Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton projects as an impact starter at the NFL level thanks to his linear explosiveness to trigger and attack between the tackles and his ability to deliver jarring hits to ball carriers. Bolton has a pro-ready build and carries himself with confidence in traffic—for better and for worse. Bolton was a standout in Missouri’s defensive front and his role as the leader and enforcer of the Tigers' defense has groomed him well for a featured role in the heart of an NFL defense. Bolton’s prowess in the passing game shines in zone coverage, as he can drive on shallow routes that flash in front of his face and make receivers think twice about coming over the middle. But there’s plenty of room for improvement in Bolton’s game in space, both with angles to attack throws and his decision-making process to work overtop of the play versus shooting gaps to try to get home and create a splash play in the backfield. Bolton has come on strong after entering his sophomore season in 2019 as a first-year starter, so there should be plenty of optimism that Bolton can continue to hone his decision-making process and develop into a more consistent fill player and coverage option. Teams who implement a lot of green-dog blitzes and pressure schemes up the middle will love the leverage, twitch, and hitting power that Bolton brings to the football field.
Ideal Role: Starting MIKE linebacker.
Scheme Fit: Single-gap penetration front with shallow zone tendencies on B-level.
Written by Kyle Crabbs
Games watched: West Virginia (2019), Florida (2019), Alabama (2020), LSU (2020), South Carolina (2020), Georgia (2020)
Best Game Studied: West Virginia (2019)
Worst Game Studied: Georgia (2020)
Tackling: Bolton brings the thunder between the tackles. He’s a slasher-type at the linebacker position and brings a lot of explosiveness into his run fits when he identifies gaps to shoot and press the backfield. His tackle radius is boosted by his closing burst but there are instances of his lack of length showing up on tape and limiting his finish skills if he’s attacking from angles instead of straight up. With his movement skills, he does well to work overtop of the ball before stepping down to square up his challenges. He has offered a number of impressive sticks in short-yardage situations and down near the goal line.
Football IQ: Bolton is a second-year starter at linebacker and there are some highs and lows with his processing consistency. He’s gotten snookered and taken eye candy to manipulate and pull him from valuable real estate at times, getting widened by false keys as the ball shoots up into space that he could otherwise challenge. Additionally, there are some bad habits with scrapes when he’s tasked with dealing with climbing IOL—he’s guilty of ducking down inside and giving up his leverage to avoid contact.
Competitive Toughness: There’s little questioning his effort and motor. Bolton is a high-energy player who flashes constantly as a rally defender who can find the football on extended plays to help rally and finish plays. When he’s working inside the box, he’ll charge and take on OL or lead blockers with authority, effectively plugging up a block and forcing the ball carrier to bounce and get off the designated track. His explosiveness allows him to set the tone with his pads and forcibly reset the LOS.
Pass Coverage Ability: He’s going to offer more value in zone coverage than he will in man, although he did get some reps motioned out onto the perimeter this season to play man. While he was out there, he didn’t look comfortable, likely because it is fairly uncharted territory. You can project some improvement there, but with his trigger skills and some of his hip tightness, you’re likely better off just pushing him into a system that lets him work shallow zones in the MOF and trigger on routes across his face. While working there, he can quickly accelerate and clean up potential YAC situations and serve as an enforcer over the middle.
Run Defending: Bolton is at his best in attack mode when he can slash through a gap and press for tackles for loss in the backfield. With his twitch coming downhill, there will be ample opportunities for him to crash the party in the backfield, and one-gap penetration style defenses will afford him the chance to beat blockers to the spot and create havoc. You’d like to see him a little more self-aware of the landmarks he can and can’t hit with consistency to avoid surrendering scrape leverage on outside runs, but that’s something that can hopefully improve with time.
Block Deconstruction: Bolton does not illustrate a great deal of length when addressing interior OL and when opposing offenses can spill blockers into his lap (Georgia 2020), he can struggle with addressing and getting off to find the football. Because of this, you’ll need to protect him with an ace IDL in order to keep him clean if you’re not going to charge him with a slasher role or if you’d prefer your OL to make more flat-footed reads before scraping overtop to find the football. He’ll need to develop more punch consistency with his hands instead of his pads if he hopes to improve deconstruction skills.
Lateral Mobility: His twitch loses some of its luster when he’s tasked with scraping and working laterally on the second level as compared to coming downhill. That said, he’s plenty mobile and should have little issue working between the numbers if he’s not interrupted by OL derailing his path. His wiggle shows best when he’s blitzing with momentum to make shallow adjustments to his angles and dip under a block to create pressures and flatten to the quarterback. Those adjustments are freer when he’s rolling into them as compared to flat-footed and keying the play.
Flexibility: Bolton’s coil and frame to explode into tackles is plentiful and he’ll easily get under the pads of ball carriers to find the stopping power and leverage to deliver a key blow. When he’s isolated in space, shallow angles are where he’s most effective—if you ask him to play turn and run and flip his hips 90 degrees or more, there’s some drift present that allows for separation when he’s opening to carry up the field. Play him square to the LOS and you’ll like your results here.
Leadership: Love the energy and presence he brings to his defense. Bolton is constantly hyping up teammates after plays and making sure there’s a positive vibe to the defense after big plays. He’s a lead by example player as well—all gas and no breaks. If your MIKE is setting the tone, you’ve got the right tone with Bolton in the middle.
Versatility: There’s a ceiling here for a three-down linebacker at the pro level. He’s flashed in zone coverage (West Virginia 2019) and he’s well acclimated to the speed of the SEC, so the pro leap shouldn’t be too overwhelming for him. If he’s going to serve as more of an early-down role for a deep roster, you can definitely get him working on your team's units as a coverage option to help run downfield and corral the football.
Prospect Comparison: Jon Bostic (2013 NFL Draft, Chicago Bears)
TDN Consensus: 81.00 / 100
Joe Marino: 80.50/100
Jordan Reid: 79.00/100
Drae Harris: 84.00/100
Kyle Crabbs: 80.50/100