Grading the pro potential: Middle linebackers

The Vikings are expected to be in the draft market for a middle linebacker at some point this week, but many of the top prospects are marred by injury questions and whether they are an ideal fit in the middle. NFL scout Dave-Te' Thomas analyzes the potential of the class and projects their pro worth, including his personal favorites and most overrated and underrated.

Whether playing a 4-3 scheme in a 3-4 alignment, the linebackers manning the middle positions are generally the quarterbacks of the defense – smart enough to know everybody's assignments and savvy enough to not be fooled by misdirection or play action. Inside linebackers playing the 3-4 scheme generally rely a lot on the ability of their nose guard to play over the head of the center and hold ground and occupy several offensive blockers in order to allow the linebackers to make plays.

The focus of the 3-4 defensive line is to occupy offensive linemen, thus freeing the linebackers to tackle the running back or to rush the passer or otherwise drop into pass coverage. Meanwhile, in a 4-3 defense, the middle linebacker's job is to stop runs between the tackles and watch the entire field to see the play develop. On pass plays, the middle linebacker's responsibilities vary based upon whether a man or zone coverage is called.

In zone coverage, the "mike" will generally drop into hook zones across the middle of the field. However, some zones will send the outside linebackers into the flats (area directly to the left and right of the hash marks, extending 4-5 yards downfield). In a man-to-man coverage, the middle linebackers is asked to lend support covering if a second receiver exits on that side of the field. In the "Tampa 2" zone defense the middle line-backer is required to drop quickly into a deep middle zone pass coverage thus requiring a quick player at this position.

This year's draft crop seems to feature the shorter 4-3 middle linebacker types, with several outside guys likely to shift inside at the next level, led by Alabama's C.J. Mosley, Florida State's Christian Jones, UCLA's Jordan Zumwalt, California's Khairi Fortt, LSU's Lamin Barrow, Cal Poly's Johnny Millard, Syracuse's Marquis Spruill and Colorado State's Shaquil Barrett. While several have had brief appearances in the middle, none have played that position extensively and will need a period of adjustment to playing in tight quarters.

Most scouts feel that Alabama's C.J. Mosley is the best middle linebacker prospect in the draft. He has an impressive resume, recording 319 tackles (174 solos) with 6.5 sacks for minus 52 yards, 23.0 stops for losses of 96 yards and 15 quarterback pressures, but all 29 of his career starts have come at weak-side outside linebacker. Couple that with the fact that no highly touted Alabama defensive player has really panned out at the NFL level in recent years and it leaves you to wonder if those scouts "bought into the Kool Aid" that Nick Saban is handing out.

What separates Mosley from most of the top linebackers in this draft class is his incredible lateral movement, making most of his plays away from his assigned area. He has more than ample speed to pursue long distances and is called a "coach on the field" for his high intelligence. He plays with textbook-perfect tackle technique and excels running sideline-to-sideline, along with performing like a defensive back in pass coverage.

While Mosley lacks the ideal size to take on the larger blockers, he compensates with proper pad level, good strength, excellent field savvy and tremendous instincts. He has enough hand strength to shed blocks quickly, doing a nice job of extending to keep blockers from attacking his body. He has the ease of movement agility to flow to the ball, staying at a proper pad level to extend, wrap and secure as a tackler.

Mosley constantly keeps his legs moving on contact, doing a nice job of driving the ball carrier back. When he takes on blocks with his hands, he will generally separate and get off blocks quickly. He has the functional strength to take on blocks and shed. He has no problems running down hill to fill the rush lane and plays with good leverage when taking on the linemen.

Mosley is a solid wrap-up tackler who extends his arms properly to stalk and secure. He is the type that collides with ball carriers upon initial contact and has the strength to shed blocks and stay on the ball. He shows ease of movement getting to the ball when working in space. He has the leg drive and strength to get the ball carrier on the ground instantly.

The Tide linebacker brings a good thump upon contact and his hits have been known to jar the ball loose from several ball carriers. He swings his arms properly to wrap and is very fluid in his lateral movements to string the play wide. He is not a punishing tackler, but he does explode into his assignment, generating very good pop from his hips to impede the runner's forward progress.

Despite playing like he's The Flintstones' Bam-Bam in shoulder pads, Wisconsin's Chris Borland has heard all the complaints from scouts – too short, not athletic enough, does not have a muscular frame. Still, when he steps on the football field, the "best" true middle linebacker in this draft class makes the plays, whether in a 4-3 scheme or in the newly installed 3-4 alignment that he started in last season.

I'm more concerned about the "high mileage" he has on his body, as the bumps and bruises are mounting and with the way he dives into tackles, that questionable shoulder issue of his is certainly going to come into play on draft day, as not every team has taken the medical "red flag" away from his name.

Borland would conclude his career as the school's sixth-leading tackler with 410 stops, which rank second among active NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision players. He joins Keith Smith of San Jose State (476), Shawn Jackson of Tulsa (401) and James Morris of Iowa (400) as the only active players to reach the 400-tackle level.

He placed fourth all-time among Badgers with 50 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, tying the school record with nine fumble recoveries while finishing second in NCAA annals with Wisconsin and Big Ten Conference career records behind his 15 forced fumbles.

His bone-jarring tackles and excellent pass coverage skills have produced 31 turnovers for the Badgers (15 forced fumbles, nine fumble recoveries, one blocked punt, three pass thefts and three quarterback pressures that caused interceptions). His 17 quarterback sacks placed the middle linebacker fourth on the school career record charts.

"His athleticism is off the charts," new Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen said. "A lot of things, I would say, come easy to him. But things coming easy to him haven't stopped him from working hard to be the best. He knows our defense probably better than anybody on the whole defensive side of the football."

While he lacks ideal size, Borland makes up for it with good pop on contact and playing strength. He is very active with his hands, using his arm swipes effectively to lock out, shed and get to the ball. It is his burst and acceleration that lets him beat most blocks rather than raw power, but he does have the upper-body strength to impact the lead blocker and clog the inside rush lanes.

Even when he makes a wrong guess on a play, he is quick to recover and explode into his tackles. He stays square and can take on and shed with quick reaction off blocks. He is tough to knock off his feet and is involved in so many plays because of his ability to use his hands properly to shed.

Louisville's Preston Brown is getting lots of attention from teams looking for a strong-side inside linebacker. He led the Cardinals in tackles as a senior, delivering 98 stops, including career highs of 4.5 sacks and 12.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage. The team had perhaps their best season ever, leading the nation in total defense (251.5 ypg) and rush defense (80.7 ypg) for the first time in school history. Only one other team, Michigan State (252.2 ypg), held opponents to lower than 280 yards in total offense per game in 2013.

Despite some hip stiffness, Brown stays low in his pads and generates enough burst to make plays in space. He shows excellent body control in the open and is a classic wrap-up tackler who will jolt the ball carriers back upon contact. He is quick to fill the rush lanes and has the size to stun offensive linemen but needs to do a better job with his hands, as he sometimes struggles to disengage when working in-line.

When he is active with his hands, Brown gets to the play and can string it wide. His speed makes it very difficult for the offensive lineman to contain when coming off the backside. He also has the quickness and stride to reach outside and displays the instincts to sniff out the ball and make the play. His acceleration is the reason that he consistently makes the cut off.

The big story is what is emerging in Big Mountain country, where Montana's Brock Coyle continues to fly up draft boards. Since taking over the middle linebacker spot, he has led the Grizzlies in tackling both years and while whispers are that Denver is coveting C.J. Mosley to play in the middle, do not be surprised if the Broncos opt elsewhere in the first round and scoop up Coyle in the middle rounds.

During Montana's recent pro day, Coyle, who was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, stepped into the blocks that March day and blazed the track to the tune of 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash. If he had been invited to attend the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine with the other 35 linebackers in Indianapolis, that time would have ranked third in that group, with only Boston College's Kevin Pierre-Louis (4.51) and Florida State's Telvin Smith (4.52) running faster.

Coyle's three-cone drill of 6.74 seconds would have been second among all linebackers, placing behind South Dakota's Tyler Starr (6.64). His weight room figure of 25 lifts in the 225-pound bench press would have ranked eighth, as his vertical jump of 37-inches would have also finished in eighth place.

Coyle has the size and frame to play any of the three linebacker positions. Some teams recognize that he is such an impressive athlete, that he might also be utilized as a fullback, a position he played with good success during his prep days. He displays solid upper body muscle development with good arm length, and large, natural hands. He has an athletic physique that will fill out further. He has a tight waist and hips with a good bubble and a strong lower frame with minimal body fat (10.8%).

Coyle is a sparkplug on the field. He plays with reckless abandon, but also has a good feel and vision for plays developing in front of him. He is quick reacting to keys and fights hard through trash to make the play. He will get out of control too much, but when he plays within his element, he will not be fooled by play action or misdirection.

Because of size issues, he needs to be on the move, as he does not show great ability to locate the ball in a crowd. He is the type that makes quick and decisive reads, sort of reminding me of the Bills' Kiko Alonso for his ability to easily flow to the ball (but only when he does not try to out-battle blockers at the Xs).

Florida State's Christian Jones took over middle linebacker chores early in the 2013 season, but his speed was needed outside and he was shifted to strong-side linebacker after a few games. One of the top overall athletes on the team and FSU's unquestioned defensive leader, Jones has been the consummate team player, performing well at any task the coaches ask from him. He finished with 225 tackles (124 solos) that included eight sacks for minus 39 yards, 24.0 stops for losses of 92 yards and 10 quarterback pressures.

Jones needs to upgrade his strength if he is to be successful playing inside at the next level. You can see on 2013 game film that he has made good strides reading and reacting to the action in front of him. Because of strength limitations, he sometimes gets caught up in the pile, but is quick to close once he locates the ball.

He is also quick to react to keys but is the type who will get out of control and outrun plays, causing him to revert to lunging in attempts to get back in the action. Still, Jones makes good field adjustments and flows to the play well when given room to operate. When he guesses, he will get caught in the flow of traffic and will end up delivering just shoestring tackles.

Two early-round favorites when the 2013 season began have more questions needing to be answered as the draft approaches, but hamstring issues for Connecticut's Yawin Smallwood and Stanford's Shayne Skov could see both doing a "draft freefall" if teams are convinced they are more hype than hope for their linebacker needs.

During the 2013 season that quickly nosedived, the Huskies fired head coach Paul Pasqualoni and replaced him on an interim basis with assistant Bob Diaco, who finally got the ship righted after they lost their first nine games to finish with three consecutive victories. Strangely, Smallwood, who recorded double-figure tackle totals in six of the team's first eight games, went into a slump and did not reach that figure again.

The junior did manage to lead the team again while ranking second in the new American Athletic Conference with 118 tackles, matching his sack figures from the previous season (four) to go with 9.5 stops-for-loss. In late February, Smallwood was hoping to "light a fire" under NFL teams with a stellar performance at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.

It would turn out to be a disastrous performance by the Husky linebacker. While he checked into Indianapolis weighing 246 pounds, he failed to impress in the weight room, recording 18 reps in the 225-pound bench press. Out on the field, he ran the worst 40-yard dash time (5.01 seconds) for all of the linebackers in attendance. On his second attempt, he pulled up lame with a left hamstring strain and could not participate in the shuttle drills.

Back on campus for pro day on March 11, Smallwood was still unable to run and scouts went home with "5.01" still checked off next to the player's name. To the uneducated, it could be a career-killer, but those that have seen Smallwood perform know that some team will luck out with a "steal" on the third day of the draft. Even the junior concedes that there is nothing he can do to get back into the Round 2 picture he resided in before the 2013 campaign and postseason blew up for the junior.

Since enrolling at Connecticut, Smallwood delivered 332 tackles, making 39 of his stops behind the line of scrimmage (solos and assists) His range saw him deliver 42 touchdown-saving tackles, as he posted 35 third-down hits vs. the ground game and 66 more third-down plays vs. the passing attack. He produced 60 of his tackles inside the red zone, with 11 coming on goal-line snaps.

Skov's final season was his best, as the second-team All-American and first-team All-Pac 12 Conference choice was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year by Athlon Sports. He registered 109 tackles with 5.5 sacks among his 13 stops-for-loss, along with 10 quarterback pressures. He would end up tied for fifth in school history with 355 tackles and his 40.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage rank 10th all-time.

What made those figures even more impressive was that Skov played injured. Shoulder and hamstring issues would prevent him from participating in the Senior Bowl or working out at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, where he received a medical exclusion for a left calf strain. He was still unable to perform when teams arrived in March for Stanford's annual pro day. Attempts by teams to finally get some "numbers" on him have raised serious questions about his physical and emotional health, as one scout said that the linebacker was "too frightened" to work out for them.

Recent agility tests produced unimpressive figures of 1.72 in the 10-yard dash; 2.83 in the 20-yard run and 5.09 in the 40, bringing back memories to last year, when highly touted Cardinal linebacker Chase Thomas could not crack the 5.0-second barrier and went from an early-round target to a free agent that would eventually be cut by several teams. Skov did salvage something from his workout, as he produced 28 lifts in the 225-pound bench press, had a 31-inch vertical hump, a 4.38-second short shuttle and a 7.29 timing in the three-cone drill.

The rest of the middle linebacker class appear to be destined for third-day drafting, or simply hoping to make noise in training camp as free agents. From the Southeastern Conference, LSU's Lamin Barrow and Kentucky's Avery Williamson appear to be fifth- or sixth-round types. The Big Ten will see Penn State's Glen Carson, Michigan State's Max Bullough and Iowa's James Morris all hear their names called later in the draft. In the Atlantic Coast Conference, two priority free agent types are emerging in Boston College's Marquis Spruill and Steele Divitto (great named for a strong-side inside guy).

CREAM OF THE CROP: C.J. Mosley (Alabama)
BEST OF THE REST: Chris Borland (Wisconsin, only if the shoulder is no longer an issue).
MOST UNDERRATED: Preston Brown (Louisville)
MOST OVERRATED: Shayne Skov (Stanford)
SUPER SLEEPER: Brock Coyle (Montana)

MOSLEY, C.J. (OB) 6:02234 4.6315 3509'10" 4.47.3 71
%BORLAND, Chris   6:00248 4.8127 3509'08" 4.266.83 6.33
BROWN, Preston 6:01258 4.7926 34 1/209'05" 4.47.13 65
COYLE, Brock (OB) 6:01235 4.625 3709'07" 4.286.74 5.94
JONES, Christian (OB) 6:03240 4.7417 33 1/209'07" 4.387.03 5.74
#%SMALLWOOD, Yawin 6:02246 5.0118 36 1/209'00" 4.367.18 5.65
SKOV, Shayne    6:02245 5.0928 3109'05" 4.387.29 5.55
ZUMALT, Jordan (OB) 6:04235 4.7422 3309'08" 4.256.99 5.45
FORTT, KHAIRI (OB) 6:02248 4.6830 3610'00" 4.357.12 5.45
BARROW, Lamin (OB) 6:01237 4.6422 3510'03" 4.357.24 5.35
WILLIAMSON, Avery (OB) 6:01246 4.6625 30 1/210'00" 4.077.11 5.26
CARSON, Glenn   6:03244 4.730 3509'10" 4.256.99 5.17
MORRIS, James   6:01241 4.818 34 1/209'09" 4.366.94 57
JACKSON, Andrew   6:01254 4.8221 3109'05" 4.47.45 4.97
BULLOUGH, Max   6:04249 4.7630 3109'04" 4.37.08 4.96
DENMARK, Brandon 6:03244 4.6528 4011'03" 4.336.98 4.87
MILLARD, Johnny (OB) 6:02232 4.5124 3209'05" 4.267.07 4.87-FA
GEORGE, Jeremiah   5:11234 4.9128 3309'07" 4.537.21 4.87-FA
LATTIMORE, Devekeyan   6:00237 4.6320 30 1/209'02" 4.337.16 4.87-FA
DIVITTO, Steele (OB)  6:02241 4.7219 3609'10" 4.346.91 4.87-FA
SPRUILL, Marquis (OB) 6:01231 4.5321 34 1/209'09" 4.467.33 4.77-FA
BARRETT, Shaquil (OB) 6:01251 4.7316 2909'05" 4.426.98 4.7PFA
BLAIR, Greg   6:01244 4.8520 2808'07" 4.617.44 4.7PFA
FOX, Dan   6:03233 4.6715 3210'01" 4.37.1 4.6FA
SHUEY, Spencer   6:03245 4.9320 2909'00" 4.597.35 4.6FA
NIX, Roosevelt (DE/FB) 5:11248 4.7922 2809'02" 4.396.97 4.6FA
ORR, Zach 6:00233 4.6715 3210'01" 4.37.1 4.6FA
ANDERSON, Justin   6:01237 4.6824 3710'01" 4.296.89 4.6FA
GARNHAM, Chase 6:02231 4.6130 3410'06" 4.357.12 4.6FA
ROBERTSON, Stephon   5:11227 4.6919 3208'10" 4.377.15 4.6FA
DOUGHTY, Jack 6:00227 4.5624 3309'04" 4.377.31 4.6FA
LAVEY, Caleb   6:02218 4.64        4.5FA
TYLER, Jack   6:00231 4.84        4.5FA
WILSON, Tavarius   5:11239 4.78        4.5FA
%UNGA, Uani   6:01231 4.82        4.5FA
YOUNG, Chris   6:00252 4.8415 31 1/208'10" 4.377.15 4.5FA
MARRY, Mike   6:03256 4.96        4.5FA
PROBY, Damien 5:11246 4.73        4.4CMP
DREILING, Nate 6:03236 4.95        4.4CMP
CALABRESE, Carlo   6:01236 4.93        4.4CMP
HUBERT, Cqulin   6:01250 4.84        4.4CMP
TUDOR, Kyle 6:03239 4.72        4.4CMP
JACKSON, Shawn 5:11258 4.91        4.3CMP
MAKA, Tani 5:11243 4.84        4.3CMP
WILSON, Andrew   6:02241 4.72        4.3CMP
HOLLAND, Jake 6:00237 4.72        4.3CMP
GAINES, Jim 6:01232 4.9        4.3CMP
BUMPAS, Clarence 6:02252 4.95        4.3CMP
WEBB, Derrick 5:11229 4.86        4.3CMP
STIGGER, Keaton 5:11229 4.64        4.3CMP

Immediate starter...Should have a major impact to the success of the franchise, barring injury...Possesses superior critical factors...Plays with consistency and without abnormal extra effort...Rare talent.
7.6-8.0Star Quality Eventual starter...Should make a significant contribution in his first year...Possesses above average critical factors...Has the talent and skills to start...Will contribute to upgrading the team...Can play without abnormal effort, but has some inconsistency in his play that will improve with refinement and development...Has no real weakness.
7.0-7.5Impact Player Possesses at least average to above average critical factors in all areas...Will contribute immediately, whether as a starter or a valuable reserve...Will move into the starting lineup with seasoning...Above average player who needs to refine certain areas.
6.5-6.9Eventual Starter Could move into the starting lineup within three years...Has average critical factors in all areas...Needs further development, but has the ability to contribute.
6.0-6.4Potential Starter Could force himself into the starting lineup with improved perform- ances...Will make a team...Has average critical factors in most areas, but at least one with less than average quality that he will have a hard time overcoming...Probable draft choice.
5.5-5.9Roster Player Has the ability to serve as a key reserve and possible future starter... Possesses average critical factors, but more than several areas are less than average...Plays with normal extra effort.
5.0-5.4Project Has the skills to play pro ball with proper tutoring...May make a team based on need...Possesses no real strong critical factors and is probably below average in several areas that the player will have a hard time overcoming...Possible draft choice, but only if that team is caught short on talent available at that position.
4.6-4.9Develop- mental Could make a team with an impressive showing in training camp... Not strong in most critical factors...Deficient in more than one area that he will not be able to overcome...At least average in the factor of competitiveness...May not make a team due to his limitations.
4.1-4.5Camp Player Has redeeming qualities that could allow him to play in the pros with improved performances...Deficient in more than one critical factor... Might make a team, but will always be the player that squad will look to replace.
3.5-4.0Reject Might make a team, but has glaring deficiencies in several critical factors...Below average competitor whose athletic skills will allow him to enter training camp, but has a difficult time in trying to make a team.

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