The New York Giants saw improved linebacker play over previous seasons in 2020, but as with many areas of their team, they could still stand improvement.
The middle linebacker position has been filled for the near future, but the team could still use a long-term solution at off-ball linebacker. A player who is comfortable playin in space and can help shore up their coverage in the middle of the field, as well as support off-tackle runs.
Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton isn’t the biggest or most athletic linebacker in the draft, and he isn’t getting the buzz that some other linebacking prospects have generated. But even so, he is a solid space player, a productive run defender, and a big hitter. All of those things together make for a prospect worth keeping an eye on from the Giants’ perspective.
Prospect: Nick Bolton
Games Watched: vs. Tennessee (2019), vs. Florida (2019), vs. Alabama (2020)
Games Played: 32
Tackles For a loss: 17.5
Passes Defensed: 12
Games Played: 10
Tackles For a loss: 8.0
Passes Defensed: 5
Best: Physicality, competitive toughness, football IQ, zone coverage
Worst: Tackling, lower body fluidity, instincts
Projection: Starting weak side linebacker in a zone-based multiple defense.
Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton is a compact, powerful, and aggressive off-ball linebacker prospect.
Bolton primarily lined up at middle linebacker in Missouri’s defense, though he played some outside linebacker as well. He is an active communicator before the snap, frequently lining up teammates or making adjustments during the pre-snap phase of the play.
Bolton shows an accurate first step, routinely starting plays by moving in the same direction as the ball. He is seldom fooled by misdirection and generally does a good job of tracking the ball through the backfield. He has a fast trigger when filling or shooting gaps, coming downhill hard and fast. Bolton is a big hitter, with a strong closing burst and the ability to uncoil his hips to strike ball carriers. He has shown the ability to jar the ball loose or stop runners’ momentum completely.
He appears comfortable playing in space as a coverage player. Bolton does a good job of quickly gaining depth in his zone coverage drops and has good discipline with regards to his assignments. Bolton moves well within his range and is good at picking up receivers as they enter his zone, as well as reading quarterbacks’ eyes and letting them take him to the ball.
But while Bolton is solid in zone coverage, he shows significant stiffness in his lower body and shouldn’t be asked to match up in man coverage with pass catchers at the NFL level. And for all his physicality, he also doesn’t take on blockers well in the run game. Bolton would rather run around blockers, or try to beat them to a landmark, instead of taking them on directly. Rather than stacking and shedding, he is often neutralized or knocked out of the play when forced to take on blocks directly.
Bolton is also inconsistent in his tackling form. He has a tendency to lunge — or outright launch himself — at ball carriers and only occasionally wrap up. While this can lead to some spectacular hits, it can also lead to badly missed tackle attempts.
Finally, while Bolton has a good football IQ, he is more of a “read and react” linebacker than a truly instinctive player. He shows a need to see and process the offensive play before getting into motion — though that process is usually fairly quick.
Overall Grade: 7.3 - Bolton has a relatively high floor and should be a productive player from the start. He could have starting potential in the right system, but coaches will need to recognize his limitations.
Bolton projects as an off-ball WILL linebacker at the NFL level.
He should be a reliable contributor on defense, but whether he has starting upside will depend on the defense he lands in. Bolton will need to be in a defense in which the defensive line eats blocks and allows the linebackers to rally to the ball in run defense, as well as a zone-heavy pass coverage. While he is a solid athlete and has plenty of power when it comes to tackling, he doesn’t appear to have the ability to hold up in man coverage at the NFL, nor does he take on blockers well.
Coaches will also have to make a point of working to improve his tackling form. Bolton flashes the ability to be a good tackler, but he is very inconsistent in his angles, properly squaring up before striking, and actually wrapping up ball carriers. So while he is capable of laying some devastating hits, he can also be prone to missed tackle attempts.
Bolton should be able to secure a starting job in a modern NFL defense. He doesn’t take on blocks well in the run game, but that can be schemed around. Likewise, he could be a liability in man coverage, but teams don’t have to call it. Teams will likely want to move him out of the MIKE linebacker spot, but he should be able to play the weakside linebacker well.