Positional Analysis: Middle/inside linebacker

The Vikings have shown interest in a few middle linebackers that should be drafted in Day 2. We review the strengths, weaknesses, production and projections for the top nine prospects at a position where the Vikings have no proven starter.

VIKINGS MIDDLE LINEBACKERS – Audie Cole, Jasper Brinkley, Michael Mauti.

TEAM NEED – The Vikings have used late-round picks the last several years to address the need at MLB. But in 2012, the Vikings gave both Erin Henderson and Desmond Bishop – neither of whom is still on the Vikings roster – a shot at being the starter. The team is high on Cole and Mauti, but the decision to bring back Brinkley speaks to the need at the position.

POSITION OVERVIEW: A relatively weak draft class, the only inside linebacker who figures to be a first-round pick is C.J. Mosley. There is talent in the middle to late rounds, but there aren't a lot of players who will be "must have" types on most draft boards and there may be a handful or less inside linebackers off the board by the time Day 3 of the draft starts.

THE CREAM THE OF THE CROP

C.J. Mosley, Alabama, 6-2, 234 –
Fourth-year senior who became a starter midway through his sophomore season…In his final two season, he had 215 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss, four sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery…Suffered a dislocated elbow in 2011 and dislocated his hip in the BSC Championship Game…Had right shoulder surgery after the 2012 season…First-team All-America in 2013 and won the Butkus Award, given annually to college football's top LB…Has long arms and big hands and uses them effectively to dominate blockers…Plays with a mean streak, but plays under control…Chases plays to the sideline and consistently stands out on tape…Has excellent read-and-react skills and works his way to the ball consistently…His injury history has to be a concern because he plays with a style that will lend itself to further injury…Is shorter and lighter than prototypical NFL inside linebackers and may struggle to make the adjustment to the next level…Gives up ground when blockers get their hands on him…Is always looking for the "kill shot" and will lose his basic fundamentals in the process…Didn't lift at the NFL Scouting Combine by choice due to a right shoulder injury, but ran a sparkling 4.40 40 with a 35-inch vertical jump and a 9-10 broad jump. PROJECTION: Head and shoulders the best ILB/MLB prospect in the class, he has the potential to be a top 10 pick. But, his injury history and lack of playing consistently under control will likely drop him into the second half of the first round or somewhere near the middle. But, that being said, in the right system, he could a Pro Bowl player for years to come.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Chris Borland, Wisconsin, 5-11½, 248 –
Sixth-year senior who was a redshirt in 2008 and granted a medical hardship redshirt two games into the 2010 season after injuring his left shoulder…Started all 38 games he played in his final three seasons, recording 358 tackles, 37.5 tackles for a loss, 11 sacks and 10 forced fumbles…A big thumper in the run game whose production is obvious and consistently blows up plays…Has an old-school football mentality and plays with a mean streak…Has very good read-and-react skills and has good lateral movement skills to slide down the line to get angles on sweeps…Has a good closing burst and is willing to chase plays to the sideline…Is much too short by NFL standards and has very short arms (less than 29 inches)…Is not an elite athlete, but makes up for his lack of athleticism with tenacity and grit…Is typically stymied when blockers latch on and steer him away from the hole…Has a tendency to over-pursue and doesn't have the change-of-direction skills to make up for his mistakes…Ran a 4.83 40 at the Combine with 27 reps of 225 pounds, a 31-inch vertical jump and a 9-6 broad jump. PROJECTION: Like Zach Thomas, he's an undersized linebacker who fights like a bulldog. His lack of athleticism will drop him out of the first round, but his tenacity, field smarts and work ethic will have him come off the board somewhere in the second round.

Shayne Skov, Stanford, 6-2¼, 245 – Fifth-year senior…Became a starter as a true freshman, but was granted a medical redshirt in 2011 season after tearing his left ACL in the fourth game…Started 49 of 55 career games, finishing with 355 tackles, 40.5 tackles for a loss, 16 sacks and five forced fumbles…A team captain…Arrested for DUI in February 2012…A tireless worker who is a natural team leader on the practice field, in the weight room and in film study…Has excellent read-and-react skills…Is a big hitter in run defense and consistently delivers the big shot and wraps up tackles…Plays to the whistle and never gives up on a play…Has good size and a frame that can add more muscle and bulk strength…Given has lack of straight-line speed, may be limited only to teams that run a 3-4 defense…Will play a little out of control at times and doesn't have the change of direction or recovery speed to make up for it…Doesn't have ideal closing speed and quick backs will run away from him…Doesn't have natural coverage skills to take on backs and tight ends deep in coverage…Did not work out at the Combine because of a medical exclusion for a left calf injury, but chose not to lift. PROJECTION: A classic two-down run linebacker, his limitations in space will likely narrow the field of suitors down to primarily 4-3 defensive teams. However, he is a glass-eater type who will give you everything he has, which may be enough to get him into the second round or early third-round range.

Preston Brown, Louisville, 6-1¼, 251 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who had 291 tackles, 20.5 tackles for a loss, six sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception in that span…Has very good measurable qualities – arm length, big hands, thick frame, etc….A durable athlete who started 37 of 52 games without ever missing a game…Reads plays as they develop and processes information quickly and attacks…Can take on blockers and keep his eyes on the prize and shed them at the right moment to make a play…Doesn't have great speed and can be a liability at times in coverage…Has very little burst of the snap and needs to build up speed, which hurt his blitz production…Gets tripped up too often moving laterally and needs to protect his legs better…Doesn't have fluid hips and loses a step when asked to flip and chase receivers down the field…Ran a slow 4.86 40 at the Combine with 23 reps of 225 pounds, a 33-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: A durable, veteran player from a good program, his athletic limitations will make him fall deep (if not out of) Day 2. He will give a team an honest day's work, but his limitations seem to exceed his strengths.

Yawin Smallwood, U-Conn, 6-2¼, 246 – Fourth-year junior…Started all 36 games of his college career…In his final two seasons, he had 238 tackles, 24.5 tackles for a loss, eight sacks, four forced fumble and one interception…Team captain…All-Big East in 2012 and team Defensive Player of the Year in 2013…Has a good combination of size, length and speed…Quickly diagnoses plays and rarely finds himself out of position by his own doing…Does a solid job in coverage…Uses his long arms and fluid movement skills to keep blockers from getting to his legs and cutting him down…Doesn't have great foot speed and didn't help his case by running a 5.01 40 at the Combine, pulling up with a hamstring injury, and not running at his Pro Day…Doesn't have ideal bulk or muscle development for a typical NFL inside linebacker…Doesn't have a closing burst to chase down running backs or quarterbacks…Isn't a force in goal-line and short-yardage situations…Ran a 5.01 40 at the Combine (he didn't run a second time after pulling up with a hamstring injury), did 18 reps, had a 36½-inch vertical jump and a 9-0 broad jump. PROJECTION: An intriguing prospect, his lack of top-end speed and physicality may hurt his draft stock, but he will be a player teams will be looking at in the third or fourth round.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Max Bullough, Michigan State, 6-3½, 249 –
Fourth-senior…Started all 40 games his final three seasons, registering 276 tackles, 29 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks, two interceptions and four forced fumbles in that span…Two-time team captain…His grandfather Hank and father Shane both played for the Spartans…Arrested in 2011 with a teammate in an Aspen, Colo., bar fight and was suspended from MSU's Rose Bowl game for violating team rules…A durable player who has the prototype size and weight for the NFL, but dropped 16 pounds from the East-West Shrine Game to the Combine in a little more than a month…Consistently blows up running plays due to very good read-and-react skills…A secure tackler who wraps up and rarely lets a ball carrier get away when he gets his hands on them…Has difficulty shedding blockers once they get locked on…Needs to work on his tackling technique because he will occasionally play out of control…Doesn't have great acceleration or closing speed and will end up chasing plays for too long…Ran a 4.78 40 at the Combine with an impressive 30 reps of 225 pounds, a 31-inch vertical jump and a 9-4 broad jump. PROJECTION: A solid player from a good program, he has the skills to be a situational linebacker who could end up being a starter. But his physical limitations will likely drop him into the last day of the draft, where he could be a sleeper value pick.

Avery Williamson, Kentucky, 6-1, 246 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 237 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks in that span…Team captain…A productive inside player who has a natural nose for the ball and finishes plays…Played his best against the best competition and seemed to raise his game to a second level…Has good technique and works his way through traffic nicely to get to the ball…Is not a take-on tackler and finesse doesn't always work in the NFL…When offensive linemen get their hands on him, he tends to stay blocked…Needs to add core strength to be more intimidating than he is, especially considering he didn't play elite competition on a regular basis…Ran a 4.66 40 at the Combine with 25 reps, a 30½-inch vertical jump and a 10-0 broad jump. PROJECTION: A finesse player from a weak conference, his production numbers will get the attention of NFL decision-makers, but his lack of a killer instinct will drop him into the final day of the draft.

Andrew Jackson, Western Kentucky, 6-1, 254 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who had 327 tackles, 42 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks and five forced fumbles in that span…Had some off-field issues from high school through college that led to multiple short-term suspensions…Has excellent burst off the snap and shoots gaps effectively…Has a jarring hand punch to keep defenders away from his body…Has good balance and body control to sift through the garbage to get to the ball…Off-field issues and work ethic questions will turn off some teams…Tries to run around blockers rather than take them on too often…Can be a liability in one-on-one matchups down the field…Chose not to work out at the Combine despite not having a significant injury that was noted – he was given a general exclusion. PROJECTION: A productive player from a mid-level program, there are a lot of players like him that have been drafted over the years. A work in progress, he will likely be drafted in the later rounds with the chance to earn a roster spot as a special teamer with the chance to earn a starting job sooner than later. But he will need to be in the right system to succeed.

Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA, 6-4, 235 – Fourth-year senior who didn't become a full-time starter until his senior season…In his final two-years, he had 161 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, two sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles…Has a solid combination of height, strength and speed…Is a strong worker who was a team leader both on and off the field…Has a motor that always runs hot and plays to the whistle…Doesn't have ideal bulk or muscle mass and doesn't have the type of frame that can add 20 pounds for the next level…Doesn't have good change of direction skills and has difficulty making up for a misstep…Gets too high on tackle attempts and too often will slide off potential tackles he should make…Didn't lift at the Combine due to a left A/C joint injury, but ran a 4.76 40 with a 33-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: A solid player from a big-time program, he has the skills to make an NFL roster, but the speed of his game is half a step slower than top prospects, which will drop him into Day 3.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Marquis Spruill, Syracuse, 6-1, 229
Jeremiah George, Iowa State, 5-11¼, 234
Christian Jones, Florida State, 6-3¼, 240
DeDe Lattimore, South Florida, 5-11¾, 237
Khairi Fortt, Cal, 6-2¼, 248
James Morris, Iowa, 6-1, 241
Glenn Carson, Penn State, 6-2¾, 244
Chris Young, Arizona State, 6-0, 224


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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