With off-season programs underway, how will some of the top rookies fare? Let’s gaze into the crystal ball and make some projections, starting with linebackers.
Over this off-season, I have worked my tail off and created projections for over 400 IDP prospects. All of this is based on current predicted depth charts, previous performance, coaching changes, scheme changes, advanced measurements, and statistics. After the draft concluded, I took a look at the landing spots for the IDP side of the ball. I ended up doing projections for the top 75, all players who are in my rookie rankings, which you can find here. Below, I am going to drop my IDP fantasy projections for the top 2021 rookie linebackers.
Micah Parsons – Dallas Cowboys
2021 Player Projections: 111 tackles (61 solos), 9 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 1 pass defended, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
Micah Parsons was the consensus number one IDP prospect, no matter how much people did not want it to be. There were always people saying that his position was in question, based on how good of a pass rusher he was and on how poor his coverage ability was. There was no other IDP prospect that could fit the bill that Parsons brings. He has elite athleticism and sideline-to-sideline ability as a linebacker.
Parsons is an upper-level block shedder who navigates through traffic at the line of scrimmage comparably to some of the best in the game. The fact that he is an upper-level pass rusher just makes him more desirable as a linebacker. Look at how Darius Leonard, Devin White, and Jerome Baker have been used in recent history and how they have produced. Leonard, over his first three seasons, has 15.5 sacks. White has 11.5 in his first two seasons, and Baker had a career-high with 7 in 2020.
Both Leonard and White are used in the blitz game often, an area that Parsons can be elite in. The Cowboys obviously have concerns with their starting linebackers. Sean Lee retired, Leighton Vander Esch cannot stay on the field, and Jaylon Smith is terrible in coverage and had far too many missed tackles last season. Parsons was not the only linebacker drafted by the Cowboys, so the concerns at the position were apparent. You do not draft a linebacker at 12th overall for him to sit behind undesirable veterans. Parsons should start and see a significant run as one of the top 2021 rookie linebackers.
Zaven Collins – Arizona Cardinals
2021 Player Projections: 121 tackles (70 solos), 7 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks, 4 passes defended, 1 interception, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
At Tulsa in 2020, Zaven Collins was awarded the Chuck Bednarik Award, as well as the Bronko Nagurski Trophy. This cemented him as the most outstanding defensive player in college football. Collins is a big linebacker at 259 lbs, but he has great speed built within that frame. He ran a 4.66 second 40 yard dash at his pro day and showed tremendous explosion for his size.
The explosion Collins showed included a 35″ vertical leap and 10’02” broad jump. He also showcased an understanding of both coverage and run defense. Collins was a turnover machine in 2020, accumulating four sacks, four interceptions, two forced fumbles, and two touchdowns. Collins has true sideline-to-sideline ability with a great tackling technique and the Cardinals seemed to fall in love.
Two years ago, Jordan Hicks was a top three IDP putting up 150 tackles, 11 for loss, 1.5 sacks, 6 passes defended, 3 interceptions, and 7 QB hits. The Cardinals proceeded to add De’Vondre Campbell and Isaiah Simmons the following year, which in turn saw Hicks’ numbers drop a bit. Fast forward to the 2021 draft. The Cardinals selected Collins 17th overall and informed Hicks he can proceed to look for trade locations.
This move shows that the Cardinals have high hopes for Collins to be one of the top 2021 rookie linebackers and already expect him and Simmons to man the inside linebacker positions. Due to arguably drafting the best linebackers from each of the last two drafts, the Cardinals linebacker corps should be strong and versatile for some time to come.
Jamin Davis – The Washington Football Team
2021 Player Projections: 113 tackles (66 solos), 5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 6 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery
Jamin Davis was one of the quickest risers on draft boards leading up to the 2021 draft. He had a stellar 2020 season at the University of Kentucky. I tried to help get ahead of the curve pre-draft, tagging him as one of the more under-the-radar targets in an article I wrote. (You can read that article here.) Davis is an athletic freak with range for days.
Though he only started one full season at Kentucky, he was an absolute monster. He had 102 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3 interceptions and a touchdown in his final season. Coach Ron Rivera and his staff said they had Davis as their highest-rated defensive player in the 2021 draft. They proved this when they drafted him 17th overall.
The landing spot is juicy for Davis as well, with linebacker being the thinnest position on Washington’s stellar defense. Last year’s unit consisted of Josh Bostic and Cole Holcomb, with others sprinkled in. No offense to Bostic, but Davis offers far more versatility, especially when we are talking about in coverage. Bostic set a career-high in tackles for 2020 with 118, and Davis could be far more impactful. Davis has been lining up at the MIKE spot during camp so far and should be in line to be one of the best 2021 rookie linebackers.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah – Cleveland Browns
2021 Player Projections: 91 tackles (49 solos), 3 tackles for a loss, 5 passes defended, 2 fumble recoveries
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has the ability to be a 100+ tackler as one of the top 2021 rookie linebackers. I have him projected close to that, though the crowded linebacker room leaves me to believe that he will need some time to prove before he is a full-time starter. Owusu-Koramoah is a nickel-backer type of linebacker, with great range and experience at the safety position. He is one of the most explosive linebackers from this draft class, and may also be the most explosive linebacker on the Browns. He has true sideline-to-sideline mobility, with fantastic cover skills to boot.
The Browns still have previous early-round draft picks Jacob Phillips and Sione Takitaki. They also roster free-agent acquisition, Anthony Walker. Takitaki has been underwhelming, though, and could easily be replaced. Phillips had an injury-riddled rookie season, so we do not really know 100% what the Browns have in him. Walker is a tackle machine, though he is a legitimate liability in coverage.
As the season plays out, I foresee Takitaki taking a bench/special teams role. Owusu-Koramoah should fill the MIKE, which would move Walker to SAM. The Browns may also toy with playing only two linebackers due to their plethora of defensive backs. To me, this would leave Phillips and Owusu-Koramoah as the beneficiaries, due to their versatility.
Pete Werner – New Orleans Saints
2021 Player Projections: 98 Tackles (51 solos), 6 tackles for a loss, 5 passes defended, 1 interception, 2 forced fumbles
Nick Bolton almost makes the list, though I have him as my sixth-ranked rookie linebacker. This is because Anthony Hitchens is still on the team, as well as Willie Gay Jr. The coaching staff is also iffy about starting rookies after we watched Gay ride the bench behind Damien Wilson. Pete Werner, a player who has excellent draft capital and a great landing spot, gets the nod.
Werner was one of the least spoken of linebackers in this class, mainly because he does not possess gaudy numbers, flashy plays, or athleticism. He brings a rugged and tough mentality, great football IQ, and the ability to play all three linebacker positions — something he did during his time at Ohio State. Werner was the leader of the OSU defense and was so good that he relegated teammate Baron Browning, a linebacker more talked about than Werner, to a bench role for most of his career.
Werner joins a thin linebacker group consisting of Demario Davis, Zack Baun, and virtually nobody else. Baun is at his best when rushing the passer and Davis is best manning the middle of the field. Werner is a plus coverage and IQ guy, and will likely start at the WILL position for the Saints, offering some big upside as one of the top 2021 rookie linebackers.
The 2021 rookie linebackers are very talented as a whole. The group could have upwards of six or seven players that could finish with 80+ tackles. These five are the five who I believe will be the top five performers for the class as rookies. They are also legitimate IDP options as they all can be weekly starters. Rookie drafts are offensively top-heavy this year, so you can come away with some real IDP firepower in rounds 3-6 of rookie drafts.
Thank you for reading! Check out all of my IDP, Devy, and Offensive work at idpguys.org. Be sure to order our rookie draft magazines, which we load with fantastic player profiles and landing spot analysis.