Are linebackers the new running backs?
Jordyn Brooks is maybe one of the most *successful* picks of the recent era, which is saying something: Seaside Joe 1578
The NFL Draft is nowhere near predictable enough to even be considered an “inexact” science. It would be like if astronomers explained what things in the nightsky were by pulling answers out of a hat.
"It’s…a…well, look at that, it’s a planet.”
“And what’s that big, firey, ball orb that’s coming directly at us?”
“That is a….look at that, another planet! We should be fine.”
The Seahawks thought they had a relatively easy plan set in motion when they drafted Jordyn Brooks in the first round of the 2019 draft. An elite athlete with a remarkably similar physical profile to his NFL comp—Bobby Wagner—Brooks would get at least one year to play with two of the best linebackers in franchise history, and at least two next to Wagner before allowing Seattle to part with the highest-paid player at his position in 2021.
That plan seemed on track going into last season, but a year later, Brooks’ fifth-year option was declined and Wagner is back in the Seahawks’ middle seat.
This is where I want this article to deviate from arguing whether Jordyn Brooks was a “good pick” or a “bad pick” because that’s a discussion for another time. Brooks has totaled the second-most tackles in the past two years, which could be interpreted in either positive or negative ways, and Pete Carroll insists that the fourth-year linebacker is integral to Seattle’s past, present, and future success.
But this is intended to be a more general and macro discussion than just one first round linebacker: Perhaps the most frustrating aspect to the “running backs don’t matter” narrative is that there is NO attention being given to first round picks at other positions that often yield underwhelming results.
Setting aside your personal feelings on running back value, I think there’s no debate that Bijan Robinson is the closest version of a “safe pick” in the 2023 draft based on who will be playing good football over the next four years. First round running backs are most often “good” players, even if you think that you can also find good running backs later on.
Where are all the “good” linebackers from the first round?
Two years ago, the Cardinals drafted Zaven Collins 16th overall, and this week I found out that Arizona is moving him from linebacker to edge. The Collins pick came one year after the Cards picked Isaiah Simmons eighth overall and now Simmons is playing safety. That’s back-to-back linebackers picked in the top half of the first round who are no longer linebackers.
In Simmons’ class, the second linebacker picked was Kenneth Murray (fighting for his job this year with the Chargers), then Brooks, then Patrick Queen of the Ravens. Baltimore reportedly wants to try and get an extension done with Queen at some point, but declining his fifth-year option (as was also the case for Simmons, Murray, and Brooks) implies that the Ravens simply want to shore up a position at a reasonable cost.
Three picks after Collins in 2021, the Moons selected Jamin Davis. From bad as a rookie (Coordinator Jack Del Rio said at the time that he had way too many “What the heck are you doing?” plays) to acceptable in year two, but he’s still in a legitimate competition for his job against former Seahawks linebacker Cody Barton. Said Del Rio of Barton, "he's going to be a valuable piece for us."
And he didn’t cost a top-20 pick.
Go back four years and the Buccaneers didn’t just use a top-20 pick, but the fifth overall pick, on Devin White. The Steelers then traded up to #10 for recent Seattle free agent signing Devin Bush.
White is a solid player, a Super Bowl winner, a one-time Pro Bowler, and sure, at times one of the five best linebackers in the NFL. But some Tampa Bay fans question if he’s worth the massive extension that he wants (White has requested a new contract or a trade rather than playing on his fifth-year option) and if we’re going to compare running backs to the “high value” positions taken after them, then why not do the same with White going ahead of Josh Allen (DE), Daniel Jones, Brian Burns, Jeffery Simmons, etc.?
With Bush, the case is much easier, as he got injured in year two and was benched by Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin by the end of year four.
Notably, four years after the 2019 draft, few first round picks come out looking better than 24th overall selection Josh Jacobs, the NFL’s leading rusher in 2022 and one of the only in his class to be getting paid $10 million+ this year.
More recently, in 2022, the Jaguars made Devin Lloyd the 27th overall pick, one of only two first round linebackers last year. Lloyd had 115 tackles and three interceptions, but linebackers coach Tony Gilbert said that he hit “the rookie wall” early in the season, getting benched for fellow rookie Chad Muma, a third round pick.
If this happens to a running back—getting benched for a player in your same class who was picked much later, a la “the Chris Carson type” of impact—the sole focus is on how “you don’t draft running backs early!”
The other 2022 first round linebacker, Green Bay’s Quay Walker, had 121 tackles and three forced fumbles. But Packers fans are frustrated with his “boneheaded mistakes” and one blogger noted that he’s higher on fellow first rounder Devonte Wyatt despite Wyatt only playing in 23% of the snaps and being picked later than Walker. He was also ejected two times for unsportsmanlike conduct, including pushing an assistant coach on the Lions.
So to recap every first round linebacker picked between 2019-2022, a total of 11 names: Devin White, Devin Bush*, Isaiah Simmons*, Kenneth Murray*, Jordyn Brooks, Patrick Queen, Micah Parsons*, Zaven Collins*, Jamin Davis*, Quay Walker, Devin Lloyd*
*Has been benched, getting pushed for his job this year, or moved positions
That leaves White, Brooks (torn ACL, who knows what’s next), Queen, and Walker, who I’m generously leaving off the other list but he has not been guaranteed anything either.
So really what it leaves is Parsons, an immediate Defensive Player of the Year candidate for the Cowboys but honestly that’s because he doesn’t play like an inside linebacker at all…which is why Dallas moved him to defensive end this year. Former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn says really Parsons is still a “pass rushing linebacker” but in any case, he’s not going to be the next Bobby Wagner or Luke Kuechly.
He’s something much different and wouldn’t help the case of drafting linebackers in the first round.
Are linebackers facing the same issue as running backs, but with none of the publicity?
The other day I wrote about how running backs have a serious “NFL problem” and that’s leaving the likes of Jacobs and Saquon Barkley without the long-term contracts that they want or the opportunity to negotiate with other teams that might actually be willing to pay them what the Raiders and Giants aren’t.
I’m reminded of the Portlandia sketch “The Celery Incident”, in which “brussel sprouts are back!” but the PR for celery is falling behind.
“Really Marty? Because I feel like celery is limp!”
As bad as things have gotten for running back, they’re maybe closer to being “kale” right now than they are like “celery”. At least running backs have some people out there willing to fight for them, simply because there is a contingent of writers and fans who spend all day arguing against them.
Nobody talks about the linebacker problem.
Out of six first round linebackers from 2019-2020, White was the only one to get the fifth-year option. However, the Bucs don’t want to pay him a long-term deal, which is the same problem that Jacobs is facing right now.
You know which 2019 first round pick isn’t going to have a hard time getting his team to pay him? Nick Bosa. Quinnen Williams. Ed Oliver. Rashan Gary. Dexter Lawrence. Jeffery Simmons. If you love a guy who you picked in the first round, you pay him. It’s as simple as that. If a team moves on from a “successful” first round pick, there’s always an extenuating circumstance and the only qualification that could apply for that between White and the Bucs is that Tampa Bay doesn’t want to fit a $15-$18 million linebacker into the budget.
And White’s been the best true linebacker pick of that four-year period.
If we go back to 2018, there are four first round linebackers, two of which turned out well: Roquan Smith (but another case of the team not wanting to pay him, as the Bears traded Smith to the Ravens because they weren’t satisfied with their own first round linebacker) and Tremaine Edmunds.
Edmunds is also no longer with his original team, having departed in free agency to replace Smith in Chicago, as the Bills didn’t want to pay him $18 million per year either.
The other two first rounders that year were Leighton Vander Esch (nearly cut in 2022 but still hanging on with the Cowboys) and Rashaan Evans (an unsigned free agent).
The two first round linebackers in 2017: Jarrad Davis and Reuben Foster. The former is fighting for his career right now with the Giants, the latter is out of the league. In 2016, it was Darron Lee, another bust. And in 2015, first rounder Stephone Anthony was basically finished after his rookie season with the Saints. In fact, you would need to go back to 2015 to find the last first round linebacker who has actually established himself as a long-term solution at the position for the team that drafted him:
Former Washington Huskies linebacker Shaq Thompson, the 25th overall pick of the Carolina Panthers in 2015. Thompson is what he is, which is a good, dependable player but he’s relatively cheap and he took a pay cut to stay with the Panthers in 2023.
So how is that with running backs the narrative is that “Oh wow, you would pick a running back in the first round? That’s insane! It’s lunacy! He better do more than just be a running back, he better also be a receiver, a tight end, a sixth blocker, return kicks, and play cornerback!” but there isn’t a whisper about the lack of internal R.O.I. with virtually ANY first round linebacker in the last eight years? Barring that linebacker doing more than his job requirements, like Parsons, which then may necessitate moving positions, or trading that player to a team that’s okay with paying him (and the Bears only got back a second and a fifth for a top-three linebacker), how have any first round picks been “successful”?
It just seems like running backs have better PR than linebackers.
After this season, the Seahawks must not only decide what they’ll do with Brooks and Wagner…but also, what they’re willing to do if they have to replace one or both of them again.
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