Positional analysis: Inside linebackers

While there aren’t any blue-chip prospects at inside linebacker, there are various skill sets and plenty of second- and third-day options. We review the skills, production, strengths and weaknesses of the top 10 options.

VIKINGS INSIDE LINEBACKERS – Audie Cole, Casey Matthews, Michael Mauti.

VIKINGS POSITION NEED – It can be argued that this has been a position of need every year since E.J. Henderson suffered an injury that effectively ended his career. The Vikings have had two stints with Jasper Brinkley and one with Erin Henderson – neither of whom was overly effective. With both of them gone, the Vikings have an opening that a rookie could step in and take away because Mike Zimmer needs a man in the middle and has been forced to make do with less than dominant staffing at the position.

POSITION ANALYSIS – A pretty mediocre draft class this year, with no projected first-round picks and only two or three that are seen as having a second-round grade. With so many teams employing 3-4 defenses, there is more of a market for inside thumpers, but the Class of 2015 is thin on elite talent and stacked with guys who may be better suited to be part-time defenders and special teams players than full-time starters.

Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State, 6-4¼, 246 – Fourth-year junior…Started just 16 of 39 games as part of an opening scheme for MSU, but had 243 tackles, 19½ tackles for a loss, 7½ sacks and eight passes defensed…Has incredible versatility and natural athleticism…Has prototype size and numerous positive intangibles…Has long arms and uses them well to attack and shed blockers…Has very good closing speed when he has the ball in sight…Relies on speed too often to run around blockers, which won’t fly in the NFL…Knocks passes down, but doesn’t pick them off…Doesn’t have great range on passes to the edge…Ran a 4.66 40 at the Combine with just 16 reps of 225 pounds, a 40½-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump.
PROJECTION: You can see what you need to know about McKinney by his Combine numbers. He has great athletic traits, but 16 reps tied for last among linebackers. He’s got the potential to be great, but a lack of upper-body strength doesn’t bode well for a first-round type pick.

Eric Kendricks, UCLA, 6-0¼, 232 – Fifth-year senior…A three-year starter who amassed 400 tackles, 21½ tackles for a loss, seven sacks, 12 passes defensed and five interceptions in that span…In 2014, he won the Butkus Award for the best linebacker and the Lott IMPACT Award for having 101 solo tackles…The brother of Mychal Kendricks, who plays for the Eagles…Is a big hitter with a passion for the game and is always around the ball…Closes in a hurry when he’s squared up, displaying short-distance explosion…Has good lateral agility and flexibility to chase plays on the fly and pick his shots…Looks good when he blitzes…Is a little stumpy by NFL standards, lacking long arms and the general “length” analytic types love…Is not a “take on” type of guy, preferring to run around blockers…Can be a victim of his own aggression, taking himself out of too many plays…Pulled a hamstring at the Combine, which limited his drills, which included a 4.61 40 with 19 reps, a 38-inch vertical jump and a 10-4 broad jump.
PROJECTION: He has many of the same traits as his brother, which should likely make him the first or second inside linebacker off the board – most likely to a team that runs a 4-3 scheme.

Denzel Perryman, Miami, 5-10¾, 236 – Fourth-year senior…A two-year full-time starter who had 210 tackles, 14½ tackles for a loss, 3½ sacks and one interception in that span…First-team All-ACC as a senior…Has very good instincts and sifts his way through traffic well to get to the ball…Has excellent production and is always around the ball…Uses his hands well to keep blockers away from his body…A team leader who was voted a captain as a senior…Is too short for a prototype NFL inside linebacker…Doesn’t have elite speed to chase plays to the sideline…Bites on play action too often and takes himself out of plays…Ran a 4.78 40 at the Combine with 27 reps, a 32-inch vertical jump and a 9-5 broad jump.
PROJECTION: An undersized player who was a productive college player, his lack of height and bulk strength will keep him on the board into the second day of the draft, but he is a high effort player who will give a team everything he has on every play.

Stephone Anthony, Clemson, 6-2¾, 243 – Fourth-year senior…A three-year starter who had 298 tackles, 28½ tackles for a loss, 7½ sacks, eight passes defensed and three interceptions…Has a prototype frame and middle linebacker size…Extremely productive and was a tackling machine…At his best between the tackles in the run game…Doesn’t have ideal agility or range to the sideline…Needs too many steps to get up to full speed…Ran a 4.56 40 with 23 reps of 225 pounds with a 37-inch vertical jump and a 10-2 broad jump.
PROJECTION: He has the ability to play in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defense, which could bump his stock up a little higher than we have him ranked. Will have a chance to be an immediate starter.

Hayes Pullard, USC, 6-0½, 240 – Fifth-year senior…Started 51 of 52 career games, finishing his college career with 377 tackles, 25½ tackles for a loss, six sacks, 18 passes defensed and three interceptions…Has good bulk and hits running holes with ferocity…Is strong in coverage with the speed to run with backs and tight ends across the middle…He has good closing speed and hits with violence…Is shorter than you like at linebacker and has maxed out for how much bigger his body can get…Is a sloppy tackler and will miss too often…Reacts more than he sets the tempo on plays, which can leave him a step late arriving to the play…Ran a 4.78 40 with 19 reps, a 31-inch vertical jump and a 9-2 broad jump.
PROJECTION: Does a lot of things well, but isn’t elite at any aspect of his game. He will be a solid player for someone, but isn’t a dominator and will need to refine his game to be a long-term NFL starter.

Ramik Wilson, Georgia, 6-1¾, 237 – Fourth-year senior…A two-year starter who had 243 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss and six sacks…A two-time All-SEC pick after leading the conference in tackles each of the last two seasons…Has a powerful body and the type of frame that can add 10-15 pounds of muscle and core bulk…Has good recognition skills in the rush game…Highly productive, averaging almost 10 tackles a game the last two seasons…Not overly physical, is more of a grab-and-drag tackler…Doesn’t have elite speed to chase plays to the edge…Not an elite coverage linebacker when asked to turn and run…Ran a 4.77 40 at the Combine with 23 reps, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A productive two-time All-SEC player who has the production to get the attention of NFL scouts, but his limitations will push him late into Day 2 or early into Day 3.

Taiwan Jones, Michigan State, 6-2¾, 245 – Fourth-year senior…A two-year starter who had 127 tackles, 19½ tackles for a loss, four sacks and one interception in that span…Came to MSU as a 205-pound redshirt freshman…Played outside his first two seasons before moving inside in 2013 as a starter…Has ideal NFL middle linebacker size and strength…Is a solid tackler who closes quickly and hits with power…Has long arms to keep blockers away from his body…Is a little inexperienced in making quick read-and-react decisions…Does not have ideal range to the edge…Takes too many missteps on play fakes and misdirection…Ran a 4.95 40 at the Combine with 19 reps of 225 pounds with a 32-inch vertical jump and a 9-7 broad jump.
PROJECTION: In a draft class with a lot of undersized inside linebackers, he is big, strong and a heavy hitter. He is a raw prospect, but he separates himself from the pack, which could get him drafted earlier than we have him ranked.

Jake Ryan, Michigan, 6-2½, 240 – Fifth-year senior…Started 41 of 46 career games, finishing with 267 tackles, 45½ tackles for a loss, 9½ sacks and one interception…A two-time team captain and 2014 team MVP when he had 112 tackles and 14 tackles for a loss…Had knee surgery for a torn ACL that cost him half of the 2013 season…A high-energy player who plays faster than he times…A versatile player who played both outside and in the middle…Has good timing on his blitzes…Doesn’t have the agility to stick with backs and tight ends in coverage down the field…Doesn’t have the quick-twitch skill to make up easily for a misstep…Allows blockers to get into his body too often…Ran a 4.65 40 with 20 reps, a 34½-inch vertical jump and a 10-0 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A very good college football player, he has been labeled a classic overachiever who gets more out of his talent than most players. He could end up being a starter but will need to mask his athletic deficiencies to succeed at the next level.

Ben Heeney, Kansas, 6-0¼, 231 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who has 327 tackles, 35 tackles for a loss, 4½ sacks, four interceptions and three fumble recoveries…Arrived at Kansas with no previous linebacker experience…Plays with good speed and consistently takes good angles…Is very technically sound and, when he gets the ball carrier in his sights, he rarely misses and is a sure tackler…Plays with a mean streak and is a player who has a passion for what he does…Is undersized for an NFL linebacker and will struggle to add any more bulk or muscle mass…Isn’t very fluid in his movements and struggles to make up for biting on fakes or taking a misstep…Hits consistently high and will bounce off bigger backs and tight ends at the next level…Ran a 4.59 40 with 19 reps of 225 pounds, a 33½-inch vertical jump and a 10-0 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A player who doesn’t measure up to prototype size and strength for an NFL linebacker, but does a lot of things well and plays with a passion, which should have him coming off the board early in Day 3.

Bryce Hager, Baylor, 6-0¾, 234 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who had 311 tackles, 24 tackles for a loss, seven sacks, five forced fumbles and one interception in that span…Has very good instinctive read-and-react skills…Very precise in his roles and rarely takes missteps or has wasted energy…A very good tackler, especially in the open field…Does not have ideal closing burst and doesn’t hit with ferocity, which often results in him getting taken out by blockers or sliding off ball carriers…Has trouble chasing plays down to the edge…Tends to run around blockers rather than driving through them…Ran a 4.60 40 at the Combine with 26 reps, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 9-9 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A player who has made the most of his opportunity in college. While his skill set isn’t elite, he brings everything he has to the game and will likely have a long NFL career, even if it isn’t as a full-time starter.

Trey DePriest, Alabama, 6-0½, 254
Amarlo Herrera, Georgia, 6-0¾, 244
Mike Hull, Penn State, 6-0, 237
A.J. Johnson, Tennessee, 6-2, 245
Jeff Luc, Cincinnati, 6-1, 256
Quayshwn Neely, Georgia Tech, 6-1, 236
Justin Shirk, Bloomsburg, 6-1¼, 235
A.J. Tarpley, Stanford, 6-2, 241
John Timu, Washington, 6-1, 246
Zach Vigil, Utah State, 6-2¼, 240


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