The 2020 NFL Scouting Combine is underway. As I have for the past decade-plus, I am in Indianapolis, Ind., for the festivities.
This is the biggest job interview these players will ever have in their lifetime. It’s a rigorous process where they work out for teams, get interviewed by almost every franchise and they undergo medical checks by interested teams.
The Combine is often called the “Underwear Olympics” by some in the media; many poke fun at the process. That’s a foolish outlook from the more ignorant minds.
While it’s not a huge part of a player’s grade – I say roughly one percent – the Combine does reveal a lot about a player coming into the league. Scouts and general managers can see how players respond to workouts, how they’ve prepared for this process, and how intelligent they are during interviews and work on the whiteboard. Film is the largest part of a player’s grade, but the Combine is not to be overlooked.
Here is my 2020 Combine preview for linebackers.
The most-intriguing player in this draft class might be Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons. Measuring in at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Simmons is a hybrid player who has experience playing slot corner, safety and linebacker. Usually a jack of all trades is a master of none, but that’s not the case for an elite-level talent like Simmons.
He is a playmaker with range. Simmons has the speed to play sideline-to-sideline in the NFL and he can effectively cover athletic tight ends over the middle of the field. He’s athletic enough to stay with his man and he is willing as a tackler where he has no problem bringing an opponent down.
Because he can be moved all over the field, this gives a defensive coordinator the versatility to place him in coverage, put him near the line of scrimmage as a run-stuffer or even send him off the edge as a blitzer. His length gives him an advantage when it comes to making up ground quickly, and that also allows him to knock down passes that are attempted over his head.
Simmons is also going to be able to spy dual-threat quarterbacks at the pro level. This is a highly coveted skill in today’s NFL. Simmons does a good job of breaking down his man in the open field, and he is not fooled by juke moves or misdirection.
It’s remarkable to consider, but Simmons has not played his best ball yet and he’s far from a finished product. With a focus on linebacker at the pro level, the sky is the limit for Simmons and he should go off the board as a top-10 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Long Legs, Loose Hips
Sometimes linebackers are players who began their career at different positions. In the case of Ohio State’s Malik Harrison, that position was high school quarterback. He was converted to the defensive side of the ball for the Buckeyes due to depth at the wide receiver position (the spot Harrison wanted to play in college) and he turned into a first-team, All-Big Ten player.
Harrison is a downhill player with a nose for the ball. Because of his downhill mentality, he strikes opponents with furious anger and that makes him an intimidating presence on the football field. Even when a play goes away from him, Harrison has the ability to run it down from the backside.
He is an athletic player who understands zone coverage. He can drop back in his spot and identify where a player is going. Due to his length, Harrison makes it difficult for quarterbacks to put the ball over his head. While he may get fooled at times with pump fakes, Harrison’s length does help him in recovery if he makes a mistake.
One of my favorite inside linebacker prospects this year is Logan Wilson from the University of Wyoming. He was a star prep player in Casper, Wyo., before transitioning to linebacker for the Cowboys up in Laramie. Wilson is a three-down player who doesn’t need to come off the field and certainly has a nose for the ball – both on the ground and through the air.
He had nine career interceptions for the Cowboys and has no trouble tracking the ball in the air. In fact, Wilson does a good job of setting up a quarterback in coverage. This is a trait that cornerbacks mostly have as they can fool a passer into thinking his target is open. Of course, as a converted cornerback, Wilson now brings that skill set to the linebacker position. He was part of a Cowboys defense in 2017 that led the nation in takeaways, and now he’s taking that ability to get turnovers to the pro level.
Wilson has strong play recognition and does not get caught up in the wash when he has to play close to the line of scrimmage. Instead, he can “scrape and flow” to get to the ball-carrier and he’s got incredible burst to the ball once he sees the opponent he needs to bring down. He is about as fundamentally sound as a tackler as you’ll see in this draft class.
To begin his career, Wilson is at least a core special teams prospect, but the upside for him to be not only a starting inside linebacker – but a star player – is there. It will be exciting to watch what he can do now that he’s going to the NFL level.