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NFL Draft Build-A-Ballard: Who the Colts may target at linebacker in the 2021 NFL Draft

Which linebackers in the 2021 draft fit Ballard’s preferred mold?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 28 Ohio State at Nebraska Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of my favorite and most successful series with Stampede Blue is back for another run in 2020. Yes, it’s the return of the “Build-A-Ballard” series, where we look at common themes and traits in past Chris Ballard draft picks and see which players for the upcoming NFL Draft fit the mold for the Colts.

The goal is to use Ballard’s time in Kansas City— where he was the the Director of Player Personnel or Director of Football Operations from 2013 to 2016— and his time in Indy to figure out who he may covet come draft time.

We already know Ballard loves athleticism and leadership, both on and off the field, but this series hopes to shed more light on traits he is looking for and help to uncover some of the players he may target in the draft.

The focus today will be on Ballard’s favorite position to draft, linebacker. While the Colts may not need one in this class, I wouldn’t put it past Chris Ballard to draft yet another linebacker in 2021.


Notable Past Drafted Players

During Ballard’s tenure in Indianapolis and in Kansas City, his organization has drafted 10 linebackers in eight drafts. Seven of those selections came in the four years that he has been in charge of the Colts, as improving that position has been a core focus of his time in Indy. The top pick used to address the position over that time-frame was a second-round selection in 2018.

We will examine six of the 10 prospects to find common traits.


Anthony Walker, LB, Northwestern— 6th Round Pick (2017)

Size:

6’0” 238 pounds with 30.375” arm length

Measurables:

40 Time: 4.65 seconds / Bench Press: 23 reps / Vertical Jump: 30.5 inches / Broad Jump: 116 inches / 3-Cone: 7.23 seconds

Career Stats:

276 total tackles, 38 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks, 4 interceptions, and 8 forced fumbles

Overview of Pick:

Anthony Walker was a sixth-round pick for the Indianapolis Colts in the 2017 NFL Draft. A highly productive college player, Walker slipped to the later parts of the draft in 2017. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com noted how Walker “flashes burst gear to close out on runners” and was a “smart player with an excellent work ethic.” The main flaws coming out were that he was a bit overweight in college, which hurt his overall athleticism, and that he needed to be a more sure tackler at the next level. Walker was a steal for the Colts in this draft, as he was a valuable piece on their defense for four seasons. He signed a one year deal with the Cleveland Browns this offseason.


Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State— 2nd Round Pick (2018)

Size:

6’2” 234 pounds with 34.375” arm length

Measurables:

40 Time: 4.7 seconds / Bench Press: 20 reps / Vertical Jump: 38 inches / Broad Jump: 130 inches / 3-Cone: 7.37 seconds

Career Stats:

393 total tackles, 42 tackles for a loss, 22 sacks, 6 interceptions, and 7 forced fumbles

Overview of Pick:

Darius Leonard was a second-round pick for the Indianapolis Colts in the 2018 NFL Draft. NA surprising pick for many as Leonard was projected by many outlets to go much later than the second round. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com noted how Leonard had “excellent reactive athleticism” and was a “twitchy long strider with rare closing speed.” His biggest question marks were around his below-average combine performance and his trouble getting off blocks at a high level. He has been an absolute home run in the NFL as he has earned three All-Pro selections in three years and is one of the league’s best linebackers.


Matthew Adams, LB, Houston— 7th Round Pick (2018)

Size:

6’0” 229 pounds with 31.25” arm length

Measurables:

40 Time: 4.63 seconds / Bench Press: 30 reps / Vertical Jump: 33.5 inches / Broad Jump: 122 inches / 3-Cone: 7.05 seconds

Career Stats:

256 total tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles

Overview of Pick:

Matthew Adams was a seventh-round pick for the Indianapolis Colts in the 2018 NFL Draft. Not really on many scouts and analysts’ radar prior to the draft, Adams was able to sneak into the seventh round. While I couldn’t find any scouting reports on Adams on NFL.com or any other major sites, from what I saw, his biggest strengths were his power as a linebacker, his athleticism, and overall physicality coming downhill. He needed to work on his lateral athleticism and his instincts as an off-ball linebacker. Adams so far has been worth the draft pick as he has been a valuable spot starter and special teamer for the Colts since 2018.


Zaire Franklin, LB, Syracuse— 7th Round Pick (2018)

Size:

6’0” 239 pounds with 31.75” arm length

Measurables:

40 Time: 4.62 seconds / Bench Press: 30 reps / Vertical Jump: 38 inches / Broad Jump: 122 inches / 3-Cone: 6.97 seconds

Career Stats:

310 total tackles, 31.5 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 5 forced fumbles

Overview of Pick:

Zaire Franklin was a seventh-round pick for the Indianapolis Colts in the 2018 NFL Draft. An athletic specimen, Franklin fell to the Colts late in the seventh round. Matt Miller of Bleacher Report noted how Franklin was a “Fast linebacker seen running down top speed back Nyheim Hines in the open field” and had “Athletic hips and feet.” The main flaws coming out were that he struggled to get off blocks in run defense and that he was late reading plays. Franklin has mostly been a special teamer for the Colt, and has served as the backup WILL backer the last three seasons.


Bobby Okereke, LB, Stanford— 3rd Round Pick (2019)

Size:

6’1” 239 pounds with 34.5” arm length

Measurables:

40 Time: 4.58 seconds / Bench Press: 16 reps / Vertical Jump: 33.5 inches / Broad Jump: 122 inches / 3-Cone: 7.02 seconds

Career Stats:

227 total tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks, 1 interception and 3 forced fumbles

Overview of Pick:

Bobby Okereke was a third-round pick for the Indianapolis Colts in the 2019 NFL Draft. A big name in college football during his Senior season, Okereke fell to the Colts in the third round. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com noted how Okereke had “Long, loose slides when scraping to the football” and how he was “Rangy with sideline-to-sideline speed.” His biggest flaws in college were disengaging from blockers and being a more consistent tackler. He has been a very solid player for the Colts in his two career seasons and is likely to take on the role of the MIKE linebacker this upcoming year.


EJ Speed, LB, Tarleton State— 5th Round Pick (2019)

Size:

6’4” 224 pounds with 33.25” arm length

Measurables:

40 Time: 4.6 seconds / Bench Press: 24 reps / Vertical Jump: 34 inches / Broad Jump: 120 inches / 3-Cone: 6.9 seconds

Career Stats:

231 total tackles, 36 tackles for a loss, 11.5 sacks, 10 pass deflections, 3 interceptions and 8 forced fumbles

Overview of Pick:

EJ Speed was a fifth-round pick for the Indianapolis Colts in the 2019 NFL Draft. Since Speed was such an under the radar player, I haven’t been able to find any public scouting reports on him prior to the draft. So, it’s hard to truly say what his strengths and weaknesses were prior to the draft, especially when there really isn’t any film from Tarleton State readily available. Speed has been an excellent special teamer in two years in Indy and is in line for a role increase in 2021.


Common Traits

Here are the common traits that can help us build a rough mold of what Ballard might look for in rookie linebackers:

  • Athletic, Rangy linebacker with good combine scores
  • Long arms, especially for Mike linebackers. His biggest hits had 34+ inch arm length.
  • Strengths: Elite athletes, rangy, great work ethic, “dog mentality”, Team captain, good in coverage, quick to read offensive plays
  • Weaknesses: Over-aggressive in run defense, struggles to shed blocks from lineman, skinny frame
  • Leadership/Team Captaincy/Senior Bowl (a Ballard trademark with the Colts)

2021 Draft Players Who Fit

Given this rough outline, who might Ballard target in the 2021 NFL Draft?


1.) Baron Browning, Ohio State

Size:

6’3” 241 pounds with 33” arm length

Career Stats:

109 tackles, 19 tackles for a loss, 7 sacks, 2 pass deflections, and 2 forced fumbles

Why He Fits:

If you were to craft the perfect Chris Ballard linebacker prospect in a lab, Baron Browning is the player that would come out. He is a physical, rangy linebacker who is one of the best overall athletes in the entire draft class. He had stretches of inconsistency at Ohio State— mainly due to their rotation at linebacker— but he showed the ability to be a great coverage player who can also violently play the run. He may go earlier than Ballard would like to take a linebacker in this class, but he has the potential to be a star in this league and fits every single criteria that Ballard likes in his linebackers.


2.) Jabril Cox, LSU

Size:

6’2” 233 pounds with 32.7” arm length

Career Stats (at LSU):

58 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 5 pass deflections, and 3 interceptions

Why He Fits:

Jabril Cox changed his entire NFL outlook around when he transferred up to LSU from North Dakota State. As a safety at NDSU, he showed the traits to be an intriguing player at the next level. At LSU, he put out some of the best linebacker film in the class and showed the potential to be a top cover linebacker in the NFL. His long arms and athleticism are huge advantages in his game as he is able to close space in a hurry and cover tight ends, running backs, and even receivers with ease. He needs to improve a bit in run defense but with his coverage ability and athleticism, he should go pretty early in this class. Throw in that he was a Senior Bowl guy and I could see Chris Ballard being tempted on day two of this draft.


3.) Jamin Davis, Kentucky

Size:

6’4” 234 pounds

Career Stats (at LSU):

144 tackles, 5.0 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, 3 pass deflections, and 5 interceptions

Why He Fits:

Jamin Davis has been a late riser in this draft class and it seems as though everybody loves the linebacker out of Kentucky. Davis is a fun study as he is a lengthy linebacker with excellent speed and aggression from the linebacker position. He has shown the ability in coverage too, as his five career interceptions are indicative of his play-making skills. He has a ways to go in terms of his instincts in the run game but he has a legit enough skill set to warrant the risk.


Honorable Mentions


  • Derrick Barnes, Purdue: Freaky athlete with excellent length. Played a lot off the edge in college but translates well as an off ball SAM backer in the NFL (Senior Bowl guy too).
  • Nick Niemann, Iowa: Brother of Chiefs linebacker Ben Niemann. Freak athlete with great size and length. More of a day three project but he’s the type you take a shot on.
  • Zaven Collins, Tulsa: Elite level athlete who can also rush the passer off the edge. While he needs to be more physical against the run, he could fill two needs in one for Indy.
  • Dylan Moses, Alabama: Once a top LB prospect who had his career derailed by injuries a bit. Athletic player who could be a steal come draft day.
  • Charles Snowden, Virginia: 6’6” linebacker who rushed the passer quite a bit in college. Could play all over a defense with his athletic ability and length.

Conclusion

With GM Chris Ballard’s track record for drafting linebackers, these are the prospects who might stand out for him during the draft. He tends to like uber-athletes who are rangy and have that tough mentality. They may not be the biggest players or surest tacklers but who am I to argue when he drafted a three time All-Pro in the second round, a 100 tackle player in the sixth, and the early makings of a really good player in the third round in 2019? This position is obviously Ballard’s strength.

It is important to note that this analysis could be entirely wrong as it relies heavily on his time in Kansas City. It is entirely possible that Ballard disagreed with much of the decisions made during his time with the Chiefs’ organization at the receiver position. For all I know, Ballard could take a big-bodied thumper in round one. Who knows? However, this series should give some kind of insight into who Chris Ballard may want to target based on his past.