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2021 NFL Draft: the linebacker awards

Running through the superlatives of the 2021 linebacker draft class.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we gave out awards for the offensive tackles in the coming NFL Draft. Now we’ll continue to work through more draft prospects by identifying the skills in which they excel — this time, looking at another position of need for the Kansas City Chiefs: linebackers.

As with tackles, there are specific traits in which linebackers can excel. Each team will value these traits differently — and that will play a big role in how they see these players as draft prospects. So handing out awards for the specific skills draft prospects display can be very revealing.

Linebacker awards

Best “block evasion”

This is sometimes called “slipping a block.” We’re looking for the linebacker who is best at avoiding blocks by steering clear of contact — whether that’s by using speed to get over the top of a block, flexibility to bend underneath it or using their hands to keep their chest clean. It’s all about keeping the blocker from impeding their path to the ball carrier.

Micah Parsons | Penn State

One of the top linebackers in the draft, Parsons could win a number of these awards — but he is best at evading blocks. His body control (and flexibility to dip under or around blocks) consistently jumps off the screen. He has a near-superhuman ability to bend and twist underneath the hands of an incoming blocker — and then explode back into his gap to bring down the ball carrier.

This is particularly impressive because of his size. Listed at 245 pounds, he has the ability to withstand glancing contact, too; a small amount of contact won’t knock him off balance or alter his ability to break through the contact and close on the ball.

Day three player: Rodjay Burns | Louisville

Best “stack-and-shed”

Here we seek the linebacker who is best at engaging blockers at the point of attack — and then disengaging to make a play. It’s a straightforward call: who is the most powerful, physical linebacker who can take on blocks — and then discard them?

Derrick Barnes | Wake Forest

An ideal strong side linebacker candidate, Barnes walks away with this one. He has the ability to not only meet blockers with power but extend them from his frame. He doesn’t just contact blockers. Instead, he has the upper-body strength and hand placement to press them off his chest and then rip free. These skills translate well to rushing the passer — which he does often — but also show up in the running game.

He doesn’t have much interest in working around blocks; he always prefers to go through them. Listed at 245 pounds — and with a compact build — he is more than capable of stacking up lead blockers and offensive linemen. But it’s his ability to rip away from those blocks that locks up this award.

Day three player: Ernest Johnson | South Carolina

Best “in man coverage”

Instead of giving just one award for coverage, we’ll split them into two. This one is for the ability to play man-to-man coverage on tight ends, running backs and wide receivers.

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah | Notre Dame

While he is considered a safety in most circles, we’re still giving this award to Owusu-Koramoah, who plays more snaps as an apex defender — lined up over a slot receiver — which often puts him in coverage. He has the athletic traits to run with wide receivers or tight ends out of the slot — and a good feel about how to read a receiver through their breaks.

Owusu-Koramoah also has good feel for leveraging receivers to deny them a passing window. He quickly identifies route breaks and drives on underneath routes — while maintaining the fluidity to turn and run on a dime. For a linebacker, he flashes great ball skills, which also allow him to compete at the catch point, too.

Day three player: Tony Fields | West Virginia

Best “in zone coverage”

Now let’s find the linebacker prospect with the best zone-coverage skills.

Chazz Surratt | North Carolina

Deciding between Surratt and Zaven Collins was difficult -- but Surratt just barely comes away with the win. As an ex-quarterback, he has a great understanding of route concepts — and how a quarterback is most likely to progress through his reads.

He also displays a good feel for spacing and depth in his drops — and identifying routes as they break into his zone. When you add that to his ability to know where a quarterback is most likely to look, he’s not only able to shut down specific zones but also bait passers into bad decisions. In addition, he’s flashed the ability to make plays on the ball — both in and out of his zone.

Day three player: Max Richardson | Boston College

Best “versatility”

In the modern game, versatility is highly valued — so it’s only fitting we have an award for it. We’re looking for the player who best fulfills the roles most commonly associated with linebackers.

Pete Werner | Ohio State

There are many other players who could be considered here, but Werner is taking this one home. His ability to play all three common linebacker positions at a quality level gives him the edge. While at Ohio State, he’s played at SAM, WILL and MIKE — and while he may need some time before he’s ready for full-time role as an NFL MIKE, he has the potential to do it.

In most draft classes, Werner’s combination of size, athleticism and IQ is rare to find — and he has the experience to back it up.

Day three player: Buddy Johnson | Texas A&M

Next week, we’ll move on to our wide receiver awards.

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