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Which LB or TE should Washington target at the top of the draft?

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The 2021 NFL draft is 3 weeks from now, and the Washington Football Team holds the 19th pick in the draft, the lowest position they’ve had since 2016, when they selected Josh Doctson with the 22nd pick in the draft.

Any time a team is picking outside the top-10, there is a degree of uncertainty about the players that will be available when they are on the clock, but in 2021, with 4 or 5 quarterbacks likely to be taken in the first 15 picks, and with Washington unlikely to draft a first round DT, DE or RB, the likelihood of a talented player being available at a position of need seems fairly high.

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The three positions where the Football Team looks to be particularly thin on the depth chart are Linebacker, Tight End and Left Tackle. This draft is so deep with offensive linemen that the Washington front office can probably wait until the second or third round and still find a starting quality player.

The match between best player available and position of need in the first round is most likely to occur at linebacker, while the options available at the tight end position and second-tier linebackers seem to be better when Washington makes the 51st overall pick in the middle of the second round. Let’s look at those positions and a few prospects who might fill the team’s needs.

First round linebacker targets

Micah Parsons

The consensus top target at linebacker is Micah Parsons from Penn State. Draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah has him ranked as the 11th overall prospect in the draft. The Draft Network lists him 8th overall and CBS ranks him #7. It seems unlikely that Parsons falls all the way to #19, but it’s possible for a few reasons.

Firstly, the rush to draft quarterbacks will push other talented players down the board a bit. Secondly, some of the teams ahead of Washington who aren’t looking for quarterbacks are likely to be looking to fill other needs. The Cowboys, for example, with Jaylen Smith and Leighton Vander Esch at linebacker, seem much more likely to take the best cornerback available when they make their pick at #12.

Another reason that Parsons could fall is that, for as talented as he is, he isn’t an ideal fit for a lot of NFL defenses at the linebacker position. Professional NFL film analyst, Brett Kollman recently said, “I recognize that Parsons is uber talented but I genuinely struggle to find a fit for him with a high pick that makes sense both for his skillset and for the needs of the teams drafting him.”

There’s very little doubt that the Washington team that was clearly underpowered at the linebacker position last year could use him. At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, Parsons was timed at an astounding 4.39-second 40 at his pro day, and also posted a 34-inch vertical jump. According to Daniel Jeremiah, he has the speed to make plays sideline to sideline, he's very gifted in coverage versus tight ends and running backs, and he has timing and burst as a blitzer off the edge. Overall, there aren't many holes in Parsons' game. As Jeremiah points out, it's difficult to find linebackers with his size and ability to impact the passing game.

If Parsons is available at #19, Washington should sprint to the podium to turn in a card with his name on it.

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

While the chances are slender that Parsons will be available when Washington is on the clock, JOK seems to fit right in the sweet spot for the 19th overall pick, and may be just what the Football Team is looking for. Washington’s linebackers are reasonably competent in run defense; even middle linebacker Jon Bostic, who seems to fit the definition of an NFL journeyman, is an acceptable run game defender, and second-year strong side linebacker Cole Holcomb has a nose for the ball, though either player could be relegated to a backup role by the right draft pick.

Where Washington struggles is in coverage at the linebacker position. The team needs a talented weakside linebacker.

According to Pro Football Focus, Notre Dame’s Owusu-Koramoah lined up in the box on 433 snaps — and played as a slot corner for 680 snaps. In effect, he's a versatile weakside linebacker who is so good in coverage he can cover slot receivers, allowing Jack Del Rio to stay in the base defense instead of nickel, even when facing 11 personnel (one TE, one RB, three WRs).

While a bit undersized for a linebacker at 6’1”, 215 pounds, JOK would be an ideal match to the needs of Washington’s defense, and could help the unit improve on its 2020 ranking of 5th overall (#3 passing defense).

Zaven Collins

While JOK is a bit undersized, Collins comes in a more typical LB package – 6’4” and 260 pounds of muscle and quickness. While Collins’ 4.67 sec 40 time lags behind Parsons, his on-field athleticism is unquestioned. The Tulsa linebacker is a competent run defender, but outstanding in pass coverage.

Watch this highlight play to get a sense for his field awareness and athleticism.

What makes Collins worthy of a first round pick is his unique combination of size, speed and coverage ability. While he’s my third choice at the position, adding Collins to the Washington defense would still provide an upgrade.

Tight end

The heady days when Washington could put a healthy Jordan Reed on the field together with Vernon Davis are far in the past now. Still, Washington looked in every nook and cranny last season and managed to find a previously unpolished diamond in quarterback-turned-tight-end Logan Thomas. The former Virginia Tech Hokie had a breakout season as a professional, pulling in 72 catches for 670 yards and six touchdowns. He also took some snaps under center on short yardage plays and threw a pass for a crucial first down late in the season.

Thomas appears set to hold onto the starting tight end position in 2021. Most people assume that there’s no one behind him worthy of an NFL roster, but the team has Thatddeus Moss, son of the Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss, on the roster.

Related:

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Moss is a skilled blocker and a reliable pass catcher with a big catch radius. What the team needs is a “move” or “joker” tight end capable of stressing defensive pass coverage. It would be a plus if that player turned out to be a competent blocker.

The consensus top player at the tight end position in this month’s draft is Kyle Pitts, from Florida. There is zero chance that Pitts makes it to #19. Many people consider him to the best player in the draft. I doubt anyone has him rated outside the top-5.

After Pitts, there is no clear first-round tight end talent in the draft class, but if the Washington front office waits until the team is on the clock for the 51st overall pick, midway through the 2nd round, there may be one good option.

Pat Freirmuth

At 6’5” and 260 pounds, Penn State’s Pat Freirmuth is known as “Baby Gronk”. He even wears no. 87, the same as Rob Gronkowski. Check out this description of Freirmuth from Mark Wogenrich of Sports Illustrated

He’s from Massachusetts, wears the same No. 87, and is similarly athletic in the open field. He's going to be another great NFL tight end from Penn State. Though not quite as acrobatic Mike Gesicki, a fellow former Nittany Lion, Freiermuth (6-5) might be a better overall tight end in the NFL. He’s a red-zone terror (school-record 16 touchdowns among tight ends), makes difficult catches, and is valuable as the mismatch-against-linebackers offensive weapon. Further, Freiermuth is as physical as any tight end in the draft. He blocks well and enjoys it, certainly an old-school asset at the position. Freiermuth ended his senior season after four games to undergo shoulder surgery and should be fine for training camp. After Florida’s Kyle Pitts, Freiermuth might be the best at the position.

Freiermuth has the exact makeup that a tight end should have. He's a tough, physical, and seeks contact, which makes him arguably the best blocking tight end in this draft. Despite his blocking ability, he’s also a legitimate threat over the middle of the field and in the red zone.

In many ways, Freirmuth is similar to Thaddeus Moss in terms of skills, but he’s two inches tallerand 40 pounds heavier. He would be a great addition to the roster, stepping in immediately as the #2 tight end, with potential to take over as the starter as soon as the 2022 season.

Second round linebacker targets

It seems unlikely that Washington would use a first round pick on anyone other than Parsons, Owusu-Koramoah or Collins, but there are a few other prospects who could garner attention in the second or third round and make an impact in 2021. Let’s quickly sketch out a few options.

Jamin Davis (Kentucky)

This is from the Pro Football Network:

It’s no accident that Davis is a late riser. He wasn’t well-known in college football before 2020, and even now, he only has 11 starts under his belt. Davis is clearly somewhat raw, and he needs more experience. He can also stand to improve as a run defender.
Nevertheless, the Kentucky linebacker has flashed the necessary building blocks to be a versatile starter in time, and that upside will be coveted on the NFL Draft stage, especially if he impresses in interviews. He also tested tremendously well at his pro day. He accrued a class-best Relative Athletic Score of 9.98, which featured a 4.49 40-yard dash, a 42-inch vertical, and a 132-inch broad jump.

And this is from The Draft Network:

Jamin Davis projects as a WILL linebacker at the NFL level and appears to have the ceiling of an NFL starter. Davis is long, rangy, and explosive and that correlated to several big plays in the passing game throughout the course of Kentucky’s 2020 campaign. Davis exploded onto the scene in 2020 and wasted little time making the leap to the NFL, but his lack of high volume sample size as a featured player is cause for buyer beware. Davis has very good range and long speed that will draw the attention of NFL decision-makers—as second-level speed is at a premium right now due to league trends.

Jabril Cox (LSU)

This description is from Daniel Jeremiah:

Cox is a versatile second-level defender with outstanding range, coverage ability and character. He is at his best when lined up outside the box. He can mirror tight ends in coverage and can chase plays down from the back side. He is a little bit late to key/diagnose through the collection of bodies when he's lined up inside. When his sightlines are clear, he plays fast and physical. He is a very good change-of-direction athlete and has some upside as a rusher off the edge. Everyone at LSU raves about his leadership and character.

Baron Browning (Ohio State)

Browning is more of an all-round linebacker than many of the other players highlighted in this article. Measuring in at over 6-foot-2 and 246 pounds, Browning posted eye-popping speed and agility numbers at his pro day that prove his on-field exploits were no fluke.

As one analyst put it, “Baron Browning’s draft profile is very promising, in the sense that his weaknesses are correctable and that most of his strengths can’t be taught.”

Nick Bolton (Missouri)

Bolton is a slightly undersized linebacker with excellent speed and explosiveness. He is better in run defense than pass defense, which would be more of the same for Washington, meaning that, while Bolton would add talent, he might not fit what the team needs as neatly as some other available linebackers.

Related: Continuity in college scouting dept means that WFT should have continued success in this month's upcoming NFL draft

Bottom line

Predicting draft selectons beyond the top-10 of any draft is akin to playing darts blindfolded. The dynamics of a draft make it completely unpredictable; however, it's not difficult to look at a team depth chart and see the positions where it needs help. Washington desperately needs to upgrade its linebacker room, it needs depth at tight end, and the team needs to re-build the left side of the offensive line and plan for the seemingly imminent departure of All-Pro right guard Brandon Scherff at the end of the season. I expect the front office to draft with one eye on all of these needs later this month.

This year’s draft runs from Thursday, April 29th to Saturday, April 30th. The Washington Football Team holds the 19th pick in the first round, and has a total of 8 picks in this year’s draft. The team acquired an extra third round pick when they traded OT Trent Williams to the San Francisco 49ers, and they swapped their 6th round pick for the 7th rounder from the Las Vegas Raiders in the trade to acquire OT David Sharpe.

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