This is the third in a series of position previews for the 2022 NFL draft, which runs Thursday to April 30. Today: Linebackers.
THREE NAMES TO KNOW
Devin Lloyd, Utah: The 6-3, 237-pounder is the best do-it-all linebacker available and should be taken somewhere in the middle of the first round. Is he as good as 2021 All-Pro and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons, who went 12th overall? Maybe not. But he's certainly a defensive rookie of the year candidate because he can tackle sideline to sideline, blitz and cover. He had 110 stops, 22 for loss, eight sacks and four interceptions last year.
Nakobe Dean, Georgia: He's only 5-11, 229 pounds, but he's yet another one of the proverbial Swiss Army-knife linebackers who has the athleticism, speed, instincts and IQ to play from the middle of any defense facing the modern pass-oriented offenses. He gets compared to another Georgia linebacker, Roquan Smith, the eighth overall pick in 2018 and a second-team All-Pro selection the past two years. Dean had 10 ½ tackles for loss and a pick-six last year.
Christian Harris, Alabama: Harris is also on the small side at 6-0, 226, but he has the toughness, the 4.44 speed and the instincts to play either inside behind a stout defensive front or move to a weakside linrbacker position, where he could rush off the edge and learn to be better in coverage. He had 12 ½ tackles for loss, 5 ½ sacks and two forced fumbles last year.
David Ojabo, Michigan: Ojabo was a top 25 prospect whose stock has dropped considerably since he suffered an Achilles' tendon injury at his pro day in March. That probably means some team that's not desperate for immediate help could be getting a steal late on Day 1 or at some point on Day 2. An outside linebacker, Ojabo (6-5, 250) collected 11 sacks and five forced fumbles last season while playing on the other side of projected No. 1 pick Aidan Hutchinson.
The shift from a 4-3 front to coordinator Ed Donatell's 3-4 base scheme caused the Vikings to use what little financial resources they had left on three front-seven starters in free agency. Two of them are outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith and inside linebacker Jordan Hicks. Back surgery caused Smith to miss all but two games last season, but he's healthy again and played in a similar scheme while collecting 26 sacks, two Pro Bowls and a second-team All-Pro pick with the Packers in 2019-20. Hicks is a smart, savvy veteran who's posted 384 tackles while not missing a game the last three years. Eric Kendricks, an All-Pro middle linebacker in Mike Zimmer's 4-3 scheme, will adapt to any scheme the new staff throws at him. Danielle Hunter has the athleticism to move from 4-3 end to 3-4 outside linebacker. The key for him, of course, is staying healthy after a neck injury wiped out his 2020 season and a torn pectoral muscle limited him to six games last season.
VIKINGS' LEVEL OF NEED
Moderate: Injury concerns for Smith and Hunter coupled with some question marks about depth across the board make this a position the Vikings can't totally ignore if a linebacker jumps out at them in the mid to late rounds. The quality of the current linebacker depth depends on how well the young guys drafted the past two years fit an entirely different scheme. D.J. Wonnum (fourth round, 2020), Patrick Jones II (third round, 2021), Kenny Willekes (seventh round, 2020) and Janarius Robinson (fourth round, 2021) will be transitioning from ends to outside linebackers. Troy Dye (fourth round, 2020) is an inside guy. And Chazz Surratt (third round, 2021) has the skills to try inside or outside. Blake Lynch (undrafted free agent, 2020) is another inside guy.