NFL Draft 2021: Rough Diamonds Series: Linebackers

This is the penultimate part in the series where I take a quick look, position by position, at my favourite Day 3/Undrafted guys from the 2021 NFL Draft.

We’re now on to the Linebackers, a position that has been redefined somewhat over the last decade or so. In the old days, you had the big, ungainly tackling machine Inside Linebackers, and the elegant, explosive and athletic Outside Linebackers. These days the Outside guys have morphed with the Defensive Ends to create the new “Edge” position. The old school, thumping, inside guys have become somewhat redundant and replaced with the new “Off-Ball Linebacker” position. This position requires athleticism, high football IQ and a leadership attitude and it’s widely regarded now as the Quarterback of the Defense

This wasn’t a great crop of Linebackers for the 2021 draft, but here are three guys, with differing skill sets, who may grab a roster spot.

Cameron McGrone: Michigan (Round 5, Pick 177 New England)

McGrone was a 4-star recruit who arrived on campus weighing in around 210lbs. Michigan were happy to redshirt him in 2018, as they had decent upperclassmen talent at linebacker on the roster, and it allowed McGrone to hit the weight room and fill out his frame. 

He was ready to go in 2019, and at times during that season he looked like the second coming of Bobby Wagner. He originally subbed in for an injured Josh Ross at Middle linebacker, but when Ross was healthy to return, they kept McGrone at his position as he’d done so well there, and moved Ross over to the weakside. McGrone was so fast to the ball, diagnosing plays quickly and then cutting angles down and making tackles. It was hard to take your eyes off him as he was so impactful and was always around the ball, regardless of where the play finished up. He was sensational in the first four games I caught of him (Iowa, Illinois, Penn State and Notre Dame), and I was very excited when Michigan got to play Alabama in the Citrus Bowl to conclude the season. Here McGrone was slightly more exposed than he had been in previous games, but the level of talent ‘Bama put out on the field was scary, so no alarm bells were ringing. He still made some great splash plays and although there were a few mental lapses in this game, it was hard to criticise considering his relative inexperience, and strength of the opponent. Although not draft eligible for the 2020 NFL Draft I knew he’d be one of “my guys’ ‘ for the following season. 

Because of COVID, the 2020 season was never going to be described as normal for any teams, but the BIG 10 suffered more than most by dithering about whether to have a season, and if they did, when to start it. When they finally got around to starting it, Michigan would only get to play six games which wasn’t ideal, and neither was McGrone’s level of play. He got hurt in their 2nd game of the season, a loss to rival Michigan State. He battled through the injury to play in the next three games, but ultimately ended up tearing his ACL against Rutgers, and missing the final game against Penn State. McGrone didn’t look right at all in 2020, but when you factor in the niggling injury and the whole Covid situation the team was faced with, this probably played a big part in his drop off in play. 

I was surprised he declared for the 2021 draft. He could have rehabbed his knee at Michigan and been good to go for the new season and try and get back to that level of play we saw in 2019. He would also have got to do a full workout for scouts at the combine, proving his return to health and showcasing his natural athleticism. But by deciding to enter the draft, he couldn’t work out for teams, and with that 2020 tape still fresh in their minds, he fell to the 5th Round, where New England took a chance on him. 

Head Coach Bill Belichick has already stated,

“We’re prepared certainly to not have him available this year”

Hinting that the Patriots will be quite happy to stash him away on Injured Reserve for the season and let him rehab properly. They have Dont’a Hightower back this season after he opted out of last year, but his contract is up after this season, so if McGrone can come back healthy, he’ll get a chance to compete for that starting role in 2022. This may be a Fifth-Round player but he flashes first round ability, and if all goes well in the rehab, he may end up sparkling more than any other of my rough diamonds so far.

Erroll Thompson: Mississippi State (Undrafted, Atlanta).

Thompson seemed to have been at Mississippi State forever. He had started the last 3 years for the bulldogs, and at times had flashed the ability to be an NFL starter, but consistency and questionable athleticism led to him slipping out of the draft.

First the good points. Thompson has plus instincts, particularly against the run, getting downhill quick and filling gaps. Thompson is a physical tackler displaying good technique and is around the ball a lot. He was used as a blitzer with a decent amount of success, demonstrating a good bull rush and ability to cause disruption to the pocket. He played over the 250lb mark, which is big for a modern Linebacker, but he was still able to move well, particularly in pursuit. He is a natural leader on the field and was a two-time team captain, but I felt what I saw in 2019 was better than 2020, although this may have been due to the oddness of last season.

Now the negative for Thompson is simple, lack of NFL athleticism. He can get to short areas quickly, but the long speed is always a question. He can also make plays in coverage when it’s in front of him, but when asked to turn and run with players it’s a different story. This was confirmed with his pro day numbers, when even though he cut some weight to run quicker (down to 239lbs), he could still only manage a 4.81/40, a 4.56 short shuttle and a 7.66 3-cone. 

These are below average for the position and although there’s enough good tape and intangibles to work with, Thompson probably profiles as a two-down player in the NFL and in this day and age there isn’t as much need for this type of Linebacker. I still thought there was enough there to be a late round pick, but he fell out of the draft and landed with Atlanta as an UDFA. The Falcons have a new staff in place and will be trying to stamp their image into this defense, so by picking up Thompson they may be suggesting there is a role for him, as he is the only Linebacker of that type currently on the roster. I believe he has enough smarts to overcome his lack of great athleticism and hopefully if he doesn’t make the final roster, he will at least land on the practice squad.

Photo Credit: Cincinnati Enquirer Justin Hilliard vs. Clemson

Justin Hilliard: Ohio State (Undrafted, San Francisco)

How can a 5-star recruit at Ohio State go under the radar? Injuries and lack of opportunity is the answer for Hilliard, who arrived in Columbus as the top prospect in Ohio and the 35th Nationally in 2015.

His first two seasons were blighted by two separate biceps injuries, limiting him to only three games. He finally saw the field consistently in 2017 but was limited to mainly special teams, as the talent ahead of him on the depth chart was plentiful. It was a similar story in 2018 where he was a special teams demon, but could only take limited snaps on defense. With a chance to compete for a starting spot in 2019, the injury bug cruelly struck again, this time an achilles injury in spring training; this put him behind others once the season had started. However, he did manage to start three games during the season and he certainly made an impression with 3 tackles-for-loss and an Interception.

Even with a run to the National Championship game in 2020, a Covid shortened Big 10 season for Ohio State meant that Hilliard only played 6 games, but he managed 231 snaps, which was almost as many as the previous four seasons combined. Finally, injury free, the run of games in 2020 proved that Hilliard belonged at this level, and some of his play was certainly that of a former 5-star player. He could play as the overhang defender or as an off ball linebacker and showed enough athleticism, and football IQ, to command that playing time. He was dominant in the Big Ten Championship win against Northwestern, making a crucial Interception in that game, and had a combined 3 tackles-for-loss in the College Football Play-Off’s Semi Final against Clemson, and the Final against Alabama.

He delivered on the biggest stages, but with that terrible injury history and a very average pro day workout, Hilliard was almost certainly going undrafted, but he has signed on as a UDFA with San Francisco and this looks a very good fit. The 49ers defense rarely has three linebackers on the field, but Hilliard could challenge for that third spot, battling Azeez Al-Shaair and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles in training camp. Worst case here I feel Hilliard would be a special teams monster. In a team like this that has great starters in place already, the depth guys must be able to play on the coverage units, and do it well. I think this will be his ticket to the final 53-man roster.

Thanks for staying with this series, last up will be the Defensive Backs…..


@lordluckenFollow Keith on Twitter @lordlucken

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