Pete Werner was a standout high school linebacker in the state of Indiana, and gave an early verbal commitment to Notre Dame. Fortunately for Ohio State, he flipped his commitment to the Buckeyes, and the rest – as some would say – is history.
But will Werner’s OSU career really go down in history? With any sort of infamy? Would you (or I) call it memorable? Because while his individual play was often better than that of the linebackers as a whole, I think he became guilty by association. And the general disappointment in that group’s performance may have overshadowed Werner’s stellar play.
Werner became a starter for the Buckeyes in 2018, and spent most of his time playing alongside Tuf Borland, Baron Browning, and/or Justin Hilliard. The four of them took up a vast majority of the snaps at linebacker for three consecutive seasons, and while each guy had his moments, the entire unit was heavily criticized. Fair or not, Werner was one of those who took heat, but I would argue that he was far and away the most consistent performer. More than adequate against the run or as a blitzer, he often excelled in pass coverage, despite the fact that he never snatched an interception.
The New Orleans Saints saw through the occasional struggles and/or questionable coaching at Ohio State, and identified Werner as a versatile, high-upside linebacker. They took him with the 60th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and after just one season, they have to be thrilled with their return on investment. Werner began the year behind Demario Davis and Kwon Alexander, only seeing limited snaps in the Saints’ nickel-heavy defense. But when Alexander got banged up, Werner was inserted into the lineup and according to one NFL.com writer, became the team’s most underappreciated player.
Werner’s stats do not jump off the page, primarily due to the fact that he only started eight games. And even in those eight games, he was still subbed out in various packages — he was a rookie after all. But certain metrics paint the picture of a great rookie season. PFF gave Werner a 79.9 grade for his rookie campaign — a score that put him above the likes of San Francisco’s Fred Warner and Indianapolis’ Darius Leonard.
Nobody is saying the former Buckeye is better, relax. PFF graded him even higher solely against the run, dishing out a 91.0! Werner’s stop percentage (8.3) was the highest on the Saints defense in 2021, and despite not making a real impact until the halfway mark of the season, he finished 14th among rookies in total tackles.
Interestingly enough, Werner experienced more than a few growing pains in the passing game. He was targeted 29 times as the primary defender, and gave up 21 receptions (72% completion rate). He certainly has the background of a strong coverage linebacker, but it is something he will just need to work on moving forward. His teammate, Davis, is one of the better coverage linebackers in the league, so there is no shortage of resources when it comes to learning the tricks of the trade.
Entering the 2022 season, Werner should be penciled in as a starter, and if his eight-game sample size is any indication, he is likely to be a very productive linebacker. Perhaps the most productive former Buckeye since Hawk or Laurinaitis. Now, before the Jerome Baker hive comes for me: I get it, Baker has been solid for four consecutive seasons. And he adds a pass rush element that Werner does not. I’m just talking potential here. The hive and I should at least be able to agree that – despite the recent reputation – Ohio State squads have produced some nice talent at linebacker.
But there have been many lean years since Hawk and Laurinatis finished their NFL careers in 2016. More than a few stud Buckeyes entered the league at LB, but unfortunately, they have not had the opportunity or staying power to produce consistently. Ryan Shazier suffered a career-ending injury, Darron Lee was a bust, and Raekwon McMillian has been unable to stay on the field. Here is hoping that Werner (and Baker) can change or at least influence the recent narrative.
The reason I see higher upside with Werner is that he is almost always in the right spot at the right time. Every linebacker gets blown up or finds themselves out of position from time to time, but what sets the good ones apart is their ability to recover quickly and/or take a different angle of pursuit. Werner does both very well. In the run game, he will get bullied by the occasional lineman or tight end, but he attempts to counter with quick, decisive routes to the ball. Baker (no offense) will sometimes freelance or get lost in the shuffle, which is part of the reason his combined PFF grade is below 60 for the past two seasons.
Furthermore, where Werner struggled as a rookie was in pass coverage. But it was a strength of his while at Ohio State, so I expect him to adapt. His 4.6 speed is not tops in the league for his position, but it is more than enough to keep up with tight ends and/or most pass catchers across the middle. If Werner is able to marry his strong performance in the run game with improved awareness and positioning in coverage, we could be talking about an all-around stud sooner than later.