LB Evals: WILL LB’s

2019 Browns Will LB’s of Interest

Predicting Linebacker draft slots is really difficult. Every team sees each player a little differently and scheme fit and sub package strategies will drive value differently for everyone. Great example is Sutton Smith and Ben Burr-Kirven. Both kids were really productive in college, but I see them as very late Day 3 picks. However, I have seen both players slotted as high as the 3rd Round by national writers. Just crazy! But they both bring valuable skills to the table, the hardest part is layering enough of those skills together to make you effective, trustworthy and a difference-maker in the NFL. Hard to get that package right, which is why so few college players actually make it. Linebacker is truly a difficult position to play and it’s been evolving fast over the last 5-8 years. Some of the guys below fit the “old” linebacker model, not the new one.

We have to trust that Dorsey can find us another version of Genard Avery, who was a 5th Round gem of a find last year!

GOOD: Well-built for the job, with smooth acceleration, fluid hips, ability to mirror opponents in short zone. Strong against the run, plugging holes and making tackles with form and pop. Good range and vision for pursuit against the run to the outside.

BAD: Has trouble shedding in the run game. Lacks processing skills and anticipation. He’s slow to react, gets there a touch late and loses the ball pretty often. Described by one writer as a “see the ball get the ball” type player. Not going to be your field general.

BOTTOM LINE: A converted Safety who is still working to figure out the position, he is not ideal for a Mike role at the next level. Many have him pegged only as a Will linebacker in the pros, and I believe that is correct. If he put on weight over time and learned to shed, he might have the ability to play Sam and take advantage of his ability to run and cover. Has good physicality already and impressive pursuit range so this bodes well for the weak side role (converted Safety, so not a surprise).

Excellent athlete overall, and his Combine results might look a bit average but when considered all together he’s well put together and has some flexibility to him. Check out his stats below, fairly impressive for a player still figuring out his position. Impressive balls skills, with 8 INT’s and 14 Passes Defensed. Sacks are a little misleading as most of it came in one season (low level of competition?) but all of this adds to his narrative of being a guy with upside in the pros. Should be available in mid-rounds and offers great value starting in Round 4.

Stats Courtesy of Sports-Reference

GOOD: Idowu is one of my favorite Linebackers in the draft this year. He’s a guy I am rooting for and I believe has the kind of potential that Genard Avery had with speed, strength and athleticism that is being overlooked because more popular names from bigger schools dominate the narrative. Idowu is another converted Safety who is finding his way and once he was forced into a starting role as a Junior in Pitt’s Star (Nickel) LB position, he quickly became an impact player. By his Senior year he was starting to kill it.

Has the physical tools and athleticism to make impact plays. Needs more time to develop the mental side of the game to anticipate better and react faster, but his production in the last two years shows a commitment to that process improvement and excellent attitude to take coaching. Once he’s got the game figured out and stops thinking, he can bring to bear his significant physical talents and earn a starting position.

BAD: Still too slow reacting as the play develops. Doesn’t always trust his eyes or instincts and does not come with speed and violence, but instead hesitation. Needs to work on technique to shed faster and more effectively. Despite his size can get stuck on blockers easily at times and I think part of that stems from his hesitation. When he doesn’t know where he wants to go, he’s not moving fast or with power to get there…

BOTTOM LINE: I compare him to Genard Avery for a simple reason. I want to try to establish whether Idowu really has the athletic and physical traits to say yes, he does belong in the NFL conversation and he’s not going to be considered undersized or will need two years in the weight room to even see the field. Avery was a very low key pick that many other teams passed on, mostly due to his non-FBS school. Usually a guy with his near-elite physical gifts and 4 years of really good production would not fall an entire round or more below where he should have gone.

But part of the equation, and a big one for teams, is what will his role be in the NFL? Avery was a victim of that not knowing. But Dorsey looked at the kid and said “well what the f*ck is he good at?” and the answer was PRESSURING THE QB so he got Avery on the field very early by playing him at 5-Tech and Wide 9 which totally plays to his strengths. It got him early confidence. Then, they started phase 2 of his development by dropping him into coverage to see how he anticipated and could he mirror his guy in man coverage? His combine results and college tape showed a guy with very loose hips for his size and position, so Avery was able to be tested in that role as well and did a nice job last year being able to turn and run.

Check out his stats from his rookie season with us…he not only rewarded us with pressure and a few sacks, but he is showing ball skills too in coverage. Great sign.

Genard Avery 2018 Stat Line w/ Browns

I see Idowu as this year’s Avery, just not as a Rush LB, but in that hybrid LB/Safety role that some teams call Star and others call Rover or Money. Idowu has that Safety background and showed in his production as LB that he has ball skills. His physical profile looks comparable to Avery who we know passed the eyeball test really well and proved he was worth taking a chance on as a draft pick. Idowu I believe shows that same promise and playing him in that Star role that he is used to now from his Pitt days, he fits perfectly into the zone-heavy, sub-package heavy, base scheme that Steve Wilkes wants to run. We don’t necessarily need to be trying to find the traditional LB prototype, as I think Wilkes will lean towards a roster with extra hybrids or pure Safeties in place of more Linebackers. It might take Avery and Idowu a few years to reach a Pro Bowl level of play, but it can happen when you draft for base physical traits and build on that foundation.

Just for fun, go look up James Harrison’s stats for his Pro career. He came into the NFL from Kent State, where he had zero production. Similar in size as Avery & Idowu. His production looked ok in the TFL department in the run game, but eventually he figured out how to get real pressure on the QB on passing downs. Took him 5 years but he finally put it all together and was awarded 1st Team All Pro and a Pro Bowl position. Long way to pay dirt, but Harrison played for another 12 years and ended up one of the best LB’s to ever play.

Idowu vs Avery Combine Results
Seun Idowu College Stats
Genard Avery College Stats

GOOD: Rangy and fast, makes plays everywhere on the field. Can come downhill and lay hits in the run game. Pretty good coverage linebacker as well, with good form tackling. Fluid hips for the position, can turn and run with his assignment in coverage or make a mistake and recover quickly and smoothly to get back into the play.

BAD: While he has good anticipation, misdirection plays are his kryptonite. He bites every time. Plays smaller than you’d think at nearly 240 lbs because he lacks the functional strength against blockers to shed cleanly and quickly in order to make plays.

BOTTOM LINE: Allen can definitely play in the NFL, but the question is what role suits him the best? He is better against the run than in coverage, but he has trouble shedding, so I see him moving to Will where he can play in space, cover, run and chase. He’s got great play speed and with his good anticipation skills he can get there faster than others. Showed good ball skills too, with INT’s in his first two seasons. Needs coaching to improve at the position and some time in the weight room will greatly improve his impact at the next level.

GOOD: Johnson is one of my personal favorites in this draft and I hope that the Browns have their eye on him. He is the PERFECT zone LB/Safety hybrid and he possesses demonic speed. Has the ability to come downhill between gaps and lay hits so fast that his opponent can’t even get out of the backfield! Excellent zone player, which he prefers, but also not a liability in man coverage. Generally has good form tackling, going low to get them to the ground quickly.

BAD: Not super fluid mover in space. Highly overaggressive at times, coming in so hot he runs out of the play or misses easy tackles in the backfield. Does not wrap up at times because he’s moving to fast, not setting his feet to come to contact.

BOTTOM LINE: I believe Gary Johnson is going to be a very high quality zone Linebacker in the NFL. A community college transfer, he needs coaching badly to help him understand why it’s important to slow down, gather his feet and make the proper tackle. He is still learning the position and his stats reflect steady improvement. Check out his TFL’s and Sacks in his last year…that is high level production against good competition.

I think he is anxious to make impact plays and since he is a slightly stiff athlete, he uses his speed to get there fast. But Johnson is the perfect developmental LB in that he brings the things you can’t teach which is speed, heart and aggressiveness. Those are traits you want. His ability to make plays behind the line suggests he’d be a helluva blitzer and possibly an edge rusher like Avery, but his size means he needs to be covered up by the DL until he can burst through. He is a significant piece for sub-packages at a minimum, if not a starter by Year 3. Excellent value starting in Round 6.

Stats Courtesy of Sports-Reference

GOOD: Versatility, strength and speed are Farmer’s calling cards. He’s a relentless worker and pursuer on the field, never giving up on the play. He has tremendous strength in his hands and arms so that when he gets hold of you to tackle, you are NOT getting away, you’re going down for sure. His timed speed matches his play speed and he has excellent range as a result. A tremendous athlete that needs coaching and learning time but offers the multiple role skill sets for Safety, LB, blitzing, man cover and zone.

BAD: Lacks experience, playing time and production. Despite being one of the most respected players on the Penn State team, Farmer was just getting the hang of his role when Micah Parsons hit campus as one of the best LB prospects in the nation in years and Farmer lost most of his playing time. He was bounced between Safety and LB several times and never even played on the Defensive side of the ball until college. His instincts and anticipation skills are hard to know since he lacked playing time as well as experience.

BOTTOM LINE: I love Farmer’s story and he represents a true Sleeper pick in this draft. He got zero love over the last year, snubbed for the Combine and lost his playing time to a freshman in his Senior year when he should have been boosting his draft stock with production. However, he remains one of the most positive players you’ll ever meet and went to his Pro Day and absolutely blew the doors off. His speed and athleticism came blasting through the drills and scouts realized how they had overlooked him.

He can play multiple positions and despite lacking experience, the rover/hybrid LB/Safety role is what he is perfectly suited for and is the modern NFL LB model. Timing couldn’t be better. Even more importantly, as a freshman Farmer was used to return kicks which he did VERY well and so he start to impact right away as a gunner and as a returner. That speed and his tackling skills will make your Special Teams coach drool. Farmer was likely to be an UDFA, but now could go as early as the 6th Round, which might be a touch too high considering how much time he will need to impact. Excellent value as developmental player in the 7th.