Two linebackers are on the board.
Pretend the Saints are forced to pick one.
Who should they take: Patrick Queen or Kenneth Murray?
The two linebackers are among the best in this class, but they couldn’t be more different as prospects. Queen, the LSU product, seems relatively safe. He sees the field, diagnoses quickly and makes plays. Murray, the linebacker from Oklahoma, is a little bit different. His athleticism and range are as good as it gets. The problem is that his processing and read and react is sometimes a little bit off.
Queen is the guy with the high floor and high ceiling. Murray’s athleticism pushes his ceiling higher, but his floor is much lower. So, what should the Saints do if both are sitting there and there are no other options?
One thing we know for sure is that New Orleans is in the market for a linebacker. Sean Payton said it during a recent conference call with the media, and the team’s interest in both Jamie Collins and Cory Littleton during free agency said it even louder. There’s a reason the Saints waited to rework Kiko Alonso’s deal. If they had landed someone else, it seems possible, at least, that he would have been a cap casualty.
Getting someone at this position would put a bow on what has already been a strong offseason for a team that is on the brink of making a Super Bowl push. If everything goes right and everyone stays healthy, New Orleans will have a good group of linebackers. But if one thing goes wrong, there could be a significant hole in the defense. Getting another layer of protection while also getting younger at the position would be ideal.
So, what happens if both Queen and Murray are on the board?
It’s hard not to be intrigued by Murray. You watch him, you see the athleticism and physicality, and you start to think about the possibilities. “If he fixes this, and does that, he could become this.” The problem is, despite his athleticism and playmaking ability, the Oklahoma product often gets himself in trouble by not recognizing plays or going about everything too quickly. And when we say quickly, this guy is always freaking flying, which isn’t a good thing.
Some people have drawn comparisons to Stephone Anthony, which, in some regards, is fair and in others way off track (Anthony’s college tape was good even if some of his issues were hidden). Murray will run himself out of a play or get fooled by play action now and then, which often happened to Anthony, but Murray is a better prospect than Anthony was, and his problems are not as extensive. Some of the things that ail Murray could get solved by someone telling him to let off the gas a touch, so he doesn’t overrun the action, which is a lot better than telling a player he needs to dial it up.
Murray’s combination of physicality and speed should makes him solid in run defense when he diagnoses the play. He can crash down when the play is coming between the tackles as well as get outside on stretch plays. When he sees it, good things happen, as evidenced by his 66 run stops last year. But he also misses a lot of tackles due to putting himself in poor positions.
He has the range to hang in the passing game but needs to do a bit better job of recognizing the ball and filling passing lanes in zone. He sometimes looks rough when dropping back. The skills are there, but he needs to harness it to cash in on his athleticism.
Murray blitzes well and could be a great antidote as a spy against mobile quarterbacks. If he figures everything out and improves his processing, Murray has a lot of upside.
For the Saints, putting Murray with former linebackers coach Mike Nolan might have changed the equation since he has a record of success with coaching guys up. New linebackers coach Michael Hodges, who worked under Nolan and has drawn positive reviews, is still a bit unknown. The fact the team was willing to bring in Collins, who needs coaching to maximize his ability, should be taken as a vote of confidence for Hodges.
Queen is a much safer prospect than Murray. You can find instances of Queen getting caught out of position and compensating with his athleticism or getting fooled by play action. Still, he generally sees the field well, and there are several examples of him anticipating a run before the offensive linemen even move. His feel for the game can be impressive, but he definitely could use some more seasoning. A lot of the issues you spot with his game should be cured with more snaps.
Where Queen separates himself from Murray is in coverage. The former LSU linebacker sometimes keeps his eyes on the quarterback to a fault and can get fooled, but when Queen is looking in the right place, he can break on the ball in a hurry. A great example of this occurred on an interception against Alabama last year. Queen can hang with players in man coverage but could do a better job of spotting the ball. This should come with more experience.
When watching Queen in coverage, it’s hard not to imagine how much field he and Demario Davis could cover playing alongside one another. Murray is right there, too, in terms of range and getting to the flat, but his coverage skills are well behind Queen’s.
The biggest issue with Queen is his size. He’s a willing tackler, and sometimes even lit guys up last year, but his playing strength will be an issue in the NFL. He might have some trouble bringing guys down in tight areas when he can’t get much steam built up. And, like Murray, there are also times where Queen takes himself out of plays, but it is not nearly as frequent.
Neither one of these players would have an issue fitting into the defense, assuming the wrinkles can get ironed out. Drop one in next to Davis in the nickel package, and you’re good to go. But Murray is a better middle linebacker candidate than Queen due to his playing strength.
One thing to keep in mind, as it relates to this season, is that it could take Murray a little bit longer to get up to speed if the offseason gets shortened. No team should draft with short term plans in mind, but if it is coin flip between the two, maybe you lean toward Queen if both players are there.
Honestly, if you believe in your coaching and Murray’s ability to clean his game up, things might sway the other direction. But considering the Saints already had one linebacker backfire, Queen would be the pick if we were running the draft. His path to success is shorter, and there isn’t much downside. While he’s a little undersized, his range more than makes up for it.