Derrick Johnson is clearly the favorite to be the first linebacker taken in the draft, and after him Maryland's Shawne Merriman is the next one projected to play either defensive end or outside linebacker in the NFL. After those two, there is a player who doesn't get much mention in mock drafts, but Tennessee's Kevin Burnett has gained the interest of the Minnesota Vikings, Houston Texans, Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants, among others, he said.
Burnett's production at Tennessee came early. He was a PrepStar All-American at free safety in high school, then made the switch to linebacker after contributing as a free safety during the first half of his freshman year in college. But the fast track to success through Tennessee slowed in a hurry. After starting two games as a sophomore, Burnett tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in the 2002 season opener.
He started the last 12 games of the 2003 season and considered declaring early for the NFL Draft, but the more he learned of scouts' impressions of him the more he became convinced that he needed another season of college football to prove his knee injury was behind him.
At the combine, he said his knee and a 2001 dislocated shoulder both checked out well after an MRI, so his decision to return to Tennessee for his senior year may have been the best move. He recorded 120 tackles and earned All-Southeastern Conference honors after his senior season. For his career, he had 274 tackles, 23 for a loss, and eight sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, seven passes broken up and an interception.
Besides his senior year, the numbers aren't all that impressive, but Burnett is considered a linebacker with a lot of top-end potential. The major knock on him is his ability to disengage from blocks and his willingness to cover backs and tight ends.
More than statistics, two things make Burnett an intriguing prospect.
First, he represented himself at the combine as an extremely mature, respectful and intelligent person. While waiting on some reporters who were talking with Louisville linebacker Robert McCune, who served in Iraq, Burnett paid servicemen and women tribute.
"I feel like anybody that's done that for himself and his country, take all the time you need," Burnett said of waiting on McCune. "I have a lot of family members in the service and it really means a lot to me, to see people walking through the airport, I make it a point to go shake their hands or wave or tell them thank you or something."
On the intelligence quotient, Burnett already has his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in sports management with a minor in business — after five years of college and while playing major Division I football.
"It was just something to keep myself from being a victim of being ripped off, one, and two just to learn the business side of things, how money works, how can you make your money work for you, how can I keep myself and my family away from struggling," he said.
"If you just look at all of the players who've been ripped off, have money, things that are issues in life — money, how you live, I don't want to deal with those issues. If I am making, hopefully, $200,000 a year, there is no way I should be broke."
His leadership hasn't been questioned, as he and Michael Munoz were the first Volunteers to be named Tennessee team captains as juniors since 1947.
On the football field, another thing that makes Burnett an interesting prospect is his feeling that he may end up being a better fit at strong safety, where he started his college career.
"That's where my strengths are," he said. "A lot of people say he's a linebacker, he's a linebacker, he's a linebacker. Well, what do you get when you get a linebacker who can play strong safety and linebacker? I feel like it makes me more valuable. I feel like not a lot of linebackers can do that.
"I think, actually, once they see my athletic ability up close and personal, then things may change."
Scouts sure have to look beyond the raw statistics and game film to get a clear view of Kevin Burnett.
Linebacker productive on field, respectful off it
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