May 25, 2022

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Transcendent linebacker prospects can rejuvenate…

4 min read
Devin Lloyd, Nakobe Dean

INDIANAPOLIS — If college football recruiting can invent “athlete” as a new position, maybe it’s time for NFL teams to create space to add “playmaker” on their depth charts. 

It’s difficult to imagine that either Utah’s Devin Lloyd or Georgia’s Nakobe Dean would object. For now, those two first-team All-Americans are pigeonholed as inside linebackers and thus some teams focused on positional value will rule out both as top-10 picks, ignoring the kind of impact Micah Parsons made as a rookie. 

“That’s definitely inspiring for a lot of players, just seeing what he did,” Lloyd said of Parsons, who earned Defensive Rookie of the Year and All-Pro first team honors for his 13 sacks and three forced fumbles after the Cowboys stole him with the No. 12 pick in 2021. “I definitely plan on coming in and doing great things, as well. He had a special season, so I think a lot of teams are looking for the linebackers like that.” 

Lloyd and Dean met with both the Giants (picks No. 5 and No. 7 in the draft) and the Jets (No. 4 and No. 10) last week at the NFL Scouting Combine. 

Devin Lloyd, Nakobe Dean
Devin Lloyd, Nakobe Dean
Getty (2)

The Giants are in the market for an upgrade over Tae Crowder as a partner for Blake Martinez — who will count $14 million against the salary cap coming off of a torn ACL — in their 3-4 defense. The Jets need to think defense first to upgrade the NFL’s worst-ranked unit. It is uncertain whether Martinez or Jets’ 3-4 middle linebacker C.J. Mosley will be in New York beyond the 2022 season. 

“In terms of the do-everything guys off the ball, Devin Lloyd is my first choice there,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “He’s not going to run as fast as Micah did, but he’s got length, he’s got instincts, he’s outstanding in pass coverage.” 

Call them “linebackers” if you want, but the numbers on Lloyd (111 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, seven sacks and four interceptions) and Dean (72 tackles, six sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles) suggest they are “playmakers” above all else. Leaders, too. 

“I’ve never known anyone who wouldn’t get on the field for making a big play,” Dean said. He added, “leadership doesn’t have an age. [My] coach used to always say, ‘If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.’ So I feel like you just have to gain the respect of guys, that trust in guys and you have to know who you are playing with. You can’t treat everybody the same way, as far as getting on them.” 

Nakobe Dean
Nakobe Dean

The 6-foot-3, 237-pound Lloyd is a much closer physical comparison to Parsons (6-3, 245) and shares some of the edge-rusher traits that allowed the Cowboys to shift Parsons all over the field. Dean (5-11, 229) is a true middle linebacker, even if a bit undersized. 

“I feel like my mindset separates me from everybody else,” Dean said. “I don’t shy from [my size]. Everybody can see me. Turn on the tape.” 

The Giants haven’t drafted a first-round linebacker since Carl Barks in 1984 — a drought that could stop now that defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has influence. Martindale spent the past 10 seasons with the Ravens, who are known for developing Ray Lewis, Bart Scott, Mosley (and maybe soon Patrick Queen) into Pro Bowlers. 

Dean, who was compared by Jeremiah to former Jets draft pick Jonathan Vilma for his natural anticipation skills, said the Ravens’ defense is one he studied throughout his development. Lloyd called Lewis “one of my favorite players of all-time.” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projected Lloyd to the Giants at No. 7 in his pre-combine mock draft. 

“I’m somebody who hunts,” Lloyd said. “I get to the ball, but also, I’m very calculated in my moments. I’m somebody who’s just an instinctual player that plays with physicality; somebody who’s just really smart and nasty.” 

Devin Lloyd runs the 40 at the NFL Combine.
Devin Lloyd runs the 40 at the NFL Combine.
Getty Images

Jets head coach Robert Saleh said last week that he “would never want to take a linebacker in the first round” — let alone in the top 10 — unless “he’s a unicorn in the linebacker world.” Parsons certainly qualifies. 

The Bears (Roquan Smith), Buccaneers (Devin White), Steelers (Devin Bush) and Cardinals (Isaiah Simmons) all used top-10 picks on inside linebackers within the last four drafts. 

“When you talk about the center of your defense and having that intelligence, the toughness, the leadership, Nakobe’s got all that stuff in spades,” Jeremiah said. “In my notes I wrote, ‘This guy does everything fast.’ I can’t get a feel for where he’s going to go in the first round. He’s a top-10 player for me, but I know teams are obsessed with trying to find the longer, rangier, off-the-ball linebackers.” 

Maybe the obsession — at least for the rebuilding Giants and Jets — should be with playmakers.