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2021 NFL draft: Mizzou LB Nick Bolton is big hitter who also can cover

Eric Edholm
·5 min read
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Leading up to the 2021 NFL draft, which starts April 29, Yahoo Sports will count down our top 100 overall prospects. We’ll count them down in groups of five for Nos. 100-51, followed by more in-depth reports on our top 50 players, with help from our scouting assistant, Liam Blutman. We reserve the right to make changes to players’ grades and evaluations based on injury updates, pro-day workouts or late-arriving information from NFL teams.

Other prospect rankings: Nos. 100-96 | 95-91 | 90-86 | 85-81 | 80-76 | 75-71 | 70-66 | 65-61 | 60-56 | 55-51 | 50. OT Liam Eichenberg | 49. WR Terrace Marshall Jr. | 48. LB Chazz Surratt | 47. EDGE Joe Tryon | 46. OT-OG Alex Leatherwood | 45. CB Asante Samuel Jr. | 44. DL Levi Onwuzurike | 43. LB Jabril Cox | 42. DT Daviyon Nixon | 41. EDGE Ronnie Perkins | 40. LB Nick Bolton | 39. CB Ifeatu Melifonwu | 38. WR Elijah Moore | 37. OT Jalen Mayfield | 36. EDGE Carlos Basham Jr. | 35. CB Elijah Molden | 34. RB Travis Etienne | 33. WR Kadarius Toney | 32. EDGE Jayson Oweh | 31. LB Zaven Collins | 30. DT Christian Barmore | 29. QB Mac Jones | 28. CB Caleb Farley | 27. RB Javonte Williams | 26. C-OG Landon Dickerson | 25. S Trevon Moehrig | 24. CB Greg Newsome II | 23. WR Rashod Bateman | 22. EDGE Greg Rousseau | 21. OT Christian Darrisaw

Here are how we use our prospect grades for the 2021 NFL draft. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
Here are how we use our prospect grades for the 2021 NFL draft. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

40. Missouri LB Nick Bolton

5-foot-11, 237 pounds

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 5.91 — potential starter

TL;DR scouting report: Throwback “Mike” linebacker whose hard-hitting and coverage instincts make up for his lack of elite traits

Games watched: Alabama (2020), Florida (2020), Arkansas (2020), South Carolina (2020)

The skinny: Was a 3-star Rivals recruit out of Texas. As a freshman in 2018, he made 22 tackles (one for a loss) and one sack in 13 games (one start).

In 2019, Bolton broke out with his best season, with 107 tackles (7.5 for losses), one sack, two interceptions (one pick six) and 10 pass breakups, starting all 12 games and earning first-team all-SEC mention. He finished up strong in 2020 with 95 tackles (7.5 for losses), one sack and five pass breakups in 10 starts, earning second-team AP All-America mention. Following the season, Bolton declared early for the 2021 draft.

Upside: Great instincts — has the eyes and anticipation for the position. Takes good angles to the ball to where you think he’s a 4.4 tester. Super football intelligence, character and temperament. Thick, rugged build to hold up among the big boys. Nice pro day testing numbers in the 40-yard dash (4.59 seconds) and on the bench press (24 reps).

Tone setter. Big, violent hitter with bad intentions — sells out his body to make a stop. Brings the hammer every time out and delivers two or three huge blows per game. How did Tennessee’s Jauan Jennings not score on this play from 2019?

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Top-shelf run defender. Extremely effective run stopper in short-yardage situations — times up his surge beautifully to make stops. Quick trigger to anticipate and react. Plays downhill but also can string plays out laterally. Makes plays in pursuit.

Able to sort through the trash, navigate through tight windows and stay off blocks. Also plays with excellent control. Flagged for only two career penalties (one being a very questionable targeting call vs. Arkansas), which for how he plays is wildly impressive.

Classic middle linebacker with three-down ability. Very effective at making anticipatory plays in coverage. Processes what’s happening in front of him and reacts with great quickness. Effective change-up blitzer who closes fast and hard.

Just turned 21 in March — plenty of growth potential. Detail-oriented player — note taker and film watcher who studies his craft hard. Will put in the time necessary to reach his peak. Respected teammate and leader. Profiles as a key special-teamer — nearly 500 snaps of experience on those units in three seasons.

Downside: Might be a one-position player — “Mike” or bust. Lack of elite physical traits could limit some of his coverage ability and positional flexibility. Instincts might carry him only so far.

Unassuming build — short and stocky. Short arms (31 7/8 inches) to ward off blockers. Athletic testing numbers came up short of ideal benchmarks for the modern game — average to below-average in the vertical (32 inches) and broad jumps (115 inches), short shuttle (4.50 seconds) and 3-cone drill (7.40).

Mizzou LB Nick Bolton is a rugged tone setter in the middle.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Mizzou LB Nick Bolton is a rugged tone setter in the middle. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Not going to match up well when singled up in coverage against longer tight ends and quicker backs. More experienced in zone coverage than man. Not twitchy enough to consistently cover and tackle in space.

Missed tackles have been an issue. Will come in hot and overrun his target or fail to wrap up with his shorter arms. Most of his misses tend to come on the perimeter.

Best-suited destination: Bolton should be thought of as a three-down linebacker, either as a 4-3 “Mike” or as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 system. The old-school middle ‘backer might be seen as something of a relic, but Bolton’s coverage instincts and effort should translate in the NFL, perhaps on a more zone-oriented defense. He has the chops to be an instant contributor as a rookie, on both defense and special teams.

Did you know: Bolton's father, Carlos, was a linebacker and defensive end at Louisiana Tech, and Nick credits his father for first introducing him to tape study — back in first grade.

Player comp: A slightly less explosive Eric Kendricks, although if he was a tick faster and bigger, we'd also throw Demario Davis out there.

Expected draft range: Late first to mid-second round

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