Buyer-beware when drafting these 3 linebacker prospects

Jeff Dooley identifies three high-profile LB prospects with plenty of question marks surrounding their play.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Buyer-beware when drafting these 3 linebacker prospects

In preparation for the 2016 NFL draft, PFF’s team of analysts has spent the past few months putting together our overall draft board and positional prospect rankings.

In doing so, PFF has identified players at each position who qualify as “buyer-beware” prospects, based on where these players are showing up on most evaluators’ draft boards. Here are three such prospects among this year’s linebacker class.

1. Darron Lee, Ohio State

Click here for full scouting report.

To be clear, our analysts like Lee as a potential Day 2 pick—they just don’t love him as a first-round selection, which is where he is showing up on many other draft boards. Lee made some terrific highlight-reel plays for Ohio State, but his play-by-play production was inconsistent. He ranked just 27th in this year’s linebacker class in overall grade, and actually earned a slightly negative grade in pass coverage, ranking 74th. That’s surprising given Lee’s reputation, but is backed up by two more concerning numbers: Lee allowed the 12th-highest yards per coverage snap average in the class, and had seven missed tackles on receivers after the catch, giving him the fourth-worst tackling efficiency on passing plays. This difficulty in getting ball-carriers to the ground shows up in run defense as well, as his run-stop percentage was the fourth-worst in this linebacker class. Again, there is a lot to like about Lee’s game, and he was asked to do a lot in Ohio State’s defense. But the gap between Lee and UCLA’s Myles Jack—another off-ball linebacker celebrated for his athletic ability—is significant on the PFF draft board.

2. Deion Jones, LSU

Jones is an intriguing prospect because of his athletic ability, but his performance in our PFF college grades indicate he is a big risk as an NFL prospect for teams considering him in the middle rounds. Out of 145 qualifying linebackers in this year’s class, Jones ranked No. 130 in PFF’s overall grades. He earned a positive grade as a pass-rusher, but was a major liability both in run defense and in pass coverage. Jones missed 12 tackles against the run in 2015, which gave him the fourth-worst tackling efficiency at his position. Jones may look the part of an NFL linebacker, but the college production simply wasn’t there.

3. Antonio Morrison, Florida

Morrison didn’t grade out much better than Jones did in 2015, ranking No. 127 of 145 qualifying linebackers. His only positive grade came as a rusher, and his 117.0 passer rating allowed was 27th-highest among LBs in this class. Morrison comes with the reputation of being able to deliver the big hit, but that didn’t translate into an ability to get opposing ball-carriers on the ground with consistency. He missed 12 tackles against opposing running games in 2015, giving him the fifth-worst tackling efficiency versus the run among this year’s inside linebacker class.

| Editor-in-Chief

Jeff is the Editor-in-Chief of PFF, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post's NFL coverage. He previously worked as the editor for ESPN Insider's NFL, Fantasy, and College Football coverage.

  • Samuel Myers

    In fairness to Lee, when you are asked to cover the slot at 235+ lbs, you are usually going to be at a bit of a disadvantage — yes Jack is the exception to this rule, but he has once-in-a-generation potential; there is no LB in recent memory that has shown the traits he has as a coverage ‘backer. Lee held up fairly well, all things considered, in a position that requires him to play in far more isolated space than he ever will in the NFL, at least on a play-by-play basis. Also, I get that PFF knocks players for missed tackles, probably more than makes sense — A. a missed tackle often means a disrupted play, and B. 7 missed tackles is not exactly a statistically significant number that can be used to project future performance, especially not against the pass where a slightly poor angle can put you in a nearly impossible position to recover.

    I agree Lee has some flaws, and I am not sold on him as a first round pick, but the knock on his coverage numbers, while valid, should always be presented with a grain of salt — he was a linebacker covering receivers, often from a position usually manned by a defensive back. I think the fact that he was able to perform as well as he did is a testament to his ability to stick with backs and tight ends, particularly in a shorter area, in the NFL.

    • Anthony

      I can name 3 coverage backers in today’s NFL. Luke Kuechly, Sean Lee and Anthony Barr. They all rightfully went in the first round. Darron Lee is a 3rd round pick.

      • Samuel Myers

        I think you missed my point. None of those guys were lined up in the slot in college. In fact, Barr was used primarily as an edge player in college, and while he has blossomed as an all around player, it was his size and experience rushing the passer that led Minnesota to take him so highly. He showed well in limited, and very short-area coverage in college, but outside of that it was all projection. Sean Lee and Luke Kuechly both covered well in college, but similarly both were playing inside LB in more traditional defenses.

        Darron Lee – and you can see this quite easily by taking the time to watch some film or even reading a bit more of PFFs own analysis – was frequently split out in the slot over a receiver, and in fact, he was in that position more often than he was in the box as I recall. So my point, which I think was quite clear, is that some of his struggles as a coverage linebacker can be attributed to the fact that he was essentially playing slot safety in a hybrid nickel rather than a true linebacker. None of your examples have done this in the NFL or in college on a consistent basis.

        • Samuel Myers

          And to clarify further, the point is that most linebackers are not spending nearly as much time isolated in space against receivers as Lee did in college. Even when you see Kuechly making great plays down the field, it’s usually dropping into a zone from the inside linebacker spot.

        • Anthony

          I mean, I do see your point but I think PFF would point out if he had the ability to cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield if they felt he had the ability to do so, because that’s all he’ll likely be doing in the NFL, unless he is moved to safety. Maybe they don’t even think he’ll do that well. To be honest i’m not sure either.
          So overall, as a GM, I don’t think I would take a questionable linebacker in coverage and against the run, with considerable potential due to speed and motor, until late day 2.

    • Jake

      Darron Lee played this past season at 218 pounds. He should’ve been able to cover those receivers easy mate.