This is the third in a series of position previews for the 2021 NFL draft, which runs April 29-May 1. Today, we take a look at the linebacker class.
THREE NAMES TO KNOW
Micah Parsons, Penn State: Taking the COVID-19 opt-out last fall hasn't dampened the excitement for this explosive, versatile 6-3, 246-pounder. Pro Football Focus calls this potential top-10 pick the "best blitzing off-ball linebacker" it's seen in its seven years of evaluating draft candidates. A sound tackler, Parsons has the strength to hold up against the run inside and the quickness to be a force as an edge rusher.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame: Not all that long ago, we'd have been calling this 6-1, 221-pound linebacker a "tweener" in the most derogatory of tones. And he'd slide through the draft as NFL teams looked for bigger guys to play linebacker and smaller ones to play safety. But in today's college-inspired NFL spread offenses, JOK is a candidate to go in the first round. He's the modern NFL backer whose smaller frame makes him fast enough to match up in coverage and quick enough to apply pressure. Last year's Butkus Award winner had 11 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, two recoveries and one interception.
Jamin Davis, Kentucky: Another potential bottom-of-the-first-round pick, Davis could be an elite middle linebacker. The 6-3, 234-pounder led the Wildcats in tackles (102) while intercepting three passes and returning one for a touchdown last season. He's a sound tackler with the speed and instincts to move sideline to sideline. He also wowed scouts at his pro day, running in the 4.4s and posting a 42-inch vertical, which, according to PFF, is a record for a middle linebacker.
Baron Browning, Ohio State: In what's being called a deep class of linebackers, Browning is a guy to keep an eye on in the fourth or possibly third round. He's 6-3, 240 pounds and has the versatile skill set to play inside or outside. He lacks consistency but could become a solid pro as he continues to develop.
After injuries decimated the position a year ago, the Vikings are hoping for at least one more healthy run together for Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. Barr, who missed 14 games, is capable of a fifth Pro Bowl in what could be his final lap as a Viking. Kendricks, meanwhile, was on his way to a second straight first-team All-Pro selection before a calf injury ended his season after 11 games. Adding under-the-radar free agent Nick Vigil replaces the departed Eric Wilson and gives the Vikings a veteran who's versatile, familiar with Mike Zimmer's system and can handle the limited number of early-down snaps given to the No. 3 linebacker in the base defense. Young backups Troy Dye, Blake Lynch and Ryan Connelly return with the experience of being forced to play too much last season. And Cameron Smith hopes to resume his career after heart surgery sidelined him in 2020.
VIKINGS' LEVEL OF NEED
Moderate: Rick Spielman joined the Vikings to oversee their draft operations in 2007. Since then, the Vikings have selected 16 linebackers in 14 drafts, including 13 in the fifth round or lower. They have selected at least one linebacker every year but 2008, when Spielman had only five picks. Since he was elevated to general manager in 2011, the Vikings have taken 13 linebackers in nine years, four of them coming in the fourth round or higher, including Dye, a fourth-rounder last year. So, yeah, at some point during this draft, Spielman will take a linebacker. And who can blame him after watching last year's Christmas Day debacle in New Orleans? That day, Lynch, an undrafted rookie, became the team's seventh starting linebacker in 15 games. And here's how the Saints responded in their first 19 plays: 14 first downs, two touchdowns, 216 yards and no third downs.