Nakobe Dean Deserves to Be First-Round Pick

Georgia Bulldogs LB Nakobe Dean
Georgia Bulldogs LB Nakobe Dean
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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 wholly 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 it 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.

Comments

32 comments, Last at 06 May 2022, 2:56pm

1 A pint-sized missile of a…

A pint-sized missile of a linebacker

I found the problem.

Linebackers are just defensive running backs, and are devalued for the same reasons.

Incidentally, your analysis is almost entirely strikes -- he's too small to be a thumper, too slow and poor in coverage to be a big safety, and he misses tackles -- so it's incongruous that you then stump for him to be a top-half first-rounder when your analysis is that he's barely qualified to be a professional LB at all.

2 I dunno. Linebacker is not a…

I dunno. Linebacker is not a forgiving position to be small at.

Your opponents are going to be 6 inches taller and 70 pounds heavier. 500 plays like that per season isn't going to make you last a long time in the NFL.

Devin Bush is 5"11 and was a first round pick, but should've been a third. But hey. Steelers.

Who else is his size and plays linebacker?

 

 

3 Agree there. It does seem a…

Agree there. It does seem a position where size matters more. Players that operate more in space can compensate better I think, but that isn't as much an option for a LB. Found this: (old, but still)
https://bleacherreport.com/articles/431278-size-isnt-everything-10-small-nfl-players-with-great-talent

None of them are linebackers. 
 

4 What

Bush isn't bad because of his height. 

"but should've been a third."

That's a lot of nonsense revisionist history. The lowest he was on a big board was 30, with some as high as 8. He and the other Devin (White, went 5 picks before him btw and got his 5YO picked up) that draft were almost mirror copies of each other for too many reasons.

16 I dont know what you're on…

I dont know what you're on about. 

Looking back at something and making a different conclusion with hindsight is really not "changing history".

Teams missed a few flaws in Bush' game, so he should have been drafted lower. 

People didnt evaluate some critical aspects in the game of Tom Brady, so he probably should have been drafted a few spots higher. 

18 Not that hard to understand.

Yeah that's why Trevor Lawrence shouldn't have been drafted. And Elway should've gone after Marino. 

Unfortunately the draft is always full of questions. Just because things don't work out doesn't mean the process is wrong.

And just because EVERYONE was wrong on Brady doesn't magically turn him into a 1st round back then. Just like it doesn't magically drop Bush a whole couple rounds.

Bush (and his copy White) were good prospects. Literally no point in saying he "should've" gone in the 3rd. No he should've gone in the 1st like he did because the context of what happens after is irrelevant. Certainly not because of his height. While White is solely surviving because of the inch difference. Which literally has nothing to do with anything. Not to mention Bobby Wagner is also short (and guess what, there were a lot of shades of him in Bush). 

But yeah a few critical flaws they and everyone missed but you, just you, saw back then that could've helped everyone. 

25 Lol

"Devin Bush is 5"11 and was a first round pick, but should've been a third. But hey. Steelers."

Not hard to interpret but you keep spinning your way out of it. 

Dumb ol steelers shouldve known he was short and therefore would be bad like Bobby Wagner. 

But good discussion starter saying he should've been a 3rd rounder with hindsight. With hindsight Brady should've been more than few picks higher lol congrats?

5 Height/Weight

I can see the argument that he may be too short (proxy for wingspan) to be an effective zone man in the NFL, but as for weight? The top two LB contracts are held by D. Leonard (who plays at 230 lbs per Wikipedia), and F. Warner (229). Dean is just fine at 229.

6 Okay

In reply to by jimbohead

And they were drafted in the second and third rounds, respectively.  And they are excellent in space.  Off ball linebacker is just not a high value position in the modern NFL. And this draft has a large number of very good tackles, edge rushers, and receivers, a couple of high caliber DBs, and the inevitable QB selections. And there are several other quality LBs, including a couple from Georgia. There only 32 picks.

7 A few things

In reply to by Raiderfan

First, I don't think that draft stock 4 years ago is as relevant as present value as demonstrated by recent contracts. The game changes, great players show that specific skills and traits are being undervalued, and then values change. Deebo went in the second, and now deebo-lite might go top 15.

Second, off-ball linebacker is a somewhat-high-value position in the modern NFL. They're critically important in defending the over-the-middle pass games of teams like LAR with zone schemes. Having one good enough in space to do that and solid enough in run D is really powerful for a defense. We get a couple in the first round every year. We had 2 in the top 10 in 2019. To me, the high-value positions are QB, Edge, OT, DT, WR, in that order. I think LB sits between that group and the true low-value positions like RB, G, and S. Position value is important, but there are 32 picks, and they can't all be QBs, especially in this draft!

Third, I quickly surveyed 1st rd LBs in the last three drafts. Here are the number and weights as of today.

2021(3): 248, 260, and 232 lbs.

2021(4): 238, 241, 240, 232.

2019(2): 237, 234.

I just don't see a senior-year playing weight of 230 as disqualifying.

Now, your point about Dean not being able to play in space is really important, and I don't pretend to be able to speak to that adequately. I'm just here to defend the honor of the fast 230-245 lb off-ball LB.

8 Interesting replies

In reply to by jimbohead

I agree on the draft stock from 4 years ago statement. Those guys raiderfan listed go higher nowadays in a redraft. 

Disagree on the value part...sorta. I think they have the potential to be high value. But as it stands currently, a wide majority of LBs just aren't good and not valuable. And even the best can be caveat filled. They have to be good in both the run and most importantly, the pass. And the Kuechlys and Wagners are hard to find. If they can cover like CBs or even their cousin Ss, then they have real potential to be right besides them in term of value. But it seems you have a much different value system than the one PFF and company have gotten wind of. 

Nakobe is small in pretty much every sense. Height, weight, hand size, wingspan, arm length. I put those in order of LB percentile ranging from 5th to 34th. So wingspan his 20 percentile higher than his height which is something. Was he bad in college? Of course not, but the valuation stems from the league abusing LBs currently and even good prospects like the Devins in 2019, are still struggling. So it's not his size that should disqualify him from the 1st, which I'm not doing, but LBs are just tricky players to pinpoint and their monetary value might just be later. 

Also very shady not running any combine drill, even at his pro day. Might not be the fastest ever. Probably better to get one of the other UGA fast (91st and 95th %tile 40s) LBs on day 2 in terms of value. 

10 smoll

Yeah I bet length and wingspan are even more important for off-ball LBs. They have coverage responsibilities like safeties, but don't cover "like" safeties. Their zone job balances towards route anticipation and taking up space.

As far as value goes, I'll work through my knee jerk revulsion to a PFF link to try to say something substantive. The WAR metric is a measure of the dispersion of their ratings applied to a model of wins using "the relative importance of each facet of the play." This tells us two things. First, the metric can only be as good as the PFF rating system, in which I have little confidence. Garbage in, garbage out. Second, positional value measurements will be artifacts of their model, which is delightfully opaque. Putting the model in a black box and showing positional value output as proven by the WAR metric is the definition of begging the question. Third, and I can't say this loudly enough, [site decorum] PFF, those jokers don't know what they're talking about.

But also I express no firm opinion about Dean, who might be great or not great. My only opinion is that 229 lbs is a perfectly acceptable playing weight for a first-round-worthy linebacker.

11 PFF disdain

In reply to by jimbohead

Is weird in 2022. Every team uses them. Doubt they'd pay for them if they were "garbage in, garbage out"

Ironically they address it specifically

"Even if you're skeptical of PFF's WAR metric — or point to certain teams valuing certain positions more than others — you can’t reject the very real salary cap implications of drafting certain positions."

Heck they even address it in last years similar follow up (that puts the positions into broader tiers, along with the additional info gained from 2020 as well).

But yes WAR is essentially their grade x snaps. Not horrible unless...well you think they're jokers for whatever reason. 

14 "Even if you're skeptical of…

In reply to by ImNewAroundThe…

"Even if you're skeptical of PFF's WAR metric — or point to certain teams valuing certain positions more than others — you can’t reject the very real salary cap implications of drafting certain positions."

Man, if their grading is a shitty as their sense of logical arguments...

20 PFF deniers club

In reply to by ImNewAroundThe…

It's honestly not that weird in 2022. I'm skeptical that teams actually use the PFF data for more than a rough starting point, which is a totally valid use. But the popular use of PFF ratings (e.g., player X is better than Y, etc) seems to me to be giving them way more faith than they deserve.

More specifically in this context, I really take issue with your last statement WAR is essentially their grade x snaps." Because it's not. It's a measure of the dispersion of their ratings, convoluted by an opaque model. They note the difference between the average of the top 10 players at their position, based on plus/minus, separately generate a model of how important each "facet of play" is, then convolute the two to generate a metric telling you how valuable each position is in the draft.

The first metric, the measure of dispersion, is a mixture of players' true relative performances and the PFF rater's capacity to adequately distinguish between good, bad, and mediocre play at any given position. The second is utterly opaque. The convolution, they got from someone else. Even if you believe that PFF is very very good at rating players (based on a my listening, reading, and comparing, I think they are not), the metric assumes its result.

Remember, my dudes, just because someone puts numbers next to a thing doesn't mean that the source is more credible.

21 It is weird though.

In reply to by jimbohead

At least with the intensity you did (garbage, jokers).

Who should be given "way more faith" nowadays, randoms online like us who don't work in football (that doesn't mean we're dumb) or the ones that watch and grade every play for a living (doesnt mean theyre the end all be all)?

You're gonna have to be more specific on what readings make you come to the conclusion they aren't "very good" or something to that extent. 

Seemed pretty dismissive to a lot of hard work despite them having all the incentive in the world to keep providing accurate info to teams and not hack themselves out of a job. 

22 Sarcasm and overstatement…

Sarcasm and overstatement don't play well on message boards, noted (though "garbage in, garbage out" is not inflammatory in professional circles where we understand the limits of our own datasets!). I'm not a football pro, but I am professional with respect to math, modeling, and statistics. So when I read their work and see basic methodological problems (unexamined assumptions, ignoring obvious weaknesses and counterarguments, etc), I don't accord their conclusions with much respect.

Beyond that, I'm not sure it will be productive for us to litigate 10-20 examples where their ratings don't make sense.

Peace and blessings to you, this blessed Draft Day! May your team draft only all pros, and may their trades be positive EV.

23 Jokers was sarcasm?

Certainly an overstatement i agree. Probably best not to use hyperboles though when trashing an entire company that has zero incentive to be biased. So in reality maybe it's not a hyperbole but how you actually believe ("dont...much respect" is indeed pretty crazy in 2022 and harsh)

Eitherway, still need to be a little more specific. This article isn't falling off the front page for a while so we have time.

I've found their explanations (not just grades!) on things like pass catchers vs linemen convincing and understanding (thankfully i hadnt thought about it enough). And to some degree the NFL is catching up with WRs now surpassing them in AAV. 

26 Might want to wait on the…

Might want to wait on the whole "WRs are worth it" until one of the highly paid ones actually, y'know, works out. All the highest paid WRs have *left* high-end teams, not arrived at them. In other words, most of the highest performing teams are concluding the pass catchers aren't worth it.

27 Or maybe you should just accept it

6 in the top 20 (18 really) is a new record. It's clearly something they're starting to pick up on. Oh and part (definitely not the whole reason) of them supposedly leaving is due to cap space on teams with highly paid QBs.

But go off and explain the teams trading FOR the highly paid WRs AND a bunch of teams selecting them high. Live in the past all you want, not a single Philly fan is mad at the Brown trade. 

"Most" lol

28   But go off and explain the…

 

But go off and explain the teams trading FOR the highly paid WRs AND a bunch of teams selecting them high.

What the heck are you talking about? How does teams drafting WRs high equal paying them more? If contract value equaled draft position literally every QB, regardless of how good they were, would be a first round pick.

The only point I'm making is that there's not a strong track record of highly-paid WRs actually being worth it. Julio Jones and Michael Thomas were both record-setting contracts back in '19. They had great years in 19, and neither of them have been remotely worth it since (although Thomas at least is still TBD).

There is, of course, an extremely strong track record of quarterbacks being worth it. Quarterback contracts have been increasing steadily at ~10% year-over-year for like 20 years. Wide receivers have not. Claiming that this is "the new normal" should probably wait until teams actually have success paying WRs $30M/yr.

29 Lol

yeah because that's how it works. They're drafting them high because they're valuable. My goodness, only you could extrapolate to "literally every QB, regardless of how good they were, would be a first round pick."

The fact you can't put 2 and 2 together is astounding. We don't have to wait whatever arbitrary amount of time to see how the league has started to value them more. No "success" for them yet here they are still paying em. 

I swear you love being obtuse. 

30 We don't have to wait…

In reply to by ImNewAroundThe…

We don't have to wait whatever arbitrary amount of time to see how the league has started to value them more.

You're more than welcome to make conclusions based on a single year. Have fun.

9 To me, the high-value…

In reply to by jimbohead

To me, the high-value positions are QB, Edge, OT, DT, WR, in that order. I think LB sits between that group and the true low-value positions like RB, G, and S. Position value is important, but there are 32 picks, and they can't all be QBs, especially in this draft!

You could take a LB who is also a QB and who runs a 4.42/40.

https://www.nfl.com/prospects/troy-andersen/3200414e-4403-2919-d53c-a916ee67b720

15 As someone who grew up in…

As someone who grew up in Bozeman and still keeps tabs on Montana State, it's fun to see folks here hype up one of their players!

He's certainly got some areas that need refinement, though.