With a contingent of starting linebackers signed through at least 2009, the Vikings' interest in a linebacker at last month's Senior Bowl might seem a little puzzling at first take. But, with a personnel department that has proven it's not afraid to draft players at positions that are supposed to already be strong on the roster, they seem determined to leave no stone unturned with NFL prospects.
Hence, the team's interest in talking with linebacker Ali Highsmith following a Senior Bowl practice.
Highsmith checked in at 6 feet, 221 pounds at the Senior Bowl, making him an outside linebacker candidate at the next level. The question is how high he will go in the 2008 NFL Draft. Most projections have him as a second- or third-round pick.
The feeling by a number of draft analysts is also that he is better getting to the action in a hurry than he is getting through the traffic and shedding blocks.
"Tremendous running ability. I think he's much better when the play is away from him. … In my camp, he's my kind of linebacker," said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock.
Part of the issue with Highsmith is his size. He simply doesn't have the bulk of many of his fellow linebacker prospects entering the draft, but he appears to have the speed to make up for some of his size deficiencies. He has shown the ability to get across the field and to the ball carrier in a hurry, finishing his senior season at LSU with 101 tackles, tied for most on the Tigers, who finished the season with the third-ranked defense in the nation and as national champions, beating Ohio State 38-24 in the BCS Championship Game.
During Senior Bowl practices, Highsmith showed good quickness in staying with running backs in coverage and knocking away passes to the man he was responsible for covering. During the Senior Bowl game, he finished with four tackles.
But it was his senior season at LSU that has him regarded as one of the top 10 outside linebackers in the draft. In addition to his 101 tackles, Highsmith recorded nine tackles-for-loss (third on the team), three sacks, eight quarterback hurries (second on the team) and eight pass break-ups on his way to earning second-team All-America honors as a senior. He was named All-SEC each of the last two seasons and was a semi-finalist for the Butkus Award in 2006.
Highsmith originally signed with the Miami Hurricanes out of high school (his cousin, Alonzo, was a standout linebacker there), but he wasn't able to enroll due to academics. Instead, he ended up at LSU, which he told Scout.com was one of his two finalists shortly before signing day.
Highsmith's coverage abilities would seem to make him an ideal strongside linebacker in a 4-3 defensive scheme at the NFL level, but his talent to track the ball carrier across the field might also have him able to play the weak side, where he might not have to take on as many blockers.
The Vikings have also had success with undersized linebackers being used as backups and special-teams coverage standouts. In fact, the Vikings' best coverage man the last few years has been Heath Farwell, who is scheduled to become a free agent in March. The Vikings also could lose Dontarrious Thomas to free agency this year if they don't get him signed to an extension before the start of free agency.
Vikings Talk with Senior Bowl LB
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