New York Giants fans are constantly in the business of scouting linebackers. The Giants desperately need to renovate their linebacking corps and there have been nearly three generations of Giants fans who haven’t seen them draft a linebacker highly.
But even if the front office wants to draft a linebacker highly, they’re at the mercy of the draft board. It’s possible that the Giants won’t be able to select a linebacker highly and will have to make due with a mid-round pick.
Cincinnati’s Ivan Pace Jr. had a very productive 2022 season and made plays in the run game, in coverage, and as a pass rusher. His raw production and athleticism should dictate that he is drafted somewhere in Top 100. However, Pace is very short and compact compared to the average NFL linebacker.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Pace isn’t big enough for the NFL, but could he be a hidden gem?
Prospect: Ivan Pace Jr. (0)
Games Watched: vs. Arkansas (2022), vs. SMU (2022), vs. UCF (2022), vs. Tulane (2022)
Games Played: 35
Tackles for a loss: 41.5
Forced fumbles: 3
Passes defensed: 9
Games Played: 13
Tackles for a loss: 20.5
Forced fumbles: 2
Passes defensed: 4
Best: Quickness, play strength and leverage, competitive toughness, pass rushing, downhill play
Worst: Length, long speed, over-aggression
Projection: A rotational off-ball linebacker with starting upside
(Pace is Cincinnati linebacker number 0)
Ivan Pace Jr. is a compact, explosive, and aggressive linebacker prospect from the Universe of Cincinnati.
Pace is coming off of a breakout season in which he racked up an impressive 20 tackles for a loss and 9 sacks to go with 136 tackles and 4 passes defensed. He is short for an NFL linebacker at 5-foot-10, but has a very dense build at 231 pounds. Pace aligned in multiple spots for the Cincinnati defense, playing both inside and outside linebacker, as well as on the line of scrimmage as an edge rusher.
Pace flashes instinctive play as a linebacker, often taking an accurate first step toward the play. When he commits, he commits hard and has a very fast trigger downhill. He has great initial quickness and acceleration, allowing him to beat blockers to their landmarks. Pace has very good competitive toughness and never hesitates to get his hands dirty or take on blocks from much bigger players, and is even willing to take on multiple offensive linemen. He has great natural leverage and his build presents a small target with which blockers can engage, and he does a good job of using his hands to keep them from locking in their blocks.
Pace is a very good blitzing linebacker, with an explosive first step and a good feel for rushing the passer. He generally times his rushes well, using his quickness and acceleration to accelerate into the backfield before blockers are able to react. Pace is a very hard hitter and a wrap-up tackler who does a good job of getting the ball carrier on the ground.
He does a good job of dropping into coverage zones and quickly gets depth on his drops. Pace is patient in coverage and adept at reading quarterbacks’ eyes and letting them lead him to the target. He appears comfortable playing in space and shows enough awareness to sugar gaps as a potential blitzer before dropping into coverage.
While Pace is an athletic player, he possesses limited range. His short legs lead to very good stride frequency and acceleration, but he is unable to lengthen his stride and run with speedy ball carriers. He also appears to think he is more agile than he is, and doesn’t quite have the change of direction ability to keep up with particularly shifty offensive players.
That is compounded by over-aggressiveness on Pace’s part. He is an intelligent and instinctive linebacker, but when he can run himself well out of position when he misreads a play. This improved over the course of his season at Cincinnati as he got more comfortable in the new defense, but it still occurred throughout the year.
The biggest concern with Pace is his lack of length. He is very short for an NFL linebacker and has short arms as well. That lack of length shows up when taking on blockers directly, and has a limited ability to play receivers hands or disrupt at the catch point.
Overall Grade: 7.4
Ivan Pace Jr. projects as an important rotational linebacker with scheme versatility and starting upside in the right scheme
Pace will be at his best in an aggressive scheme that allows him to play fast with relatively limited reads. He is an urgent, frenetic linebacker who’s game resembles nothing so much as a Jack Russell terrier chasing down ball carriers. He has immediate upside as a pass rushing linebacker who can be brought on the field in obvious passing situations. Pace also has upside as a run defender as long as he is matched up with tight ends and doesn’t have to deal with offensive line blocks too often. He is athletic and comfortable in space, but that is probably more useful in zone drops to disguise pressure, as opposed to being a dedicated coverage linebacker.
Pace has a short, compact frame that gives up length to just about anyone from whom he lines up across. That said, he’s learned how to use his short, compact frame to his advantage. Pace is always the “low man” and his short frame gives opposing blockers a small “strike zone”. He is a very slippery rusher and has a knack for shooting gaps before blockers can lock in their blocks.
His aggressiveness is a double-edged sword and teams will have a fine line to walk with Pace. His competitive toughness and willingness to commit fully and immediately are assets to be sure. However, he can be overly aggressive and take himself out of plays, creating opportunities for big gains by the offense. Teams will need to balance coaching him to avoid running himself out of position without dulling his edge or making him question his instincts.
Ivan Pace Jr. will almost certainly come in below many teams’ thresholds for the linebacker position. That said, he has the potential to be a dynamic player, even if he isn’t able to become a defender in the mold of Mychal and Eric Kendricks or Chris Borland.