Positional Analysis: Outside Linebackers

With all the Vikings have done in free agency, they probably don't need an outside linebacker who will start in 2005, but they very well could end up with one at No. 7 or a guy to develop with their following picks on the first day. This is a deep and talented position.

Vikings' Outside Linebackers – Napoleon Harris, Dontarrious Thomas, Raonall Smith, Mike Nattiel.

Vikings' Needs – The Vikings could find themselves hard pressed to pass on Texas LB Derrick Johnson if he's still on the board. With the overhaul the Vikings defense has undergone in the past two months, some might think the team is done. But, if it sticks to its policy of taking the best athlete available on their board, there is a very good chance that one of the players listed below will end up as a member of the Vikings after next weekend.

Class of 2005 – Even if you didn't include the likes of Shawne Merriman and DeMarcus Ware as outside linebackers, the Class of 2005 would still one of the strongest position classes in the draft. But with them included in the mix, it becomes even stronger. A case can be made that as many as five of these players will go off the board in the first round.

THE CREAM OF THE CROP

Derrick Johnson, Texas, 6-3, 242 – Fourth-year senior who was a high school All-American…Big 12 Co-Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2001…Three-year starter who had 375 tackles, 52 tackles for a loss and six interceptions in that span…Three-time first team All-Big 12 and two-time All-American…Was a finalist for the Dick Butkus Award, given to college football's best linebacker, as a junior and won it 2004…Won the Nagurski Award, given to the best college defensive player, in 2004…Set an NCAA single-season record with nine forced fumbles last year…The cousin of former Falcon wide receiver Bert Emanuel…Great burst off the line…Has top-end speed to chase down runners trying to hit the corner…Excellent blitzer who uses speed to close on the quarterback…Has good recognition skills for the run and pass…Excellent in coverage and can backpedal as fast as most defenders run…Has been accused of shying away from contact and spends too much time trying to go around blockers instead of through them to the ballcarrier…Tries to do too much at times and will leave his zone…Lets blockers get to him too easily and is neutralized when hit…Doesn't have great upper body strength…Ran a 4.5 40 at the Combine, with 21 reps of 225 pounds, a 37-1/2 inch vertical jump, a 10-0 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 16.

PROJECTION: He has all the skills to be a Pro Bowl linebacker in the NFL, but needs to play with more a mean streak and spend more time in the weightroom to improve his playing strength. He could go as early as No. 3 to Cleveland or slide down the board as far as No. 13 to Houston. But odds are he'll fall somewhere between the Vikings at No. 7 and the Lions at No. 10.

Shawne Merriman, Maryland, 6-2, 274 – Third-year junior…Two-year starter who had 140 tackles, 26-1/2 tackles for a loss and 17 sacks…Played a hybrid position as a sophomore and a standard defensive end as a junior…Second all-time on the Terps sacks list…Extremely explosive at the snap and gets into the backfield quickly…High energy player who never lets up…Very solid vs. the run…Student of the game…Can get out of position when he tries to do too much and gets faked out…Gets neutralized too often when a lineman gets his hands on him…Plays a little too upright…Doesn't have a lot of experience at either defensive end or linebacker…Had a very good Combine performance, running the 40 in 4.66 with 25 reps of 225 pounds, a 40-inch vertical jump, a 10-1 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 19.

PROJECTION: What used to be called a ‘tweener is now an ideal 3-4 rush linebacker. Merriman fits both definitions. He could be a guy the Vikings take a long hard look at with the seventh pick. He won't make it past Dallas at No. 11.

Demarcus Ware, Troy State, 6-4, 251 – Fourth-year senior who weighed just 165 pounds as high school junior…Three-year starter who had 187 tackles, 54-1/2 tackles for a loss and 25-1/2 sacks…Two-time All-Sun Belt Conference selection and 2004 conference defensive player of the year…Could add 10-15 pounds and stay at DE, but more likely will be moved to linebacker in a 3-4 defense…Good playing insticts vs. the run…Excellent edge rusher with good closing speed…Wins a lot of plays with good snap anticipation and quick first step…Can make plays behind the line or 20 yards upfield…Has long arms to keep blockers at bay…Very undersized for a DE and doesn't have a lot of tangible experience at OLB…Didn't face top competition because he played Division I-AA…Will need more transition time than most…Ran a 4.56 at the Combine with 27 reps of 225 pounds, a 38-1/2 inch vertical jump, a 10-2 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 20.

PROJECTION: He doesn't have a lot of experience vs. the top college talent, but his sheer athleticism will take him off the board early – either late in the first round or early in the second. His strong play during Senior Bowl week allayed some of his fears.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Darryl Blackstock, Virginia, 6-2½, 238 –
Fourth-year junior who spent a year at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy after high school, where he had 29 sacks in one year…Three-year starter who had 237 tackles, 45 tackles for a loss and 27 sacks…His 27 sacks set a school record for linebackers…His numbers declined as a senior, but he played the entire year with a shoulder injury…Can chase down plays and good change of direction skills…Never stops hustling…Close quickly on the quarterback and gets a lot of sacks and throwaways…Top-notch blitzer…Very good pass/run recognition…Stays in his role and doesn't get faked out of position…Needs to add bulk and lower-body strength to stand up to the NFL running game…Doesn't use his hands to consistently get separation…Doesn't spend a lot of time in the weightroom to improve his strength…Had a solid Combine, running the 40 in 4.6 with 25 reps, a 39-inch vertical jump, a 10-6 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 16.

PROJECTION: A perfect addition to a 3-4 defense, he could sneak into the first round late, but is more likely to go off the board early in the second round.

Barrett Ruud, Nebraska, 6-2½, 241 – Fourth-year senior whose father Tim was a first-round pick of the Bills in 1975…Three-year starter who had 373 tackles, 43 tackles for loss and 7-1/2 sacks…Two-time All Big 12 selection…Left Nebraska as the school's all-time leader in tackles with 432…Has good toughness and fills the holes very well in the running game…Uses hands well to shed blockers and get to the ball…Plays with a lot of fire…Adjusts to change – he played four different defensive schemes in his four years at Nebraska…Takes very good angles at runners and drives through tackles…Plays a little too upright…Doesn't have top change of direction skills…Doesn't have ideal size…Gets neutralized when a linemen makes contact…Doesn't have top end strength, but did 25 reps of 225 pounds at the Combine, to go along with a 4.72 40, a 34-1/2 inch long jump, a 9-4 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 35.

PROJECTION: He doesn't have the measurables to be a first-rounder, but is a player with a load of intensity and heart – as shown by his tackle numbers. He has many of the same attributes as a tackler that E.J. Henderson had and he fell into the second round. Ruud likely will too.

Kevin Burnett, Tennessee, 6-3, 230 – Fourth-year senior who was a high school All-American and came to Tennessee to play safety…Tore his left ACL in the season opener of 2002 and had to have reconstructive surgery…Returned to be a two-year starter who had 210 tackles, 13-1/2 tackles for a loss and 2-1/2 sacks…First team All-SEC as a senior…Three-time Academic All-SEC…Very agile and quick – to the point some believe if needed, he could be a jumbo safety…Has the ability to get considerably bigger…Very hard worker…Tracks down runs to the corner…A very good blitzer…Doesn't get suckered into screens and pump fakes…Knocks ballcarriers backwards when he hits them…Gives inconsistent effort from game to game…Needs to work on pass coverage and play with better leverage…Ran a 4.57 40 at the Combine, with 21 reps of 225 pounds, a 36-inch vertical jump, a 10-10 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 30.

PROJECTION: Burnett is a natural talent that could thrive in the right system. Likely needing to play at weakside linebacker, he has the ability to bulk up more and get more muscle without losing speed. He may be a project in that regard, but a risk worth taking somewhere in the second round.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Michael Boley, Southern Mississippi, 6-3, 236 –
Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter who had 418 tackles, 58-1/2 tackles for a loss and 28 sacks in that span…Three-time All-Conference USA first team selection…Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year in 2004…Very good initial quickness at the stats…A tackling machine who finds the ball, as his stats would indicate…Has required speed to turn the corner in pass rush situations…Hits through runners on tackles…Solid and disruptive in the running game…Undersized…Doesn't have ideal pass-run recognition skills…Tends to run around blockers rather than take them on heads up…Undisciplined and gets sucked into playfakes too often…Had the duties of making defensive calls taken away because he wasn't good at it…Didn't lift at the Combine, but ran a 4.56 40 with a 34-inch vertical jump, a 9-5 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 30.

PROJECTION: His speed and quickness are his selling points, but the dropoff at the position starts here and Boley has a chance to sneak into the first day of the draft, but that's by no means a guarantee.

Leroy Hill, Clemson, 6-1, 229 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 251 tackles, 46 tackles for a loss and 16 sacks in that span…Two-time first team All-ACC and conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2004…Fast aggressive tackler who makes a lot of plays in the backfield…Can change directions on the fly without losing any speed…Good blitzer with top closing speed…Lays the wood to running backs and is an explosive tackler…Very undersized…Doesn't have ideal bulk and lower body strength and gets neutralized when O-linemen get their hands on him…Teams tended to throw his way because of his lack of height and short arms…Has a history of gaining weight before a season and losing it when the season is over…Ran a 4.65 40 at the Combine with 25 reps of 225 pounds, a 34-inch vertical jump, a 9-8 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 25.

PROJECTION: With his production, if Hill was three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier, we'd be talking about him late in the first round. But, he isn't so it looks more likely to see him going in the fourth round at the earliest.

Jordan Beck, Cal Poly, 6-2½, 233 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who had 376 tackles, 44-1/2 tackles for a loss and 14 sacks in that span…Two time All-Great West Conference selection and 2004 conference Defensive Player of the Year…2004 winner of the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the top defensive player in Division I-AA…Very active player who chases down plays from sideline to sideline…Explosive when he makes hits…Works hard on the practice field and in the weightroom…Helped his stock significantly at the Combine and the East-West Shrine Game…Could be moved to safety in some systems…Didn't face NFL style competition at Cal Poly…Was allowed to be a freelance tackler that didn't have a set assignment, which he won't get in the NFL…Ran an impressive 4.45 40 at the Combine with 25 reps, a 42-inch vertical jump, a 10-9 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 27.

PROJECTION: Beck is a player who is intense and leads by example. His downsides are formidable and will keep him on the board until the fourth or fifth round in a best-case scenario, but his strong Combine performance put him on the radar screens of a lot of teams and he should end up heading somewhere early on the second day.

Cornelius Wortham, Alabama, 6-2, 232 – Fifth-year senior who became a starter early in his sophomore year…Missed the 2003 season with a dislocated left elbow…Finished his career with His final two years as a starter, he had 194 tackles, six tackles for a loss and two sacks…First team All-SEC as a senior…Has decent speed and quickness…Very aware of traffic around him…Tireless worker who does as much work in practice and in the weightroom than he does on game days…A solid run stuffer who can pick through the blockers and locate the ball carrier…Good straight-line speed and closing speed when in pursuit…Doesn't make explosive hits that cause fumbles…Doesn't have good change-of-direction skills or lateral movement…Struggled badly at times in coverage at the Senior Bowl...Can likely only playing in a zone scheme…Didn't run at the Combine, but did 22 reps with 225 pounds, a 37-inch vertical jump, a 9-2 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 19.

PROJECTION: Wortham is seen more as a one-trick pony than a complete linebacker and, while some believe he has a shot to go off the board on Day One of the draft, it's much more likely that he will be on the board for Day Two and have to wait awhile before going off.

OTHERS TO WATCH
Trent Cole (6-2, 236)

Matt McCoy, San Diego State (6-0, 234)
Ryan Claridge, UNLV (6-2, 254)
Roger Cooper, Montana State (6-2½, 239)
Marques Harris, Southern Utah (6-1, 231)
Derek Wake, Penn State (6-3, 236)
David McMillan, Kansas (6-3, 262)
Jared Newberry, Stanford (6-1, 234)




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