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The case against drafting linebackers in the first round

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Avoiding an inside linebacker in the first round is good for business

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Undoubtedly, draft twitter is in love with the idea of the Baltimore Ravens selecting an inside linebacker in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft in April. Patrick Queen and Kenneth Murray have been mocked to the Ravens by ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS, NFL Network, the Baltimore Sun, CNN, MTV, VH1, NASA, the USDA . . . okay, maybe not all of these, but you get the point.

Queen and Murray both have traits that make them intriguing prospects. Queen reads his keys as if he knows what play is coming against the run as well as when defending screens, while Murray has sideline to sideline speed and is an explosive closer in space.

They also have their flaws . . .

Queen barely has a full season under his belt as a starter. He also had quite a few awkward missed tackles in the open field, while seemingly being fixated on reading the opposing quarterback’s eyes instead of having route recognition to undercut passes. Murray rarely makes plays unless he’s kept clean from offensive lineman, which is alarming considering he didn’t play in the B1G or SEC.

Regardless, both players have potential to turn into quality starters by the end of their rookie contracts, with traits that could lead to a strong amount of splash plays early on. However, first round linebackers rarely distinguish themselves as immediately reliable starters.

Being a productive inside linebacker requires a wide range of mental and technical experience, which require a significant amount of time, particularly in the film room.It’s rare that a rookie, regardless of their 40 time or highlight reel, will be able to read their keys faster than an experienced veteran.

Over the past decade, only two first round inside linebackers have garnered a 75.0 grade or higher from PFF. PFF examined the historical draft success relative to draft position of each offensive and defensive position.

Their findings pertaining to linebackers?

Linebackers simply aren’t asked to do as much at the collegiate level, particularly in coverage. Finding linebackers with outstanding coverage ability is . . . difficult.

The quality of passing outside the power five conferences in college football is typically quite poor. This means that linebackers aren’t expected to be as depended upon in coverage. There just isn’t enough necessity to showcase what linebackers can do, which makes them more of a projection, which is synonymous with uncertainty.

In fact, of the Top 20 highest-graded inside linebackers that played at least 20% of their team’s snaps in 2019, only Luke Kuechly was a first round selection. On the other hand, four of the Top 20 started out as a UDFA. By comparison, cornerbacks, edge defenders, and interior defensive lineman have a much higher correlation between where they are drafted and how they perform.

Linebacker is a similar role, in theory, to running back. Each require the physical ability to engage with or outrun players at all three levels. However, the most valuable players are weapons in both the run game and the pass game.

The best value for each position seems to come from low cost signings, while there are higher draft picks that certainly make an impact, the correlation simply isn’t there in comparison with other positional groups.

C.J. Mosley and Ezekiel Elliott aren’t worth their nearly $200 million combined price tag

With all of that being said, if there’s a prospect that shows ability, versatility, durability and experience, then they will certainly warrant a first round selection. In the 2020 draft, that player is Isaiah Simmons. While he’s not a traditional inside linebacker, he doesn’t need to be in order to be the best player on a football field.

Simmons shows up against the run, in coverage and when rushing the passer consistently. Murray and Queen show up against the run, but they aren’t nearly as consistent in coverage.

While Ravens fans have long valued the inside linebacker tradition in Baltimore because of 1996 first round draft pick and inside linebacker Ray Lewis, the league, and the sport for that matter, have undergone significant changes. Linebacker simply ain’t what it used to be.

With the Ravens clearly in a “Super Bowl window” they need to nail free agency and the draft. In order to do so, they should steer clear of an inside linebacker in the first round. The smarter move would be to find a veteran free agent, make a trade for one, or to use mid round picks on experienced players who seem competent in coverage.

Maybe the Ravens do end up selecting Murray or Queen, who contribute early on and solidify the middle of the Ravens defense. That still doesn’t mean that:

  1. They were the best value at 28.
  2. They couldn’t have found another viable option later in the draft.

Remember, the exception isn’t the norm, and history tells us that first round linebackers don’t stack up any better or worse than their peers who are selected in later rounds.

While filling out the linebacker room is high on the offseason priority list, it’s best if done modestly while investing in positions that yield higher impact relative to the capital required. That’s showbiz.