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Commanders’ 2023 Draft Player Roundup – Coverage Linebackers and Hybrid Defenders

More chess pieces for Jack Del Rio’s positionless backfield

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NC State v Clemson Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

The Commanders’ defensive back seven has evolved rapidly since Jack Del Rio took over as Defensive Coordinator from Greg Manusky. In yesterday’s 2023 nickelback position review, I touched on the fact that the nickel package, with two linebackers and five defensive backs, has become the base defense for most NFL teams.

Even so, most NFL teams that run a four-man defensive front, like the Commanders, still carry three off-ball linebackers who are capable of starting when needed. The Commanders made a curious decision to enter the 2022 season with only two. When Cole Holcomb went out with a season-ending foot injury in Week 7, there was a sharp dropoff in talent at the second linebacker position, as the Commanders were forced to start backups David Mayo and Jon Bostic in his place.

It wasn’t the total disaster that some of us had predicted, because the rest of the defense played so well. One of the adjustments that helped hide the athletic deficiencies of the Commanders’ linebacking corps is the use of Kam Curl and other safeties to cover tight ends and running backs running routes.

Nevertheless, with Holcomb hitting free agency this offseason, the Commanders have an obvious need to get younger and faster at linebacker. One skillset that they should look to add, in particular, is coverage ability. Jamin Davis made great strides in coverage in 2022, holding opposing QBs to a passer rating of 86.6 when targeted, down from 107.1 in 2021. Holcomb has been adequate in coverage throughout his career, posting a lifetime opposing passer rating of 99.5. If the Commanders can re-sign him, they will have the two main starting spots covered and should be able get by with continued reliance on the safeties.

Adding a young linebacker who excels in coverage would provide an additional dimension to the Commanders’ backfield, giving Del Rio even more flexibility to keep his best defenders on the field for three downs. It would also allow the team to move on from at least one of the career backups who currently fill out the depth chart. And who knows, if the Commanders hit on a draft pick, one day they might even be able to replace a starter without having to resort to free agency.

In this article, I will have a look at options in the draft for players with potential to excel in coverage in a linebacker role. These include players who project to a traditional weakside linebacker (WILL) role in the NFL and a few players whose best fit might be more of a hybrid linebacker/safety or Swiss army knife role in Del Rio’s defensive backfield.

Without giving away too many spoilers, there do not appear to be many NFL-ready coverage linebackers in the 2023 draft class. Most of the players who fit the profile are athletic middle linebackers who will need to shift outside in the NFL, or players who have recently transitioned from other roles. If the Commanders want to add this skillset to start in 2023, they will most likely have to find it in free agency. Most of the players in this draft class will, at best, provide depth in 2023, with the potential to challenge for starting roles in 2024 or later.

As an added bonus, all of these players project as core special teamers, even if they don’t manage to work their way onto the starting roster.

Round 1

Trenton Simpson, LB, Clemson

6-2, 235 lbs, 4.43 sec 40, RAS 9.86

Consensus Prospect Rank: 25

We start with a Swiss Army knife. Simpson has an elite athletic profile for a linebacker/hybrid defender. His value for the team that drafts him might depend on how he is used. His impact on defense in college peaked in 2021, when he was used as a chess piece, lining up as a WILL linebacker, slot defender, in the box and rushing from multiple positions. In 2022, he was moved to a more traditional WILL linebacker role and his tackle totals improved, but his impact on defense declined.

Despite his elite physical traits, he was not highly productive in coverage in college. He has the speed and movement skills to become an elite coverage linebacker, but he needs to develop his route diagnosis to anticipate routes in zone coverage.

Would the Commanders consider drafting Simpson at 16? Personally, I would be concerned about drafting a player this high whose elite athletic traits did not translate to elite production at the college level. On the other hand, Simpson is from a military family, and might be hard for Ron Rivera to resist.

Ole Miss v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Day 2

Henry To’oTo’o, LB, Alabama

6-1, 227 lbs, 4.62 sec 40, RAS 6.03

Consensus Prospect Rank: 69

To’oTo’o comes across as a high-floor prospect, who might have a fairly limited ceiling. It is difficult to really be sure what to make of To’oTo’o because there is considerable variance to his ratings. Some analysts (Draft Network, WalterFootball) describe him as a smart, instinctive linebacker with great speed and excellent coverage ability. While others (Lance Zeirlein, PFF) describe him as lacking speed and being just average in coverage. Where there does seem to be consensus is that he needs to get better at block deconstruction, most likely limiting him to a role at weakside linebacker in the NFL.

His 2021 and 2022 stats tell the story of a linebacker who is productive against the run, but didn’t show much in coverage. In 2022, he had 94 total tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and no interceptions or passes defended. According to PFF, he allowed 29 receptions on 39 targets in coverage (74.4% completion rate) and an opposing passer rating of 89.3, which is not bad, but falls short of elite. PFF’s coverage grade of 66.6 is a bit above average for the position.

Daiyan Henley, LB, Washington State

6-1, 225 lbs, 4.54 sec 40, RAS 8.89

Consensus Prospect Rank: 79

Commanders Meeting: Combine

Henley is a former wide receiver and defensive back who switched to linebacker in 2020. He is a developmental prospect and will be a challenge for creative defensive coordinators to find his best role in the NFL. He is an athletic, explosive and rangy player and takes good angles in run support. However, he has below average instincts for play development, is inconsistent in diagnosing plays in zone coverage, struggles to get off blocks and is easily taken out of plays. At this point in his development, he is a traits-based projection with the tools to develop into a starting WILL linebacker. He also gained experience as a kick returner in his previous roles as a defensive back and receiver.

For a player still learning his role, Henley had great production in 2022. He recorded 106 total tackles, 12 tackles for a loss, 4 sacks, 1 interception, 1 pass defended, and 3 forced fumbles.

NFL Combine Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Day 3

Dorian Williams, LB, Tulane

6-1, 228 lbs, 4.49 sec 40, RAS 8.54

BrisVegas Draft Projection: 4th round

Williams was a team captain and three-year starter, which will surely appeal to Ron Rivera. His prospect rating will depend on where teams project him to play. His lack of size and strength to take on blockers makes him a poor fit at MLB, which he played in college, but that is less of a concern if you project him to WILL, since he has excellent burst in open-field pursuit and excels in coverage. PFF gives him an 87.0 coverage grade, which ranks 8th among draft-eligible linebackers.

Williams was among the top 10 defensive players in the American Conference in 2022. He had 132 total tackles (9th in the NCAA), 8.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 7 passes defended and 2 forced fumbles.

Ivan Pace, LB Cincinnati

5-10.5, 231, 4.82 sec 40

BrisVegas Draft Projection: 4th to 5th round

Pace is a short, compact linebacker who has been described as a heat seeking missile with a nose for the ball. He has great instincts, explosive burst and contact balance to make him a force in the run game and as a blitzer. In coverage, he has good short-area quickness and instincts to drop into zone coverage. However, his lack of length and long speed are likely limit his ability to cover taller tight ends and faster receivers.

Pace was a 2022 Consensus All-American and AAC Defensive Player of the year. He was extremely productive, recording 136 total tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss (3rd in the NCAA), 9 sacks, 4 passes defended and 2 forced fumbles. He projects as a backup inside linebacker, but he strikes me as the kind of overachiever who might surprise and earn a starting position despite his limitations.

DeMarvion Overshown, LB, Texas

6-3, 229 lbs, 4.56 sec 40, RAS 8.51

BrisVegas Draft Projection: 4th to 5th round

Overshown is a converted safety who has shown steady improvement in play recognition and production over the past three seasons since making the switch. Overshown has exceptional sideline-to-sideline speed to make plays against the run and in coverage. He is fluid in zone coverage, has the athleticism to match up with slot receivers and the size to match up with big tight ends in man coverage. He is limited in his current role by poor read-and-react instincts. However, he is still developing and has the physical traits to become a quality starter at WILL LB at the NFL level. He has the tools to be a lights out special teamer as well if that doesn’t work out.

Overshown improved in most statistical categories in his final three years in college. In 2022 he had 96 total tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 0 interceptions and 5 passes defended.

I project him a round later than Hogs Haven’s dg28, as a developmental prospect with impressive physical tools.

Owen Pappoe, LB, Auburn

6-0, 225 lbs, 4.39 sec 40, RAS 9.24

BrisVegas Draft Projection: 5th to 6th round

Pappoe is a pure traits-based prospect. He is ranked 8th on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks list and not coincidentally, his nickname among Auburn teammates is Freak. At 6-0 and 225 lbs, he runs a sub-4.4 40 and bench presses 435 lbs. He played inside linebacker at Auburn and, despite his freakish traits was not highly productive due to subpar play recognition and poor block deconstruction. It is hoped that a switch to WILL will make better use of his athletic abilities as a pursuit linebacker and give him the opportunity to develop in pass coverage.

Nick Herbig, OLB, Wisconsin

6-2, 240 lbs, 4.65 sec 40, RAS 6.01

BrisVegas Draft Projection: 6th to 7th round

Herbig played as an edge rusher for Wisconsin, but lacks the size and strength to continue in that role in the NFL. He is a fast, fluid athlete with great instincts, and has the physical tools to convert to an off-ball linebacker in the NFL. He would be a developmental prospect who could earn an early roster foothold on special teams. My projection is based on that developmental plan. Teams that see him as a situational pass rusher might draft him earlier.

Marte Mapu, LB/S, Sacramento State

6-2, 217 lbs

BrisVegas Draft Projection: 7th Round

Mapu was a standout at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and at Senior Bowl practices before getting injured. He is a genuine tweener prospect who is described as great fun to watch, but could be a challenge for defensive coordinators to figure out how to use effectively. He played all over the defense at Sacramento State and has ideal traits to cover tight ends, but lacks the range for a single-high safety role. He struggles against blocks, which could be a major limitation as a linebacker. In 2022, he had 65 total tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 2 interceptions for 61 yards, and 4 passes defended. On the Commanders, he might be limited to a role as a dedicated Buffalo Nickel and special teamer.

Mohamoud Diabate, LB, Utah

6-4, 222 lbs

BrisVegas Draft Projection: 7th Round

Diabate is a rangy and athletic linebacker, who is physical and takes good angles in run support. While he has the physical tools to excel in coverage, he needs to get better at processing and reading routes. He switched from defensive end to off-ball linebacker in 2021 and is still learning the position. He would be a developmental project, who might never progress beyond being a backup and special teamer in the NFL, but that could still be good value late on Day 3.

Vrbo Fiesta Bowl - Michigan v TCU Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Dee Winters, LB, TCU

5-11, 227 lbs, 4.49 sec 40, RAS 6.05

BrisVegas Draft Projection: 7th Round

Winters projects as a developmental WILL linebacker and special teamer in the NFL. He has the physical tools to become a pursuit linebacker, but needs to work on route recognition to become an asset in coverage.

Micah Baskerville, LB, LSU

6-0.5, 221 lbs, 4.7 sec 40

BrisVegas Draft Projection: 7th round/UDFA

Baskerville played middle linebacker for LSU. He is a very instinctive and plays with high football IQ and a high motor. He is effective in run support, although much of his production comes through effort. He is effective in zone coverage in short to intermediate routes and plays with good discipline. He struggles to deconstruct blocks and would likely benefit from a switch to outside linebacker in the NFL.

In 2022 he had 89 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 interception for a touchdown and 8 passes defended.

Aubrey Miller Jr., LB, Jackson State University

6-2, 225 lbs, 4.85 sec 40

BrisVegas Draft Projection: 7th round/UDFA

Miller is a small school prospect who projects as a WILL linebacker. He is described as having great read-and-react instincts with the speed to go sideline to sideline, however, he may lack the fluidity and long speed to turn and run with tight ends in coverage. Nevertheless, PFF gives him a 91.9 coverage grade. He had 117 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 6 passes defended and 5 forced fumbles in 2022. He could be worth a look in the 7th round.

Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett


Poll

How early should the Commanders consider drafting a linebacker?

  • 2%
    First round
    (10 votes)
  • 38%
    Not before Day 2
    (142 votes)
  • 28%
    Not before Day 3
    (107 votes)
  • 28%
    Whenever he’s best player available
    (106 votes)
  • 1%
    Not this year. I am happy with the players we have.
    (5 votes)
370 votes total Vote Now