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Making the case: Devin Lloyd or Nakobe Dean?

Which inside linebacker would be better for Wink Martindale and the Giants?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Colorado at Utah Photo by Boyd Ivey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New York Giants need a long-term linebacking option. Blake Martinez tore his ACL in Week 3 of the 2021 season; he is retained on the roster, but his contract expires at the end of the season. The Giants don’t have reliable options behind the veteran.

There’s no Micah Parsons in this draft, but there are two possible first-round talents in Utah’s Devin Lloyd and Georgia’s Nakobe Dean. I came away a bit underwhelmed with their film relative to the fanfare they received from the draft community. I think they’re good players, but I scoffed at the possible top 10 hype.

Several enticing linebacker options might be selected after Lloyd and Dean. I don’t think the difference between those players and these two linebackers is too vast, considering the perceived value difference in their pre-draft stock. Wyoming’s Chad Muma, Alabama’s Christian Harris, and Dean’s teammates, Channing Tindall and Quay Walker, are more interesting than Lloyd and Dean when the perceived value is factored into the equation (I have Lloyd and Dean ranked higher).

I also love Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal and think Montana State’s Troy Anderson are unique players to develop. I’ve also heard great things about athletic Oklahoma LB Brian Asamoah, but I still need to get to his evaluation.

I wanted to clarify before I dove into the debate between Lloyd and Dean.

Both Lloyd and Dean earn the utmost respect from their contemporaries. It’s hard to find any bad words about either player in terms of their leadership and work ethic. I love those characteristics, and it will be an infectious quality in the NFL, one that locker rooms will desire.

Devin Lloyd

Lloyd is a good athlete who ran a bit slower than anticipated at the Combine. He provides exceptional length, a 79th percentile 10-yard-split, and versatile usage from Utah’s defense. Lloyd aligned 59 percent of his snaps at ILB, 19 percent at EDGE, 15 percent at OLB, 5 percent on the defensive line, and 2 percent at CB in 2021. Utah trusted his range to drop into deep middle coverage (Tampa-2) on 5 percent of his drops.

His maximum speed, per GPS tracking data, was 20.1 MPH. Lloyd had 111 tackles, 22 for a loss, seven sacks, four interceptions, two touchdowns, six passes defended, and a forced fumble with 31 pressures and 56 STOPS.

He ended his productive career at Utah with 256 tackles, 43 tackles for a loss, 15.5 sacks, five interceptions, three touchdowns, eight passes defended, and two forced fumbles. He also recorded 65 pressures and 126 STOPs.

Comparisons as a poor-mans Micah Parsons in terms of utilization aren’t unfair. He had 165 snaps aligned at EDGE and was used to blitz from various locations. His linear burst and explosiveness are very good, but I see some stiffness when asked to flip his hips and change direction. When Lloyd stays square while scrapping outside, he generally does a good job cutting the RBs angle off and making a lay on the football.

When he diagnosed plays cleanly from the jump, he generally did a good job evading blockers at the second level. He’s a bit stiff when asked to flip, but he’s pretty adept from tackle to tackle in terms of lowering his center of gravity and dipping around blocking attempts.

He had a better array of pass-rushing moves than I initially expected. He could use some work with the timing and strike power, but he flashed a craftiness that I appreciated when pinning his ears back.

Lloyd uses good eye discipline in coverage when the routes are in front of him. His interceptions against Washington State and Stanford were excellent reactions where he read the quarterback with amazing concentration to intercept passes near the line of scrimmage. He passes routes off well - when they’re in front of him - and closes width quickly when catches are made.

I didn’t see great awareness with routes behind him - he was a step behind too often. There were two plays against Ohio State that stuck out (one was against a WR), and one against Washington State (Q1, 12:57, third-and-10). He also had a big miscommunication on a fast three in the red zone that seemed to be his fault; Lloyd didn’t switch, leading to a touchdown on third and five (Q1, 9:55, Arizona State). One dropped touchdown against UCLA on a crosser behind him where he was a step too slow (Q3, 5:12).

His flash plays in coverage are excellent - no denying that. But I didn’t come away from the evaluation believing he was a true difference-making coverage LB. However, he was very opportunistic and made the most of the presented situations.

The interception for a touchdown against Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game is an excellent indicator of his ability to rise in a big moment. His fourth quarter pick-six against Stanford on the line of scrimmage was a superb adjustment to use his length to close the throwing lane once his pass rush didn’t work, and his Washington State pick was similar with an excellent showing of ball skills.

I like Lloyd, and I think he’ll be a good football player. As I saw more film, I appreciated his skill-set more, but I never saw a top-10 player. He was too often hinged away from his gap responsibilities, over/under pursued, and had some missed tackles in pursuit, which was inconsistent from some of his plays when he did stay square and read it quickly.

Nakobe Dean

Dean did not test at the Combine or his Pro Day. This led to a lot of speculation surrounding his speed. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart stated that Dean is dealing with a pectoral strain, so he hasn’t trained much. His lack of testing and diminutive measurable will indeed work against his stock, but he shows plenty of linear speed on film.

Dean aligned 63 percent of his snaps at inside linebacker. 17 percent of his snaps came at outside linebacker, 12 percent on the EDGE, 8 percent on the defensive line, and 2 percent at cornerback.

Dean was the heartbeat of one of the best college defenses we’ve seen in quite a while. He recorded 72 tackles, 10.5 for a loss, six sacks, two interceptions, five passes defended, and two forced fumbles, with 31 pressures and 42 STOPs. He finishes his Georgia career with 168 tackles, 13.5 for a loss, 7.5 sacks, seven passes defended, three forced fumbles, 48 pressures, and 78 STOPs.

Dean didn’t play as many snaps as Lloyd because of the embarrassment of riches in the Georgia defense. Dean played 663 snaps in 2021, Lloyd 849 with one less game.

Some of Dean’s most impressive tape came when he was heading downhill as a blitzing linebacker. His burst is exceptional, and he does a good job using his hands, altering his path, and contorting his body to avoid contact and effectively apply pressure on quarterbacks.

Playing alongside Jordan Davis, Travon Walker, and Devonte Wyatt helps - as does the exotic pressure packages that Georgia used. Still, a lot of Dean’s sacks came off incredible individual efforts where he won the one-on-one matchup.

I appreciate Dean’s ability to be shot out of a cannon and the pop he brings to the tackle point. He possesses good body control and start-stop ability. He had exceptional plays in pursuit, flowing laterally and locating ball carriers near the numbers. His play against Michigan (Q1, 2:00, third-and-16) was a microcosm of his competitive toughness, angles to the football, and absolute hustle as he tracked a swing pass down from the backside for a loss of two.

I expected a better player in the box. His instincts weren’t elite, and he was engulfed by climbing linemen a bit too often for my liking; his lack of size/length hurt his ability to keep himself clean if he was a bit slow to react and fill.

Overall, Dean is solid in coverage. He was a bit late to stick to routes in front of him, and I felt like he was exploitable on horizontal breaking routes. Dean had a very impressive interception against Florida on a quick hitch throw from the far-hash; Dean aligned outside the numbers and jumped the throw for a pick-six.

Dean is an impact player who I believe would fit very well with the Giants under Wink Martindale. Many draw comparisons to former LSU LB Patrick Queen, who the Ravens selected in the latter half of the first round in 2020. I see a much sharper player with Dean, but a lesser athlete.

Final Thoughts

Both Dean and Lloyd have big-play ability with the interceptions and sacks they recorded in 2021. They are both heralded for their leadership. Both were more inefficient than I initially anticipated with their tackling: Dean had a 12.2 percent missed tackle rate; Lloyd an 11.5 percent. And both weren’t as impressive as I originally thought before watching their film.

That sounds very negative, but that’s not my intention. I believe both Lloyd and Dean are first-round type of guys, just not top-10. I went into their evaluations expecting Micah Parsons, and neither player should be viewed in that esteem.

I believe both players would fit well in Martindale’s scheme. Dean’s ability to head downhill in a hurry as a blitzing ball of lightning would invigorate the second-level of the Giants’ defense.

Lloyd can also do that, and I believe he is a better overall EDGE option if Martindale wanted to move him to that area in certain situations (he played 19 percent of his snaps on the EDGE). I also think the length difference is significant; Lloyd has 74th percentile arm length and 97th percentile wingspan, whereas Dean has a 34th percentile arm length and 25th percentile wingspan.

Both have athletic upside, but neither is dynamically more athletic in one area than the other. Lloyd offers more at the professional level than Dean - who I like - so I would have to go with Lloyd if I selected one of the two.

If either player fell to 36, sign me up! However, ideally, there’s a lot of value I like after the top two linebackers that shouldn’t command a top 40 selection.