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Who has my (line)back(er)? Ravens linebacker draft preview

Let’s take a look at the 2020 linebacker class

College Football Playoff National Championship - Clemson v LSU Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker room and depth chart currently consists of L.J. Fort, Chris Board, Jake Ryan and Otaro Alaka. The recent signing of Ryan doesn’t mean that the Ravens can count on him to be in the fold for the 2020 season.

Fort has never been close to a full time starter over a full season. The most snaps he’s taken defensively were his 305 as a member of the Steelers in 2017. He saw eight starts in 2019 and the Ravens used him more frequently than any other team he’s been a member of.

Chris Board has shown solid special teams play, but is yet to flash defensively. Otaro Alaka was the SEC’s highest-graded run defending linebacker according to PFF in 2018. He hasn’t taken a regular season snap yet, but hopefully can be a thumper against run heavy teams down the road.

The Ravens have one of, if not the weakest inside linebacker room in the NFL. They absolutely must have a new face in the room by the end of this upcoming weekend.

The first thing you want from a linebacker is consistency in reading keys, filling holes and ending the play as a tackler. The job is linebacker. They literally back the defensive line as support in the run game. Say what you want about the “modern NFL linebacker” but you can’t play if you can’t fill gaps and stop the run.

The second most important ability is to hold ground and shed blocks, especially offensive linemen working to the second level. Do they have “pop” in their pads to stun blockers? Do they use their hands? Do they keep their chest clean? Can they get off the block and make a play?

Pass coverage is what takes linebackers over the top. Being able to I.D route combinations based on the formation, read the passer and jump passing lanes takes instincts and intense study habits.

Players who struggle in coverage are easy to see. They’re late, whether mentally or physically. They don’t turn and run well. Being able to matchup in man coverage and run with backs out of the backfield is a cherry on top, which separates the good from the great.

With all of that in mind. . .

Let’s take a look at the best candidates to take snaps for the Ravens in 2020 and beyond.

Patrick Queen, LSU

First of all, Queen is 20-years-old. Remember that when evaluating him.

His youth is what makes his ability to diagnose blocking concepts and destroy them so impressive. Queen is either a certified film junkie, or had the radio frequency to the opposing teams play caller in his helmet headset.

So regularly, Queen beats pulling blockers to their spot and creates a traffic jam for ball carriers. Queen isn’t a huge linebacker, but he attacks blockers with reckless abandon to compensate.

I share a special affinity for Queen’s use of the push-pull, which is my all-time favorite move to shed a blocker. He stuns with the hands, shocking blockers backwards, then yanks then forward - forcing them to fall on their face. This push-pull method uses momentum against a blocker and propels the defender forward toward the ball carrier.

Queen is doing advanced level work to stack and shed blockers at such a young age, it makes him a truly exciting prospect.

Queen also has flashed really strong coverage ability, although LSU, like many other college programs, typically has their inside linebackers simply “play the hole.”

In other words, Queen was a deep-spy of the quarterback who would just read the opposing signal-caller’s eyes in a shallow hook, while waiting for them to take off and scramble, them chasing them when they do.

That’s why I say Queen flashed, rather than saying he dominated the passing game like he did against the run. Queen had instances of the highest possible level coverage quite a few times.

Queen blew up quite a few screens, showed he could hang on HB option routes and stuck inside hip pocket on wheel routes. Queen is a first-round linebacker, who is only 20, and possesses high level ability at all essential duties of his position.

The one knock on Queen is some shoddy open field tackling at times, where he doesn’t use his arms to secure the ball carrier. Alabama’s Najee Harris ran through Queen a few times in their 2019 matchup.

Technique is the culprit, not ability. Queen flattened offensive linemen regularly, so with a little fine-tuning, his tackling consistency will come in due time.

In order to draft Queen, the Ravens might have to trade up. Young, smart, athletic linebackers from blue blood programs don’t typically last until the 28th pick.

Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma

Murray is a frustrating evaluation. His highlights are incredible. Size, speed, power, range and physicality are all evident when Murray is in chase mode.

He closes to the flats and ends plays better than anyone in this class.

In space, he’s a freight train. The catch is, Murray doesn’t always know where the ball is going. His blocking concept recognition, especially after immediately comparing to Patrick Queen (who was playing against SEC competition) is concerning.

Pairing that with Murray’s less-than-stellar ability to shed blockers and complete lack of use in coverage creates two strong areas of concern for Murray.

If the play/gap opens up before Murray’s eyes, he is a great, but he should be great in that situation. Murray adds an extra element that separates him from the other inside linebackers in this class. He has lined up as a standup edge and seen success!

Murray has a killer instinct with the dog mentality required to be a devastating linebacker at the next level. He shows it time and time again in space.

The Ravens do a great job maximizing linebacker’s potential. With Brandon Williams, Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe, Matthew Judon and company clearing the way, Murray could have a simplified role and be allowed the space to run and chase plays as he develops his processing ability.

Murray might take some time to become a factor as a pass defender in coverage, which would go a long way towards making him a three down player.

Murray is my fourth highest-rated inside linebacker an I have a second-round grade for him. I believe if he can diagnose power gap concepts more effectively and use his hands to shed, he will quickly become an impact player.

The Ravens might not see Murray at 28. His high character and athletic ability could easily see him go in the top-20. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Murray go ahead of Queen, but Queen has already shown the ability to do the things Murray needs work on. Murray would be a long shot to fall past the first few picks of the second round.

Malik Harrison, Ohio St.

Malik Harrison is a thumper from the B1G. He doesn’t just get off blocks, he embarrasses them.

Harrison brings the noise as a tackler, which isn’t surprising considering his big hits on linemen. He always gets insanely low and coils before shooting for the waist. He hits through his target, having some of the most textbook form tackles in this class.

Ahead of the draft, a “group think” narrative has been established that Harrison can’t cover and isn’t an impressive athlete. That narrative is hyperbole, if not entirely false.

Harrison was asked to do more in coverage at Ohio State than Kenneth Murray or Patrick Queen were asked to do in their respective defensive assignments. He was often asked to walk out over slot receivers and tight ends, then occupy the flat-curl. Harrison would do his best to get his hands on receivers to reroute them.

He was also asked to match crossers, then and run with them. Harrison had his fair share of routes that slipped behind him, but he certainly wasn’t a weak point in his defense.

Harrison posted a 6.83s in the 3-cone drill, which is an insanely good score for his size and style of play. Harrison actually posted a historically good combine among big linebackers.

That is . . . pretty good company.

Harrison is strongest between the tackles, but lacking the same dynamic range that Kenneth Murray, Patrick Queen and Jordyn Brooks possess.

In space, elite athletes can make him miss. Travis Etienne was able to run away from Harrison and the Buckeyes defense a few times.

Malik Harrison tested quite similarly to Cowboys’ LB Leighton Vander Esch and I believe is similar stylistically to the former Boise State product, but perhaps not quite as special.

Harrison should be available with the 28th pick, then perhaps at 55, but I wouldn’t count on him being on the board past the top 50 picks.

Jordyn Brooks, Texas Tech

Brooks and Kenneth Murray played in the same conference with almost identical roles in their defense. Both have great range, make plays behind the line of scrimmage and had relatively limited duties in coverage.

Brooks was a better processor and took on blocks more successfully. He does a great job getting into a lateral slide against developing runs, keeping his outside arm free before opening his hips, turning and then chasing to the sideline.

Brooks hasn't generated nearly as much buzz as Murray but shows the patience, intelligence and block-shedding ability to step in and play right away. Brooks had surgery for a torn labrum after the season, which prevented him from participating in the Senior Bowl and most events at the combine.

The injury could be a red flag. Brooks was also a four-year starter for the Red Raiders, which certainly put a toll on his body. He also had a limited role in coverage in 2019, but going back to 2018 and before, Brooks flashed strong ability.

Overall, if Brooks’ shoulder situation has been green lighted by teams, he’s ready to go play MIKE for an NFL defense early on. Another top-level talent in this class, I would be surprised to see Brooks at 55 or 60, but one of the top four (Queen, Murray, Harrison and Brooks) should be available.

Those four constitute the top level inside linebackers for me. Murray has two areas of concern and might be better suited playing an outside linebacker role early on, but he has absolutely dominant traits and flashes.

Moving on to the second tier of inside linebackers . . .

Logan Wilson, Wyoming.

Wilson will be 24 when he steps on an NFL field for the first time. He’s one of the older prospects in the draft and plays like it, rarely being out of place or failing to execute his assignment.

Wilson had a prolific career at Wyoming, posting over 400 career tackles and making 24 plays on the ball (14 passes defended, 10 interceptions).

Wilson displays a strong understanding of leverage, route concepts and levels in zone coverage. I wouldn’t trust him to play a ton in man coverage or carry routes downfield well, but he’s adept in the hook-curl areas of zone.

He baits QB’s into throws, which is how Wilson has made so many plays on the ball.

Wilson is a solid tackler who rarely gave up ground. He stays square to his target and rarely overruns the ball. He has a natural feel for keeping his chest clean from blockers, while his eyes track the ball. Wilson methodically and efficiently finds the ball and ends plays, seemingly every other snap.

Wilson didn’t play against top-level competition and is already at his athletic ceiling (turns 24 in July), but he will bring steady, mature play to an NFL linebacker room. However, he may never be a superstar. I wouldn’t trust him to carry seam speed, and there is certainly a difference between shedding blockers from the Mountain West and the AFC North.

Wilson should be available in the second round, but I would be somewhat surprised to see him last until the 92nd pick that the Ravens hold in the third round.

Willie Gay Jr., Mississippi State.

Willie is the biggest boom or bust linebacker in the 2020 class. He absolutely destroyed the NFL Combine, somewhat stealing the show away from Isaiah Simmons.

Gay posted a 4.46s 40 at 243 pounds. He also posted outstanding explosion scores with his 39.5 inch vertical and positional best 136 inch broad jump. All three scores ranked in the top two at his position.

Gay showed that explosion on tape whenever he played. The problem is that Gay didn’t play enough. He was suspended eight games in 2019 for an academic violation involving a tutor taking tests for 11 Bulldog athletes.

With only six career starts, Gay flashed, but with the little amount of experience and production, Gay is mostly projection rather than prospect.

When he flashed, though, he flashed.

Gay has elite instincts and I.Q. in coverage. He can run with slot receivers, mirror backs and shows uncanny change of direction ability in space. While lacking the experience necessary to shoot gaps at a high level, Gay is the rare linebacker who excels in coverage while needing more polish against the run.

With his athletic profile, ability in coverage, sideline to sideline speed and tackling ability, Gay could very well be the best linebacker in this class three years from now. With his red flags, inexperience and need to be coached up, he could very well be a wasted pick all the same.

Gay is more athlete than linebacker at this point and will need refinement against the run. He’s currently a third-down weapon with range and coverage ability. A team like the Ravens, who typically coach up their linebackers (although Kenny Young and Patrick Onwuasor didn’t take the next step) would need to exhibit patience with Gay, who needs to commit to a professional and mature approach early on.

Gay was the second highest-rated OLB in his recruiting class, coming out of Starkville, MS. He stayed in Starkville, choosing his hometown Bulldogs as a four star recruit.

A change of scenery could very will force Gay to sink or swim.

Projections for Gay are all over the place in mock drafts. PFF has Gay as a top-40 player. His athletic traits are so strong that a team could take a chance on him in the early second round, but with a strong crop of capable, proven linebackers, Gay could very well slip into the third round, too.

Not often do prospects with such a high athletic caliber find themselves on the board, but crazier things have happened. I would expect Gay to be drafted between 60-92, forcing the Ravens to take an early chance on him or risk missing him in the third round.

Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian St.

“ADG” isn’t necessarily an inside linebacker. He logged over 200 snaps at inside linebacker, edge and in the slot separately in 2019. He fits the mold of the “modern” linebacker more than a traditional MIKE.

The 2019 Sun-Belt Defensive Player of the Year plays outside runs and carries the seam with the best of them. Davis-Gaither is adept at slipping blockers with aggression and quickness, but lacks length to really stack and shed.

ADG is in the mold of the Isaiah Simmons of the world, where he will be an excellent matchup player who doesn’t have a defined position. If you were to assign him a position, it’s “WILL” linebacker.

His ability to rush the passer, play the slot and make plays against the run make him a versatile chess piece, who can simply blitz, cover and tackle.

ADG was unable to participate in the combine due to injury but very well could’ve run in the 4.45-4.55s range and generated much more buzz.

Davis-Gaithers will make a name for himself on special teams early on with his speed and physicality. I would expect him to be a staple of exotic packages on third down in a blitz heavy scheme.

Without the combine and a slight injury, ADG could be a steal. I believe that he will be drafted in the third round, possibly falling to 92 where the Ravens could nab him, although he’s not the traditional MIKE that fans want.

Troy Dye, Oregon

Troy Dye said at the combine that he models his game after Anthony Barr and Fred Warner. It’s easy to see how that shows up, especially in coverage.

Dye is also as tough as they come, as he played with a club on one hand for the majority of 2019 (broken thumb required offseason surgery which kept him from participating in the Senior Bowl). He also played in the Rose Bowl with a torn meniscus.

While Dye is tough and impressive in coverage, he plays a bit light. He’s more of a big safety playing linebacker in his build, but don’t tell him that. Dye sheds blocks well, but fails to square up or engage his legs in tackles a bit too often.

Dye was a tackling machine, don’t get it twisted.

Size is not a skill, but Dye is definitely light in the pants. His frame is lanky as opposed to stout. He will occasionally get run over, but he makes up for it with coverage splash plays and general bad-assery tenfold.

Dye is more of a weak-side linebacker, but he takes on blocks, stacks, sheds and finds the ball well enough to play NFL linebacker. He might get run through in space by bigger backs, but he’s an aggressive tackler.

Another four-year starter, Dye has had some injury issues that might plague him and derail his career, but has rebounded and recovered to high levels of play well enough to shake that concern.

Dye could go anywhere from the end of the second round through the third or fourth round. He’s been a special player since his freshman year, where he was an All-American and sustained high level play through the 2019 season.

His smooth play in coverage and pesky ball skills will guarantee he sees the field eventually while trying to add strength in his lower half. Dye reminds me of Mychal Kendricks, and I see him having similar roles with the potential to be more consistent.

Those listed have early four-down potential as linebackers. There are also two-down linebackers who thrive as run-stuffers like Evan Weaver and Shaquille Quarterman.

Guys like Joe Bachie and David Woodward have production, toughness and leadership ability, while figuring to contribute on special teams with the traits to be role players and potentially starters down the road.

Chris Orr from Wisconsin is another intriguing prospect, who I’ve profiled several times. He lacks length, but has shown to be competent in coverage while taking on blocks well and shooting gaps with menacing pop in his pads.

The Ravens will likely add one of these players that I’ve profiled during the draft, then try to nab at least one UDFA linebacker that could come in and compete, which they’ve done so often over the years.

The best fits, in my opinion, are Patrick Queen, Jordyn Brooks and/or Malik Harrison. The Ravens need a MIKE and those guys fill the profile.

Queen, due to his youth and processing, will likely be off the board. I could see a team falling in love with Kenneth Murray because of his dominant range and high character. Jordyn Brooks could be a surprise first-round pick, depending on his medical status.

I would be shocked if the Ravens don’t address the linebacker room with one of their first four selections (28, 55, 60 or 92).