Positional Analysis: ILBs

Terry Pierce

Good thing the Vikings have picked up Greg Biekert and Chris Claiborne at different stages of free agency the last two years, because the inside linebacker class of 2003 isn't too promising. Nevertheless, we lay out the positives and negative of the 13 at the position.

VIKINGS INSIDE LINEBACKERS – Greg Biekert, Nick Rogers (part-time), Chris Claiborne (if needed).

VIKINGS 2003 DRAFT EXPECTATIONS – The Vikings have toyed with the idea of running a 3-4 defensive scheme in certain situations – but not as a base set. If that's the case, there will be more emphasis (and likely an extra roster spot) devoted to this position. But, with Biekert still playing well and Claiborne expected to move into his spot once he's gone, the Vikings won't be looking for a starter in the short-term. Jim Nelson remains unsigned, but the team is cautiously optimistic he'll be back. If not, this position takes on greater importance – perhaps as early as the fourth round. If Nelson returns, there may not be anyone selected from this spot this year, despite the need for another LB if the talk of running a 3-4 is more than just George O'Leary blowing hot air.

THE CLASS OF '03 – Arguably, the worst LB class in the last 20 years – both for inside and outside LBs. E.J. Henderson is probably the only middle linebacker candidate who will get taken in the first round and there may only be a handful taken on the first day of the draft at all. This could be viewed as good news for the Vikings, since their interest in linebackers won't be until the second day anyway, but this crop is a bunch or ‘tweeners that will be largely ignored and represent the worst of the Class of 2003.

FIRST ROUNDERS

E.J. Henderson, Maryland, 6-1, 238 –
Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter…In that span, he had 434 tackles, 58-1/2 for a loss and 16-1/2 sacks…Compiled more sacks each year of college…Two-Time All-American and All-ACC…Won the Bednarik Award, given to the top defensive player, and Butkus Award, given to the top linebacker, in 2002…Prototype combination of size, strength and speed…A natural defender who is always around the ball…Doesn't have good top-end speed, but takes excellent angles and chases down sweeps…Motor never stops…Takes some chances and will give the swivel when fooled and plays burn him…Isn't exceptional in pass coverage more than just the swing pass variety…Reminds veteran scouts of former Giants great Pepper Johnson, who was an excellent complementary MLB…Did 20 reps with 225 pounds at the Combine. PROJECTION: In another year, he wouldn't be the top MLB in a draft class, but this one is weak. He'll likely be a two-down LB in the pros, but has so many good football instincts, he will go in the first round – most likely in the final third of the round.

SECOND/THIRD ROUNDERS

Terry Pierce, Kansas State, 6-1, 251 –
Fourth-year junior…Competed on K-State track team as a shot put and discus man…Two-year starter who came the KSU as a defensive end and moved inside as a redshirt sophomore…Injured almost all of 2001, but played through them…In two years as a starter, he had 172 tackles, 25 tackles for a loss and seven sacks…Ferocious "knock your teeth out" hitter…Good combination of size and power…Gets by more on excellent instincts that great physical talent…Has improved his pass rushing considerably…Struggles chasing down players to the outside…Something of a liability in pass coverage of backs and speedy tight ends…Did 28 reps at the Combine. PROJECTION: An overachiever who gives everything he has, but his physical limitations will likely drop him somewhere in the second round. Until he improves his pass coverage, he may be a two-down LB.

Gerald Hayes, Pittsburgh, 6-1, 238 – Fourth-year senior who made three starts as a freshman and started all but one game since…Three-time All-Big East, first team the last two years and second team as a sophomore…In three seasons as a starter, had 341 tackles, 44 for a loss and 11-1/2 sacks…At his best stuffing the run…Doesn't have great sideline-to-sideline speed, but gets the job done quite well…Very coachable and a popular team leader…Very long arms for his size (35 inches)…Durable, hard-nosed and tough…Consistent and rarely takes a play off…Doesn't have natural pass coverage skills…Seen by some as a better fit as an OLB than in the middle…Attended the Combine, but didn't lift. PROJECTION: He's not going to be a Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher type who can take games over, but he is an excellent complementary player who plays within a defensive scheme to the best his ability. His tenacity and good motor should see him go off the board in the first two-thirds of the second round.

Bradie James, LSU, 6-2, 238 – Fourth-year senior…Played both outside and middle linebacker and led LSU in tackles the last two years…A three-year starter who compiled 380 tackles (including 140 last year), 24-1/2 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks…Two-time All-SEC…Nice combination of size, speed and strength…Can take on offensive linemen and lead blockers better than most…Has good closing speed when blitzing…Team captain who led by example…Strong upper body – bench presses 425 pounds…Some scouts have questioned his durability – he did miss games, but was slowed with small injuries several times and that concerns NFL coaches…Isn't a good man-coverage player on RBs and TEs…Didn't lift at the Combine. PROJECTION: He has experience at the all three LB positions at LSU, but looks more likely to be an inside LB in the pros because of his marginal pass coverage ability. His intensity, excellent speed and strength make him a natural for the middle and will likely be taken somewhere late in the second or early in the third round.

Angelo Crowell, Virginia, 6-0, 236 – Fourth year senior…Brother of NFL wide receiver Germane Crowell…Two-year starter…Began as OLB, but when coach Al Groh came to Virginia, he installed a 3-4 defense and Crowell excelled…In last two years, he had 298 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss seven sacks…Active player who forced four fumbles last year and had two interceptions…Very active and chases plays sideline to sideline…Is a quick reactor…Played some time at DE as a designated speed rusher, but doesn't have good straight-line speed…Finishes almost all tackles…Had a big week at the Senior Bowl…Doesn't adapt well in pass coverage and gets beat too often…Doesn't have good speed, especially if he has to maintain coverage downfield…Pedestrian blitzer…Did 27 reps at the Combine. PROJECTION: Doesn't have the ideal size for an NFL middle LB so he will likely have to find a 3-4 defense where he can shine. Since so few teams run a system built for his strengths, he will likely slip into the third round.

DAY TWO PROSPECTS

Kawika Mitchell, South Florida, 6-1, 251 –
Fifth-year senior who began at Georgia, but transferred after a redshirt freshman year…Four-year starter who played both outside and inside…In his career at SFU, he had 367 tackles, with his best year coming in '02 – he had 117 tackles, 19 for a loss, four sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles…Very durable – the only game he missed one game and that was following a death in the family…Plays hurts and doesn't complain…Good upper body strength and bench-presses 410 pounds…Finishes tackles with explosion…Loved by coaches and teammates as an unselfish leader…Excellent leaper who has 37-inch vertical jump…Doesn't have top LB speed…Struggles in pass coverage, especially on longer routes where he has to turn on the run…Really increased his stock at the Combine, including 25 reps with 225 pounds…A player with a lot of good qualities, but not a guy that jumps out in any area. Combine workout could potentially slide him into the very end of Day One, but more likely, he'll go off in the early part of the second day.

Lance Briggs, Arizona, 6-1, 242 – Fourth-year junior who came to Wildcats as a fullback and started twice before moving to linebacker…Three-year starter who had 304 tackles, 35-1/2 tackles for a loss and 8-1/2 sacks…Two-time All-Pac 10…Plays hard all the time and was durable, despite playing most of 2001 with a cast on his arm…Excellent instincts and quickness off the snap…Works his way through traffic to the ball…Big hitter…Inconsistent in performance from week to week…Added 15 pounds and, while he looked solid at the Senior Bowl, his stock dropped after a poor showing at the Combine…He reminds some people of a poor man's Zach Thomas, but inconsistency and size limitations will likely drop him to the fourth or fifth round.

Clifton Smith, Syracuse, 6-2, 253 – Fourth-year senior who was a high school All-American and defensive player of the year as a senior in New York…Four-year starter who never missed a game in four years and started all but three…In his college career, he had 404 tackles, including a strong senior season in which he had 136 tackles, 15 for a loss and two sacks…Three-time All-Big East selection…Good combination of size, speed and strength…Good instinct in stuffing the run…Excellent read-and-react player…Is solid both inside and chasing runs to the outside…Can drop into deep pass coverage…Doesn't have great speed…Gets swallowed up by big offensive linemen too often…Gets fooled much too often on misdirection and traps…Weight is an ongoing issue, since he ideally should be at about 245 pounds and got as heavy as 265 the last couple of seasons…Didn't lift at the Combine and, in the running portion, pulled out with a hamstring injury…One of the few players who likely didn't benefit from coming back as a senior, he was viewed coming into this year as a potential Day One prospect. Now he looks like a fifth-rounder at best.

Matt Wilhelm, Ohio State, 6-4, 243 – Fourth-year senior and three-year starter…Missed only two games as a junior, but had reconstructive surgery on his right ankle in January of 2002…Came back strong as a senior, but seemed slower than in the past…In three years as a starter, he notched 250 tackles, 41-1/2 tackles for a loss, seven sacks and three interceptions…Had a monster senior year as the center of the OSU defense with 121 tackles (including 79 solos), 19-1/2 tackles for a loss, three sacks, two picks and two forced fumbles…Nice combination of size and speed…Displayed durability and toughness by playing the final six games of the 2001 season on an ankle that needed reconstructive surgery…Decent upper body strength…Doesn't have the fluid moves scouts like to see and it was very evident at the Senior Bowl, where his stock dropped as much as any of the middle-round LB prospects…Isn't a mauler in taking on linemen or lead blockers…Isn't much of a blitz threat…Didn't lift at the Combine…A tough player who put up good numbers, his lack of pure athleticism hurt him at the Senior Bowl and make him a marginal roster prospect who will stay on the board until the fifth or sixth round.

Tony Gilbert, Georgia, 6-0, 244 – Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter who 309 tackles and an eye-popping 15-1/2 sacks as a senior after having only four in his first three years…Excellent bulk and strength…At his best stuffing runs up the middle…Has power to get through linemen and lead blockers to stop a RB in his tracks…A team captain who played every down on defense and special teams…Seen as much too short to be an every down player in the NFL…Doesn't have enough quickness to be effective at the next level in pass coverage…Gets beat too often on sideline runs…Isn't an accomplished blitzer…Did only 19 reps at the Combine…Is viewed as a project who, while durable and tenacious, may never have the needed size, pursuit speed and cover skills to be a starter. Those factors should drop him into the final rounds.

Lawrence Flugence, Texas Tech, 6-1, 239 – Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter who led the Big 12 in tackles each year…Had an unbelievable 500 tackles in college, including 193 last year alone – the most of any player in the country…Two-time All-Big 12 selection…Big hitter who finishes tackles…Durability unquestioned…Can chase plays sideline to sideline…Has good speed in a straight line…Strong tackler with decent blitz ability…Is far too small and lacks bulk to be successful MLB in the pros…Doesn't have the reaction skills to be a mammoth safety…Didn't lift at the Combine…His college career numbers speak for themselves, but most believe that won't transfer to the pro level and he'll have a hard time making a roster as a late-round pick, but he has the upside to be a tantalizing late pick.

Mario Haggan, Mississippi State, 6-2, 252 – Fifth-year senior…Began as a defensive end and moved to MLB as a sophomore…Split time at DE and MLB in '01…Had his best year as a senior, posting 119 tackles, 7-1/2 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles…Versatility is a plus, since he played in several different areas of the MSU defense…Ideal size for MLB…Long arms and strong upper body allow him to penetrate on inside runs and on blitzes…Has quick burst, but doesn't have the speed to chase plays to the sidelines…Isn't adept in pass coverage…Inconsistent…He played in a strange defense at MSU that sometimes employed just one linebacker. He has some good intangibles, but his lack of speed could be a draft killer and drop him into the fifth or sixth round.

Solomon Bates, Arizona State, 6-1, 244 – Four-year starter who made his first college start while just 17 years old…Had his right knee scoped following his freshman year…Three-year starter…Has the measurable traits to be a MLB in the NFL…Excellent bulk and strength…At his best between the tackles making plays…Weight is huge concern – he spent much of the last two years too fat and out of shape…His best season was as a sophomore when he had 99 tackles – compared to just 98 in his last two seasons…Spent much of last year in a time share…Did 19 reps at the Combine…His dedication is a big question mark for Bates, who looked like a solid mid-round pick as a sophomore and like a player who didn't care in 2001. He has the chance to be a solid player, but he has to want to improve because his draft stock dropped into the final couple of rounds over the last two years.

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