The "Triple Take" team breaks down of the linebackers. In this installment of this draft prospect preview by position, the Steelers Radio Network trio of Matt Williamson, Dale Lolley and Mike Prisuta give their takes on the top prospects at the linebacker position. If you want to hear the audio version of "The Triple Take" click here.
The opinions of these Steelers Radio Network personalities do not reflect the views of the Steelers organization.
Dale's Take ...
This position has shifted over the past decade. Pure run-stopping thumpers are still necessary, but not as in demand as their brethren who can handle coverage duties.
Players who can do both are highly coveted, but there is a place for the specialists, as well.
This year's off-ball linebackers group isn't necessarily top heavy, but there are some values to be found throughout the draft.
#5 - Yasir Abdullah, Louisville (6-1, 237 lbs.) - Was primarily an edge rusher in college, but did do some off-ball work. His size might limit him to playing off-ball in the NFL. But he's productive. Had 63 tackles, including 14.5 for a loss, 9.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions in 2022. He also ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. Abdullah should be a special teams ace while he develops.
#4 - Daiyan Henley, Washington State (6-1, 225 lbs.) - Henley began college as a wide receiver prospect, but he had a defensive mentality and was moved there. Recorded 200 tackles, four sacks and five interceptions the past two seasons, transferring to Washington State after playing his first four seasons at Nevada. At 23, he's slightly overaged, but he ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at the Combine and offers good man coverage ability on the inside. Could he be looked at as a box safety? Perhaps.
#3 - Jack Campbell, Iowa (6-5, 249 lbs.) - While many linebacker prospects come into the NFL lacking size, Campbell is an outlier. He also ran a 4.65 40 and had an excellent 6.74-second three-cone drill. Won the Butkus Award as college football's top linebacker last season. Had 265 tackles the past two seasons with nine for a loss, four interceptions and two sacks. The one knock on him is he doesn't make enough plays behind the line of scrimmage, but he's like a 7-foot center guarding the rim when he drops into zone coverage over the middle.
#2 - Trenton Simpson, Clemson (6-2, 235 lbs.) - The son of an Army Ranger who served 17 tours overseas, Simpson is a quality leader. And his athleticism (4.43 40 at the Combine while also doing 25 reps on the bench press) is unquestioned. He just lacks some instincts. Can good coaching help that further? Perhaps. Simpson had 165 tackles, including 23 for a loss, with 13 sacks in three seasons. But he only had five career pass defenses. He's tempting to take as a run-and-hit linebacker while he grows as a coverage player. There's a lot to work with.
#1 - Drew Sanders, Arkansas (6-4, 235 lbs.) - A transfer from Alabama, Sanders was mostly used on the outside in his two seasons with the Crimson Tide before moving off the ball last season at Arkansas. He had 33 tackles and a sack in limited playing time in his first two seasons before recording 103 tackles (13.5 for a loss), 9.5 sacks and an interception with five pass defenses. Can really cause damage blitzing up the middle.
Mike's Take …
It was Exhibit A regarding what inside linebackers are being asked to do in today's game.
At least, what they're being asked to do if they want to be an All-Pro.
Fred Warner knows. So do the 49ers. That's why they had Warner line up at the line of scrimmage initially and then drop into coverage at the snap and eventually catch up with wide receiver CeeDee Lamb and make a play on the ball almost 30 yards down the field.
It was just another day at the office for Warner, who wound up with nine tackles, including one for a loss, a pass defensed and an interception in the 49ers' playoff win over Lamb and the Cowboys back in January.
That's now in the job description for the very best at the position. Get onto the field, stay on the field and make whatever play's required at the time.
No wonder those guys are so hard to find.
#5 - Noah Sewell, Oregon (6-11/2, 246 lbs.) - He can rush off the edge, blitz from depth and get there, react to the ball in space, fight through tight ends, spy the QB and blow up runners at the goal line. Sewell, it seems, has as many uses as Oregon has uniforms. And he should benefit from brother Penei having spent the last two seasons with the Lions.
#4 - Henry To'o To'o, Alabama (6-1, 227 lbs.) - NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah reported To'o To'o was considered by sources at Alabama to be a very smart player (he was smart enough to transfer from Tennessee to Alabama, wasn't he?). To'o To'o is good in coverage and he was productive fo the Crimson Tide (205 tackles, 15.5 tackles for a loss and six-and-a-half sacks in two seasons).
#3 - Jack Campbell, Iowa (6-5, 249 lbs.) - His official 40-yard dash time of 4.65 at the NFL Scouting Combine was "plenty good enough," in Jeremiah's estimation, for a linebacker of Campbell's size. And NFL Network analyst Peter Schrager got a rave review in Indianapolis. "I had a scout tell me he's an old-school linebacker," Schrager reported. "He's instinctive, smart, you put him in there, he can do three downs. He can do it all." Campbell won the Butkus Award (top linebacker) and was a First-Team Associated Press All-American on the field and captured the Campbell Trophy (academic Heisman) off the field. And he trains with Luke Kuechly.
#2 - Trenton Simpson, Clemson (6-2, 235 lbs.) - His NFL comparison from a measurables perspective is Roquan Smith (except Simpson is taller). Simpson told NFL Network reporter Stacey Dales he thinks he can "run with any tight end in the NFL," and the official 4.43 40 he ran at the Combine backed up the bravado. Simpson also aspires to play in the box and spy quarterbacks. His father was an Army Ranger for three decades, so Simpson probably knows a little something about discipline.
#1 - Drew Sanders, Arkansas (6-4, 235 lbs.) - He'll need to confirm his status at the position at the Arkansas Pro Day on March 29 after not running at the Combine. Based on his lone season at Arkansas after two at Alabama, he's a good decision maker. Sanders found more opportunity at Arkansas and responded with 103 tackles, 13.5 for a loss, nine-and-a-half sacks, and interception and three forced fumbles for the Razorbacks in 2022 and was named a First-Team Associated Press All-American.
Matt's Take ...
This looks a mediocre group of off-the-ball linebacker prospects. Several of the top guys have the ability to line up on the edge and flat-out rush the passer-not just act as a second level blitzer.
But this class also doesn't offer a surefire early first round pick either and there could be a lot of debate as to who actually is the best linebacker overall in this group.
#5 - Daiyan Henley, Washington State (6-1, 225 lbs.) - While Henley isn't the biggest 'backer with a thin lower body and still a work in progress with his diagnostic skills, this is a player that just flies around the field. He stands out immediately. Henley runs well, is very abrupt changing directions, and shows a great motor. His playing style rubs of well on his teammates. Henley is an energy giver to a defense and should immediately star on special teams with his traits and demeanor.
#4 - Trenton Simpson, Clemson (6-2, 235 lbs.) - Simpson is somewhat of a boom/bust prospect. He has rare speed for the position (4.43 at the Combine) and is a fantastic athlete. Simpson has good length and very impressive body structure. He is a fluid mover that also has impressive explosion and burst. Turn Simpson loose and he makes plays. But Simpson is also a work in progress in terms of play recognition and the finer points of playing linebacker. Simpson also isn't great at taking on blocks at this stage of his development.
#3 - Jack Campbell, Iowa (6-5, 249 lbs.) - Campbell is a fantastic college football player that put some concerns to rest with his Combine performance. Campbell runs well, but there were worries about how well such a tall player would change directions. Then Campbell crushed it on the shuttle and 3-cone drills. His size is obvious, and Campbell plays with a lot of physicality. He has a great head for the game and is very quick to recognize vs. run and pass. Campbell won the Butkus Award last year as the best linebacker in the nation and should transition very quickly to the NFL.
#2 - Drew Sanders, Arkansas (6-4, 235 lbs.) - Sanders was a five-star recruit who went to Alabama as an edge defender before transferring to Arkansas. He can rush the passer off the edge with a much better pass-rush repertoire than most off the ball defenders. Sanders was very productive while at Arkansas in his new role and is accomplished in coverage as well as playing downhill. This is a very talented player with explosion, length, and versatility, but Sanders could stand to add more bulk and was really just a one-year starter before entering the NFL.
#1 - Nolan Smith, Georgia (6-2, 238 lbs.) - This is cheating a little bit as Smith did much of his work at Georgia as a stand-up edge rusher. However, he did often play on the second level of that great defense and is under 240 pounds, so he would be far from the prototype on the line of scrimmage. And Smith is more than athletic enough to handle all of the above. His Combine numbers are flat-out mind boggling. Smith is also considered a great leader with a strong football IQ and toughness.