Nakobe Dean Deserves to Be First-Round Pick

Nakobe Dean Deserves to Be First-Round Pick

NFL Draft – By the end of the college football season, Nakobe Dean looked like a strong candidate to be drafted in the top 15. A pint-sized missile of a linebacker, Dean was among the most productive and important members of the Georgia defense, a unit that may be the best we have seen in the modern era. The speed, playmaking, and instincts all oozed from his film, and it became clear throughout the season how much of what Georgia did defensively hinged on Dean’s excellence versus the run and his prowess as a blitzer versus the pass.

Then the season ended. Games stopped being played. Slowly but surely, teams and media remembered that Dean measures in at just over 5-foot-11 and only 229 pounds. Dean then skipped out on doing drills at the NFL combine and was limited at his pro day, both of which were reportedly related to a pectoral strain. Between his small frame and an incomplete athletic profile, Dean has dropped down boards and is now in danger of missing the first round entirely, as if there is collective amnesia about what Dean did on the field.

As always, Football Outsiders’ 2022 NFL draft coverage is presented by Underdog Fantasy!

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At the core, Dean is a sharp, instinctive player who knows how to find the ball, wherever it may be going. Moreover, Dean has a natural sense for taking the right approach to the ball, be that just to meet the ballcarrier at the right spot on the perimeter or how to manipulate space in tight areas to free himself to make a play. Dean just has a different sense of where he is in relation to other players and how to get from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible.

Take this screen from the Michigan game for example. The instant Dean (17) sees the motion coming across the formation and the running back flaring out to the same side, he is off to the races towards the sideline. On his way there, Dean has to get past a blocker, but do so without either overrunning the play or getting hung up behind the blocker. Dean stays flat on his path to force the blocker to engage earlier, then gives a shoulder dip to slip past the blocker and immediately transition downhill to find the ballcarrier. Easy trigger, track, and tackle for Dean.

Even when Dean has to read a handoff exchange and backtrack his steps to make up ground, he makes it look easy. On this play, South Carolina is running an arc read concept, which is a lot like typical zone read but with the tight end splitting across the formation to lead block. Dean naturally steps with the zone flow at first, but quickly reads the situation and bolts to meet the quarterback on the perimeter.

Dean shows that same sense of tracking and manipulation of space between the tackles, too. It’s part of what allows him to function in the box despite his small size. In this example, Dean approaches the line of scrimmage in a hurry. He splits the midline for where the pulling tight end could end up: too far inside to kick out entirely, but too far outside to pin back inside. Dean’s positioning is just right and allows him to work either side of the blocker, making it easy for him to shoot back inside alongside the running back and stand them up for no gain. Having both the reaction speed and quickness to make what is essentially a 2-on-1 play between the tackles is utterly absurd.

Dean also has plenty of plays like this one. Because of his size, Dean cannot always take on blockers, but he does an excellent job making himself difficult to strike cleanly. Pair that with Dean’s outrageous bend and contact balance for a player his size, and it is clear he has ways to manage blocks in tight areas despite his frame.

Dean’s ability to muscle through traffic at the line of scrimmage is fascinating for a player his size. Whereas most smaller linebackers can get lost in the shuffle, Dean has a way of maneuvering short areas in an instant while also being able to contort his body to minimize contact. Those two traits in harmony allow Dean to bob and weave his way through traffic at or near the line of scrimmage in a way many other linebackers cannot.

The Arkansas game showcased Dean’s athleticism and balance more than any other. In this example, Dean (over the center) flashes both his insane short-area burst as well as his flexibility in space. Georgia loops Dean over the top of the defensive linemen shooting across underneath, which helps free him up, but still requires an immense amount of quickness and coordination to make work. That alone was impressive, let alone Dean being able to dead stop and work back across his body to make a tackle when the quarterback tried to cut behind him.

This time, Dean shows off his balance and knack for fighting through contact. Despite his smaller frame, Dean regularly finds ways to squeeze through the line of scrimmage. He can get knocked around like a pinball between interior linemen and still gather himself in a hurry to find the ballcarrier. That kind of ability to minimize contact on blocks and find the ballcarrier in the backfield will translate to the NFL.

Dean is also willing and able to take on blocks with force at the line of scrimmage. Granted, he is not going to blow up blocks on the spot like Dont’a Hightower, but he can get in the mix and condense space well. He triggers quickly and does not fear taking on blockers at the line of scrimmage, allowing him to maximize his play strength and stand up blocks effectively on the regular.

That’s not where it ends for Dean either. Dean’s balance, burst, and ability to minimize contact all work in harmony to make him a devastating blitzer. He is too small to do any of the legitimate edge rusher stuff Micah Parsons did as a rookie, but as an off-ball weapon, Dean has the goods.

Now, part of the criticism with Dean’s profile is that he blitzes too often. It felt like the Bulldogs sent pressure every other play, so naturally there were fewer chances to see Dean in coverage. In turn, questions have been raised about whether the Bulldogs’ heavy blitzing was due to a lack of faith in the coverage from some of their linebackers, or just something they believed they could get away with given their front-seven talent. I lean towards the latter explanation, but it is fair to say Dean is not all the way there in coverage yet, though he is not bad either and has the tools to improve.

To be clear, this is a brutal assignment for Dean. Popping off the line of scrimmage to cover a slot receiver is a tough task. There is a lot of ground to cover versus a speed-out. Dean cannot play square to the line of scrimmage like a typical zone dropper here either, making it more difficult to stop and flip his hips to redirect. Thankfully the ball does not get thrown his way, but Dean needs to settle himself down a little and be in a better position to get hands on the receiver during the in-cut.

On the flip side, when allowed to use his eyes more, Dean looks plenty fine. On this play, Dean pops off the line of scrimmage again—something Georgia did frequently to mimic their blitz looks—but this time he gets to open to the strong side of the field and match routes. Dean shows no issue seeing the shallow route from the No. 2 (middle player in trips) and nailing down to stay in front and on top of the route. It’s nothing special, but plays like this help shine a light on Dean being able to handle himself decently in coverage.

Dean is more incomplete than incompetent in coverage. When allowed to just zone drop and flow with his eyes, Dean looked like an NFLer. Maybe his peaks are not as impressive as Christian Harris’ or Chad Muma’s as a coverage defender, but he clears the bar, especially compared to some other recent first-round linebackers. It just may take Dean a year to fully grow into having more coverage responsibility, similar to Willie Gay’s young career arc with Kansas City.

The other gripe with Dean is that his length can hurt him at times when finishing tackles. Dean’s arm length ranks in the 34th percentile in Mockdraftable’s database. That is far from disqualifying, but it does present Dean with issues on occasion. He can have moments when he struggles to wrap up and bring runners down if he does not strike them perfectly.

The quality of the rest of this rep makes the missed tackle sting that much more. Before the tackle attempt, Dean does a great job playing in tandem with the defensive lineman in front of him. Both he and the lineman prompt the running back to cut the run back, allowing Dean to fall right back with him and get a clean tackle chance. Alas, Dean hesitates for a brief second and strikes high, which makes it tougher for him to wrap his arms around the runner’s torso. That leads to the running back (fellow future draftee Dameon Pierce) to bounce right off him and continue barreling through the Bulldogs defense.

Dean is not a poor tackler overall. Rather, Dean has a smaller margin for error with when and how he takes on tackle attempts because he does not have the long arms and grip strength to just rip players to the ground the way a majority of the Georgia front seven did. He will not miss a ton of tackles, but when he does, this will be why, and he could show up more consistently against bigger backs. It’s at least something to keep in mind and part of why Dean is not quite a special prospect, merely a very good one.

All of the concerns with Dean are valid. There are not many quality NFL linebackers his size, even if he does play blocks fairly well and thrive in traffic. Betting on him is a clear bet against body type norms at the position. Dean probably will not be a coverage stud right away either. He can get by, but he would have an easier time as a rookie if he were unleashed on blitzes instead. That kind of linebacker may not be for every team.

Dean is still a strong prospect despite his blemishes. Dean has the instincts, athleticism, and comfort fighting through condensed areas to be a top-flight linebacker in the NFL. He may be small, but he largely overcame that in the SEC. He may not be a ready-made coverage defender, but most linebacker prospects aren’t either and he is more than smart enough to get there with enough reps.

We may see him slip outside the first round come draft weekend, but Dean merits a top-20 selection. His upside as a headhunter at the second level is worth the gamble. Any team that selects Dean in or after the middle of the first round will be getting good value on a defensive cornerstone.

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