2021 NFL Draft Top 10 Linebacker Rankings - Texans Thoughts

The 2021 NFL Draft Linebacker Class will not mistake anyone for being particularly deep, however, if you're looking in the right places, for the right traits, you can find some diamonds in the rough. It's a particularly good class for teams who are looking to get faster, quicker and better in coverage, as long as you're willing to sacrifice some conventional size.

The Texans have signed seemingly every LB available in free agency, and the common theme seems to be the aforementioned principles: no more big, physical, plodding LBs who can't run and cover - now we're seeing "undersized" guys who have sideline-to-sideline speed and the fluidity to keep up in coverage over the middle of the field.

When new Texans DC Lovie Smith was asked about how Nick Caserio has done improving the defense, Lovie said, "We like our roster that we have right now before we add some more players in the draft." What I took away from that is LB is not off the table from being drafted this offseason. No LB has a contract longer than 2 years apart from Zach Cunningham, who has an out in 2023.

Couple this with the fact that from 2011-2020, the Patriots most drafted position was LB - folks, Nick Caserio LOVES him some LBs. So, if the Texans have a guy they view fits the scheme, and is good value for where they are picking, don't be surprised to see them draft an athletic LB for the future.

Enough backstory, let's get into my rankings and as always, hit me up on Twitter: @Texans_Thoughts and tell me why you agree or disagree with how I view these players. Let's begin.

First up is my highest graded defender so far, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is so elite he has two nicknames: J.O.K. and The Joker. Call him what you want, the 21-year-old is oozing with talent and has the potential to be a generational talent at the position.

He is built like a strong safety (6'1, 221lbs), covers better than some nickel CBs, and has longer arms (33") plus more violence to his game than every LB in this class. He is truly a unicorn on defense and allows teams to play with three "LBs" on the field without sacrificing anything in the passing game.

JOK plays the "Nickel/SAM" position which is an ever-more important position nowadays. They are two positions in one, requiring the coverage skills of a nickel CB, and the run defense of a strong side linebacker - there is no one better than JOK to flourish in said role.

In college he had reps vs DeVonta Smith and Amari Rodgers, two of the shiftier guys to cover, and he did so to perfection. He also plays with an intense level of violence, flying downhill and tackling guys like Travis Etienne in space.

What really stood out to me with JOK is his instincts and mental processing. Some LBs have one but not the other, however the elite LBs have both, and it allows them to pounce on plays before they happen, plus navigate through all of the motion and misdirection modern offenses use. Therefore, JOK is always in position to make a play, whether he's blowing up a screen in space, sniffing out a toss to the edge, or chasing down a run from the backside - JOK can do it all.

He's a jack of all trades and has damn near mastered it all - for these reasons, JOK has the potential to change how defenses are played. NFL defensive co-ordinators can build their scheme around him, and have a potential All-Pro talent for multiple contracts.

Parsons would be the top LB prospect in most classes, and being behind JOK is no slight to his game. He is the definition of a freak athlete, flying sideline to sideline, or downhill with pure violence and aggression. Built in a LB lab at 6'3, 246lbs with 4.36 speed, Parsons is another versatile weapon of mass destruction.

He can defend the run from the MIKE and WILL positions, flying downhill and evading blocks, or chasing in pursuit, beating angles like a cheetah racing its prey. Parsons also brings immense value as a blitzer/rusher - whether it's from the interior or the EDGE, Parsons pairs his elite athleticism with great snap timing. He fires off the ball with intensity, and even has flashes of good hand usage to defeat a block.

He has all the ability in the world to be as effective as JOK in coverage - possessing fluid hips, speed for days, and enough flashes of route recognition/feel that makes DCs ecstatic. Whichever team drafts Parsons needs to have a plan for him.

If it was me, I'd start him at WILL in a 4-3, or SAM OLB in a 3-4. Capitalizing on his athleticism, potential in coverage and blitzing prowess. Over time, give him more responsibilities rushing from the edge and interior, to truly unlock his potential.

There are serious off-field maturity concerns which will likely plague his draft stock, however Parsons is a Top-10 talent every damn year, and has serious All-Pro potential.

Everyone knows who the Top-2 LBs are, the order in ranking may vary but the players are always the same. What is more up for debate is the LB3 spot - Zaven Collins, Baron Browning, Jabril Cox and others have rotated in and out of this position for most of draft season.

However, a player who has not received as much hype, but is now heating up immensely, is Jamin Davis out of Kentucky. At 6'4, 234lbs, he is tall, lanky and an athletic LB who's ceiling is sky-high. Most experts will say he plays like Zach Cunningham coming out of college, but I think he's better.

Jamin does his best work in coverage, where he is rangy in zone and reads the QBs eyes quite well. He has a huge catch radius due to his 33" arms, which makes the throwing windows very tight and forces perfection out of offenses.

Jamin has the ability to impact the game in all aspects - displaying great patience and read/react ability versus the run. From the WILL position, he isn't overly aggressive, ignoring his assignment and losing his gap - rather shuffling down the line and not being manipulated by the RB.

He's a raw player overall, but the flashes and Pro Bowl ceiling are so enticing. He has no limitations to his game, just needs some good coaching, which is why he lands at LB3 and a good 2nd round value.

Hot on his trail is a prospect that has the Draft community a bit divided. Some have him as LB2 or LB3 and would even take him over Micah Parsons, but others have him outside of their Top-5. I land somewhere in the middle with Zaven Collins - understanding his mental gifts but also the athletic limitations.

Zaven gets a lot of Anthony Barr comparisons but I think Kyle Van Noy is more accurate. His flashes in coverage and ball hawking ability (4 INTs in 8 games) certainly scream Barr, but he's fairly inconsistent in this regard and gets high-low'd too often for my liking.

I do like his ability as a run defender and blitzer, knifing through gaps with good burst. He has very good mental processing, sniffing out screens right as they develop, and bringing down ball carriers in the backfield (7.5 TFLs in 8 games).

Zaven is lower for me than Jamin Davis because he's a worse athlete, not displaying the same COD, agility and explosiveness as Davis. This limits his ceiling to a high-level starter, who could have a Pro Bowl appearance or two.

Rounding out the Top-5 is a prospect who's evaluation has been a rollercoaster for me. Starting at NDSU, Jabril was extremely productive and one of the most exciting prospects. His athletic gifts had always been clear, dominating the competition, but I wasn't sold on his promising playmaking ability (8 INTs in 3 seasons) just yet .

He started out slow at LSU (understandably so with no offseason and a new defensive system) and I initially thought the rise in competition revealed who he truly was. However, on my second watch of his tape (and gaining the All-22), I saw the elite athleticism pair with his rare instincts and everything clicked.

Jabril is a menace in coverage, flipping his hips with slot WRs and displaying a short area burst to grab interceptions. He can do a bit of everything in the run game too - chasing down runs from the WILL position, knifing through gaps by attacking downhill, and even using his long arms to discard blocks.

The highs are really high, however he comes in at LB5 because the lows can be real low. Get him the right coaching and he can be a problem, but in the wrong situation, he can be just another guy.

Next up is a prospect who is garnering arguably the most hype out of the LB group right now. Baron Browning is many people's LB3 and has even been called the greatest LB prospect of the decade. While I'm not here to dunk on that hot take, I simply can't even come close to agreeing with it.

Browning is a very raw prospect, with limited experience on the field, and it shows. He is slow to process run plays and hesitates a lot with his feet, causing him to false step and be out of position. He takes questionable pursuit angles and can be beaten to the edge.

His best value as a rookie comes on passing downs, where he excites people as an edge rusher in a 3-4 scheme. Browning has a lightning quick first step and so much room to develop in this regard. My favorite part of his game is his innate coverage skills. He understands route concepts very well and has great spatial awareness - gravitating towards routes behind him and taking reads away.

I certainly see the upside with Browning, but there are a ton of WILL LBs with his athletic potential, many of whom are more polished versus the run. Therefore, while he's still a solid prospect with a 2nd round grade and high-level starter potential, he comes in at LB6.

Pete Werner is the Ohio State LB that deserves more love. I get it, it's easy to be enticed by the more athletic LBs OSU has to offer, but Werner has one of the highest floors of any LB this year. He processes the game at a lightning quick speed, playing his gap(s) well and always executing his job.

I like the physicality level that Werner brings to the table - taking on blocks well and finishing his tackles with power. He's a better athlete than given credit for, and always knows where to be in coverage. He doesn't have the fluidity like a Davis or Browning, but similar awareness level as an Eric Kendricks.

Werner has the fifth highest film grade out of the LBs I've evaluated for a reason, however, due to the fleeting value of his likely position in the NFL (SAM) and good but not great overall athleticism, I can't justify taking him before the mid 3rd round.

Nick Bolton is one of my favorite LB prospects to watch because of how he chooses violence on every single play. He is aggressive when attacking downhill, and has plenty of speed working sideline-to-sideline. Someone is going to get great value with him around the 3rd round and have a solid WILL for years.

My reasons for pause with Bolton come with his inconsistency in finishing tackles - he can play a bit too out of control at times and fails to square up or wrap up often. In addition, while he has great speed, he is lacking the fluidity and COD skills to be great in coverage. The instincts here are lacking and it is something that can take years to develop, if at all.

Cameron McGrone seems low on this list at LB9, however I really like his game. I'm a sucker for players who play bigger than their size, and McGrone (6'0, 234lbs) does just that - especially when taking on blocks, he is physical and powerful, discarding offensive linemen of all sizes.

He can play some WILL and MIKE for NFL defenses, displaying the movement skills for either position. The flashes of coverage ability are enticing as well, having plenty of athleticism to keep up in man or zone.

There is a high-level of raw-ness to McGrone's game, however. With just 16 games under his belt, you see the inexperience on the field, where McGrone is late to process plays. Pair that with a torn ACL in 2020 limiting what he can show teams with regards to athletic testing and McGrone will fall further than he should in the draft.

Rounding out my Top-10 rankings is a player I think is very likely to outperform his draft position. Monty Rice exudes Georgia Bulldog energy - playing with an elite intensity level and flying around the field like a missile. He is smaller in nature at 6'0 233lbs, but you'd never know that by how physical he plays.

Rice pairs great speed and COD skills with special instincts for the position. He is one of the best run defenders in the nation because of how he reads the keys of offensive linemen and is never tricked by misdirection. He is constantly quarterbacking the defense and putting his teammates in the proper position, a role he can exceed in at the next level.

Rice lacks an overall consistency to his game, sometimes going long periods of not making a play. However, this is a player with tons of potential who is just scratching the surface of their impact.

He's being mocked around the 5th or 6th round and quite frankly I think that is disrespectful. I would happily take welcome him to the Texans in that range. Rice is a player I'll be rooting for, no matter where drafted, he's just a joy to watch.

Just missed the cut: Dylan Moses, Chazz Surratt, Antjuan Simmons

Concluding Thoughts

This LB class is filled with freak athletes who are oozing with three down potential. There were some big names that fell out of my Top-10 due to a lack of physicality, violence, and mental processing *cough cough Moses and Surratt. Rounds 2-3 are the sweet spot if you're looking for a new, athletic WILL with endless coverage potential.

If the Houston Texans end up drafting a LB with that archetype, I think it will say a lot about how they feel about the future of Zach Cunningham. How many more LBs do Lovie Smith and Nick Casserole need to feel confident about the position group? Is there any chance in hell that I get to root for JOK in battle red (no)? I don't know all the answers, but two weeks from now, we all will. I can't wait.