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2020 NFL Draft Preview: Inside linebacker sleepers and Broncos fits

(Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images)

The Broncos have a need at inside linebacker that has been there for quite some time. Not since the days of “Smoke Dog” Al Wilson has Denver had a consistent and intimidating presence at the inside linebacker spot. They have Todd Davis and Alexander Johnson inside right now, but finding an upgrade from both players should be in the plans.

The team has passed on highly-touted draft prospects, just like last year when they traded out of the No. 10 overall spot with the Steelers who promptly selected Devin Bush out of Michigan. The Broncos also didn’t get involved in the free-agent bidding war for guys like Cory Littleton or Blake Martinez this offseason. That leaves the draft to help add talent and competition at the position.

In this article, I will look at the market for the position. I’ll also write about sleepers at the inside linebacker position and some players who could fit what the Broncos need in the 2020 NFL Draft.

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Market Watch

This inside linebacker class isn’t as star-studded as last year’s class, when we saw both Devin White (Buccaneers) and Devin Bush (Steelers) go off the board with top-10 picks. However, there could be three inside linebackers selected in the first round of the draft. Isaiah Simmons (Clemson), Kenneth Murray (Oklahoma) and Patrick Queen (LSU) are all slated to be first-round picks – and for good reason.

Simmons is the most elite-level player here at the inside linebacker position. He is a freakish athlete who can line up in multiple positions. Simmons ranked highly when grading him at inside linebacker, edge defender, free safety, strong safety and nickel cornerback last year for the Tigers.

He has nearly flawless tape and can excel no matter the challenge. He’s got the length and burst to make up ground quickly, whether that’s as a run-defender, in coverage or as a pass-rusher. Simmons is incredibly bright and known as a hard worker. He can diagnose plays quickly and processes things fast as the play unfolds in front of him. Simmons is rarely fooled by play-action fakes or double moves in coverage. This intelligence helps put him in position to make a play nearly every down.

Murray would be a great pick for the Broncos in the first round. He’s been a starter for the Sooners ever since he was a true freshman back in 2017 and has consistently improved his game each year. Murray is known as a leader and quarterback of the defense. He understands every position’s responsibilities because he played all 11 different positions on defense in high school. HJe puts the players around him in the best position before the snap as he fully understands down-and-distance diagnosis.

Murray is a violent tackler and can be an intimidating presence in the middle of the field. He has incredible explosiveness to the ball and an unrelenting style of tackling. In coverage, Murray is a work in progress, but can shut down pass plays that unfold in front of him. He’ll need to work on his feel in zone defenses, but that’s fine if he’s learning under head coach Vic Fangio.

Queen is not built like your typical inside linebacker, but his coverage ability is nearly second-to-none in this class. He’s only 6-feet tall but makes up with explosion and speed. He’s built like a safety but that is more coveted in today’s NFL than it used to be in the past.

He wasn’t a full-time starter in 2019, coming off the bench for the first three games. That was due to his need to improve as a run-defender, which Queen did and then shined as a starter on the national championship team. Queen is 230 pounds and can take on blockers head on. He’s not a violent thumper, but he doesn’t get launched back either, understanding leverage and the best way to win against a larger opponent.

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Sleepers

Joe Bachie from Michigan State is a player the Broncos could get on day three of the draft and he could turn out to be a quality starter in the pros. Some in the scouting community compare his skill set to that of former Bears linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski. Fangio certainly got a lot out of a player like Kwiatkoski and could see similar upside in Bachie.

He has been a starter for the Spartans since 2017 and Bachie has shown a fine ability as a coverage player. In each of those seasons, Bachie has at least four or more interceptions and pass breakups. He does a good job of monitoring the play as it breaks down in front of him and his lack of elite athleticism is made up for with high football intelligence and anticipation.

Willie Gay Jr., from Mississippi State, is not necessarily a sleeper, but his skill set and upside in Fangio’s zone defense must be highlighted in this article. Injuries and suspensions kept him from playing more snaps with the Bulldogs over the course of his career, but Gay did a great job at the Scouting Combine and is on team’s radars.

Gay is as explosive as the day is long. His vertical jump of 39.5 inches and his broad jump of 11 feet, four inches ranked among the best ever recorded for linebackers. His 4.46 second 40-yard dash certainly stood out, as well. Any team interested in Gay will be taking a chance on his physical tools and not his proven production. That upside makes him an intriguing pick but one with more risk attached.

Davion Taylor from Colorado has a ton of untapped potential to his game. Even though he’s somewhat raw at inside linebacker, Taylor is still considered to be a mid-round pick by NFL scouts that I talk to. Taylor could be a late third- or early fourth-round pick in this draft.

His location skills are what makes him a fine pro prospect. Taylor is only 6-feet tall, but he makes up for that lack of length with incredible burst. Couple that with his football instincts and you can see a solid pro career in his future. As an “overhang” player at CU, Taylor was basically playing the role of a slot corner and does not have much experience playing in the box. In fact, 294 snaps were played at slot corner while 251 snaps were played inside the box by Taylor last year. He’ll have to learn how to perform in the box in order to make it in the NFL.

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Broncos Fits

Logan Wilson is the perfect answer for the Broncos. The Wyoming linebacker has the combination of tackling and coverage ability that could make him a Pro Bowl-caliber player for a decade in the pros. A converted cornerback and wide receiver from high school, Wilson has been a four-year starter for the Cowboys and a standout young man on and off the field.

Wilson measures in around 250 pounds and loves contact. He’s not just a two-down thumper, and Wilson can make plays in coverage whether it’s against running backs on screens or tight ends down the seam. He is smart, hard-working, and the type of player who could turn into a leader in the locker room. Wilson has been consistently productive and has graded out at a high level each of the last three seasons. I was at the Wyoming Pro Day earlier this year, and more than 20 NFL teams were in attendance to see what Wilson can do. He’s going to be selected higher than some originally projected, so the Broncos had better be willing to spend a third-round pick on the talented linebacker.

Akeem Davis-Gaither from Appalachian State is a small-school prospect with big-time ability. He might be the second-smoothest linebacker in terms of athleticism in this class behind Simmons – and that’s saying something since Simmons is a generational talent.

His athletic profile is one of the best in the class, and Davis-Gaither can excel in coverage, run defense and even rushing the passer. He’s got fluid hips which help him in coverage by being able to flip around and keep up with receivers through the route tree. That skill also helps him bend and burst when getting after the quarterback. Finally, Davis-Gaither has a nose for the ball and shows no hesitancy when it comes to attacking a ball-carrier.