Positional Analysis: Middle linebackers

An impact position, this year's middle linebacker class is a bit thin on top-end talent. There could be only one drafted in the first round and it might not pick up much more in successive rounds. John Holler has the statistics, measurables and analysis on the top-10 options.

VIKINGS MIDDLE LINEBACKERS — E.J. Henderson, Jasper Brinkley.

VIKINGS NEEDS — With the last two seasons for Henderson ending with significant injuries, there is reason to believe that the Vikings might at least consider adding another inside linebacker – although it would have to come at the expense of a player at another position. In last year's playoffs, Brinkley was the only middle linebacker on the depth chart, so there is reason for concern. But, as long as E.J. is healthy, the position is manned fine and isn't a front-burner need.

THE CLASS OF 2010 — One of the weaker inside linebacker crops in some time. Rolando McClain is likely going to be the only player from this position to go in the first round and there may only be a handful gone by the start of the draft's final day. For all the depth at some other positions, this glaring weakness is one that stands out and will make this a very weak draft crop this season.

THE CREAM OF THE CROP

Rolando McClain, Alabama, 6-3½, 254 — Third-year junior…Started 37 of 41 career games, posting 274 tackles, 31.5 tackles for a loss, eight sacks and five interceptions…A Parade All-American coming out of high school…Has had a series of strange injuries, including a broken thumb, a lacerated thumb, a dislocated shoulder and injuries sustained in a motorcycle wreck…Informed teams that he has Crohn's Disease, an inflammatory disease of the intestines…Won the Butkus Award, given annually to the top linebacker in college football…Number of tackles, TFLs and sacks went up in each of his three college seasons…Has prototype size and long arms…Very quick to diagnose plays and react…Plays with good leverage and is rarely off his feet…Has the speed to take on running backs and tight ends in coverage…Is a big hitter who likes to deliver a knockout blow…Is a long-strider who doesn't generate immediate or elite speed in reacting and filling holes…Doesn't consistently show range to the sideline and will show up late when a fast runner turns the corner…Is too out of control at times and will take himself out of plays and miss tackles…Doesn't have good technique with his hands, and blockers can get hold of him and keep him engaged for too long…Didn't jump at the Combine because of a hamstring pull, but ran a 4.80 40 at the Combine with 24 reps of 225 pounds. PROJECTION: The clear-cut leader among the Class of 2010, his breakout season in 2009 will get him off the board somewhere in the middle third of the first round.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Donald Butler, Washington, 6-1¼, 245 — Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter…Blew up in 2009, posting 94 tackles, 15.5 tackles for a loss, one sack and two interceptions…Played both middle linebacker and strongside linebacker as a junior…Has a history of knee and ankle injuries, including one sustained at the Senior Bowl that prevented him from working out fully at the Combine…Has a huge body that looks like it is chiseled…Has good speed in reading plays and getting to the spot quickly…Has the speed to cover backs and tight ends in pass coverage…Consistent, technically-sound tackler…Has a closing burst when the player with the ball is in sight…Doesn't have great lower-body strength and will get taken out by lead blockers and pulling offensive linemen…Doesn't have good hand use and has trouble shedding blocks once he is engaged…Is a little shorter than scouts like…Will bite on fakes, play action and misdirection a bit too often…Didn't run or jump at the Combine, but lifted and did an amazing 35 reps of 225 pounds. PROJECTION: An inside linebacker who is likely best suited as a weakside linebacker in the pros in a 4-3 scheme. He was the most impressive linebacker at the Senior Bowl prior to his injury, but has some significant limitations that will push him into the second round at best.

Brandon Spikes, Florida, 6-3, 249 — Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who started all 38 games he played in that span…Missed a game in 2009 for an incident in which replays showed he clearly attempted to gouge the eyes of a Georgia player…Has very good feel for the game and always seems to be around the ball…Is active at the snap and has good agility to shuffle his feet and slide in both run coverage and pass protection…A big-play machine who intercepted six passes the last two years and returned four of them for touchdowns…Doesn't bite on playfakes and misdirection plays…Strong against the run and will take on lead blockers and neutralize them…A good tackler who brings people down and rarely misses tackles…Doesn't have great foot speed…Has a questionable attitude – from the raking of the eyes of an opponent to opting not to lift, run or do shuttles at the Combine despite having no apparent injuries…Has limited range because of his speed limitations…Doesn't have good closing speed…Is not a punishing tackler…Misses tackles in the open field…Didn't run or lift at the Combine, but had a 29-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: A mixed bag in that he doesn't have the elite intangibles that will guarantee success, but he does enough things right that he can fit in either a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme, which should have him getting consideration in the second round.

Pat Angerer, Iowa, 6-0¼, 235 — Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 252 tackles, 11.5 tackles for a loss, two sacks and six interceptions…Played both middle linebacker and on the weak side…Has good speed, agility and quickness…Is quick to read and react…Doesn't bite on play action or misdirection…Is a big hitter who fills gaps aggressively…Solid in pass protection…Takes good angles and will chase down plays to the perimeter…Is short and has short arms (30½ inches)…Doesn't have elite upper- or lower-body strength…Doesn't have the kind of body that can bulk up much larger…Is not able to disengage easily when blockers get their hands on him…Ran a 4.78 40 at the Combine with 26 reps of 225 pounds, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 9-2 broad jump. PROJECTION: Is an undersized MLB at the NFL level who will have some significant liabilities, but is hard-playing athlete who will give everything he has. As such, he will likely come off the board in the third or fourth round.

Darryl Sharpton, Miami, 5-11½, 236 — Fifth-year senior…Part-time starter throughout his career, making 31 starts…Didn't become a full-time starter until 2009, when he blew up with 106 tackles and 8.5 tackles for a loss…Versatile player who started games on the outside as well as the inside…Has a history of knee problems, having been knocked out of his freshman season with a knee injury that got him a medical redshirt and missed four starts in 2008 while healing from another knee injury…Very productive player who makes a lot of tackles…Has good agility and lateral quickness…Is a solid tackler who rarely lets the ball carrier get away when he gets to him…Times his shots well and hits open gaps consistently…Versatility a big plus, having been a starter at all three LB spots and a top-notch special teams player…Is much too short and doesn't have the kind of lower body that can generate a lot of power or strength…Doesn't shed blocks consistently when he gets engaged by blockers…Doesn't have the speed to make plays to the sideline…Has speed limitations in pass coverage…Is a little stiff in his movements in space…Is not an accomplished blitzer…Didn't jump at the Combine, but ran a 4.84 40 with 24 reps of 225 pounds. PROJECTION: Doesn't have elite speed and isn't an ideal fit in every system, but his versatility and special teams acumen should get him off the board in the middle rounds.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Jamar Chaney, Mississippi State, 6-0¾, 242 — Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter…In his final two seasons, he had 179 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions…Granted a medical redshirt in 2008 after breaking his left leg in the season opener…Is muscle-bound and athletic…Has good agility to slide and chase plays to the sideline…Plays with a lot of intensity and is an on-field leader…Solid in pass protection and can run with backs and tight ends down the seam…Had a solid showing at the Combine (see below)…Is undersized by NFL MLB standards…Is slow to read and react at times and can get sucked in with play-action and misdirection…Is not a glass-eater type and often looks to avoid blockers rather than face them heads-up…Doesn't use his hands well enough…Will lose his balance and leave his feet, often missing too many tackles…Ran a position-best 4.54 40 at the Combine, with 26 reps of 225 pounds, a position-best 39-inch vertical jump and a 10-4 broad jump. PROJECTION: To look simply at game tape, he would project as a mid-round pick, but after showing off his strong athleticism at the Combine, he may have pushed his way into the third or fourth round.

Mike McLaughlin, Boston College, 6-0¼, 242 — Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter who started 22 of 23 games played in his final two seasons…In 14 games in 2008, he had 89 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks…In 2009, played in nine games, posting 56 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and no sacks…His senior season started late after he suffered a torn right Achilles during spring practice…Has strong bloodline – his father Michael played in the USFL and his uncle Joe played for the Packers in the early 1980s…Has very good awareness and is a vocal leader who keeps everyone's head in the game…Strong in pass protection and can hang with backs and receivers…A physical wrap-up tackler who delivers the wood every time he gets the chance…Had a strong showing at the Combine…Has good special teams skills and has experience as a long snapper…Does not have good speed and is a liability in pass coverage at times…Is a better player than athlete…Struggled at the Combine in agility drills and didn't look natural in his movement during drills…Has a history of injury because of his balls-out style, so durability will be a concern...Ran a 4.87 40 at the Combine with 29 reps of 225 pounds, a 38½ inch vertical jump and a 9-6 broad jump. PROJECTION: Showed up at the Combine in great shape and raised his draft stock, but his limitations are significant and will likely make him a backup and special teamer for at least the short-term future, which should drop him to the final day of the draft.

Phillip Dillard, Nebraska, 6-0¼, 245 — Fifth-year senior…Never a full-time starter, making starts in just 16 of the 44 games he played…Had his best season in 2009, starting nine of 12 games – posting 83 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss and three sacks…Got a medical redshirt in 2006 after suffering a torn left ACL and missed four games in 2008 with a high ankle sprain…Has versatility having played both inside and outside for the Cornhuskers…Has good field instincts and diagnoses plays quickly and correctly…Has good timing on blitzes…Has the foot speed to stay with tight ends and backs in coverage…Has good lateral agility and can slide down the line and shoot gaps to blow up pulling runs to the outside…Has short arms (30½ inches) and is viewed as too short by NFL standards…Did not play with the same level of intensity from game to game and could disappear at times – hard to do for a MLB…Ends up on the ground too often because he is susceptible to cut blocks…Didn't have the kind of production that would be expected from his role with a strong defense…Has had weight issues, blowing up to 270 pounds at one point…Character is questionable…Didn't lift at the Combine, but ran a 4.72 40 with a 31½-inch vertical jump and an 8-10 broad jump. PROJECTION: A good run defender that stands out on tape, his lack of tangible starting experience, injury history and character will have teams shying away from his early. But his talent will win out and he will come off the board sometime in the fourth or fifth round.

Micah Johnson, Kentucky, 6-1½, 258 — Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 198 tackles, 19.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks in that span…A Parade All-American as a high school senior…An Army brat who lived in nine different states during his school years…Has an injury history that includes knee surgery in 2007, as well as recurring knee problems and an MCL strain last year…Has good natural strength and spends a lot of time in the weight room and had a strong Combine showing (see below)…Has good agility to slide down the line to shoot gaps and make plays…Is very good in run defense…Uses his hands well and keeps his legs from being cut…Improved his stock significantly at the Combine…Doesn't have the look of a prototype middle linebacker…Doesn't have great lateral quickness and will be late to arrive on sweeps to the sideline…Is slower than he needs to be in read/react situations…Isn't a big hitter on a consistent basis…Can't cover backs or tight ends in coverage…Had a strong Combine showing despite running a dismal 5.07 40, with 31 reps and a 29-inch vertical jump. PROJECTION: His lack of speed makes him something of a liability in pass coverage, which could make him a one-dimensional run-stuffing linebacker. That should be enough to drop him into the final rounds.

Joe Pawelek, Baylor, 6-1¾, 237 — Fifth-year senior…Four-year starter who had 422 tackles, 22.5 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks…Had to learn and re-learn systems since he had three different defensive coordinators in four years…Finished second in Baylor history for tackles, behind only Bears Hall of Famer Mike Singletary…Is a big hitter who chases down plays, takes on blockers and makes plays…Has good natural feel for the position and consistently keeps himself in good playing position…Durable four-year starter…Doesn't have the kind of speed or explosiveness scouts look for…Can be a liability when locked up one-on-one with backs and tight ends in pass coverage…Will take himself out of plays by getting out of position, lunging and missing tackles…Has short arms and has trouble shedding blockers when they get their hands on him…Didn't work out at the Combine. PROJECTION: A battle-tested player from the Big 12, he has shown enough to get drafted, but, much like the Vikings' Jasper Brinkley, he will likely be a career backup and special teamer, which should drop him into the final rounds of the draft.

OTHERS TO WATCH
Reggie Carter, UCLA, 5-11¾, 238
Ryan D'Imperio, Rutgers, 6-1¼, 244
Josh Hull, Penn State, 6-2¾, 237
Boris Lee, Troy, 6-0½, 238
Austin Spitler, Ohio State, 6-3, 244
Nate Triplett, Minnesota, 6-3, 250
Kion Wilson, South Florida, 6-0½, 239


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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