The rise of LSU Tigers linebacker Patrick Queen throughout the draft process felt a bit fishy to me before I watched him in depth. Queen was on and off the field for LSU's first handful of games in 2019 before eventually emerging as a starter. All throughout the season, Queen had gone relatively unheralded, in part because LSU's defense under coordinator Dave Aranda was underperforming relative to the high expectations fans and analysts set for them. It was not until LSU's final push for a championship over the last few weeks of the season in which Queen started gaining steam as a prized draft prospect.
Within just a couple weeks of the National Championship Game, Queen suddenly became the top linebacker in the class for many analysts. At least at the time, Queen's instant ascension seemed hasty and short-sighted. It was not. Queen's instant rise through the ranks was not a matter of a middling prospect being bumped up by circumstance, as I had first assumed, but of a legitimately underrated star being given a stage on which to shine. Queen is legit.
Every quality linebacker prospect needs to pass two tests for me: diagnosing pulling concepts in the run game and flashing tangible coverage potential. Queen passed the former of the two tests almost instantly during my film study.
Tackles, guards, wing tight ends, and even centers can all be pull players on a given concept. A good linebacker must be able to diagnose the moving pieces and fit his assigned gap, which likely looks nothing like it did pre-snap. Any half-decent linebacker can read and blow up a zone run, but only the truly valuable can make an impact versus pulling and gap concepts.
The following play is a clear example of Queen's ability to diagnose pullers in an instant. Before the snap, Florida comes out in 11 personnel with their running back in a pistol alignment behind the quarterback. Florida quarterback Kyle Trask shifts the running back to his right-hand side, opposite the wing tight end to the left side. In many cases, this could indicate a zone run toward the tight end side, given that most teams do not call shotgun runs to the same side as the back. Florida bucks the trend, however, and calls a counter run play to the same side as the back.
Queen (8) is lined up at left inside linebacker at the snap. He moves his right foot to his right as soon as the ball is snapped to mirror the running back's initial path, but quickly reads the down block from the center and the two pullers coming across in the opposite direction. With defensive end K'Lavon Chaisson (18) playing a box fit to squeeze the run inside, it is Queen's job to handle the second puller with a box fit of his own to force the play toward the rest of LSU's defense in the middle of the field. It looks like Queen arrives early to his fit, but that is because defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin (72) disrupts the pullers' paths and forces them to be late. In any event, Queen attacks the second puller from the outside in, sheds him instantly with a strong punch, and peels off the block to help make a tackle.
This time, Queen is reading one-back power from under center as the away-side linebacker. It is Queen's responsibility to flow over the double-team on Rashard Lawrence (90) and fill in as the free hitter behind fellow linebacker Jacob Phillips (6), whose job is to take on the outside shoulder of the puller and box the run back inside to Queen. Queen covers a ton of ground with three lateral shuffle-steps before driving straight down to the line of scrimmage as soon as he works past Lawrence. Unfortunately, Lawrence gets bullied by the double-team, which gives Florida running back Lamical Perine just enough room to wiggle around and force a sloppy tackle attempt from Queen, and he escapes the backfield for a big gain. It hurts to see Queen miss this tackle, but the sound process he showed to even get in position to make that tackle is more important and repeatable when projecting his NFL ability.
Queen is not afraid to sift through traffic and take on blocks either. Though there are a handful of instances on film in which he gets pushed around by some of the more heavy-handed offensive linemen, Queen tends to avoid or work around contact without sacrificing his position in the run fit.
In all three of these clips, Queen plays with a low, flexible stance and is not hesitant to initiate contact. By being the first to engage, Queen can soften or completely avoid the offensive linemen's punch to his frame, giving him the freedom of movement to fight through the block and re-square himself to the ballcarrier. It is rare that Queen squares right up to a blocker, punches through the man's chest, and gets his hands above his eyes to blow up a block entirely, but he can execute on this slippery style of block-handling on a consistent basis.
More so than dominance between the tackles, what has drawn many analysts to Queen is his sideline-to-sideline range. Queen ran a 4.50-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine a month ago, and there is no doubt the film supports that kind of speed. Queen also has the stop-start explosiveness and fluid change-of-direction skills to guide his speed anywhere in a hurry.
It helps that Queen sees this screen the whole way through, but his burst and speed are what finish this play. Queen flies right by the Utah State wide receiver shuffling over to crack block him and pummels the running back in the backfield before he can even turn up the field. There is no chance this play was going anywhere with how much ground Queen covered between the start of the quarterback's throwing motion and the ball hitting the running back's hands.
This play gives some insight into Queen's tendency to make educated guesses and step aggressively as soon as the ball is snapped. In this (rare) instance, however, Queen missteps by moving first to his left. The minor hiccup was not nearly enough to shut out Queen from the play, though. Queen instantly fires off his left foot and mirrors the running back's path all the way to the perimeter before shoving him out of bounds. That Queen could recover like that is a testament to his range even in subpar circumstances.
Though that play doesn't show it, Queen's educated guesses are often correct. When playing a position like linebacker, where a player's job is to react to the offense and try to match it, having an idea of what is coming before the ball is snapped is a massive advantage. The split-second of processing time saved can be the difference between a tackle for loss versus giving up a few yards, or between an interception versus a completion. Top quarterback prospect Tua Tagovailoa felt the wrath of Queen's instinctive play firsthand in their meeting this past season.
The beginning of this play looks as standard as ever. Queen appears to drop into a hook/curl zone with eyes on Alabama's No. 2 and No. 3 receivers (the two inside players) to the trips side. As the No. 3 goes vertical and the No. 2 goes under, Queen knows he can pass off the vertical to the nickelback, so he funnels the underneath route to the linebacker on the opposite end of the field. Queen's next move is where the "extra" gets tagged onto "ordinary." Rather than just slowly shuffle back and look around for work underneath, Queen books it toward the opposite hash as soon as he passes off the underneath route. He never looks behind him or turns his head to that side of the field to see what is coming, though -- he just knew where Alabama's back-side receiver was going to be, likely through thorough film study. It is tough to say exactly what set off Queen's Spidey Senses on this play, but the fact he could fly to that exact area of the field and pick off Tagovailoa without looking around him or second-guessing the route pattern is incredible. Queen is not always this sharp in coverage, but he shows off far more potential than many college linebackers.
If there were any gripe to be had with Queen, it would be his size and tackling issues. At 6-foot-0 and 229 pounds, Queen is below the 10th percentile in both height and weight for the position. While he does have mechanisms to work around his less-than-ideal size, the reality is that there are still plays where he gets bullied by a blocker or ballcarrier. Additionally, Queen's tackling technique is not always the cleanest. He has a tendency to launch himself at a target rather than get low and shoot through the hips. As such, Queen has a few too many plays on film where he gets bounced off as a tackler due to his size and inconsistent tackling form.
This is as clear an example of Queen's shaky tackling form as there is. Queen is not always this sloppy, but when he is, he just gets tossed away by running backs because he does not have the weight behind him to just throw his body at people. Bigger linebackers such as Vontaze Burfict and Benardrick McKinney can get away with that more regularly, but linebackers with borderline safety builds can not.
Hot-and-cold tackling aside, Queen is a top-notch linebacker prospect. He is a sharp processor who is comfortable defending a wide range of run concepts, and he flashes tangible potential as an impactful coverage piece. Queen will need a touch of fine-tuning in the NFL, but all the baseline traits and abilities are there for him to be a starter right away.
Pittsburgh Steelers second-year linebacker Devin Bush is not a perfect comparison, but Queen fits the same mold as an undersized, yet smart and athletic linebacker. Queen should be able to follow Bush's path and end up as a first-round pick. Unless Isaiah Simmons counts as a traditional linebacker, Queen is far and away the top linebacker prospect the 2020 class has to offer.