2022 NFL Draft Preview: Inside linebacker sleepers and Broncos fits
The Denver Broncos have not put much emphasis on finding a stud inside linebacker for years. It seems like every draft, I peg them to take one with a premium pick and they never do. Not since the days of Danny Trevathan (2012-15) have the Broncos had a modern-day inside linebacker patrolling the field. They need to change that this year, and there will opportunity for them to do that.
Right now, the Broncos have Josey Jewell as a starting inside linebacker. A fourth-round pick out of Iowa in the 2018 NFL Draft, Jewell was just re-signed to a two-year, $11 million contract. Jewell provides a lot of value to the team, but I feel like an upgrade can be made. I still want Jewell around for special teams and veteran depth, but he’s not a modern-day linebacker who can cover from sideline to sideline – and he’s now got injury concerns. Jewell was lost after just two games last year to a pectoral injury. The Broncos need an upgrade in talent, or they at least need to have a good player ready when Jewell is hurt.
To go along with Jewell, the Broncos have some other options. I like Baron Browning, a third-round pick out of Ohio State last year, but he’s going to get a chance to play outside linebacker and rush the passer (where I like him more). That spot could be filled by Jonas Griffth, an undrafted free agent (2020) out of Indiana State the Broncos picked up last year in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers. Griffith is a solid player, but I think the Broncos could find somebody better in the draft and further upgrade the inside linebacker spot.
In this article, I will look at the market for the position. I will also write about sleepers at the inside linebacker position and some players who could fit what the Broncos need in the 2022 NFL Draft.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see three inside linebackers selected in the first round of the draft. Linebackers must be versatile in today’s NFL, so these players are elite-level athletes who can tackle, cover and rush if asked to – and they also can be moved around the formation.
Devin Lloyd (Utah) should be the first inside linebacker off the board. Lloyd doesn’t need to come off the field. He can tackle and diagnoses plays quickly as they unfold in front of him. Once he commits, Lloyd gets to the ball quickly and brings the ball-carrier down. Lloyd has the speed to cover, and he’s got the hip swivel to turn and catch up to tight ends who try to get by him. In addition to his run and pass coverage, Lloyd has the closing speed and timing to be a blitzer as well.
Nakobe Dean (Georgia) is one of my favorites in this class – regardless of position. He’s a smaller linebacker, but Dean reminds me of playmakers from the past like Sam Mills, London Fletcher or Jonathan Vilma. Dean uses his sideline-to-sideline ability to work well in coverage or against the run. His instincts are top notch, arguably better than Lloyd’s and that is what makes him a standout player. Dean always seems to be ahead of the play – no matter if run or pass. He’s always around the ball and a playmaker who can get his hands on the ball (two interceptions in 2021).
Quay Walker, Dean’s teammate at the University of Georgia, could also hear his name called on the first night of the draft. Walker, a one-year starter for the Bulldogs, could be a better pro than he was a collegian. He looks the part, with proper size, length and strength for the position. Walker engulfs opponents he goes to tackle and flying to the ball is the best part of his game. Drafting him is projecting that he will develop his diagnostic skills at the pro level. Walker does take false steps and will overrun plays at times, but he had the speed to cover that flaw up at the college level. That won’t happen in the pros, so he will need to study the offense and know what’s coming in order to play up to his full potential.
I like this class of inside linebackers, but as with most classes of the position things dry up pretty quickly. There are some late-round sleepers and priority free agents who I feel could outperform the place they were picked up.
Nate Landman (Colorado) improved his draft stock with a solid performance during the week of practice at the East-West Shrine Bowl earlier this year. Landman has a rugby mindset that he brings to the football field (he father was a professional rugby player). He’s tough, nicknamed “The Hammer” by his Buffs teammates because of his work in the weight room and on the field. Landman certainly brings the wood when going after a running back, and he’s a downhill player who can make big hits. Landman is stiff in coverage, so he will likely come off the field on third downs in the NFL. Back-to-back season-ending injuries (Achilles, 2020 – Shoulder, 2021) have scouts concerned about his durability – because he plays with no regard for his personal safety.
Diego Fagot (Navy) was another player I was impressed with at the Shrine Bowl practices. In fact, there were sometimes I would think it was Landman making the play when it actually was Fagot. If there was one word to describe Fagot it would be; relentless. The guy just doesn’t stop on the football field. Like Landman, Fagot is a downhill player who thrives on contact and never backs down from a challenge. Fagot has a tremendous work ethic, although he lacks coverage skills and has a shorter-than-average wingspan which means he’s likely a two-down player and special teamer in the NFL.
I believe there are two inside linebackers the Broncos should focus on in this draft class. One they will have to move up for in order to select, while the other should be there when they’re on the clock at no.64 overall.
Chad Muma (Wyoming) is a faster version of Logan Wilson (Cincinnati Bengals). Not only do I think that, but Wilson told me that when I talked to him at Wyoming’s pro day a few weeks ago. Muma was nicknamed “The Freak” by his Cowboys teammates because of his elite athletic ability. It’s not just running fast in a straight line, I’ve personally timed Muma in the short shuttle and 3-cone drill – and his time was near the top of the class. Very few players move like Muma can, and you couple that with his high intelligence, and you have the prototypical modern-day inside linebacker. The Broncos will need to move up to get Muma in my opinion.
Troy Anderson (Montana State) should be on the board when the Broncos pick, but he won’t be available much longer after that. He was a versatile player in high school, starring on both sides of the ball and there are some rumblings that he could be a gadget quarterback in addition to inside linebacker at the pro level. That probably won’t happen, but that’s the idea some have about Anderson. The dude can flat out play. He had 40 starts in college, 25 at linebacker, 11 at quarterback and four at running back. He’s got the speed and wingspan to keep up in coverage and proved at the Senior Bowl he could hang with the top-tier college opponents he didn’t see at Montana State.