Through the middle part of last decade, the linebacking corps was a major team weakness on a struggling New Orleans Saints defense. Gone were players like Jonathan Vilma, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Scott Fujita, and Scott Shanle that helped fuel three playoff runs and a Super Bowl title between 2009 and 2011.
In their place were draft busts like Stephone Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha and disappointing free agent pickups like Curtis Lofton or James Laurinaitis. The New Orleans linebackers were athletically and strategically overmatched, leading to consistent defensive breakdowns.
That changed in 2018 with the free agent signing of Demario Davis, who transformed the unit with his elite instincts and athleticism. Davis had been flanked in recent years by consistent veteran A.J. Klein and talented but injury-prone 2017 draft choice Alex Anzalone. The defense was brought to an even higher level with a mid-season trade for LB Kwon Alexander last season.
Alexander suffered an Achilles injury late in the year that puts his status for the start of 2021 in question and was released this offseason. Anzalone departed as a free agent, following Klein's department two years ago, and reliable veteran Craig Robertson remains unsigned.
The team may bring Alexander back on a more team-friendly deal. They also hope for significant improvement from 2020 3rd round choice Zack Baun. The position is in a state of flux around their All-Pro Davis. New Orleans could use their 1st round pick on a linebacker, but have several areas of need they must also address. There are several linebackers that will be available on Day 2 that have the ability to step in right away, including the subject of today's draft spotlight.
CHAZZ SURRATT, LINEBACKER (NORTH CAROLINA)
Pro Day 40m = 4.58
Surratt was the Parade National Player of the Year as a senior quarterback at East Lincoln High School in North Carolina. He’d redshirt his first year, but started seven games at quarterback in 2017 and completed over 58% of his throws for 1,342 yards with 8 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.
After appearing in only one game in 2018, Surratt approached his coaches about a position switch. He was moved to linebacker during 2019 spring practices, quickly earning a starting job by the start of the regular season. Surratt led the Tar Heels in total tackles (115, second in the ACC), tackles for loss (10), solo stops (66), and finished second on the team with 6.5 sacks. He also intercepted a pass and forced 2 fumbles, earning 1st team All-ACC honors.
Surratt was even more comfortable in his second full season at the position in 2020. His 91 total tackles again led his team. He added 6 sacks, 7.5 stops for loss, an interception, broke up three passes, and either forced or recovered 2 fumbles. The former Tar Heel quarterback was named to the All-ACC 1st team defensive squad for the second year in a row. Chazz's brother, Sage Surratt, is a wide receiver for Wake Forest who will be a mid-round draft choice this spring.
Surratt's inexperience at linebacker will likely steer some teams away from him. Lack of snaps at the position can cause him to hesitate in trusting his instincts when diagnosing plays. He’ll need to add more strength and bulk to stand up to the every down pounding at the NFL level.
Surratt can be delayed when breaking down opposing blocking schemes, causing him to get pushed out of plays. He can overrun the action in pursuit at times, creating cutback lanes for running backs. He must also get deeper drops in coverage, another sign of his inexperience.
Despite the lack of experience, Surratt has good natural ability to break down offenses from his time as a quarterback. He has tremendous athletic ability and relentlessly tracks down ball carriers from sideline-to-sideline. His speed and fluid change of direction skills allow him to stay with any running back or tight end in man coverage and close quickly on throws in zones.
As a tackler, Surratt has outstanding fundamentals and ferociously drives through ball carriers to finish plays. He has no hesitation when stepping into a gap to take on run blockers and has an explosive burst through creases into the backfield.
Chazz Surratt is looked at as an athletic project by some scouts. A closer look reveals an aggressive defender with solid natural instincts that just need developed through experience. While he gets more experienced, he should be an instant fit as a weak side linebacker. He’ll be able to react to plays in open space from that spot, where his blazing speed and non-stop motor will be an asset to any defense.
As Surratt develops, he flashes the ability to be an every down defender from any of the linebacker positions. He’s an aggressive run defender with the athleticism and fluid movement to be elite in coverage.