If there’s one recurring theme in the 2022 NFL Draft, it’s just how thoroughly talented this year’s crop of prospects is. There are definitely more than 100 players who will earn Top-100 grades, and it seems as though everywhere you turn there’s another potential starter who isn’t getting enough buzz.
Such as Wisconsin linebacker Leo Chenal.
Weighing in at 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, Chenal looks like a classic “downhill thumper” of a linebacker — particularly when you factor in his 34 reps on the bench press. But when you turn on his tape, he was primarily used as a space player and isn’t just powerful; he is a remarkably well-rounded athlete.
The New York Giants are bringing back Blake Martinez for one more year, but their linebacker depth beyond Martinez is shaky. Could Chenal be a long-term answer for the Giants?
Games Played: 25
Tackles For a loss: 25.5
Forced Fumbles: 3
Passes Defensed: 1
Games Played: 11
Tackles For a loss: 18.5
Forced Fumbles: 2
Passes Defensed: 0
Best: Play strength, explosiveness, athleticism, range
Worst: Hand usage
Projection: A SAM or MIKE linebacker with every-down upside
(Chenal is Wisconsin LB No. 5)
Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal is a stout, explosive, athletic, and rangy linebacker prospect.
Chenal sports a stocky, powerful frame at 6-foot 2 ⅝ inches, 250 pounds, with evident power in his upper and lower halves. Despite Chenal’s thick build, he is an excellent athlete with great quickness, agility, long speed, and explosiveness.
He primarily aligned as an off-ball linebacker in Wisconsin’s defense, almost always playing at the second level unless showing blitz in a pressure package. Chenal is a good communicator, actively relaying information to his teammates both before and after the snap.
He routinely dropped into coverage over the middle and is able to use his athleticism to cover a broad swath of the field. Chenal is a disciplined zone defender, doing a good job of picking up and passing off receivers as they enter and exit his area of responsibility. Chenal has enough long speed to run with most tight ends and running backs in space, and his agility allows him to make good tackles in the open field.
Chenal is a violent player when playing downhill. He has a good trigger and wastes no time when he diagnoses a running play or comes on a delayed blitz. Chenal’s power and play strength are evident in his ability to stack and shed blockers, and he boasts an explosive closing burst. His speed allows him to be an effective blitzer from the second level and he is able to pressure quarterbacks from unexpected areas of the field.
Chenal processes information quickly and does a good job of keeping his eyes in the backfield as a coverage player. He wastes little time once he diagnoses a play and is relentless throughout the play.
That said, Chenal occasionally needs a second or two to sort out misdirection. He is still something of a “read and react” linebacker, as opposed to a truly instinctive player. He processes quickly and takes an accurate first step once he diagnoses the play, but he doesn’t anticipate the play at this point.
Chenal also needs to improve his hand usage when taking on blockers. He is able to drive blockers back or stack and shed like a defensive lineman when he uses his hands well. However, he often leads his rushes with his shoulder and can get hung up on blockers.
Overall Grade: 7.6
Wisconsin linebacker Leo Chenal projects as a SAM, or potentially MIKE, linebacker at the NFL level, with the upside to be an every-down impact player with a bit of development.
Chenal was often asked to play coverage in Wisconsin’s defense, but he will likely be better used going forward at the NFL level. He is an explosive, fast, and aggressive player when he fires downhill, and aggressive defensive coordinators could turn him into a menace for opposing offenses. Chenal’s athleticism and experience in coverage should allow him to be a good-enough zone defender to disguise blitz packages in the NFL. That said, he will be more effective attacking into backfields, at least to start his career.
Playing him closer to the line of scrimmage will minimize the time blockers (such as tight ends or running backs) have to react to his rushes. Particularly as a fifth rusher in a defense that schemes free rushers to the quarterback.
Chenal does need to improve his hand usage to fully unlock his potential as a pass rusher and run defender. He flashes the ability to place his hands well and use them to stack and shed blocks. When he does so, he is a legitimate problem for offensive linemen. He has exceptional play strength and power, which is maximized by his natural leverag. But while Chenal is built like a fullback, too often he approaches his rushes like one. He has a tendency to barrel into offensive linemen shoulder-first, rocking them back, but also putting himself in a poor position to finish his rushes.
If Chenal can consistently use good hand technique, he could be a disruptive tackling machine at the NFL level.
Maybe it’s the Wisconsin uniform, or maybe it’s the fire hydrant build — or maybe it’s both — but it’s tough not to see Chris Borland in Chenal’s game, and that bodes well for him.