Positional Analysis: Outside linebackers

Linebacker doesn't appear to be a position of need for the Vikings, but there could be a chance at some solid mid-round value. John Holler breaks down the top 10 outside linebackers with statistics, analysis and projections.

Vikings Outside Linebackers – Chad Greenway, Ben Leber, Erin Henderson, David Herron, Kenny Onatolu.

Vikings Draft Outlook – The Vikings are extremely happy with the maturation of Greenway into a playmaker and Leber has been a solid contributor. The team believes it has a couple of quality backups in Henderson and Herron, but that isn't to say that if an athlete they have ranked highly slips to them, they won't consider taking a linebacker somewhere in the draft. That said, outside LB would look on face value to be a mid-level priority at best and likely won't be addressed until the second day, if at all.

The Class of 2009 – The X-factor here is Aaron Curry. Almost a lock to be a top 5 pick, Curry stands alone in this class. Aside from him, there are no guaranteed first-rounders in this group, making it one of the weaker OLB classes in recent years. However, the numbers here are skewed, because there are a ton of ‘tweener types that will play outside linebacker in the pros but spent much of their time in college playing defensive end. To truly give this class a grade, perhaps guys like Brian Orakpo and Larry English should be included, which would add a couple more first-round talents to the draft board at this position.

CREAM OF THE CROP

Aaron Curry, Wake Forest, 6-1¾, 254 –
Fifth-year senior … Four-year starter who made starts in 49 of 51 career games … Finished his career with 332 tackles, 45.5 tackles for a loss, 9.5 sacks, 15 passes defensed and six interceptions … His father, Reggie Pinkney, played five NFL seasons with the Lions and Colts … Tied an NCAA record as a junior by returning three interceptions for touchdowns … Won the 2008 Butkus Award, given to college football's best linebacker … A team captain … Has extreme power and a body that could add more weight if needed … Has good upper-body strength and enjoys making violent contact with blockers … Is aggressive in run defense and consistently fills up running lanes … Is very good at keeping outside contain on runs when lined up over tight ends … Is a finisher who likes to knock people to the ground with force … Doesn't get sucked in to play action or misdirection very often and takes himself out of plays … Had arguably the best Combine workout of any player in the draft … Has never been a consistent sack producer despite having good closing speed … Is a little shorter than most scouts want … Has good agility, but loses a step when asked to shuffle or slide laterally … Does not always wrap up in the open field and tends too often to go for the kill shot … Ran a 4.53 40 at the Combine with 25 reps of 225 pounds, a 37-inch vertical jump and a 10-4 broad jump. PROJECTION: Some scouts are convinced he is the best linebacker to come out of the draft in years. With the ability to play any of the four linebacker positions in a 3-4 defense, he has the chance to go as early as No. 3 to Kansas City and likely no later than No. 5 overall to Cleveland.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Brian Cushing, USC, 6-3, 243 –
Fourth-year senior … Named to both the Parade and USA Today All-America teams as a high school senior … A three-year starter who made starts in 34 of his final 36 college games … In that span, he had 155 tackles, 26.5 tackles-for-loss, 8.5 sacks and 12 passes defensed … Has had several nagging injuries and surgeries – to his right shoulder after the 2005 season, his left knee after the 2006 season and his left ankle after the 2007 season … Played much of last year with a broken bone in his right hand … A team captain … Has the size and strength needed to be a force against the run … Is very determined and plays through pain … Has a very muscular upper body and good strength (see below) … Has excellent chase-down speed and a very good closing burst … Never shies away from contact and likes blowing up lead blockers on run plays … Is very aware and doesn't take many false steps … Has good read-and-react skills … Has good leaping ability he showed off at the Combine (see below) … Injuries are a huge concern since he constantly seems to be ailing with something … Is not explosive off the snap and needs a couple steps to get up to full speed … Will take himself out of plays because he's too aggressive at times and is always trying to make the big play … Is not a head-on tackler and often lets ball carriers get a couple extra yards as he tries to bulldog them to the ground … Is not nearly as aggressive on blitzes and shows up a second too late too often … Played inside LB as an injury replacement last year and looked much too stiff for serious MLB consideration … Ran a 4.69 40 a the Combine with 30 reps, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 10-0 broad jump and reportedly had a Wonderlic score of 23. PROJECTION: If not for his injury history, Cushing would be a top-10 pick. But because of his laundry list of injuries, he will likely still be on the board at or around where the Vikings pick in the first round. An ideal landing spot would be New England at No. 23, where his versatility and strong character could be used by Zenmaster Bill.

Clay Matthews, USC, 6-3¼, 240 – Fifth-year senior … Has a long NFL legacy with his grandpa, Clay Matthews Sr., who played for the 49ers from 1950-55, his dad Clay Jr., who played linebacker for a whopping 19 years for the Browns and Falcons, and his Hall of Fame uncle Bruce, who played 19 years with the Oilers/Titans organization … Was a non-scholarship walk-on and was redshirted. Was named Special Teams Player of the year in 2007 and didn't become a full-time starter until last year, when he started 10 games and had 56 tackles, nine tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks … Had surgery on his left hand following the 2007 season after breaking both his thumb and ring finger in separate incidents … Has very good size, looks the part and can get bigger … Is very natural dropping into coverage and takes on linebackers very well … Is a gym rat who gives his all on every play, in the weight room and in practice … Has some position flexibility, having played both outside linebacker and stand-up defensive end, which is of special note to teams that run the "34" defense … Will make tackles down the field on the other side because he never stops hustling … Had a great week at the Senior Bowl … Is not a great athlete and is categorized by some as an overachiever … Limited experience and production … Has not yet perfected using his hands on blockers and will get washed out when they get a body on him … Doesn't have great lateral vision and will get drilled at times in pursuit … Is not a strong blitzer/pass rusher … Had a solid Combine performance, running a 4.63 40 with 23 reps, a 35½-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: He comes from a long legacy of durable, workmanlike players who enjoyed long NFL careers. While experience and upside aren't equal to other top prospects, there isn't a coach out there who wouldn't like to have a player with his work ethic on his team. As a result, he might not make it out of the first round, even though we see him as a second-round talent.

Clint Sintim, Virginia, 6-3, 253 – Fifth-year senior … Four-year starter who recorded 245 tackles, 43 tackles for a loss, 27 sacks and three forced fumbles … Had 20 sacks in the last two seasons … Played the entire 2006 season with torn ligaments in his left shoulder but didn't have surgery until after the season … His nine sacks in 2007 were the most by any linebacker in Division I … Holds the school record for most career sacks by a linebacker with 27 … Extremely good burst off the snap and closing speed when blitzing the quarterback … Reads angles well and shoot through small gaps to get at the QB … Has long arms and uses them well to influence blockers … A tough guy who will play through injuries and when in pain … Durability is a huge plus – he started all 49 games of his college career … Played in a 3-4 defense in college that will make a lot of NFL teams with the same scheme (about one third) take much more notice … Consistency isn't there and he will go a full quarter without making a tackle … At times will seemingly get disinterested if plays aren't coming his way … Has trouble holding contain on the end when bigger blockers come at him head on … Does not have great upper-body strength and refused to lift at the Combine, which puts up a red flag for some teams … Doesn't have top-end speed and didn't have a good 40 time at the Combine (see below) … Can't stay with running backs in pass coverage and usually needs help … Didn't lift at the Combine, but ran a 4.76 40 with a 34½-inch vertical jump and a 9-11 broad jump. PROJECTION: He is an experienced, physical linebacker who has a wealth of experience, but there will likely be much more interest from teams that run a 3-4 defense than a 4-3. He has first-round intangibles, but more likely he will be a premium pick early in the second round. A team that loves him may well trade up a few spots to make sure they get him, but he has some serious limitations – as proved at the Combine.

Cody Brown, Connecticut, 6-2¼, 244 – Fourth-year senior … Two-year starter who had 25 starts in the span, recording 106 tackles, 33 tackles for a loss, 18.5 sacks, five forced fumbles (all in 2008) and two fumble recoveries … The first true freshman to start of the U-Conn defensive line since the school went Division I in 2000 … Broke his arm his sophomore year and missed half the season … Led the Big East in sacks with 11 last year … Uses positioning extremely well, using his long arms and explosive hand punch to blow up plays … Sheds blockers and gets to the ball … Is a good pass rusher who has excellent closing speed … Is a good finisher when he gets his hands on the ball carrier … Has good experience and is a more finished product than a lot of players entering the draft … Has good football instincts and rarely gets sucked in on fakes or loses backside contain … Is undersized for defensive end in the NFL and hasn't been asked to play linebacker in college … Is not quick off the snap and will allow defenders to get a bead on him before he picks up speed … Doesn't sense blocks from the side before they come and will get ridden out of too many plays … Didn't play top competition on a regular basis … Ran a 4.78 40 at the Combine with 26 reps, a 36½-inch vertical jump and a 10-0 broad jump. PROJECTION: Has the skills to be a solid pro, but it is clear he is going to have to move to linebacker and, with such limited experience, there are no guarantees. A team will need to have a strong feeling about his upside and quick transition to take him anywhere before the middle of the second round.

Marcus Freeman, Ohio State, 6-0¾, 239 – Fifth-year senior … A Parade All-American as a high school senior … Versatile prep athlete who also ran the 4x100 relay as well as throwing the discus and shot put … Three-year starter who recorded 264 tackles, 21.5 tackles for a loss, six sacks and 15 passes broken up … Played as a true freshman, but missed his sophomore season after tearing his left ACL, which required surgery and led to a staph infection that led to a medical redshirt being allowed … Played his first two seasons at strongside linebacker and the last two on the weakside … Already has two children – a son and a daughter … Has good footwork and speed to hit holes hard and bring plays to a dead stop … Hurls his body all over the field and makes plays sideline to sideline … Stays on his feet and avoids blockers trying to cut his legs out … Is solid in pass coverage and can stay with tight ends without much trouble … Has very good upper-body strength (see below) … Looks the part … Has experience at both OLB positions and that is a big plus for where he will be drafted … Is too short by NFL standards … Doesn't have great size or size potential … Has suffered a lot of injuries that have nagged at him and reduced his production, including wearing an ankle brace almost all of last season … Once he gets blocked by anyone bigger, he tends to stay blocked … Doesn't have exceptional lower-body strength and tends to stop churning his legs on contact with blockers … Not a big hitter who intimidates receivers or running backs … Ran a 4.51 40 at the Combine with 30 reps, a 37-inch vertical jump and a 9-5 broad jump. PROJECTION: After putting on a show at the Senior Bowl practices, his stock is rising. But film speaks a different story. A solid piece on a great team, he got tackles because teams went away from James Laurinaitis. He has value as a weakside linebacker in a 4-3 defense, but is a better measurable athlete than football player. He'll likely land somewhere in the third round.

BEST OF THE REST

Ashlee Palmer, Mississippi, 6-1½, 223 –
Fifth-year senior … A star prep athlete who lettered in football four times, basketball twice and once in track … Was ruled academically ineligible out of high school and spent two years at Compton Community College in Los Angeles as a quarterback … He tore his MCL two games into the season and when he returned, he moved to safety … Committed verbally to Oregon in 2006, but signed with Nebraska, but failed to qualify by the spring semester and left school … He then signed a letter of intent with Washington, but again failed to qualify … A two-year starter who started 22 of 24 games, making 139 tackles, 12 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks and four interceptions … Is versatile – played the strong side as a junior and the weak side in 2008 … Is very athletic and has great movement skills … Can get to top speed very quickly … Will play in the slot in pass coverage and has the ability to blanket receivers deep down the field if needed … Has a good hand punch and will stand up tight ends trying to get a free release off the line … Has good reaction/adjustment skills to balls in the air … Has good closing speed and finishes most of his tackles … Is way undersized and might project to some teams as a safety, not a linebacker … Does not have great bulk strength … Gets his legs cut out too often … Is not an intelligent player and will have problems with a complicated playbook … Ole Miss lied about his height and weight numbers, which became known at the Senior Bowl … Did not work out at the Combine. PROJECTION: An interesting prospect, but a ‘tweener in a bad way. As a linebacker, his only hope is to add some bulk strength and play the weak side in a 4-3 defense. He has the size to be a very good safety, but not the speed or fluid transition speed to be a playmaker. His ability alone will get him drafted in the fourth round or so, but he could be a tease that never delivers.

Kaluka Maiava, USC, 5-11½, 229 – Fourth-year senior … Comes from a fabled professional wrestling family that includes Afa and Sika the Wild Somoans and Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson, who is his uncle … Gatorade Player of the Year for the State of Hawaii as a high school senior … A versatile athlete who also competed in soccer and boxing in high school … Named Co-Special Teams Player of the Year in 2006 … Broke his left wrist and his right thumb in 2007 and needed postseason surgery on both … One-year starter who played behind 2008 first-round pick Keith Brooking until last year … He made 13 starts in 2008 with 66 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and five passes defensed … Has very good upper-body strength (see below) … Has a high-octane motor and chases plays to the sidelines and never stops until the whistle blows … Has good agility and closing speed … Is a wrap-up tackler … Has the strength to blow up lead blockers and kill running plays … Has good coverage ability on tight ends and running backs … Durability is a question, given he was only a one-year starter surrounded by a terrific supporting cast … Has short arms and is shorter than scouts like … Will get neutralized by bigger blockers and stop moving his legs … Gets sucked in on play-action and misdirection … Runs without much knee bend and will take himself out of plays with over-pursuit … Ran a 4.71 40 at the Combine with 30 reps, and a 9-2 broad jump. PROJECTION: It's hard to get too excited about an undersized linebacker who was surrounded by three LBs who look to be first-round picks. Maiava is likely to be a mid-round pick whose immediate contribution will be on special teams, but looks to be the best fit on the weakside with a 4-3 defense like the Vikings run.

Zack Follett, California, 6-2¼, 238 – Fourth-year senior … Wasn't highly recruited because he broke his left foot as a high school junior and suffered a broken shoulder as a senior … A two-year starter who had 151 tackles, 35.5 tackles for a loss, 16 sacks and 10 passes broken up … His 87 tackles as a senior led the Pac 10 … A team captain … A high-intensity player whose motor is always running … Is a ball-hawk who doesn't get fooled by play-action or misdirection … A finisher who delivers a big hit when he gets to the ball … Has good chase-down speed from the back side … An excellent leaper (see below) who uses that skill to take away passing lanes … Has no problem jamming tight ends at the line and taking them downfield … Is undersized by NFL standards … Has a lot of trouble trying to handle running backs in the passing game because he runs too upright and takes short steps … Has trouble planting his foot and changing direction without losing much of his speed … Durability may be a question mark since he has had shoulder injuries both in high school and college … Can be too aggressive at times and will miss tackles by overrunning plays … Ran a 4.70 40 at the Combine with 21 reps, a 37-inch vertical jump (best among all linebackers) and a 9-9 broad jump. PROJECTION: A strongside linebacker who will likely fit best on the outside in a 3-4 schemes. His size and speed limitations will likely drop him into the later rounds.

Tyrone McKenzie, South Florida, 6-1¾, 243 – Fifth-year senior … Has a serious leg fracture as a high school junior that required a titanium rod to be surgically implanted in his leg … Originally committed to play at Iowa State, but opted out and went to Michigan State, playing as a special teamer as a true freshman … Sat out the 2005 season and transferred back to Iowa State, but when Cyclones head coach Dan McCarney resigned, McKenzie was given a hardship waiver by the NCAA and was allowed to follow McCarney to South Florida without having to sit out another year … A three-year starter who played middle linebacker in his year at Iowa State, strongside linebacker in 2007 and 10 games at strongside and three at weakside as a senior … Over the last three years, he had 366 tackles, 32 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, 13 passes batted down and four interceptions … A team captain … Outstanding production, having 116 tackles or more in each of his three seasons as a starter … Has good short-area speed and closing speed when he is around the ball … Good read-and-react skills … Has good upper-body strength (see below) … Is thickly built and has the kind of body musculature and bulk scouts look for … Brings some versatility having spent time all three LB positions in college … Has been durable in his career … Does not have natural hip movement and runs a little high … Did not have a big week at the Senior Bowl … Does not have great lower-body strength and has difficulty peeling off blockers … Is not nearly as physical as he should be and allows tight ends to get off the line without a good jam … Allows running backs to gain additional yardage because he rarely meets them head on, instead bulldogging them from the side and dragging them forward … Doesn't have a great hand punch and allows blockers into his body too easily … Ran a 4.77 40 at the Combine with 27 reps of 225 pounds and a 9-4 broad jump. PROJECTION: There is no questioning his production, but he has played in three college programs in his short career. He has the athleticism coaches look for, but his limitations may keep him from being a full-time NFL starter, which should drop him into the middle or late portion of the draft.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Kevin Akins, Boston College, 6-2, 219
Victor Butler, Oregon State, 6-2¼, 248
Jonathan Casillas, Wisconsin, 6-1¼, 228
Anthony Felder, California, 6-2, 233
Anthony Heygood, Purdue, 6-0¾, 225
Stephen Hodge, Texas Christian, 5-11 ½, 234
Merrill Johnson, Auburn, 5-11¼, 204
Frantz Joseph, Florida Atlantic, 6-1, 242
DeAndre Levy, Wisconsin, 6-1¾, 236
Gerald McRath, Southern Mississippi, 6-2, 231
Julius Williams, Connecticut, 6-1¾, 263

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