VIKINGS INSIDE LINEBACKERS—E.J. Henderson, Dontarrious Thomas
POSITION ANALYSIS—With more teams employing the 3-4 as a full-time or part-time defensive set, getting solid inside linebackers who can cover pass plays and have blitzing skills is a priority. Unfortunately, this year's inside LB crop isn't all that great. However, it beats the snot out of last year's draft class, which had just one player taken in the first two rounds and only 12 for the entire draft. This year the numbers overall should be about the same, but there is a distinct lack of difference-makers beyond the top four or five and many will be special teamers at best in the NFL.
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
Patrick Willis, Mississippi, 6-1¼, 242—Fourth-year senior…Mr. Football in Tennessee as a high school senior when he played both sides of ball and rushed for 2,167 yards and 30 touchdowns…Had 467 career tackles in high school…A two-year starter who, in his final 22 games, had 265 tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, six sacks, 11 passes broken up and one interception…Played almost his entire junior year in pain, playing in 10 games despite having a broken finger, a sprained foot, a sprained left knee and a right shoulder separation…Won the Butkus Award in 2006, given to the country's best linebacker, and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year…Very chiseled physique and looks like a monster in pads…Has shown a willingness to play at a high level despite injuries…His production is incredible—more than 12 tackles a game the last two years…Reads and reacts well on pass plays…Aggressive tackler who stuffs fullbacks and lead blockers to get to the ball carrier…A pretty sure tackler…Solid blitzer who picks his spots and times them well…Doesn't have elite game speed, despite his Combine numbers (see below)…Takes himself out of some plays with his own aggression…Gets sucked on play fakes and look-offs…Needs to improve hand technique to prevent cut blocks…Led all middle linebackers with a 4.51 40 and a 39-inch vertical jump at the Combine, along with 22 reps of 225 pounds and a 9-11 broad jump.
PROJECTION: Clearly the best middle linebacker in the draft, a lot of teams from about No. 10 on will have him high on their boards. A landing spot in St. Louis or Carolina in the first round looks most likely.
THE NEXT LEVEL
David Harris, Michigan, 6-2¼, 245—Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter who made starts in his final 24 games, making 184 tackles, 19 tackles for a loss, three sacks, four passes defensed and one interception…Tore his ACL in 2003 and suffered knees injuries in both 2004 and 2005…Excellent straight-line speed…Accelerates to full speed in a hurry…Looks the part and has the perfect measurable dimensions for a middle linebacker in the pros…Reads dump-off passes and closes in quickly…Doesn't give up on plays and always chasing in case of cutbacks…Strong at the snap; takes on lead blockers head on and stuffs most of them…Isn't a natural athlete; his movements are stiff at times…Has trouble tracking down speed players to the corner…Has one speed and most of it is in a straight line…Spends too much time on the ground from cut blocks…Gets caught up in the garbage along the line…Durability is a question with his injury history…Had a very solid Combine effort with a 4.60 40, 23 reps of 225 pounds, a 33-inch vertical jump and a 9-2 broad jump.
PROJECTION: He's been a productive starter who has a chance to be a good charger in a 3-4 defense that asks inside backers to be primarily run stoppers. Because of his athletic limitations and injury history, he might remain on the board as late as the third round.
Buster Davis, Florida State, 5-9¼, 242—Fifth-year senior…USA Today First Team All-American as a high school senior…Three-year starter who started his last 37 games of his career, notching 260 tackles, 26.5 tackles for a loss, eight sacks, eight passes defensed and one interception…Is getting married this year…Numbers and general production got better each season…Durable athlete who plays through minor nagging injuries…Has good bulk and musculature…Adept in coverage at staying with backs and tight ends…Has a motor that doesn't stop and chases plays to the sidelines…Hard to cut block…Is very short for NFL standards…Gains weight during the offseason and looked somewhat out of shape at the Combine…Has trouble making plays all the way to the sideline and often shows up a half-second late for a play…Has trouble shedding blocks and will get neutralized when hit at the line…Isn't a high-intensity hitter; he always seems to grab at legs…Ran a 4.72 40 at the Combine with 24 reps, a 31-inch vertical jump and a position-worst 8-8 broad jump.
PROJECTION: If he was four inches taller, he would be a first-rounder, but his limitations are pronounced. Some teams might completely dismiss him because of his lack of height, but he has a chance to be taken as a special teamer from the start late on the first day of the draft.
Brandon Siler, Florida, 6-1¾, 239—Third-year junior…Became a starter midway through his true freshman season and started his last 31 games…In his three years, he had 218 tackles, 30 tackles for a loss, 10 fumbles recoveries, 10 sacks and 11 passes broken up…Was named SEC Freshman of the Year as a half-time starter…Excellent run-pass recognition and quick to read and react…Very strong vs. the between-the-tackle running game…Good timing on blitzes…Solid in pass coverage…Good closing speed…Too straight-line and not as much agility as pro MLBs need…Takes himself out of plays by overrunning too many carries to the outside…Takes three or four steps to get to full speed…Takes short, choppy running steps that leave him open to cut blocks…Has a bit of an attitude problem…Ran a 4.65 40 at the Combine with 23 reps of 225 pounds, a 30½-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump.
PROJECTION: He's a tough prospect to put a handle on because some scouts love his tenacity and others see him a two-down player with a Pro Bowl attitude. He could turn out to be a productive pro, but should have stayed another year in school because he'll be lucky to be off the board by the end of the second round.
Anthony Waters, Clemson, 6-2¾, 245—Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter in his sophomore and junior seasons, collecting 179 tackles, 22.5 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks and eight passes broken up in 22 starts…Tore his right ACL in the first game of the season and is still rehabbing, limiting his ability to work out at the Combine...A smart player who made all the defensive calls…Very aggressive and likes dropping the hammer on ballcarriers…Has long arms and uses them well to ward off blockers in the running game…Had all the looks of a first- or second-round pick following his junior season…Makes tackles everywhere on the field…Doesn't have the speed to stay with backs or athletic tight ends…Viewed by most as a two-down linebacker only…Doesn't get away from blockers when they get a hold on him…Got suspended for an in-game fight that has some questioning his attitude…Didn't run or jump at the Combine—which may not be a bad thing since he runs about a 4.75 40 on a good day—but did 25 reps with 225 pounds.
PROJECTION: A huge risk because of the knee injury and it was so severe that he might not be able to play 100 percent in 2007. That should be enough to push him to the second day, but he could be a tantalizing prospect with some serious upside.
H.B. Blades, Pittsburgh, 5-10¾, 237—Fourth-year senior…Has some great NFL bloodlines with his father Bennie Blades playing a decade with the Seahawks and Lions and his uncle Brian Blades playing 11 years with Seattle…Three-year starter who spent his sophomore year at strongside linebacker and the last two at middle linebacker…In his three years as a starter, he amassed a whopping 376 tackles, 24.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks, 15 passes defensed and six interceptions…Very good tackler who rarely misses once he's locked on…Very good natural instincts and strong run/pass recognition skills…Made the defensive calls for the Panthers…Takes good angles and always keeps solid leverage…Good strength…Biggest drawback is his height, which is seen as too short for the NFL…Has difficulty shedding blocks on plays right up the gut in his direction…Doesn't see over defenders because of lack of height and will miss rushers at times…Doesn't have top-end speed and needs some time to get the train chugging…Durability could be a question because of his numerous minor injuries in college…Ran a 4.69 40 at the Combine with 22 reps, a 32-inch vertical jump and a 9-5 broad jump.
PROJECTION: Has a great family history in the NFL and will likely use that to his advantage on draft day. But, with the height red flag dogging him, he will probably have to wait until Day Two to come off the board.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Desmond Bishop, California, 6-2, 239—Fourth-year senior…Spent two years at City College of San Francisco and was named Junior College Defensive Player of the Year in 2004…Started all 25 games in his two years at Cal, finishing with 215 tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, three sacks and three interceptions…Very strong upper body (see below). Makes the defensive calls and has very good field smarts…Has the right measurables to translate to the next level…Always seems to make big plays in goal-line and short-yardage situations…Averaged 10 tackles a game as a senior…Good on sniffing out screens and dump passes to running backs and making plays…Not a big hitter, he tends to drag people down as opposed to de-cleating them…A little undersized in the height department…Doesn't have top speed to make plays at the sideline on sweeps to the corner…Has trouble changing direction to run with tight ends down the seam…A little too straight-line and doesn't show great agility…Leaves the ground too often to make tackles…Ran a 4.73 40 at the Combine with a whopping 33 reps of 225 pounds—seven more than any middle linebacker prospect that lifted—but opted not to jump.
PROJECTION: He's got a lot of savvy, but his downsides are prohibitive and will likely prevent him from being taken until the final rounds. While he can be a contributor, most scouts don't view him as being much more than a special teams player and backup.
Kelvin Smith, Syracuse, 6-2, 240—Fifth-year senior…Four-year starter who played his first two seasons on the strongside and the last two in the middle…In his two years as a OLB, he had 121 tackles, and eight tackles for a loss…In his two years at MLB, he had 204 tackles, 11.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks…His numbers have always been solid and he makes almost every tackle he should…Reads running plays very well and is aggressive filling the holes…Uses his hands extremely well to keep blockers away from his body…Motor never stops…Will play through injuries…Doesn't have good speed and doesn't make too many plays outside the hashes…Not good in pass coverage, especially with athletic backs and tight ends…Bites on play-action too often…When blockers get to his body, he has trouble shedding them…Ran a disappointing 4.82 40 at the Combine with 26 reps, a 32-inch vertical jump and a 9-2 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A straight-line, between-the-tackles guy with limited athleticism. That usually spells late-round pick or a guy getting a phone call shortly after the draft.
Jon Abbate, Wake Forest, 5-9¾, 231—Fourth-year junior…Became a starter midway through his freshman year and finished his career with 30 starts in 35 career games…Had 297 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, six sacks and four interceptions in his college career…Led the Demon Deacons in tackles all three years…Plays linebacker like the old-time Jeff Siemon types…Very good blitzer who shoots the gaps quickly…Sacrifices his body to make plays…Rarely gets caught up in the garbage and sifts his way through traffic…Loves to bring the de-cleating hit…Very undersized and, while he hasn't missed games with injuries, has missed part of many games due to numerous ding-up type injuries…Very slow as evidenced at the Combine (see below)…Won't chase plays down and could be a liability in pass coverage with tight ends down the seam…Doesn't always fill his zone in coverage and gets targeted…Had a very mixed bag at the Combine—his 5.04 40 time was the worst of any LB who tested, but his 26 reps with 225 pounds was tied for second best and his 38½-inch vertical jump was second best among MLB prospects.
PROJECTION: His height will likely keep him from drafted until late, if at all. But he brings a lot of emotion and, if given a chance in the right scheme, could develop into a solid pro. But he will be a guy who might not go off the board at all and have to fight for his life in training camp.
Quinton Culberson, Mississippi State, 6-0¾, 236—Fourth-year senior…Played almost everywhere—started as a freshman at cornerback before breaking his fibula, moved to strong safety in 2004, went to weakside linebacker in 2005 and middle linebacker last year…In his two years at linebacker, he led the team in tackles both years, finishing with 180 tackles, 11.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks in that span…A good producer who makes plays all over the field…Can play well covering tight ends and trying to shut down screens and dump-offs…Flies all over the field and sacrifices his body…Can chase down plays to the sideline…Has trouble getting away from blockers when they lock up on him…Doesn't play as well in space as he does between the tackles…Sub-standard upper-body strength (see below)…Tends to run around blockers rather than meet them head-on…Lets too many receivers get a free pass in front of him in the passing game…Didn't help his stock at the Combine, running a 4.78 40 with just 18 reps (second-worst among MLB prospects), a 29½-inch vertical jump (tied for worst) and a 9-5 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A questionable draft prospect to begin with, he likely sealed his fate by a poor showing at the Combine. However, he has so much experience and has been willing to move positions to help the team. There are times when guys like that stick around because they're high-character guys who are special teams leaders.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Justin Warren, Texas A&M, 6-2¾, 245
Blair Phillips, Oregon, 6-1¼, 243
Oscar Lua, USC, 6-0¼, 245
Marvin Mitchell, Tennessee, 6-3, 249
Kyle Shotwell, Cal Poly,
Positional Analysis: Inside Linebackers
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