Positional Analysis: Middle Linebacker

The draft class of inside linebackers holds only a select few who are considered first-day prospects. Still, the Vikings could be in search of one the top prizes.

VIKINGS' MIDDLE LINEBACKERS — E.J. Henderson, Greg Biekert, Max Yates.

VIKINGS' NEED — That depends on who you ask as to the level of the Vikings' need. Last year, the Vikings had three linebackers on the roster — Biekert, Henderson and Chris Claiborne — who had spent most or all of their careers at middle linebacker. Heading into 2004, there's a possibility that none of them will be playing the MLB spot. New defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell is tinkering with the idea of moving Henderson to the strong side and shifting Claiborne to weakside linebacker. The problem with that is that nobody on the roster (yet) can make that shift possible. For that reason, the Vikings will likely take a long hard look at Miami's Jonathon Vilma with their first pick.

THE CLASS OF 2004 — This is arguably the worst inside linebacker crop in years. Vilma is the only legitimate first-rounder in the group and there is a good chance that no more than four or five MLBs will go off the board in the entire first day of the draft. There is some late-round talent to be had with players with the dreaded "upside potential," but as a group this is a thin talent pool that won't cure many ills in the NFL.


THE CREAM OF THE CROP

Jonathan Vilma, Miami, 6-1, 233 —
Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who spent his freshman year behind Dan Morgan (Carolina)…In three years as a starter, he had 339 tackles, 25 tackles for a loss and six sacks…Extremely quick and never stops chasing down plays…Extremely aggressive…Doesn't miss many tackles…Best closing speed of anyone in this year's class…Can change direction and chase down plays…Is undersized — he is among the shortest and lightest of this year's MLB prospects…Gets caught too often on blitzes by larger offensive linemen…Doesn't have good lower body strength…Did 23 reps with 225 pounds at the Combine, along with a 4.62 40, a 37-inch vertical jump (third-best among the MLB crop), a 10-1 broad jump (second-best) and a Wonderlic score of 23.

PROJECTION: He reminds a lot of us of the same things you heard about Henderson last year — he makes a lot of tackles and, despite his lack of height, he plays much bigger. Vilma is a tackling machine that could thrive in between Henderson and Claiborne and, if he's still available at No. 19, there's a good chance he'll end up with the Vikings.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Daryl Smith, Georgia Tech, 6-2, 234 —
Fourth-year senior and four-year starter…In his career, he had 383 tackles, 48 for a loss and 15 sacks…Has as much game experience as any LB in the draft…Excellent first step…Never gives up on a play and will chase relentlessly…Instinctive and tough…Has decent speed to chase down outside runs…Doesn't have long arms and can't always keep O-linemen away from his body…Doesn't have good lower body strength and can get overpowered…Will have to improve his technique because NFL backs are much harder to bring down…Did 24 reps at the Combine, along with a 4.6 40, a 36-1/2 inch vertical jump and a position-worst 13 Wonderlic score.

PROJECTION: An experienced player with good instincts and a high running motor but will have to improve to become a full-time starter, which will drop him into the second round.

Courtney Watson, Notre Dame, 6-1, 238 — Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter who registered 283 tackles, 38 for a loss, 8-1/2 sacks and four interceptions — two he returned for touchdowns…Well put together to take the punishment of being a MLB — and to dish it out…Excellent lower body strength…Smart…Has good speed, as shown by his position-best 4.54 40 at the Combine…Can jump well and bat down passes…Is smaller than most scouts look for at middle linebacker…Will struggle when locked up man to man…Isn't his best in zone pass coverage…Takes himself out of plays because of his aggressive approach to every play…Did 22 reps at the Combine, along with a 36-1/2 inch vertical jump and a Wonderlic score of 24.

PROJECTION: He's a prototype linebacker if he was two inches taller, but his experience and willingness to give full effort might see him leave the board in the third round.

Jorge Cordova, Nevada, 6-2, 241 — Fifth-year senior who came to Nevada as a walk-on and became a four-year starter…In four years, he recorded 295 tackles, 42-1/2 tackles for a loss and 29-1/2 sacks…Excellent burst off the line at the snap…Works hard and never quits chasing down plays…A good jumper, he had a 35-1/2 vertical jump at the Combine…Played defensive end the last two years, but only projects as a linebacker at the next level…Isn't ideally suited to pass coverage…Doesn't have great change of direction skills.

PROJECTION: A linebacker who hasn't played the position for two seasons, he will be a project that a team will have to be patient with, which could drop him into the third round or beyond.


DAY TWO PROSPECTS

Richard Seigler, Oregon State, 6-2, 243 —
Fifth-year senior and four-year starter…In his career, he had 356 tackles, 53-1/2 for a loss, seven sacks and 10 interceptions…Has decent size and has the frame to get bigger…Has good initial quickness at the snap…A powerful tackler who likes to lay a big hit on people…Doesn't have great lower body strength…Doesn't have top-flight speed to chase down backs or close out sacks…Did 25 reps at the Combine and had the position-best 40 time of 4.86 with a Wonderlic score of 17…One of the better tacklers in the Class of '04, but his lack of pass coverage ability and lack of NFL playing speed could be detrimental to his draft cause and force him into the second day of the draft.

Niko Koutouvides, Purdue, 6-3, 242 — Fifth-year senior who sat out a year after transferring from community college...Three-year starter who had 270 tackles, 38 tackles for a loss and 12-1/2 sacks…Good size and very good wingspan…Tough guy who likes to knock RBs out…Powerful tackler who closes lanes well…Good on the blitz…Doesn't have good upper body strength or bulk…Isn't effective in pass coverage…Only played one year at MLB after two years starting on the outside…Did himself few favors at the Combine — his 17 reps with 225 pounds and 31-1/2 inch vertical jump were the worst of any MLBs tested, but his Wonderlic score of 28 was the best…Many scouts think he's overachieved already and that his stock has peaked, which will likely have him still available in the fifth or sixth round.

Robert Reynolds, Ohio State, 6-4, 251 — Fourth-year senior and two-year starter…In two seasons as a starter, he had 143 tackles, 12-1/2 tackles for loss and three sacks…The biggest LB in this year's class…More of a run stuffer than a pass coverage LB…Physical at the point of attack…Doesn't have great speed…Doesn't get low often enough to make hits and can be shed by RBs…Doesn't protect his zone well enough in pass coverage…Hurt his cause at the Combine with just 18 reps and a 32-1/2 inch vertical jump — among the worst marks of any MLB…A good run stopper who will likely be a two-down MLB at best, his liability in the passing game will likely keep him on the board until the final rounds.

Jonathan Harrell, Northern Iowa, 6-2, 242 — Fourth-year senior who transferred to Northern Iowa after two years at community college…A two-year starter who had 211 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss and two sacks…Was a defensive playmaker…Excellent vs. the run…Played through a series of injuries without a drop in production…Doesn't have ideal lower body strength…A raw prospect who hasn't played anything resembling top competition…Helped his cause at the Combine with those who questioned his upper body strength — his 27 reps with 225 pounds were second among MLB prospects — with a 4.74 40 and a Wonderlic score of 17…A solid blue collar player who gives his all, but his limitations are substantial, making him a project who might last until the final round.

Cody Spencer, North Texas, 6-3, 242 — A fourth-year senior and three-year starter who had 281 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, seven sacks and four interceptions…Good combination of size and strength…Wraps up tackles and rarely misses…Can slide down the line effectively…Strong in pursuit…Doesn't have top speed or athletic ability…Doesn't attack blockers like many MLBs do…Stiff in change of direction…Did 27 reps at the Combine with a 4.64 40, a 34-1/2 inch vertical jump and a Wonderlic score of 18…Another small-college player with a lot of ability as a run stopper, but his weaknesses outweigh his strengths and should keep him on the board until the last couple of rounds.

Ryan Fowler, Duke, 6-3, 250 — Fourth-year senior and four-year starter who had a whopping 495 tackles, 36 for a loss and five sacks…Very strong upper body, he has a 460-pound bench press to his credit and led all linebackers with 35 reps at the Combine…Good tackler…Motor doesn't quit and he has good pursuit skills…Good hands that can keep blockers off of him…Isn't effective covering RBs and TEs in coverage…Doesn't have good speed…Doesn't have good lower body strength to match his upper body strength…Aside from his impressive lifting display at the Combine, he ran a 4.75 40 and his 37-1/2 inch vertical jump was second among MLBs…Something of a one-trick pony defensively, he will likely be a first- and second-down linebacker only, and with teams looking for more versatility that could drop him to the end of the draft.

Sean Tufts, Colorado, 6-4, 242 — Fourth-year senior and three-year starter who missed half of 2002 due to injury…In his two full seasons as a starter, he had 152 tackles and seven tackles for a loss…Has a very good size/speed combination…Can chase down running plays…Is athletic enough to move the OLB if the system calls for it…Injuries are a red flag for some teams because of shoulder and ankle injuries during his career…Has never been a threat to sack the QB despite his speed — in four years he had just one half-sack…Did 21 reps with 225 pounds at the Combine…His 4.58 40 at the Combine was the third best among inside linebackers and his Wonderlic score of 28 tied for the top spot…Has the ideal dimensions and growth potential for an NFL linebacker but has never played up to that level and, while his workout numbers look good, game film may be enough for just about every team to say "thanks, but no thanks" before the seventh round.


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