The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of many NFL organizations who could be looking at a linebacker in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft. However, unlike the other franchises who are looking to add to their current depth chart, the Steelers possess the 24th overall pick.
The question isn’t whether a linebacker will be available at No. 24, but if there is a linebacker who is worthy of a first round pick. The past two weeks I talked about quarterbacks, both top tier and mid tier signal callers, and running backs. Now it is time to go to the other side of the ball and look at some defenders.
It felt appropriate to first break down a player many Steelers fans have been talking about this week after Jerry Olsavsky, inside linebackers coach, worked with this player during his Pro Day. And that would be none other than Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton.
Bolton is a player many are extremely hot and cold with. Some view him as a potential first round pick, while others see him as a Day 2 selection. Some see a prospect brimming with potential, and others see someone who is lacking in several main categories before becoming a professional.
During Bolton’s Pro Day, he didn’t light the world on fire with his numbers. Just take a look at some of the numbers, these via Marcus Mosher.
Nick Bolton is a 33 percentile athlete at LB based off his "official" Pro Day times. pic.twitter.com/uMfGmUT1MV— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) March 22, 2021
The numbers weren’t great, but can they truly dictate the potential, or future, of a prospect? There are some, myself included, who would rather watch the film, analyze the tape and look at some profile breakdowns to make a judgement for myself.
We all know the Steelers will want to add to their linebacker depth, but will it be in the draft, or via Free Agency? As of right now, the Steelers could be poised to take a defender, but I don’t think they would have to take Bolton in the first round.
Don’t listen to me, or anyone else, form your own opinion on Bolton. I plan on doing this for other prospects as the draft approaches. If there is a specific player you’d like to see covered, simply let me know and I’ll be glad to put it together!
Let us know your thoughts on Bolton in the comment section below, and be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the new league year, NFL Free Agency and the 2021 NFL Draft.
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.
Weight: 232 lbs.
Bolton is a physical type of linebacker that can square defenders up and run through their faces. He’s shorter with a good filled-out, thick frame, along with shorter arms and adequate overall athletic ability.
He lacks sideline to sideline range, but he does have good short-area quickness that he engages when moving downhill on targets— he’s got burst in that area.
A good run defender who does a good job keeping his chest clean and not allowing bigger offensive linemen to take him out of plays when he gets a beat on the running play, which is often.
He has good vision and football IQ to read, react, and attack downhill on running plays while being instinctual and trusting his keys—he’s one of the quicker processors in college football.
He brings a ton of physical and competitive toughness to the defense. Lands bone-jarring hits that rock ball carriers. He is solid in pursuit, but his overall lack of top-level athleticism will affect his ability to track faster backs down to the wide side of the field.
He can be reckless as a tackler and drop his head—I would like to see some better mechanics in this area.
He has awareness in zone coverage—he can read route combinations and bait quarterbacks into some mistakes. He keeps the play in front of him and takes good angles to the catch point.
He gets his hands into the catch point well and disrupts throwing lanes. It’s impressive what he can do in zone coverage, despite not having above-average athletic traits, albeit he does look stiff in space. More athletic running backs and tight ends, as well as bigger tight ends, will take advantage of Bolton’s athletic and size deficiencies.
He is very effective as a blitzing linebacker who thrives in “green-dog” situations where his pass coverage assignment stays in protection and subsequently blitzes.
He brings his physical nature and very good play strength into his bull rush to put smaller blockers on skates. He doesn’t have a lot of bend or elite change of direction, but he can be a wrecking ball with a head of steam.
Overall, Bolton is a downhill linebacker that hits hard and puts himself into a really good position to make effective tackles and get his defense off the field.
The NFL is transitioning to more second-level defenders that are athletic. Bolton isn’t quite that, but there’s still certainly a place in the NFL for him. I would expect him to be selected somewhere on Day 2.
Despite falling short in the size department, coming in a shade under six-foot and weighing 235 pounds, Bolton is one of the most physical players in college football. When he arrives to the ball-carrier he explodes into tackles, delivering a clean but hard hit, while also wrapping up and securing the tackle. His lower body flexibility and low center of gravity allow him to adjust to moving targets and bring down opponents in the open field reliably.
The Texas native’s physicality is apparent when he has to take on blocks, showing violent hands with some serious pop in them. Bolton does well to stay clean as his hands are quick, utilizing a dip-and-rip move, flashing pass-rush tendencies. His quick burst and ability to stay clean make him a great gap shooter, as he demonstrates the ability to penetrate the backfield as both a run defender or on a blitz.
Due to his lack of length, Bolton is unable to truly stack blockers consistently. Stuffing holes with the authority with which Bolton does it requires discipline and excellent eyes. He flows with run plays, playing patiently but also decisively when he decides to trigger downhill. When studying his tape, the growth he has gone through is apparent compared to past seasons. Previously, Bolton would take overly-aggressive angles and miss tackles because of it, forcing teammates to pick up the pieces.
With more playing time, he has become more patient and eliminated many of the mistakes he made in past seasons. His flexible ankles and knees allow him to change directions quickly, which helps him avoid blocks; this is very useful in the open field and in zone coverage as well. His flexibility, paired with his spatial awareness and zone instincts make him a capable defender in underneath zones.
Bolton flashes the ability to anticipate and take away routes coming in behind him, he would be excellent in space, if he did this consistently. In man coverage he gets the job done in condensed spaces, staying square and getting his hands on the opponent at the top of the route without getting grabby. Athletic running backs stressing him vertically are bad matchups for Bolton, as he lacks the speed and discipline to pick them up at times.
This lack of long speed also hurts his range, preventing him from getting sideline-to-sideline consistently. Bolton makes up for some of his shortcomings with terrific effort, with his motor running hot all game he finds himself around the football on almost every play.