Ask Farrell: What's the best way to evaluate linebackers?
When it comes to certain positions such as quarterback or the offensive line, it’s often difficult to project players years down the line and how they will turn out.
Linebacker is becoming trickier, too.
Here’s why: Devin White was the first linebacker taken in the 2019 NFL Draft – and he was ranked as a four-star fullback in high school. Kentucky’s Josh Allen was the second linebacker taken, and his only offer out of high school was from the Wildcats.
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There were plenty of questions about Devin Bush’s size coming out of high school. The four-star inside the Rivals250 was a shade under 6-foot and that was a reason why he wasn’t ranked higher.
At 6-foot-5 and 277 pounds, former five-star defensive tackle Rashan Gary was drafted in the first round and is listed as a linebacker.
When it comes to linebackers in today’s college game and in the NFL, all shapes and sizes are expected and seemingly the only attributes that matter are athleticism, instincts and productivity.
Which brings us to the 2020 recruiting class and the lengthy discussions about where Oregon’s Noah Sewell should have been ranked. At the NFL Scouting Combine, Ohio State’s Malik Harrison was the heaviest linebacker at 247 pounds. Sewell is already 260 pounds and his brother, Penei Sewell, is listed at 330 pounds, so it’s not an incredible leap to think Noah Sewell will add more weight in the coming years.
There were six five-star linebackers in the 2020 class, which feels like a lot but all of the players were highly talented and productive, and projected as stars at the next level and beyond.
But linebacker has proven to be a difficult position to figure out from an evaluation standpoint – and also from a projection standpoint. There were five taken in the first round last draft. There might only be one or two – Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons and Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray seem to lead draft boards now – so volume isn’t always high.
We ask Rivals National Recruiting Director Mike Farrell if there is a secret to his thoughts on the linebacker position and whether size seems to matter now?
“Don’t get me started on linebackers. They have become very difficult to project and read. Yes, we had players like Devin White and Devin Bush as four-stars, but there’s no way we saw first-rounder in either of them, to be honest. The same can be said about Roquan Smith.
"Josh Allen was a tough projection because he played wide receiver until his senior year of high school, but imagine telling me Rashan Gary would be drafted as a linebacker? The 2016 class we had 10 – that's right, 10 – linebackers as five-stars and overall it’s been a disastrous result.
"Size doesn’t matter anymore, it seems, as both White and Bush aren’t long, so we try to focus on explosion and now we are keeping an eye on big safeties that could grow into linebackers. But to be honest, this position has become one of the hardest to project in recent years.”