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Five big LB questions heading into the 2019 season

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Kenneth Murray
Kenneth Murray (AP Images)

Pro Football Focus is an invaluable resource to dive deeper into statistics when thinking about college football and the NFL Draft. Here is a breakdown of five linebacker storylines heading into next season, what their numbers could mean down the road and the opinion of National Recruiting Director Mike Farrell.

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1. Do Oklahoma linebackers get enough credit? 

Overview: The standard line when it comes to Big 12 play is that offenses are really good and that defenses are pitiful so that’s why scores are so high. But a look at the top of the Pro Football Focus grades for linebackers shows that the Sooners have some players at linebacker that should not be overlooked.

Curtis Bolton (106) and Kenneth Murray (104) were seventh and eighth among linebackers nationally in tackles. That’s not even counting former five-star Caleb Kelly, who also had a productive season for the Sooners and with Murray should form one of the best linebacker duos next season in the Big 12, if not the country. Bolton was not at the NFL Combine but he could make some NFL team happy because of his production.

Farrell’s take: Murray and Kelly are talented players, and I think the issue for Oklahoma is mostly in pass rush and in the secondary, especially. The linebackers have missed their share of tackles, but they have also been very steady at times. With new direction in the defense I think Murray and Kelly will be leaders and the strength of the defense as the pass rush improves. The big question will be about pass protection.


2. What happened to that star-studded 2016 class? 

Keandre Jones
Keandre Jones (AP Images)

Overview: There were 10 - count them, 10 - linebackers that achieved five-star status in the 2016 class, but by large measure the prospects did not back up their ranking or the jury is still very much out before we close the book on their college career.

Here’s the list: At inside linebacker, it was Ben Davis, Mique Juarez and Tre Lamar, and Lamar has clearly had the best career so far as he heads off to the NFL Draft. At outside linebacker, the list read Rahshaun Smith, Erick Fowler, Caleb Kelly, Lyndell Wilson, Curtis Robinson, Keandre Jones and Daelin Hayes. Some of these guys have been in-and-out of football, some have made a serious impact and others, well, have not.

Farrell’s take: Ugh. I knew when we had 10 linebackers as five stars it might come back and bite us in the butt. I wasn’t sold on certain guys like Robinson, Jones and Hayes, and I had questions about Juarez, but the team really liked them and the lead analysts in their regions went to bat for them. It’s going to be a very disappointing class and some of it I can’t understand. I have no idea how Davis and Smith have not become stars yet. It puzzles me greatly. It was a learning lesson for sure.


3. Did everyone just miss on Northwestern’s Paddy Fisher?

Overview: Fisher played more snaps (1,019) than any other Power Five linebacker last season, and he finished with 103 tackles, tied for ninth most nationally with Purdue’s Markus Bailey, the only other Power Five linebacker to play more than 1,000 snaps last season.

Fisher, a former low three-star linebacker from Katy, Texas, has a top 10 grade for his rush defense, a decent grade for pass defense and continues to prove he’s one of the most productive linebackers in the country. So how did so many in-state and regional powers miss on Fisher in the recruiting process, with only Baylor and Houston offering him from the Texas schools?

Farrell’s take: Fisher wasn’t the biggest linebacker in the world coming out of high school, but he wasn’t small either. So I think he was missed because of questions regarding his athleticism and his quick-twitch ability. Sometimes instincts at the linebacker position are hard to gauge on film and we didn’t get to see Fisher in person much at all. I think the same can be said for the schools that passed and didn’t recruit him. There were other elite linebackers in that class that everyone pursued. He slipped through the cracks and Northwestern found themselves a gem. That’s how deep the talent in Texas can be.


4.  Will Owen Pappoe prove to be a five-star talent?

Overview: One of the justifications to not make Pappoe a five-star in the 2019 recruiting class were concerns over his size, since he was listed at 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds coming out of Loganville (Ga.) Grayson, and now at Auburn the former four-star is listed at the same height, but now at 210 pounds.

Even though his size has not been ideal for elite SEC or NFL standards, Pappoe was highly productive in high school with 121 tackles in his senior season, and there’s no question he’s a pretty special athlete as well. With so many offenses moving to spread looks, is the era of big, thumping linebackers less important and smaller, less physically imposing linebackers being slightly overlooked when it comes to ranking considerations?

Farrell’s take: Pappoe is a victim of his own early success I believe. He was on the radar so early and often and was so big in middle school that expectations became huge by his senior year and he was expected to have filled out much more. With his athleticism he could be a guy we look back on and regret dropping from a five-star if he fills out and adds strength. We know he will test well at the NFL Combine down the road, so I guess it comes down to how his film is and how productive he is in college. Right now I don’t think he will be a five-star, otherwise we would have had him ranked as such, but anything can happen.


5.  Is Evan Weaver the next Ben Burr-Kirven?

Evan Weaver (left)
Evan Weaver (left) (AP Images)

Overview: Washington’s Ben Burr-Kirven played 892 snaps last season, and he was insanely productive at linebacker, totaling 117 tackles. He went to the combine and now Burr-Kirven is off to the NFL. Next up in the Pac-12 could be Cal’s Evan Weaver, who was nipping at the heels of those stats last season and could be way more productive for the Golden Bears now that Jordan Kunaszyk is gone.

Last season, Weaver had 115 tackles on 881 snaps and his numbers would probably have been even higher if not for Kunaszyk, who finished with 109 stops. Cal and Oklahoma were the only schools nationally to have two linebackers finish with more than 100 tackles on the season.

Farrell’s take: Weaver doesn’t get a ton of attention because Cal doesn’t get a ton of attention. But he’s a terrific player and could have a huge season. Burr-Kirven was also a victim of what Pac-12 fans call “East Coast bias,” as he didn’t get much attention but had a great year and will be a surefire pro. I think Weaver is the next in line, and he was almost as good as Burr-Kirven last year.