In this week's 5-Play Prospect column, I'm diving into the upperclassmen portion of the potential 2020 linebacker class. Usually when I am doing these 5-Plays during the summer time it's spent on finally getting my hands on the underclassmen who I've watched for years and are finally draft eligible. But this week I had to deviate from that a little bit due to a recent discovery.
This week Ben Solak and I are running through the linebacker group on the Locked on NFL Draft Podcast. Ben set up the schedule this week and assigned all upperclassmen for our first two days. Now, let's face it. If you're a linebacker and you're staying for your fourth or even redshirt fifth year, chances are you don't have a ton of NFL upside -- or else you would have declared for the draft already. That was my mindset going into the week. For the most part, that thought process was correct. There were some glimpses of things to like from a few guys, but I didn't see big time NFL potential from the initial batch of players we watched.
That is until we popped in the tape of Markus Bailey from Purdue.
Not only is Bailey an upperclassmen, he's a fifth year senior. Knowing that going in, I wasn't expecting to see much, but boy was I surprised in the best way. Bailey has been starting for the Boilermakers for three straight seasons -- 2019 will be his fourth. He's finished as the top tackler on the team in two out of those three seasons (finished second in the other one), and over the last two seasons has 20 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, and a career total six interceptions.
But, as is often the case with linebackers, it has to be more than just stats. Every linebacker can get tackles, and there are plenty who can get TFLs and sacks, too, that don't end up making it in the NFL. To make it at the next level you have to bring more than just run stops -- though you still have to bring that, too.
I think Markus Bailey does.
Play No. 1: Pro At Pursuit
As stated above, something you have to do as a linebacker that is non-negotiable is you have to be able to get to a ball carrier and stop him. The NFL is evolving to where linebackers are being asked to play more coverage than ever (we'll get to that), but you still have to bring a baseline of stopping the run and making tackles at or near the line of scrimmage.
Making tackles in the box is something that almost any linebacker at the college level can do, but effectiveness and consistency with making tackles near the sidelines and in pursuit is something not every linebacker can do.
As seen in the clip above, Bailey knows how to keep himself clean by disengaging blockers with ease while keeping his eyes on the ball and continuing his path towards it. Rarely did I see Bailey get beat to the corner and smoked up the sideline. More often the case was Bailey making it to the sideline and making stops for minimal gain. that shows reliability.
Play No. 2: Pass Rush Potential
In today's game, linebackers have to bring more than just thumping ball carriers. They have to be able to bring value in either pass coverage or pass rush. Bailey really figured out how to get in the backfield over the last two years, and it's worth tipping your cap to because he is not the most flexible guy. Bailey has some speed and burst, but he's not an edge bender or speed rusher by any means.
Instead, the way Bailey gets into the backfield is by being strong with his hands and by setting up blockers, like shown in the clip above. This clip gives us an intro into two things. First of all it tells you that every now and then Bailey can make things happen off the edge or on a stunt if asked to blitz. Second it notes his football IQ. Bailey's move in that clip was filthy, and it didn't involve him winning with superior flexibility or speed or bend. He just knew the game better than his blocker did. Sometimes that's all it takes.
Play No. 3: What Makes Bailey Different
Continuing from the point of Bailey's football IQ, what gives him the potential to be a standout upperclassmen in the draft is what he can do in pass coverage. I think Bailey is a WILL linebacker at the next level (meaning a linebacker who is asked to play in more space than a MIKE or a SAM). Purdue lines him up in the box, over the edge and sometimes even in the slot. The reason is because Bailey understands spacing really well and is not a liability in coverage because of it. Bailey works best in space, and as shown above, he's a natural in zone when reading the quarterback's eyes.
Many linebackers tend to panic in space. The fact that Bailey doesn't brings him a lot of potential value.
Play No. 4: What Might Hold Him Back...
Bailey's biggest limitations are in the physical and measureable areas of his game. As stated before, though Bailey can move well enough, I wouldn't say he's super fast or quick-twitched. He's also not long in build. He has shorter arms, and that does hurt him, at times. For example, in the clip above Bailey was playing the right coverage, he just couldn't get to the ball because he didn't have the length.
In this next clip, Bailey wasn't able to bring the quarterback down because when the quarterback used his arm to create separation, the quarterback won the length battle.
If Bailey was a crazy athlete this would be less of a problem, but where he's at right now leaves his limitations in range of being exploited.
Play No. 5: Plays Clean; Plays Hard
As you would expect from a guy who is entering his fifth year in a college football program -- or at least you would hope -- Bailey plays the linebacker position with poise and control. Even when laying his biggest hits, like the one seen above, he is fundamental in protecting himself by not risking reckless injury and his team by not committing a penalty. Bailey is a smart football player in many different ways, even when he's laying it all out there.
As we talked about before, most of the time upperclassmen linebackers leave a lot to be desired. I see some limitations with Bailey, but there is much more to like than not to like. He'll be 23 by the time draft day rolls around, so you're going to hear some people bring up his age. But the bottom line is, if you can play you can play.
And Bailey certainly can.