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2023 NFL Draft: Ranking the top off-ball linebackers in this year’s class

The Lions could use some depth and competition at the linebacker position, so let’s look at the top options in the NFL Draft.

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

As we inch closer to the upcoming NFL Draft, it’s time to move our attention to the linebacker position.

The Detroit Lions addressed the position in free agency by re-signing LB Alex Anzalone to a three-year deal for $18.3 million ($9 million guaranteed). As explained by our own Erik Schlitt on the roster implications of this signing, the Lions got back their starting MIKE linebacker in Anzalone by securing him for at least another couple of years.

They also have second-year LB Malcolm Rodriguez starting beside him as their WILL linebacker. And as things stand currently, Derrick Barnes is set to be in that “Hybrid” role that can switch between both positions if needed as their active third linebacker on game days.

With all of that being said, it might seem like the Lions are set at the position with those three guys firmly on the roster. But compared to the rest of the league, the Lions’ starters aren’t exactly considered to be in the upper echelon. They could also use a lot of help backing those guys up. Competition is always a good thing, so I think it’s more than reasonable to assume that the Lions could add to this position via the draft—just less likely in the earlier rounds. Don’t be surprised if you see them looking for a special teams ace in the later rounds, either.

If you’ve missed any of the previous installments in our 2023 draft rankings series, be sure to check out:

Alright, without further ado, here is a list of my favorite fits for the Lions at linebacker in this year’s class:

Tier 1

Drew Sanders (Arkansas), 6-foot-4, 235 pounds

Though there are no Roquan Smith-level prospects that are expected to go in the top half of the first round, this draft still has some high-end linebacker talent in the Day 2 range, with maybe one or two that could sneak into the first round. Sanders leads this list for me because he has a nice blend of size, elite potential, and solid production.

In 2022, Sanders transferred to Arkansas and transitioned full-time to an off-ball linebacker role after playing primarily edge rusher for Alabama. With only one year of experience as an off-the-ball linebacker, Sanders looked surprisingly comfortable in his role.

Sanders has elite lateral agility and sideline-to-sideline speed, plus he’s extremely flexible when sifting his way through blocks as an ILB or turning around the edge as a pass rusher.

With his lack of experience, Sanders has some room for improvement. His 19.6 percent missed tackle rate was alarmingly high in 2022, and he could stand to add some more weight to his frame as well. But with the Lions already set with their starting LBs in Alex Anzalone and Malcolm Rodriguez, Sanders would be in a perfect situation to learn behind those two and the Lions could bring him along slowly, similar to what they did with Kerby Joseph last year.

How he fits: MIKE linebacker, but has the experience and skill set to occasionally rush the passer.

Round grade: Second round

Jack Campbell (Iowa), 6-foot-4, 249 pounds

Campbell has helped himself improve his draft stock a lot these past couple of months. At the NFL Combine, he put together one of the highest RAS scores the position has ever seen and erased any concerns or doubts that anyone had about his athleticism. Since then, teammates and players from opposing schools have had nothing but positive things to say about him.

We did not get to see Campbell in man-coverage very often, so there are some legitimate concerns there, but he is a very capable zone defender. You’re not going to find an easier projection than Campbell, who has all the makings of a MIKE linebacker in the NFL. He sees the game well and is a physical force working downhill in the run game. I could see him potentially sneaking into the first round.

How he fits: MIKE LB.

Round grade: Second round

Daiyan Henley (Washington State), 6-foot-1, 225 pounds

Though he is a tad undersized for the position, Henley has elite arm length (33 inches) and was one of the most sure-tackling linebackers in college football. As a downhill defender, he’s extremely explosive, and looks like he’s shot straight out of a cannon. In coverage, Henley is as smooth as silk and had a great week of practice at the Senior Bowl to show off his skills. He has the ability to take on tight ends in man-coverage, and has a knack for finding the ball in zone (five interceptions in his final two years).

How he fits: Hybrid/WILL linebacker. Can also contribute on special teams.

Round grade: Second-third round

Trenton Simpson (Clemson), 6-foot-2, 235 pounds

Despite being the fourth linebacker listed in these rankings, Simpson could hear his name called as the first linebacker off the board. That’s how close things are between these four athletes. It really just depends on preference. If you’re looking for a project to take on with elite overall athleticism and otherworldly speed, then Simpson is your guy.

Simpson is still learning how to process the game and has his fair share of struggles in zone coverage, so being put in a man-heavy coverage scheme may suit him better. His upside is through the roof, so if he is matched with a team that can unlock his potential, don’t be surprised if he ends up being the top LB to come from this class.

The Lions met with Simpson at the NFL Combine per Tim Twentyman.

How he fits: WILL linebacker.

Round grade: Second-third round

Tier 2

DeMarvion Overshown (Texas), 6-foot-3, 229 pounds

Though I believe there is a decent gap between the top two tiers, there is still plenty of talent available in the early Day 3 range. Topping that sub-list is Overshown, who—aside from obviously being one of the top name bracket contenders in this entire draft—is an undersized, but high-upside athlete that tested really well at the combine. He is a former safety turned linebacker that has slowly but surely gotten better each year at his position. Lions linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard met with Overshown at Texas’ Pro Day.

How he fits: WILL linebacker with some pass rushing opportunities sprinkled in.

Round grade: Third-fourth round

Henry To’oTo’o (Alabama), 6-foot-1, 227 pounds

To’oTo’o is a high football IQ player that could potentially fill that “Hybrid” linebacker role for the Lions and play either the MIKE or WILL role. He has the frame but will need to bulk up and add some play strength to take on blocks as a run defender. Many believe he’s more suited for the WILL role due to his athletic ability. His 4.62 40-yard dash is good enough for that role, and his lateral agility is impressive.

How he fits: Hybrid linebacker; can fill MIKE or WILL role.

Round grade: Third-fourth round

Tier 3

Dorian Williams (Tulane), 6-foot-1, 228 pounds

Someone who is really trending upward right now is Dorian Williams, who impressed during Senior Bowl week and also had a big showing at the NFL Combine, running an official 4.49 40-yard dash.

Williams has the desired speed and coverage skills to be a very good WILL in the NFL. PFF gave him an 87.0 coverage grade in 2022. He also has a lot of special teams experience, which will help him see the field early if he ends up in a backup role right away.

How he fits: WILL linebacker; special teams contributor.

Round grade: Fourth-fifth round

Ivan Pace Jr. (Cincinnatti), 5-foot-10, 231 pounds

Consider me an Ivan Pace Jr. believer, and consider Malcolm Rodriguez a trailblazer of his time for getting me to believe in a guy like Pace. Just like Rodriguez, Pace is lacking in the height and length departments, but that didn’t stop him from being one of the most productive linebackers in the country.

Over the past two seasons, Pace totaled 262 tackles and 34.5 tackles for a loss. Pro Football Focus gave him a 90.7 run defense grade, and a 93.3 pass rush grade in 2022. He also recorded 50 run stops via PFF, which was second in the entire country.

How he fits: MIKE linebacker; role player/special teams.

Round grade: Fifth-sixth round

Noah Sewell (Oregon), 6-foot-1, 246 pounds

Sewell was one of the big winners during the NFL Combine after erasing some concerns about his assumed lack of athleticism. With adding his pro day agility numbers, Sewell scored an 8.30 RAS score, which is really good for someone that was believed to be a poor athlete.

On tape, Sewell looks stiff and clearly struggles when changing directions. He wins with his physicality and brute force. He was often used as a blitzing linebacker and was fairly good at it, so he’ll likely be a good fit for a team with blitz-heavy packages.

How he fits: MIKE linebacker that can rush the passer often.

Round grade: Fifth-sixth round

Cam Jones (Indiana), 6-foot-1, 226 pounds

In 2022, Jones only saw five games due to a foot injury he had been dealing with. In that time, he was one of the best run-defending linebackers in the country. Jones is a three-time captain and has the look of a traditional old-school middle linebacker. He’s built to be a run-stopping, downhill LB. Jones didn’t test all that well at the Combine and may be limited to being a two-down player and a special teams contributor.

How he fits: MIKE linebacker and special teams contributor.

Round grade: Fifth-sixth round

More Day 3 fits

Owen Pappoe (Auburn), 6-foot-0, 225 pounds - WILL linebacker

Anfernee Orji (Vanderbilt), 6-foot-1, 230 pounds - WILL linebacker

Ventrell Miller (Florida), 6-foot-0, 232 pounds - MIKE linebacker

Ben VanSumeren (Michigan State), 6-foot-1, 237 pounds - Special Teams

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