The NFL draft process is, at its core, all about checking boxes for the prospects involved each and every year. Is your tape good? Did you perform well at your pre-draft all-star events and the NFL Scouting Combine (or, in this year's case, your Pro Day)? Did you interview well with teams?
Teams are looking to find the dealbreaker that would disqualify each prospect from being the right potential multi-million dollar investment to make at the end of April—and a great deal of that vetting process has been thrown out the window in 2021. Some may argue that's for the best, but that is a conversation for another day. What we do know for certain is that those players who can still manage to check all of the boxes that teams typically covet are going to have a major advantage come the end of April.
A complete picture, even one with some imperfections, is likely to be valued more highly than one that is incomplete. Better the one you know than the one you don't, as the saying goes.
Which brings us to Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker prospect Baron Browning. Browning is currently TDN's No. 3-ranked linebacker in the 2021 NFL Draft behind Penn State's Micah Parsons and Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. That ranking may come as a bit of a surprise given the fanfare for Missouri's Nick Bolton, Tulsa's Zaven Collins, and others.
So what gives?
Browning, who came to the Buckeyes as a 5-star recruit and the No. 11 overall prospect in the country in 2017 according to 247 Sports, has managed to parlay a career in Columbus that often left you wanting more into a resume that checks damn near every box you would hope for in a prominent linebacker prospect. Browning has, amid the COVID-19-impacted college football season and dramatically altered 2021 NFL Draft process, managed to:
- See a major leap in his play in 2020, checking the box regarding his film
- Exit Mobile, Alabama as one of the major winners of this year's Senior Bowl event
- Set a high bar of expectations for his March 30 Pro Day
Browning, who entered Mobile weighing in at 6-foot-3 and 241 pounds with an 81-inch wingspan, left the only in-person draft event featuring all 32 teams and the top draft prospects as one of the biggest winners of the week thanks to his versatility and explosiveness as an athlete. Given that Browning has a 4.56s 40-yard dash and a 37.50-inch vertical leap on his recruiting profile from 2017, the expectations for Browning as an athlete are sky high. If he meets them, or even falls slightly short, he'll have confirmed his athleticism as a three-down athlete for the NFL.
But even if Browning crushes his Pro Day workout, we've seen workout warriors fall short of putting things together in the NFL and playing to their athletic potential. And Browning's career in Columbus already has three underwhelming years relative to his physical skill before a much more inspired effort in 2020. So what makes Browning's resume one that we're so ready and willing to embrace with open arms? The root of Browning's late leap in play can be found about 100 miles down RT-75 in Cincinnati: Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell.
Fickell was the Buckeyes' defensive coordinator throughout Browning's entire recruitment process, but nine days after Browning committed to Ohio State in December of 2016, Fickell was hired away to take over the Cincinnati program. And, as the story goes, the vision for Browning's usage in the Buckeye defense changed the same day their defensive coordinator left.
Browning spent the first three years of his career in Ohio State as a rotational linebacker who primarily played inside alongside fellow ILB Tuf Borland. The usage trend on tape appeared to be fairly straight forward. Teams that offered heavier offensive sets saw more of Borland, whereas teams that spread the field and looked to create spacing issues got a bigger dose of Browning as recently as 2019.
So when Browning revealed about one year ago that he was primed for a move back outside, it was the first hint or indication that we might be seeing a different football player.
“I feel like (outside linebacker is) more my natural position I played in high school, so it's something I feel comfortable doing and I'm excited for it,” said Browning. “It's just a different role, I feel like, being outside versus the inside. I feel like when you're an inside, you've got to kind of make sure everybody's in line. You get everybody set. You're the foundation of the defense. And outside, I feel like you're in your own world. They're just two different worlds.”
Two different worlds and two completely different results. The Browning we saw in the College Football Playoff against the Clemson Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide featured teach tape in zone coverage drops and illustrated a much more confident and quick trigger version of Browning—freed from the weight of having to quarterback the entire defense and instead being allowed to focus primarily on his one-eleventh of the responsibility.
That's an important point of identification for his pro projection, too. Some may see his size, range, and zone coverage ability and want to peg him as a MIKE linebacker. But our sample size of Browning as a player is bigger in such a role and the results fall far short of the player we saw close the season as Ohio State's best defender in the national spotlight. Leave Browning in an outside linebacker role and let him prosper. Because he's got three-down value and a proven track record as both an intermediate coverage option and also as a pressure player off the edge, giving him ample ceiling on money downs to not just stay on the field but be a point of emphasis in the defensive game plan is what's best.
Browning will not be for everyone. If you want a vanilla 4-3 WILL linebacker, you're going to be dramatically selling his value and ceiling short—and while Browning has admirable rally skills to the football, his impact plays will need to come with a more diverse usage than simply playing him off the ball and telling him to go find it.
Is Browning for your favorite team? That depends. Do you run a lot of three-deep zone coverage? Do you offer a high blitz rate to your defense? Are you in need of an early-down linebacker who can stay on the field on third downs? (That last one should be yes for everyone, by the way.) If so, then yes, Browning is probably going to be on your favorite team's radar.
This is a player who can hit home from the B-level of the defense on pressure blitzes. Ohio State utilized him as an end man on the line of scrimmage and asked him to buzz to hook/curl on numerous occasions, too—and Browning got home on one such rep against Clemson while faking an upfield rush first to force a pass protection commitment, allowing a hot blitzer to shoot through and forcing Lawrence into an airmailed throw to the receiver Browning sunk underneath of, as you can see below.
It'd have been an interception too if not for a drop by the defender. But don't discount his ability to claim wins with speed off the edge, too; that was a skill he showcased in Mobile at this year's Senior Bowl event as well as intermittently throughout the course of his career at Ohio State, including in the second rep of the three plays above.
So now that we've taken a look at how Browning was able to make a major leap in his final season with Ohio State, we can hold him up in comparison to his peers. He compares most favorably of the top linebacker prospects this year to Parsons, who is more refined as a pass rusher off the edge but may admittedly not have the same zone defense prowess as Browning. His ability to move around the front seven compares well to both Parsons and Owusu-Koramoah; and Browning admittedly has a much better size profile. Both Owusu-Koramoah and Browning will be best on the hash as second-level defenders in the NFL and while Browning is longer and out-weighs him by 20-plus pounds, Owusu-Koramoah has been more consistent for longer and may get a slight edge as a result of his sample size of high-level play and more big plays on tape.
But it is at least worthwhile that Browning has a noted advantage in a specific aspect of his resume over both Parsons (more recently played and pass coverage) and Owusu-Koramoah (size/length and functional strength).
Versus Collins and Bolton? Collins has the same A- and B-level versatility that Browning does, but Browning is overwhelmingly a better athlete and Collins left the TDN scouting staff wanting a bit more as far as how well he negotiated blocks as a stack linebacker. Without Collins playing to his listed size, it is hard to embrace a less dynamic athlete in a similar role as a space linebacker who can win off the edge. Consider Bolton the opposite in this case study—he's equally explosive filling downhill and can serve as a high-quality run defender between the tackles and is a surefire MIKE or inside linebacker at the NFL level. The question will be whether or not he plays all three downs early on.
And that's enough of a question to slot him behind Browning upon forecasting both of their roles. Bolton wins most on third down as an interior blitzer, which is fine. But does that hold equal or similar value to edge pressure PLUS zone coverage ability? Probably not.
Different teams will covet different skill sets and you could feasibly put these linebackers into several different "buckets" based on their athletic profile, size, and skills.
Owusu-Koramoah is best classified as a nickel linebacker/safety hybrid. Bolton is best classified as an inside linebacker. Parsons, Browning, and Collins are all versatile three-down linebackers that have a different level of appeal to each team differently, with each having a hallmark trait.
How the league stacks them all up will be fascinating to watch. But of the top five linebackers, Browning checked the most boxes in 2020. And that, plus his rebirth as a linebacker at Ohio State thanks to a transition back to the outside, has us very high on the future for Browning. High enough to slot him as the 2021 NFL Draft's third-best linebacker prospect.