June 25, 2024

The top-10 returning linebackers for the 2024 season

With the 2023 college football season in the books, it’s time to turn our attention to 2024 by ranking the top returning players at every position.

Harold Perkins named Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week |  TigerBait.com

Next up is linebacker. It’s a strong position heading into next season, as four of the 10 most valuable Power Five linebackers from this past year returned to school according to PFF’s wins above average metric.

Below is a list of PFF’s top-10 returning linebackers in college football in addition to an honorable mention nominee. Please note that NFL projection was not taken into account in these rankings.

1. HAROLD PERKINS, LSU

Perkins entered Baton Rouge as a top-10 recruit and proved why in his true freshman season. In 2022, he paced all Power Five linebackers with a 91.0 PFF pass-rushing grade and placed second among all FBS linebackers with 18 quarterback knockdowns (sack/hits).

Lsu Football Top 10: No. 3 Harold Perkins

The Tigers asked him to play more in an off-ball role as a sophomore, and he responded with an 81.1 PFF coverage grade that was a top-15 mark among Power Five linebackers. While LSU would be wise to pin his ears back and allow him to rush the passer more as a junior, Perkins has proven that he’s versatile enough to do whatever’s asked of him at a high level.

2. BARRETT CARTER, CLEMSON

Carter was the top linebacker prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft entering the season according to PFF’s lead draft analyst Trevor Sikkema before surprising many by returning for his senior year. While his junior season didn’t quite live up to what he showed as a sophomore (70.6 PFF grade in 2023 compared to 81.4 in 2022), Carter’s entire body of work over the last two years still earns him one of the top spots on this list.

No returning Power Five linebacker since 2022 has been more valuable than Carter according to PFF’s wins above average metric. He’s especially dominant on passing downs, as he’s the only one in that same group with 80-plus grades as both a pass rusher and run defender in that span. Carter is a supreme athlete who can re-enter first-round conversations with a bounceback 2024 campaign.

3. JAY HIGGINS, IOWA

Higgins was a true ironman for Iowa’s defense, leading all FBS defenders in 2023 with 985 snaps. He still played at an elite level despite practically never coming off the field, finishing fifth among all linebackers in the nation with an 89.6 grade. Higgins ended the year as the most valuable linebacker in the country according to PFF’s wins above-average metric.

He always seemed to be around the ball last year, leading the nation with 108 plays where he made first contact on the ball carrier. Higgins was one of only six Power Five linebackers who earned 80-plus grades both as a run defender and in coverage. One of the others is further down this list while the other four are the top-four linebackers on PFF’s 2024 NFL Draft big board: Payton Wilson, Edgerrin Cooper, Junior Colson and Jeremiah Trotter Jr. In fact, Higgins’ 90.8 PFF coverage grade led all Power Five players at the position.

4. DANNY STUTSMAN, OKLAHOMA 

Stutsman was named a third-team AP All-American this past season after living in opposing backfields. His 19 tackles for loss/no-gain as a junior were tied for fourth among Power Five linebackers. He also tied for eighth among Power Five linebackers with 37 run-defense stops.

He needs to improve in coverage, earning just a 64.2 PFF grade in that aspect last season. Still, Stutsman is a menace downhill who’ll once again be the leader of Oklahoma’s defense next season.

5. JAISHAWN BARHAM, MICHIGAN 

Barham broke onto the scene as a true freshman in 2022, placing fifth among Power Five linebackers with an 83.1 PFF coverage grade. He finished the season as the seventh-most valuable linebacker in the country according to PFF’s wins above-average metric.

Barham was limited by injuries as a sophomore and posted just a 44.7 PFF coverage grade this past season. He’ll try to rebound at a new home in 2024, as he transferred from Maryland to Michigan in December.

6. COLLIN OLIVER, OKLAHOMA STATE

Oliver began his career as an edge defender for the Cowboys and immediately established himself as a formidable pass-rusher. As a true freshman in 2021, he was fifth among Power Five edges with an 18.2% pressure rate. The following season, he trailed only Tyree Wilson, a future top-10 pick, among Big 12 edge defenders with a 15.7% pressure rate.

Oklahoma State moved him to an off-ball linebacker role this past year and he remained an elite pass-rusher, leading all FBS linebackers with 37 pressures. The junior also flashed some skills when he wasn’t attacking the quarterback, placing third among Big 12 linebackers with a 75.0 PFF coverage grade.

Like Perkins, Oliver is still at his best when he’s allowed to rush the quarterback. In fact, projected top-10 pick Joe Alt told me last year that Oliver and 2023 first-round pick Myles Murphy are the two players he found most difficult to block.

7. JACK KISER, NOTRE DAME

The only reason Kiser isn’t higher on this list is due to a lack of playing time. His 354 snaps in 2023 were tied for 333rd among FBS linebackers as he was used mostly as a rotational piece in Notre Dame’s defense.

The fifth-year senior was elite in that role though, as his 90.3 PFF grade trailed only Edgerrin Cooper among all linebackers in the country. He and Cooper also had the distinction of being the only linebackers in America who finished with 85-plus grades both in coverage and as run defenders. With both of the Fighting Irish’s starting linebackers, JD Bertrand and Marist Liufau, in the NFL Draft, Kiser should become more of a household name in his sixth season.

8. CJ TAYLOR, VANDERBILT

Taylor is a hybrid between a linebacker and a safety for Vanderbilt and has the dimensions for the latter at 6-foot-1, 201 pounds. Since he spent 55% of his snaps along the defensive line and in the box this past season, he’s included in this list.

In 2022, he was third among SEC safeties with an 84.9 PFF coverage grade while his 10 pressures were the most. In 2023, he was third among all linebackers in the conference with a 61.8 passer rating allowed. The junior also picked off a pair of passes that placed him second in that same group despite missing three games due to a leg injury.

While his long-term home will likely be at safety in the NFL, Taylor is still a versatile chess piece who’s one of the lone bright spots for the Commodores.

9. JAMON DUMAS-JOHNSON, KENTUCKY

Dumas-Johnson saw his 2023 season derailed by a fractured forearm which caused him to miss Georgia’s final five games.

He’s earned a place on this list for what he’s accomplished over the past two years. Since 2022, his 80.2 PFF run-defense grade leads all SEC linebackers. He’s fifth in that same group with a 24.2% pressure rate. After excelling for the Bulldogs, JDJ is taking his talents to Kentucky for the 2024 season.

10. JEFFREY BASSA, OREGON

Bassa was one of the most improved players in college football in 2023. During his first two years at Oregon, he posted just a 45.2 PFF grade. This past season, that improved to a 76.9 mark. He also finished as one of the 15 most valuable linebackers in the country according to PFF’s wins above average metric.

Perhaps his biggest area of growth was in coverage. Bassa’s 76.7 PFF coverage grade in 2023 was more than 25 points higher than his previous career high. If he can keep improving as he enters his senior campaign, watch out.

HONORABLE MENTION: CARSON BRUENER, WASHINGTON HUSKIESWhile many of the linebackers on this list are at their best working downhill as run defenders and pass rushers, Bruener’s game is centered around his outstanding coverage ability.

His 84.3 coverage grade since 2022 is second among returning Power Five linebackers to only Jay Higgins. In that same group, Bruener was the fifth-most valuable this past season according to PFF’s wins above-average metric. Expect him to take on a larger role in his senior campaign with Edefuan Ulofoshio off to the NFL.

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