Positional Analysis: Inside Linebackers
VIKINGS INSIDE LINEBACKERS – E.J. Henderson, Derrick Pope.
POSITION ANALYSIS – Henderson was not the only middle linebacker the Vikings had on the roster, but he got the lion's share of the playing time last year. However, his primary backup, Dontarrious Thomas, moved on via free agency in the offseason and his loss has created a need area – not for high draft consideration, but for depth purposes. Pope might be the answer that keeps the Vikings from reaching for a player in the draft. The good news, if you want to call it that, for the Vikings is that this is one of the weakest crops of inside linebackers to come out in a long time. There likely isn't a first-rounder in the bunch and there may be a handful or less of inside linebackers off the board by end of Day One (now the end of the second round). With two picks currently in the third round, the Vikings could be in line to look at one of the top linebackers in this class with that pick – a sad testament to the Class of 2008, but potentially good news for the Vikings if they're planning a pick here on draft weekend.
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
Curtis Lofton, Oklahoma, 6-0½, 243 – Third-year junior…A Parade All-American as a high school senior…A one-year full-time starter, a season in which he had 157 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, one sack, five passes broken up and three interceptions…He played 10 games at strongside linebacker last season and four at middle linebacker, but projects to be an inside ‘backer at the NFL level…Has sickle cell trait disease and took I.V. drips at halftime of almost every game…Has the strength to slam lead blockers and stop them cold…Has a very good hand punch…A good finisher who wraps up tackles…A natural leader…Good run/pass recognition and reaction…Can make tackles sideline to sideline…Is shorter than most NFL MLBs…Doesn't have smooth change of direction skills…Does not have ideal range and has to give some ground to make tackles in pursuit around the edge…Is not much of blitzer – had just one in 34 games in 18 starts…Does not reach top-end speed quickly and can be avoided by quarterbacks on blitzes…Has short arms and can get swallowed up by linemen…Just a one-year starter with some legitimate health concerns…Ran a 4.68 40 at the Combine with 24 reps of 225 pounds, a 32-inch vertical jump and an 8-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: Had he put together another year at Oklahoma like he did in 2007, he could have been a top-10 pick. His choice will cost him a lot of money in the long run, since he now projects late in the first and quite possibly into the second round.
Jerod Mayo, Tennessee, 6-1½, 237 – Fourth-year junior…A two-year starter who played weakside linebacker his first two seasons and last year at middle linebacker…As an OLB in 2006, he had 83 tackles, 12½ tackles for a loss and five sacks; as a MLB in 2007, he had 140 tackles, 8½ tackles for a loss, 1½ sacks, three passes broken up and one interception…Has a strong upper-body and uses it to work his way to the ball…Is quick to hit the hole and blow up inside runs…Has very good footwork in close quarters…Is rarely fooled on play-action or misdirection…Has position flexibility with good experience outside and inside…Can make plays to the sideline, but does not have top-end speed and that could be a big problem in the NFL…Does not have good lower-body strength and will have problems holding his position…Tends to slide down the bodies of runners when making tackles instead of popping them off their feet…Has problem with speedy tight ends and backs in coverage and was often lifted from the game in sure passing downs…Not a threat to blitz from the middle…Needs to work on technique in playing angles…Missed at least one game each of the last three years with knee injuries (needed surgery after his sophomore season) and did not lift at the Combine due to a strained pectoral muscle…Ran a 4.56 40 at the Combine, but at his Pro Day, he added 22 reps, a 40½-inch vertical jump and a 9-5 broad jump. PROJECTION: Had a very solid workout and looks to be a productive player in either a 4-3 or a 3-4. But his laundry list of knee injuries has to be a concern to a lot of pro teams, especially in the first round. This is a bright neon red flag that should drop him into the second round and much lower for some teams. He could be one of the big drops of draft day if the buzz is that his knee won't hold up long-term.
James "Beau" Bell, UNLV, 6-1½, 244 – A fourth-year senior…Became a starter early in his sophomore season and started the final 25 games of his college career…A left ankle sprain limited him to seven games as a junior, but in his two full seasons as an outside linebacker, he had 203 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss, 7½ sacks, nine passes broken up and four interceptions…Has good size and bulk strength…Hits with ferocity and excels at stuffing inside runs…Is quick to recognize and react…Has very good speed to cover sideline to sideline…Uses his hands to sift through traffic and keep blockers off of his body…Has good awareness in pass coverage and claims his section of the field with highlight-film hits…Has little to no variation on his blitzes and can be pretty easily picked up and re-directed…Does not have a chiseled body and doesn't look very athletic…Gets caught too often on play-action or misdirection…Will try to make the diving, blow-up tackle and often misses completely…Has not shown a propensity to play with pain or relatively insignificant injuries…Loses a step when asked to cover the deep seam or flip his hips and doesn't have ideal recovery speed…Did not work out at the Combine because of a bruised left knee suffered during Senior Bowl week. PROJECTION: Not being able to give his full effort at either the Senior Bowl or Combine might hurt Bell's draft stock, but if teams look solely at film, that might be his saving grace. He makes tackles everywhere and stands out on tape. For a team with a need, his film work looks great. His toughness is another question, but he won't make it out of the second round.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Ezra Butler, Nevada, 6-1½, 245 – Fifth-year senior…Born in South Africa and didn't come to the United States until he was 14 years old…Played defensive tackle as a freshman but injured his right shoulder eight games in and needed surgery…A three-year starter at both outside and inside linebacker in Nevada's new 3-4 defense, starting 35 of his final 36 games…Dropped 40 pounds to move from tackle to linebacker and situational defensive end…In three years as a starter, he had 238 tackles, 46 tackles for a loss, 18½ sacks, seven passes broken up and four interceptions…Is very fast and has the skill to get past the line without being touched…Has great versatility with both D-line and linebacker experience on his resume…Tackles with a lot of pop…Has the lateral range to make plays to the sideline…Has good closing speed on the ball…Changes direction fluidly in pass coverage…Doesn't like to take on blockers head-on and gets re-directed too much…Is prone to playing too high and letting blockers get under his pads and engulf him…Will get caught too often trying to jump snap counts and gets out of position…Not nearly as dominating vs. the run as some of the other top prospects…Was less productive as a senior than as a junior…Very undisciplined in maintaining his play-by-play assignments and responsibilities…Did not work out at the Combine due to a hamstring injury. PROJECTION: A linebacker who provides versatility to play both outside or inside, he will get consideration from a lot more teams than some other LB prospects. But his decline in production as a senior and lack of elite athleticism will have him coming off somewhere in the second half of the second round or into the third.
Jameel McClain, Syracuse, 6-1, 249 – Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter…Started all 12 games at defensive end in 2006, registering 69 tackles, 14½ tackles for a loss and 9½ sacks…Started 10 games at DE and the final two at middle linebacker his senior season, finishing with 77 tackles, six tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks and one interception…Has good footwork and balance…Has a hand punch that will keep O-linemen at bay…Versatility a big plus – at least against the competition he has faced…An excellent finisher on tackles that delivers a knockdown blow when he makes contact…Drops fluidly into coverage as a linebacker…Has very good read/recognition skills and isn't fooled by play-action or misdirection…Short by NFL terms…A ‘tweener who spent too much time in college playing a position he won't play in the NFL…Does not have the chase skills to be an effective outside linebacker…Misses too many one-on-one tackle opportunities…Doesn't get rid of blockers once they get their hands on him…Has difficulty chasing plays to the sideline…Ran a 4.78 40 at the Combine with 24 reps, a 25½-inch vertical jump and a 9-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: A versatile player who has experience at both defensive end and linebacker. That said, there is no way he will ever play DE at the pro level and his speed limitations will relegate him to duty as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 system. With as few teams as operate out of that scheme, he may well slide beyond players we have ranked under him on draft weekend.
Spencer Larsen, Arizona, 6-1¾, 239 – Fourth-year senior…Took two years off after his true freshman season to do a two-year Morman mission in Chile…Of the 44 games he played in his college career, he started 39 of them…Tore his right ACL in the spring practices before his junior year and missed half the season…Blew up as a senior, notching 111 tackles, 7½ tackles for a loss, three sacks, seven passes broken up and four interceptions…A hard-working player who gives 100 percent at all times…Has good footwork and avoids cut blocks…Is at his best at pressure times – vs. the best competition and late in games…Closes holes quickly and catches runners on their heels…Has very good pass/run recognition skills…Good closing speed on plays in front of him and wraps up when tackling…Improved his production every year…Looked very good at the East-West Shrine Game…Does not have great speed to cover running backs and tight ends in coverage…Will struggle to get to the corner…Will get sucked in on play-action…Takes bad angles and overruns too many plays…Viewed as an overachiever who made the best of his college playing days…Plays too high and gets knocked off in pursuit…Ran a 4.82 40 at the Combine with 26 reps, a 33½ inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: The slide at inside linebacker starts here. Larsen has been a solid college player, but his liabilities outweigh his assets. He deserves to be a mid-round draft pick with some upside, but his best days of playing football are probably behind him.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Vince Hall, Virginia Tech, 5-11¼, 232 -- Fifth-year senior…Gatorade Player of the Year in Virginia as a high school senior…Four-year starter who made starts in 48 of the 49 games in which he played…Missed four games as a senior with broken left forearm and wrist…Set career marks for tackles at VT – his career totals included 414 tackles, 29.5 tackles for a loss, 10½ sacks and three interceptions…Quick to fill the holes in the run game…A good finisher who doesn't miss a lot of tackle opportunities…Very strong in pursuit and shows good closing speed…An on-field leader…Keeps plays in front of him and effectively slides his way to the ball…Very short by NFL standards…Has trouble making plays to the sideline and will miss rushers that can make it to the corner…Viewed as a liability in pass coverage…Loses a step when forced to turn and take a deep pass-coverage assignment…Has very slow straight-line speed…Did not work out at the Combine because he had his left knee scoped and had a lingering wrist injury that prevented him from lifting. PROJECTION: A solid run defender, Hall may never be a three-down linebacker or even a productive starter. He, like the rest of the Class of '08, will likely have to wait until a team with a scout that has a man-love for him steps up and takes him. Anything before the fourth round should be questioned.
Jonathan Goff, Vanderbilt, 6-2¼, 245 – Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter…Two-time team captain…In his final two seasons, he had 206 tackles, 12½ tackles for a loss, 5½ sacks, nine passes broken up and three interceptions…Very good upper-body strength and good hands to keep blockers off of him…Smart player who reads and recognizes plays quickly…Durability is not a question…Had a very strong Combine workout and looked natural in position drills…Very solid straight-line speed…Not explosive off the snap and doesn't get a jump on most plays…Doesn't keep his feet moving at all times and gets cut too easily…Makes slide-down tackles on runners and is left behind much too often…Has trouble chasing sweeps to the sideline and getting an angle to make a solid hit…Struggles badly in pass coverage…Will leave his feet too often to make tackles…Does not have good recovery speed…Ran a 4.63 40 at the Combine with 28 reps, a 31½- inch vertical jump and a 9-10 broad jump. PROJECTION: A strong run defender, Goff's liabilities in pass defense will be his undoing. He has a wealth of experience, but isn't the type of player that has consistently stood out at the college level. In a deep field, he would be lost and likely drafted much later than he will this year.
J. Leman, Illinois, 6-1¾, 245 – Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter…In his last two seasons, he had 284 tackles, 29.5 tackles for a loss, 6½ sacks, eight passes broken up and one interception…His 152 tackles as a junior topped the Big Ten and was third in the nation…Very good linebacker size and strength…Quick to read and react to run or pass plays…Very intelligent in respect to reading angles to take to the ballcarrier…Doesn't bite on play-action or misdirection…Has experience playing both inside LB and outside…Has good upper-body strength…Has good mechanics…Does not have quickness or burst off the snap…Has had his left ankle operated on twice…Has an undersized lower body and can't stand up lead blockers consistently…Not strong in pass coverage with running backs or tight ends…Too easily eliminated by offensive linemen in space…Missed all of the post-season workouts due to ankle surgery. PROJECTION: A throw-back type player that has more red flags than checkmarks on many teams' slate. He will get drafted in the middle rounds and will give a top effort – he is a leader who tries to lead by example. But his physical limitations combined with his lack of elite intangibles will likely make him a career backup who will play in the league for a long time, but with several teams. He will constantly be looking over his shoulder in hopes of keeping a roster spot.
JoLonn Dunbar, Boston College, 6-0½, 230 – Fifth-year senior…Recruited as a running back after running for 5,136 yards in high school…A two-year starter who amassed 182 tackles, 12 tackles for a loss, two sacks, seven passes broken up and two interceptions in that span…A two-time team captain…Very solid and built like a fireplug…Is quick to react to plays unfolding and makes the right choice many more times than not…Consistently chases down plays and will make tackles when others have stopped moving…Has a lot of pop when he makes contact and rarely misses when he has a runner in his sights…Leads by example in games and in practice…Small by NFL standards and doesn't have the type of build to get much bigger than he already is…Does not have the speed to consistently reach the corner…Has short arms and is too easily manhandled by larger blockers…Will lose too many battles in man coverage…Is vulnerable to cut blocks…Ran a 4.82 40 at the Combine with 18 reps of 225 pounds, a 26½-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: Will have an NFL career because he understands the game and is willing to do whatever is asked of him. If heart was viewed as a draft priority as much as a 40 time, a rep count or even a Wonderlic score, he would be a first-day pick. But, with his size and bulk limitations, he will be a late-round pick whose greatest value may be in the mold of a Heath Farwell-type special teamer.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Rodrick Johnson, Oklahoma State, 6-2, 60
Marc Magro, West Virginia, 6-1¾, 239
Corey McKeon, Nebraska, 6-0½, 235
Ben Moffit, South Florida, 6-1, 224
Darren Mustin, Alabama, 6-1¾, 237
Philip Wheeler, Georgia Tech, 6-2, 243
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