being one of the best linebackers to come out of this class.

Round grade: 2nd-3rd round

Tier 3

Troy Andersen (Montana State), 6-foot-3 12, 243 pounds

Andersen is a former QB/RB that only has two full years of experience as a linebacker. He led the team in passing and rushing (21 rushing TDs) in 2018 before starting the rest of his games at linebacker in 2019 and 2021 (2020 season was canceled due to COVID).

Though he is obviously extremely raw as a linebacker prospect, Andersen shows flashes in all areas and easily has the highest ceiling of anyone in this draft. I was impressed by his instincts in coverage despite being new to the position, but he is still very unrefined as a tackler.

If I had to guess, Andersen should hear his name called in the second-third round range and has the capability of playing a two-way role at the next level.

Troy Andersen is a unicorn.

Round grade: 3rd round

Leo Chenal (Wisconsin), 6-foot-2 12, 250 pounds

There simply isn’t a better run defender in this class than Leo Chenal. What sets him apart from previous run defense specialists, however, is that Chenal is also one of the most athletic linebackers to ever test at the NFL Combine. When watching Chenal on film, you probably wouldn’t have guessed that this was the case, though. For instance, his movements when changing directions can look a bit labored, especially when dropping back into coverage, where he’s shown his fair share of struggles.

At worst, Chenal is an early-down run specialist in the NFL that can also sub in as a pass rusher. If he wants to stay on the field on third down, he will have to prove that he is not a complete liability in coverage.

Round grade: 3rd round

Damone Clark (LSU), 6-foot-2 12, 239 pounds

Clark really broke out in 2021 as one of the most productive linebackers in college football. He was awarded Second Team All-American and First Team All-SEC honors after leading the SEC in tackles with 135 tackles in 12 games.

He is yet another linebacker on this list that has plus sideline-to-sideline speed/range and thrives in pursuit. His instincts can be lacking at times and he is prone to taking on poor angles.

If healthy, Clark would have been a Day 2 pick easy, but it was revealed during the NFL Combine that he was to undergo spinal fusion surgery to repair a herniated disc. That means he will likely miss the entire 2022 season, but is expected to make a full recovery by 2023.

Round grade: 3rd round (will likely fall due to injury)

Channing Tindall (Georgia), 6-foot-1 34, 230 pounds

Of the three Georgia linebackers, Tindall is easily the fastest and most explosive. In his four years for the Bulldogs, Tindall did not start a single game on defense, but did see his role increase in 2021 where he still managed to register the third-most tackles on the team.

Tindall did most of his damage as a tackler in the open field and as a blitzing linebacker off the edge, but he’s limited in coverage and is too stiff to become a full-time pass rusher. With his lack of playing time, Tindall should be in a rotational role early in his career while he develops.

Round grade: 3rd round

Brian Asamoah (Oklahoma), 6-foot-0, 226 pounds

As an undersized linebacker, Asamoah struggles to take on blocks and will get completely erased from the play from time to time in the run game. This is why I see him translating to the next level as a 4-3 WILL that will be asked to play in space and chase down targets. He has the speed (4.56 40-yard dash) and range to succeed in this role, but there may be some teams that will want to move him to safety. Expect Asamoah to be selected somewhere in the second or third round.

Round grade: 3rd round

Tier 4

Brandon Smith (Penn State), 6-foot-3 12, 250 pounds - 4th round

Darrian Beavers (Cincinnati), 6-foot-4, 237 pounds - 4th round

JoJo Domann (Nebraska), 6-foot-1, 228 pounds - 4th round

Terrel Bernard (Baylor), 6-foot-0 34, 224 pounds - 4th-5th round

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