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Under-the-Radar SAM linebacker options for the Colts in the 2021 NFL Draft

Who could the Colts draft to play SAM in this class?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 06 Kentucky at Texas A&M Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Due to the interest that the Under-the-Radar move tight ends piece I wrote generated, I decided to make it a series here prior to the Draft. To clarify what I am doing in these pieces, these articles will focus primarily on players who are projected to go on day three of the draft. So the tight end article didn’t include players such as Brevin Jordan or Tommy Tremble because they are top prospects at that position and should be drafted no later than day two.

So, with that in mind, top linebacker prospects like Baron Browning or Derrick Barnes (who would both be perfect fits at SAM) won’t be included. With those guidelines set, we will be looking at the SAM linebacker position. This may not be a huge need on the roster (especially if the team is ready to let E.J Speed play) but there is a vacancy at the position with Bobby Okereke moving over to MIKE. With that in mind, here are my under-the-radar SAM linebackers in this upcoming draft class.

Buddy Johnson, LB, Texas A&M

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 12 Alabama at Texas A&M Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Johnson is a player who been rarely talked about throughout this draft process and honestly after watching his film, I have no clue why. Johnson started his final two seasons at Texas A&M, where he served as a Team Captain in those two years. For his career, he tallied 209 tackles, 23.5 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks, 1 interception, and 3 forced fumbles.

Johnson may be the best run defending linebacker in this class, as he has a powerful upper body that allows him to beat opposing linemen in space. While he may not have top sideline to sideline long speed, he is explosive and quick on film, which allows him to also beat blockers by maneuvering around them. He is also a high IQ backer who rarely gets fooled by backfield misdirection. On top of that, he tested as an elite athlete at his Pro Day, where he weighed in at 6’0” 230 pounds and posted a 4.59 forty yard dash and 38.5 inch vertical. He has his limitations in coverage but his ability to defend the run along with his athleticism would make him a great fit for the Colts’ need at the SAM spot.

Riley Cole, LB, South Alabama

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 30 Senior Bowl Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Riley Cole is a limited linebacker in this draft class but he fits what the Colts like in their SAM position. Cole was once an Alabama recruit before he opted to commit at the last second to South Alabama. He encountered some awful injury luck in college but was able to churn out an outstanding Senior season, where he totaled 96 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles.

Cole may not be the typical Chris Ballard linebacker prospect, but he does fit the play style he likes at SAM. He is an excellent run defender who has great power and strength at the point of attack. He actually bench pressed 225 pounds 26 times at his Pro Day, which is quite the high number for an off ball linebacker. He is fearless with how he fills gaps and would be a perfect fit in the Colts’ 4-3 under looks with the SAM essentially lined up as the fifth defensive lineman. He may have major struggles in coverage but with the Colts only using the SAM roughly 15-20% of the time and primarily on run downs, I could see Cole getting some snaps if he is drafted.

Nick Niemann, LB, Iowa

Nebraska v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Don’t let the last name scare you, Nick Niemann isn’t similar at all to his brother, Ben, in the NFL. Niemann saw a major snap increase in his Senior year, as he became the starting inside linebacker alongside Barrington Wade. In just 8 games played, Niemann totaled 77 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss, and a fumble recovery.

Niemann may be a bit of a project at the next level, but the appeal comes in his athleticism. He had a phenomenal Pro Day, where he ran a 4.51 forty yard dash and had a three cone of 6.67 seconds. On film, that athleticism shows as he is able to quickly duck and maneuver around linemen and make his way to the running back. When he has to play physical and beat blocks with his power, he is typically able to control the contact and shed for a quick tackle. His instincts are lacking a bit but taking a day three shot on a top tier athlete who is a good run defender would be an excellent pick in my opinion.

Other SAM linebackers to Watch

  • Barrington Wade, Iowa: Niemann’s running mate at Iowa. Excellent athlete who plays much more physical than his 232 pound frame would suggest. Underrated option for day three in this class.
  • Charles Snowden, Virginia: This one is a bit interesting as Snowden was more of an edge rusher at UVA. With his skinnier frame and athleticism, I think he could be a good fit at SAM. High energy player with great length.
  • Jon Rhattigan, Army: Limited athlete but he is a powerful player at the point of attack. Had an outstanding Senior season and the Colts have met with him this offseason.
  • Amen Ogbongbemiga, Oklahoma State: Shorter linebacker who is a physical run defender. Good first punch and looks for contact in the run game.