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Triple Take: Inside Linebackers

The "Triple Take" continues its look at the 2024 NFL Draft with a breakdown of the inside linebackers. The Steelers Radio Network trio of Matt Williamson, Dale Lolley and Mike Prisuta give their takes on the top prospects at the position.

The opinions of these Steelers Radio Network personalities do not reflect the views of the Steelers organization.

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Dale's Take …

Inside or off-ball linebackers have to do a little bit of everything, from playing the run to covering routes to rushing the passer. And they have to do it against a variety of different players and skill sets, as well. Because of that, it's understandable that they're difficult to find – at least ones who can do everything. That said, there are some interesting prospects at the position in this year's draft, with the run on inside linebackers likely starting on Day 2, though the Steelers may have lessened their need at this position with the free agent acquisition of Patrick Queen.

Sleeper - Curtis Jacobs, Penn State (6-1, 241 lbs.) - Considered a throwback, downhill thumper at inside linebacker, Jacobs was productive in the past three seasons at Penn State. But he turned some heads with a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the Combine. Jacobs can get a little better with his play recognition, but the tools are there. While he learns, he can be a demon on special teams.

#5 - Jeremiah Trotter Jr., Clemson (6-0, 228 lbs.) - There were some questions regarding his size, but he came in at 228 pounds at the Combine. The son of a former NFL linebacker, Trotter has been high on all of the draft lists for a while. But he only comes in at 5th on my list because he lacks some of the bulk and length of the players ahead of him. The production, however, was good. In the past two seasons, he had 167 tackles, four interceptions, 11 sacks, 28.5 tackles for a loss and four forced fumbles.

#4 - Cedric Gray, North Carolina (6-1 ½, 234 lbs) - Gray was extremely productive at North Carolina, wracking up 266 tackles the past two seasons. He also intercepted five passes, forced five fumbles and had 8.5 sacks in his career. Gray ran a 4.64-second 40-yard dash at the Combine, which is plenty fast enough to play the position in the NFL. Was outstanding at the Senior Bowl.

#3 - Payton Wilson, North Carolina State (6-4, 233 lbs.) - Despite being 6-4, Wilson's arm length (30 ½ inches) isn't ideal. But he makes up for that with his speed. He ran 4.43 at the NFL Combine. Wilson's biggest issue might be medicals. By some accounts, he's had 12 different surgeries dating back to high school. Otherwise, he had 402 career tackles, 15 sacks, 48 tackles for a loss and 7 interceptions. He can fill up the stat sheet. If the medicals were clean, he might be my No. 1 linebacker.

#2 - Junior Colson, Michigan (6-2, 238 lbs.) - A three-down linebacker with good size, Colson was the man in the middle for Michigan's excellent defense in 2023. His timing at his pro day will be critical since he didn't work out at the Combine. Colson's tape is good, but is he as fast as some of the other top linebackers in this class? Colson is tough and a hard-nosed player.

#1 - Edgerrin Cooper, Texas A&M (6-2, 230 lbs.) - Long and rangy, Cooper has sideline-to-sideline speed and agility. Ran a 4.51 40-yard dash at the Combine, which shows up on tape. Cooper can cover a lot of ground. He added some pass rush to his repertoire in 2023, recording 8 sacks to go along with 17 tackles for a loss. This is what teams are looking for in the modern-day NFL.

Matt's Take …

This is not a great off-ball linebacker class, especially for early draft picks. It would be a shock if any player at this position was drafted in the first round. It has become a trend that linebackers drafted early (often because of their great physical traits) struggle early in their NFL career and take time to develop. This linebacker class is littered with prospects that should start their career as core special teamers and then maybe develop into defensive contributors. But there are not many instant impact players.

Sleeper - Steele Chambers, Ohio State (6-1, 226 lbs.) - Chambers is a bit of a project at linebacker, as he began his career as a running back. But he is a good athlete and should make an immediate impact on special teams as he learns the linebacker trade. Chambers already has a nose for the football but could stand to add more bulk and strength to better take on big blockers at the next level. Chambers might develop into a starting linebacker in a year or two and should come at a discount price on draft day.

#5 - Cedric Gray, North Carolina (6-1 ½, 234 lbs) - This is a productive player in all aspects of linebacker play with good length and speed. Gray is a run-and-hit guy. Gray flies to the football but doesn't have great eyes or anticipation. He could also stand to be more physical when taking on blocks and will run himself out of plays at times. That being said, there is a lot to work with here and maybe a year from now Gray is an impact player.

#4 - Jeremiah Trotter Jr., Clemson (6-0, 228 lbs.) - The son of a very successful NFL linebacker, Trotter's excellent football IQ should surprise no one. He consistently has a great feel for what the opposing offense is looking to accomplish and wastes very few steps in his assignments. He is also an excellent communicator and leader of a defense. He has very good fundamentals, but Trotter has short arms and slightly below average physical traits for a starting off the ball defender at the next level.

#3 - Junior Colson, Michigan (6-2, 238 lbs.) - Colson grew up in Haiti with a soccer background before starting 36 games at Michigan. Colson is considered an excellent communicator and handled all the intricacies of the Wolverines' complex defensive schemes. He has a good feel for coverage at the second level but thrives as a physical run defender. But Colson is somewhat of a straight-line player and isn't especially fluid changing directions.

#2 - Payton Wilson, North Carolina State (6-4, 233 lbs.) - Without exact knowledge of Wilson's medical situation, which might really hurt his draft stock, Wilson is an exceptional player on tape. He is an overaged prospect and has very short arms for someone his height, but Wilson was one of the best defensive players in college football. He can play man coverage against tight ends and running backs and Wilson changes directions very well for someone his height and he also consistently makes plays on the ball as a coverage player. Wilson is a player you simply cannot miss on tape, even to the casual viewer. Hopefully his extensive medical history doesn't stand in his way.

#1 - Edgerrin Cooper, Texas A&M (6-2, 230 lbs.) - Cooper is a modern-day linebacker with good height, excellent length, and the range desired for coverage. His change of direction and burst to this target really stand out, but he can be a little slow to recognize things at this point of his development. Cooper also misses too many tackles and can play a little out of control. He is an effective blitzer and has a lot of upside to his game overall.

Mike's Take …

They're being phased out to an extent, and have been for a while now. But the best inside linebackers are still three-down players and they remain invaluable components of a championship-caliber defense. They may look more like safeties these days than they do Levon Kirkland, but guys who can stuff the run and also run and cover absolutely earn their pay. Those types are hard to find to the degree that there just aren't enough of them to go around. But the good news is more are on the way.

Sleeper - Jordan Magee, Temple (6-1, 228 lbs.) - He wore No. 51, No. 23 and, eventually No. 6 for the Owls, which is a big deal if you appreciate the significance of the single-digit number in North Philly. "Those are for the toughest guys on the team," NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah noted of that particular Temple tradition. "You earn that one." Jeremiah's a big Magee fan, even if others seemingly aren't as enamored. "His name hasn't come up one time in my talks with GM's/personnel directors. What am I missing?" Jeremiah tweeted prior to the NFL Scouting Combine. Later on in the pre-draft process, Jeremiah still wasn't swayed. "I liked his tape a lot, couldn't get as much support from talking to some people around the league," Jeremiah maintained at the Combine. "Man, I thought he had some real snap to him, especially as a blitzer. He can close. I like the way this kid plays." Sold.

#5 - Cedric Gray, North Carolina (6-1 ½, 234 lbs) - Sometimes life really does imitate art. In "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" Forest Whitaker's character dominated the football game ("tackle by Charles Jefferson, Jefferson, Jefferson …"). Now, fast-forward from 1982 to this year's pre-draft festivities in Mobile, Ala. "The PA announcer at the Senior Bowl, I think he strained a vocal cord saying 'tackle by Cedric Gray' that day," NFL Network analyst Charles Davis observed. Gray has made such repeated productivity a habit (266 tackles over the last two seasons, including 145 in 2022, the third-best total in FBS). "Running backs versus him in the hole is a big mismatch," Jeremiah said of Gray. Yeah, but can he act?

#4 - Jeremiah Trotter Jr., Clemson (6-0, 228 lbs.) - Combine coverage this year included home movies of the son of former Eagles linebacker Jeremiah Trotter dabbling in the family business as a youngster. "There's a lot of kinds that started playing video games after playing against him as a 12-year-old," Jeremiah suggested. The hits have just kept on coming ever since. Quarterback Sam Hartman and Notre Dame, meanwhile, got a taste of Trotter's pass defense this season (two sacks and a pick-six). Family tradition.

#3 - Junior Colson, Michigan (6-2, 238 lbs.) - They don't come any tougher. Colson played approximately half of the season with a broken hand in 2023 (from the Purdue game on Nov. 4 through the Washington game on Jan. 8) and still managed to lead one of the nation's best defense in tackles (the second time Colson had accomplished that in Ann Arbor). Not surprisingly, he won Michigan's Toughest Player Award. "To me this is a Top-50 pick every day of the week and twice on Sunday," Jeremiah insisted. "Whoever gets him is going to get somebody they can plug into the middle of their defense and let him roll."

#2 - Edgerrin Cooper, Texas A&M (6-2, 230 lbs.) - A First-Team Associated Press All-America selection in 2023 who was versatile enough and athletic to have been deployed as a spy against Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe. Texas A&M lost the game, 26-20, but Cooper had 11 tackles and three sacks. Cooper has range and length and, as his eight sacks last season attest, he can rush the passer from an off-the-ball linebacker position. Cooper's 2023 season was a breakout campaign after three middling seasons statistically, but it was worth the wait.

#1 - Payton Wilson, North Carolina State (6-4, 233 lbs.) - He's had some injury issues over the years (two ACLs and a shoulder). But Wilson has been healthy the last two seasons, including the 2023 season when he won the Bednarik Award (best defensive player) and the Butkus Award (top linebacker) and was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year and a First-Team AP All-American. His NFL Network height-weight-speed comparison is Luke Kuechly, but Wilson is faster (4.43 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine). He also has state-champion wrestler in his background. "When I get my hands on you I feel like I can get anybody in the world down," Wilson has said. "I personally believe wrestling's the hardest sport in the world. It's 1-on-1, you don't have anybody to help you out. If you mess up you're going to get man-handled so it teaches you a lot about yourself, mentally and physically." Wilson hit 23.7 mph against Notre Dame, a game that included Wilson chasing down a completion for 28 yards before eventually making the tackle. "That's not normal for a linebacker to run like that," Jeremiah marveled.