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Minnesota Vikings Draft: Arif's Vikings-specific Big Board—Middle Linebackers

The draft is a month away, which is basically tomorrow. Take a look at Arif's Positional Big Boards for the Minnesota Vikings, so you can prepare yourself. Today, we'll be discussing middle linebackers.

Joe Robbins

Every year, draft experts put out ranking upon ranking determining which college players have the best superstar potential in the NFL. December rankings kept Star Lotulelei at the top of nearly every board, while Keenan Allen was the consensus best receiver in the draft. Manti Te'o regularly ranked ahead of every other inside linebacker and Johnthan Banks was the second-best cornerback.

Things change, but the most important thing to remember is that generic positional boards are useful, but sometimes misleading. Schematic fits will sometimes define a prospects success much more than their talent. Simply looking at Wes Welker or Albert Haynesworth can tell you that a schematic shift can create or destroy a career.

The Vikings have particular demands within their offensive and defensive systems—they need defensive tackles that fit a 4-3 "over" scheme, middle linebackers who can drop deep and cornerbacks who can play both man and zone coverage, but are at the very least physical.

Today, we'll specifically be looking at those middle linebackers who so often are considered the keystone of the defense and the Tampa-2 in particular.

Because I'm a shameless self-promoter and someone who loves shortcuts, I'll quote my old piece on the Tampa-2 defense here:

Here, the Mike and corner responsibilities are definitive and clear-cut. Instead of reading the Y's route (tight end or slot receiver) in every situation and also reading the play for run-pass, the Mike will just read the play for a run or the pass and drop deep on pass plays. Here, the Mike doesn't need as wide a range of abilities, but is still a critical part of the defense.

The Mike still will need to determine the type of route being run by the inside receiver, but has more time to react to what the tight end or slot will be doing. If that receiver runs a vertical route, the Mike will run with that receiver and drop inside of it. If the route is not vertical, he simply moves up 15 yards from the line of scrimmage and manages his zone (usually managing it inside-out, where he will pick up receivers entering from the inside of the play, then the outside). The Mike will also need to run to the ball for any underneath routes.

. . .

The Mike's zone coverage 15 yards deep will push the safeties to the sidelines, allowing them to cover the fades and go routes on the sidelines. Both safeties will read/react based on the receivers they are over top of, and then drop 15-18 yards deep in their zones. In this way, the Tampa-2 resolves the seam/sideline issues of the original Cover-2 scheme.

What's interesting is that we forget that the Tampa-2 decreased the responsibilities of the middle linebacker, although the MLB is still key to the defense.

While the base play does have the middle linebacker drop deep—something we saw often with Alan Williams, but not nearly as often as with Pagac—there are still a relatively wide range of abilities the middle linebacker needs. Defenses have generally responded to the (re)emergence of the pass-catching, game-changing tight end with three general options—generic hard zone coverage (usually with pattern-reading concepts), man coverage with a linebacker or man coverage with a safety.

The Vikings have use hard zones and man coverage, but it has often been the strong-side linebacker who has manned up against the tight ends. This is somewhat unfortunate for the Vikings insofar as Chad Greenway is subpar in coverage, but it does mean that the middle linebacker will, generally speaking, be much more important for his zone play than his man-to-man play.

The ability to drop deep is still important, despite movement away from the base defense—the linebacker is critical to allowing the safeties to cover the sidelines. Deep pass prevention is more important than some people give it credit for in this system; out of all inside linebackers, Jasper Brinkley allowed the fourth most yards in the air (as a percentage of total yards allowed).

Of course, man-to-man coverage is good, so it's not something to be ignored. As soon as a receiver or tight end enters the seam, the Mike will need to transition to man-to-man coverage on the inside receiver.

The last coverage ability that could be of note is quick, explosive closing speed not just to get to the ball in the air, but to prevent yards after the catch. The entire philosophy of the Tampa-2 is to force passers to move down the progression ladder and settle for short gains, which requires that players limit those short gains.

Obviously, there are not many unique qualities to a 4-3 middle linebacker in the run game for Tampa-2 linebackers then there are for other systems, but the Tampa-2 linebacker will generally be more in tune with their nose tackle—both will attempt to force the ball-carriers to the weak-side linebacker.

Read/react in the run game is always important for Mike linebackers, but slightly less so in the Tampa-2 "Over" system than other ones—the reads are slightly easier because the gap assignment that the Mike has in the "Over" system is the strong-side "A" gap, made easier by the fact that the guard over the gap will be occupied by the 3-technique tackle and the nose tackle should occupy the center.

Because the Sam/Strong-side linebacker will generally be tasked with taking on the lead blocker stack/shed ability is important, but not as important. The Mike will still find themselves taking on roving guards and tight ends, so it is still a very useful skill. But, it does help that the system is designed to move the tougher read responsibilities to the Will/Weak-side linebacker and tougher stack/shed responsibilities to the Sam.

But the offense knows blocking math, so the Mike will always have to deal with blocks in the run game. At any rate, navigating traffic and finding ball-carriers is about as important as taking on blocks for Mikes in the Vikings' system.

Out of all the teams in the NFL, the Vikings blitz the least, so pass-rushing capability is somewhat negligible. This could be a chicken-and-egg problem, but the Vikings still generate top-ten pressure without linebacker pressure.

With that in mind, there's a big board to provide, especially now that Jasper Brinkley is gone. This big board is sensitive to those particular qualities and not a general evaluation of overall ability—linebackers listed high or low here might have different positional value or much more value in other schemes.

1. Alec Ogletree - Georgia 6'3", 242 pounds

Ogletree is the most explosive linebacker in the class. There is no question that he has the combination of power and speed that make for effective linebackers, and it's not quite close. There are athletic linebackers like Khaseem Greene and Arthur Brown and strong linebackers like Nico Johnson and Kevin Minter, but Ogletree has an excellent combination of both.

He's very fluid, has the ability to play man-to-man in coverage and is extremely quick. With sideline-to-sideline speed and excellent pursuit, he's always around the ball. He also recognizes play-action well and has incredible length for a linebacker. Having added weight but maintaining speed, I only see two issues. The first is that he doesn't take on blockers extremely well. He knows how to avoid blocks, but gets stuck on without a great use of hands. He does show an ability to improve his technique—and has done so at Georgia.

The second problem is a legitimate red flag—he has some minor durability concerns (he missed six games with a broken foot in 2011), but more important has off-field character concerns. In 2010, he was suspended one game for theft (it was a motor scooter helmet, worth $35). In 2012, he was suspended four games for violating unspecified team rules (rumored to be drug-related) and was charged for a DUI at the worst possible time—right before the combine.

Alec Ogletree is a player I would be comfortable trading up five or six places to get.

Georgia's suspension policy is one of the strictest in the nation, and is not a good barometer for determining red flags. At LSU and Alabama, for example, one gets a free pass for testing positive and misses two games at most for testing positive a second time. Ogletree was only suspended once, which is a warning sign, but not the same thing as a suspension at another program by any means. It also means Ogletree didn't test positive again.

Ogletree also has positive intangibles. On the field and in the film room, he's often been an example. He has a reportedly very strong work ethic and loves to watch tape, which shows up in his play. He motivates his teammates and handles most of the checks and audibles. Clear leadership capabilities and a good team leader.

The DUI was just dumb, however. No defending that.

2. Arthur Brown - Kansas State 6'0", 241 pounds

Arthur Brown was able to gain weight and still maintain his excellent speed at the combine. That's great for him because speed is his greatest asset. That's saying a lot because his scouting report is filled with "pluses" and very few "minuses".

He has the best backpedal of the upper-to-mid-tier linebackers and can drop deep with the best of them. He's a far better man-to-man player than he is a zone player, but that doesn't mean he's bad at zone coverage. Like Ogletree, he has upper-tier fluidity, showcased by the ability to flip his hips well in transition. He's not nearly as powerful as Ogletree, so he doesn't have the same ability to limit yards after the catch.

Unfortunately, he is used to doing a lot of stuff at the top of the route that he might not get away with, and that is definitely part of his physical style. He doesn't give as good as he gets at times and more physical tight ends can move him around in coverage. He could do better exploding out of backpedal, but that is a bit nitpicky. He still has good closing speed and contests passes. He doesn't have the length that Ogletree does, however, even if he has the ball skills.

By the way, here's a fun note: Arthur Brown broke Geno Smiths interception-less streak (31 TDs, 283 passes) and Robert Griffin III's interception-less streak (14 TDs, over 140 passes).

Brown has an elite combination (for a linebacker) of agility in speed and has done a good job containing mobile quarterbacks, often asked to be the "spy" against those with a threat to run. He has better instincts in the run than the pass, but they are both up there. He also exceeds Ogletree's capability in the run game, but has a lower upside, as his frame may have completely filled out at 241, unlike Ogletree who has more muscle to gain.

The Kansas State product is a very good pass-rusher despite his size and knows how to use his body. Ogletree does not possess this capability.

Brown has a natural use of hands when taking on blocks, sheds well and doesn't get locked down as easily, although plays against a weaker slate of opponents. He also has good pursuit, both in speed and taking angles. Brown has slightly better instincts than Ogletree, and has similar reports of a strong work ethic on the field and when watching film. He's very disciplined and is also known as a leader on the field.

3. Manti Te'o - Notre Dame, 6'1" 241 pounds

Manti Te'o is good at football and people seem to have forgotten that. He had one bad game one month removed from the season against the best team in the country amidst the most puzzling media storm a college player may have had to face, and he suddenly drops to the second round from a top fifteen pick? I agree that because his intangibles were the reason he was rated higher than Ogletree, he deserved to tumble down boards. I also agree that the BCS National Championship game should depress his stock. I think both of those things have decreased his stock to a much more than reasonable degree. Obviously he will face a lot of pressure in the NFL and he needs to know how to deal with that, but it doesn't erase good games against Michigan, Michigan State, Florida, USC or Oklahoma. Hell, he has an interception against Navy, and I didn't know they even threw the ball.

With that out of the way, Manti Te'o is not a perfect fit for the Tampa-2 and may be the third best overall inside linebacker in a generic sense. He has surprising coverage skills given his poor long speed, but part of that is due to quick burst—evidenced by his much faster than average 1.62 10-yard split at the combine. Naturally, this makes him better in zone than man coverage, but he might be underrated in man coverage. He has good awareness in zones and gets to the ball quickly in the air—he'll very often have his hands on it. You don't get seven interception and 11 pass breakups for nothing, although he did benefit from tipped balls at the line, etc.

Te'o has surprising range, although I wish I could have seen more of his deep coverage capability. He's very instinctive when sussing out plays, making him much less vulnerable to play action and a force against constraint plays, like screens and draws. One NFL scouting report calls him too "stiff and upright" in backpedal (it has been endlessly repeated). I think this is an early judgment from the beginning of the year. His backpedal is not elite or anything, but he has significantly improved it over the course of his career and there was clear improvement over the season. He gets to his landmarks quickly and has fine lateral change-of-direction skills. Turning his hips 90-180 degree is very difficult, which is why he is better on top of his coverage.

His quick closing ability meshes well with some of the schematic requirements, too. That burst shows up in the run game, too. He's very powerful, both in his upper and lower body. Te'o has a natural ability to shed blocks, both because of his strength and technique. He's a downhill attacker who trusts his instincts a lot to make plays—with a natural understanding of how to attack different types of blocking schemes in the run game. He understands leverage in the game. That is reflected insofar as he doesn't just get low, but he finds ways to keep his hips outside of blockers and can break down tackles pretty well—although the desire to get the big hit forces him to miss some of those tackles, too.

Look, Te'o has shown he can stay hip-to-hip against shifty slot receivers and makes a good number of tackles for loss. He's instinctive and much more athletic than his extremely mediocre 40-time would have you believe. He's not the best fit in the defense, but neither is he a bad fit—he simply needs more film dropping deep. He and Kevin Minter are the most intelligent linebackers (on the field, obviously) in the class, although Te'o's instincts and intelligence were late-breaking in his career. He's also an extremely hard worker who demonstrates consistent, year-to-year improvement.

4. Jon Bostic - Florida 6'1", 245 pounds

Bostic is not the fourth-best inside linebacker in the class. But he is the fourth-best MLB in the Vikings' scheme. Kevin Minter and even Manti Te'o are better pure overall players, but they both lack solid skills that make them clear-cut better fits than Bostic. After this point, the Tampa-2 fits start falling by the wayside, and the superior generic linebackers start to take over.

Bostic is not a man-to-man cover linebacker, but he is very good in zones, with solid natural play in zones, intuition, instinct and burst. His best attribute is short-area quickness and can change direction quickly. He can close quickly once the ball is lofted, although he really doesn't have long speed after the initial burst. He also needs to have better fluidity, which means he'll have to stick with zone fundamentals, which he at least has mastered.

He can pick up on receivers well and takes very few false steps, so he doesn't have to recover (which he can do adequately, despite his stiffness). His instincts against the pass are generally OK, but I would like to see him tested deep more often. He has done well in the few tests I saw, however.

As a run defender, he is aggressive and trusts his insticts, but he doesn't shed blocks very well. He still pushes lead blockers back, which is very useful. Still, when he's locked up, he isn't great. Perhaps the worst at shedding blockers in this group, even though he consistently wins the leverage battle. He can still avoid blockers well with his strong hands. Otherwise he has good strength and breaks down tackles well—great form. He also has plus pursuit ability, with better-than-average speed and a good mind for angles.

He needs better instincts against the run, but generally recognizes the play well. Like Brown, he can get sucked into play action.

He has athleticism to improve, and has a lot of ability to become a man-to-man cover 'backer over time. As it is, not a crucial skillset.

5. A.J. Klein - Iowa State, 6'1" 241 pounds

Klein represents perhaps the next tier of linebackers that remain good in coverage while also sticking solidly against the run. Iowa State trusted Klein with a variety of responsibilities, and his ability to hit his zone landmarks with accuracy and speed regardless of depth makes him a very good Tampa-2 linebacker prospect. He can burst to the ball and gets to the right places. Klein is even better than his three interceptions over the past two season implies and he has good instincts in the zone. This comes mostly from his ability to read a quarterback's eyes and track a defender's route. He's a good match in all sorts of coverage systems because he also has matchup zone experience.

He is not as strong in man coverage, often losing leverage at the break. He doesn't jam receivers off the line well, but that isn't something Minnesota has asked of its middle linebackers. His short-area quickness makes him ill-suited for many man coverage responsibilities in general. Again, not really a concern in the Tampa-2, and he more than makes up for it with solid management of underneath zones.

Klein has worked with complicated run fits as well, and is very consistent in getting to his assigned space. He doesn't get tricked out of place or take false steps and he knows how to get to the ball-carrier. Both his stack/shed and navigation through traffic abilities are well-developed and it shows up on film time and again. He is a high motor player that displays good effort and anticipation in pursuit, even if he doesn't have elite athleticism.

The Cyclone has strong leadership skills and well established intangibles; he's known as a hard worker with versatility and a high football IQ.

6. Jake Knott - Iowa State, 6'2" 243 pounds

Knott seems built for the Tampa-2. He's dropped on a lot of boards because of an injury, which I'll get to later. He doesn't get to the quarterback well, but he's got every basic skill you want in a Mike linebacker. I understand that this is the biggest surprise on the board, but he's a real talent that fits the Vikings' scheme to a T.

Knott is polished in coverage and has the agility to stick with receivers in many different types of routes. Mostly, his ability to recognize offenses and routes makes him an effective zone player who knows where to go. He has a very good backpedal and can get to his landmarks quickly, regardless of depth. He times well, bursts out of his backpedal, maintains good spacing and can high-point the ball. He has good ball skills (four interceptions in the last 20 games) and awareness.

Against the run, Knott is an effective player that knows how to hit the gaps running and gets to his assignment quickly. What's better is that he's clearly extremely intelligent on the field, diagnoses the play and doesn't get fooled by draw plays or play-action fakes. He is very aware of his keys and reads multiple levels of the play quickly to make correct decisions. Sometimes Knott is asked to navigate traffic, which he can do very well, slipping by blocks or avoiding offensive players. Other times he's asked to take on guards or fullbacks, which he has the strength, leverage and size to do. He often wins in the run game.

He also does a good job of creating fumbles, and has 10 in his career at Iowa State. His 347 tackles are the most in Iowa State history and the fifth best in Big 12 history.

Knott would probably be a better prospect than teammate Klein were it not for what is probably an overblown injury. The damage to his shoulder wasn't such that further play would damage it, he simply elected to get surgery early to get a jump start on the rehabilitation and be ready for the NFL. He had a career game against Baylor while the shoulder was injured, which was painful but not risky.

The real worry is that the shoulder injury was a recurrence of a previous shoulder injury. His intangibles are through the roof, however. Not only has he displayed a lot of grit on the field, he's an acknowledged leader on the field, who sets defensive checks despite playing on the outside. He consistently corrects defensive alignments and is well known as a film-room junkie. He's also a recognized scholar at Iowa State and spends a lot of time tutoring younger players.

7. Kevin Minter - LSU, 6'0" 246 pounds

Interestingly, Minter has a good argument to be the best inside linebacker in the group, but simply doesn't have the deep speed or capability to effectively control large zones deep downfield. It is simply a case of having more talent at a set of skills that don't really line up with everything the Vikings need. He doesn't have the burst in coverage to limit YAC. His deep drop is extremely worrisome as he has a terrible backpedal and poor lateral agility. No kidding, he turns around and puts his back to the QB to get to deeper zone spots. That's very bad.

Minter is very good in man coverage, however, but it is entirely distinct from his play in zone. He understands how to close separation and make it difficult to reel in a catch for tight ends and running backs running up the seam. For most teams, this fits well schematically, but the Vikings need to push people around with their zones instead of follow them (for the most part) and so is not as highly valued a skill. He also will draw a lot of flags at the next level.

As a zone defender, he simply is not very good. Like I said, he doesn't move backwards or laterally and is a hair late reacting to the ball. Luckily, this may be due to a lack of coaching and not instinct, as he can read the quarterback well and move around. He doesn't high-point the ball or hold on to the ball, but deflections are sometimes underrated. Not a game-changer in zone coverage.

He could be the most intelligent linebacker in a strong class, given his ability to avoid getting tricked by any number of fakes. Minter has an intuitive understanding of how a team's offense is progressing that likely comes both from football instinct and intense film study and leads a complex defense with a changing set of checks and audibles. He knows where he needs to be and maintains his assignments. Generally speaking, Minter has very good read/react in general, even if he does not trust himself in zone coverage.

Minter is a very good run defender who not only knows exactly where to be, but how to shed blocks with an impressive variety of methods to shed blocks, including an RB-like spin move that is shockingly effective. He maintains gap and assignment discipline when necessary and has the latitude to be aggressive given how correct his instincts are. He takes on blocks well, sheds them well, avoids them well and tackles well. A great package against the run with good form all-around.

8. Kiko Alonso - Oregon, 6'3" 250 pounds

Kiko Alonso added the bulk he needed to be considered a serious middle linebacker prospect, and still maintained a good speed during his Pro Day. Alonso is an athlete with tons of range demonstrating speed going downhill, laterally, and in backpedal. He seems to be the perfect pattern-match linebacker that has good anticipation of routes, solid instinct and decisionmaking in zones and the ability to match receivers hip-to-hip. He knows how to sit underneath routes

Unlike Klein, he has very good change-of-direction skills with a smooth transition. He positions himself well, and has a good number of interceptions and pass deflections to his name. With good closing speed, he does have the ability to meet the receiver at the ball even in large zones. It should project to underneath zone management as well.

While not a big deal for the Vikings, Alonso is one of the better pass-rushers in the inside linebacker class.

His solid athleticism also shows up in the run game. He's very aggressive and reacts quickly to mistakes by blockers—he generally acts faster than the play can develop. Slower running plays are not very effective against Oregon and Alonso is a big reason. His agility allows him to bait blockers into lunging or taking the wrong angle in order to give him a leverage advantage. This isn't the fastest way to beat a block, but it is effective. He will get swallowed up by bigger blockers once they've established contact and he could get locked away. The Duck has strong hands but not great technique.

He's very active, has a high motor, finds himself all over the field and plays with intensity. He has some discipline issues on and off the field, however, with multiple arrests plaguing his non-football life and overaggressive play on the field putting him out of position and in bad pursuit angles. He also has poor tackling technique and tries to go for the big (sometimes illegal) hit.

9. Sio Moore - Connecticut, 6'1" 245 pounds

A defensive back convert, Sio Moore makes the list because of his plus coverage skills. Every outside linebacker included seems to have been a former defensive back, which is exactly the type of player that fits the role of the Mike in the Tampa-2, although you still fundamentally want a linebacker. Sio Moore is a good prospect, although he is naturally better outside. He has played every linebacker position, however, and even played as a 4-3 defensive end.

Moore's combine numbers don't show up on the field, but he still is effective in coverage. He has a lot of experience in both man and zone coverage responsibilities and plays well in both. He can stay with a number of tight ends and running backs, and does a good job maintaining his duties as a coverage player, making sure to close windows and stay tight to the receiver. He doesn't have great ball skills, but is generally int he right place.

He's very good in run support and has shown an ability to play his responsibilities from each position he's held on the field. He isn't as solid a run defender on the edges, but knows how to get into the backfield and make plays. He also maintains discipline when necessary and will accept a role of forcing a running back into another player if it means holding back. He can get swallowed up by blockers, but does use leverage well. Has a low pad level, although it doesn't let him disengage.

As a tackler, Moore is a very powerful hitter, and has the rare ability to wrap up when laying down the wood.

His versatility means his true value to the Vikings is probably more than as the #9 linebacker on the Vikings board, but purely as an inside linebacker, he won't exceed players like Kiko Alonso.

10. Khaseem Greene - Rutgers, 6'1" 241 pounds

An outside linebacker who's used to using the boundary as an extra tackler, Greene likely has a lot to learn to fully transition to the inside. Greene moves all over the field, and is well known for his athleticism—a bit of a false reputation. He merely has very good instincts, reaction time and solid placement. He always does seem to be near the ball and has good lateral agility, but not very much downhill speed.

Being a former safety, his greatest strength is coverage. He gets depth pretty quickly and can maintain coverage with faster tight ends and running backs. He is very comfortable in zone coverage.

To that end, he isn't ideal—he's straddling the line between heavy safety and light linebacker, and doesn't look like he can add more weight. That said, he can still make plays. He can flip his hips well in the transition and generally has fluidity. He breaks up plays both down the field and in underneath coverage.

Over his time at Rutgers, he's improved his tackling form, which is a good sign; he wraps up well now. Along with that improvement in tacking form has come improvement in awareness and a greater ability to be drawn in by fakes, although he needs to work on it.

While he has soft hands, he doesn't always locate the ball in the air, but he does close passing windows. Against the run, he doesn't do a good job navigating traffic and can't really take blockers head on. He slips by them easily enough, but that's not a consistent skill to rely on in the NFL. He does create a lot of turnovers by forcing fumbles, though, and it's a natural proclivity that he has.

A slight build and somewhat of an injury history creates some flags, although the biggest worry is that he'll be run over. He also doesn't have experience at inside linebacker, which is one of the reasons he's lower on this list.

11. Jelani Jenkins - Florida 6'1" 237 pounds

Jenkins is best known as an undersized outside linebacker, but he has played a variety of positions in the Florida defense, and even had playcalling duties over Jon Bostic. Were he to be described in one word, it would be "speed". Jenkins is fast in nearly every capacity of the game, playing quickly laterally, downhill and getting back. His combine scores (4.65 40-yard dash, 4.28 short shuttle, 6.97 3-cone, 1.61 10-yard split) reflect that.

With a good combination of agility and speed, Jenkins has the capability to get anywhere on the field in a hurry. He can cover shifty slot receivers or players who rely on straight-line speed. He has good instincts, which helps him in zone play, and is a natural at most of the fundamentals. He reads the quarterback's eyes and has a good break on the ball.

He doesn't meet all the requirements of a good Mike, however. While he has the natural instincts to play in zone coverage—as well as the range and speed—cleaning up underneath zones requires a surer tackler and a stronger body. He needs to bulk up so he can drive through tackles. He already has solid tackle form and plays with abandon, but without more strength, he'll be exploited by running backs and tight ends even in the passing game.

This shows up in the run game, where he does poorly when taken head-on in blocks. He sidesteps blockers with some regularity, and his agility will find him making big plays for loss. But many times he will also miss tackles. He doesn't navigate traffic particularly well but he does have a good nose for the play.

Jenkins had a very, very good 2011, but a relatively weak 2012 and an injury history that had him leave several games early deservedly dropped his stock.

12. DeVonte Holloman - South Carolina, 6'2'" 243 pounds

Well known as a bit of a physical phenom, Holloman proved during the Senior Bowl that he's a smart linebacker who picks up on new information quickly. His switch from safety to "Spur" has been relatively recent and he plays zone coverage much, much better than most linebackers, thanks to a good grasp of the fundamentals and more nuanced zone play. The "sSpur" position is a hybrid position between safety and linebacker, although he has also been asked to rush the passer.

Holloman lined up in the slot fairly often to cover receivers and tight ends, and did a very good job of it. He's more natural in zone than man coverage, and can't smoothly transition if lined up in tight man coverages—the transition is a bit of a struggle for him. That's not a big deal, as his instincts in zone coverage are very well developed. He has good acceleration and can close on the ball or the receiver well. The Gamecock also has the ability to anticipate the ball, undercut routes and make plays on the ball in the air, all a result of very good timing.

He's basically developed a large catalog of routes and recognizes many of them pre-snap. He also anticipates route options and seems familiar with many offensive principles. He doesn't often bite on WR moves, and can usually determine what WRs will do based on body language.

His closing speed allows him to fulfill a lot of the duties of a Tampa-2 MLB, as he will limit YAC. In addition, it gives him an advantage in the run game, something he has done surprisingly well with in the transition to linebacker. Again, he has good anticipation pre-snap of run fits and has good awareness as the play develops. He's willing to free up others by aggressively taking on blockers, but doesn't do the best once they lock on, as he can be moved around. He needs to improve the use of his hands.

Holloman can combine big hitting with solid form and will usually choose the latter if forced to make the choice.

He still needs to add strength to be a very effective linebacker at the next level, but has most of the skills you need. He's not a great blitzer.

Holloman doesn't have a large injury history, and generally has good intangibles. Despite a DUI two years ago, he's generally recognized as having good character; he's made several honor rolls and was named Scholar Athelre of the year in 2010. Generally a coach on the field. In the "Spur" position he was consistently tasked with taking on the responsibility of lining up the defense and calling out checks, which he did well.

13. Jonathan Stewart - Texas A&M, 6'4" 244 pounds

Stewart has the size and speed to play the Mike position, but gets knocked for not aggressively attacking gaps and staying at the second level, something that may have been a scheme issue. He seems uncomfortable in a 4-3, but still can be a playmaker who just needs more experience in the system.

The Aggie does a very good job of reading defenses and acting accordingly, and isn't caught out of position all too often. His range (despite relatively short arms) is good enough to create serious problems in the passing game. He can move laterally and downhill with some speed, but will probably have to improve his ability to get depth when necessary. Definitely has a good burst and can get to the ball when needed, although sometimes will take false steps and may be out of place. Even then, he's a disciplined player who plays his assignment outside of any individual accolades he might get from freelancing.

Stewart is a powerful hitter with good form, but needs to improve his timing attacking the ball-carrier. He can figure out the flow of the play and knows where the running back is going to be, but doesn't attack as aggressively as you might hope. While he's enthusiastic taking on blockers, Stewart is not very good at shedding them. He needs to break down his open-field tackles a little better, but doesn't need too much work in that respect.

His athleticism gives him the potential to do better, especially because he is very well-versed in diagnosing plays.

14. Kevin Reddick - North Carolina, 6'1" 243 pounds

Like almost every North Carolina linebacker, Kevin Reddick is very athletic. He also has more strength for his size than most linebackers. Reddick has his experience in the middle, which would have made him a better fit at MLB than many others on the list, but he's not really a Tampa-2 guy.

He's a liability in coverage as it stands, but has room for improvement given his athletic skill set. As it stands right now, he doesn't fit within what the Vikings will ask of their middle linebackers. His backpedal is very sloppy and he'll turn his body in order to get depth on his drops.

Despite good lateral agility, his change-of-direction is very poor and he has stiff hips that don't open easily. While he closes on the ball well, he is often too out of position to consistently make a difference as a pass defender. Receivers that move across his zone also force him to struggle and he doesn't have the ability to control the passing lane or throwing window. He also needs every play to happen in front of him because he doesn't adjust well to routes that force the ball behind him. In the passing game, he simply is just a much, much better blitzer.

Reddick is very good in run support, providing both power and accuracy when launching himself at gaps and running backs. He wraps up his tackles when square on, but doesn't adjust well when he doesn't have the runner in his sights. His agility problems reveal themselves in traffic, where he can't navigate through a crowded field to make the play.

He's usually in position on running plays, and he generally diagnoses the basics of the running play very well, although he does bite on play action and draw fakes. He also isn't great in pursuit, given that he takes poor angles. Reddick has the strength and technical capability to shed blocks—he has textbook stack and shed form, although he isn't always using those moves and seems to give up on some run plays.

Reddick might strictly be a 3-4 linebacker and wouldn't fit the Vikings scheme in the slightest.

15. Albert Rosette - Nevada, 6'2" 245 pounds

Interestingly, Rosette has played both as a 4-3 defensive end and as a middle linebacker. He didn't gain weight to play defensive end and had a very good season that year, all things considering. He's a natural middle linebacker, however, that has a lot of room to improve.

Rosette's greatest strength is his strong knowledge of the game and instinctive play. He's not nearly as refined in his instincts as the top linebackers in the class, but it's clear that he uses them well. Unfortunately, he doesn't really have the athleticism to turn his good instincts into a complete asset. His ability to intuit the game or diagnose plays isn't so great that he makes up for deficiencies and will still find himself out of place. While this is rare, it's enough to cause pause in investing in intelligence over athleticism.

He won't get to his zone landmarks in time in a Tampa-2 scheme, but can still perform many of the other responsibilities, including closing on the defender and wrapping up well. Despite reading the quarterback, he still won't usually get to the right place unless the ball is thrown without too much zip. He's not agile enough to deal with players who have experience boxing out defenders, nor does he have the positional sense to control the passing lanes.

He is much worse in man coverage, where he'll often lose his receiver.

Rosette is a very good run defender, though, and like many of the run pluggers in this list, knows where to go and how to execute his assignment. He doesn't play overaggressively like some and has the discipline to fill his gap. Here, his anticipation pays off as he can do a good job avoiding blockers and getting to the ball-carrier. Unfortunately a lack of strength will move him around when locked on or even give up a few yards after making contact.

16. Michael Mauti - Penn State, 6'2'" 243 pounds

Mauti isn't the most physically impressive prospect; he has neither dominant strength or blinding speed, but he knows where he needs to be, gains a step with good instincts and doesn't often take false steps.

The problem is that Mauti is largely an outside linebacker who really only has experience on the outside, playing the Sam position (on the strong side). Still, he's being discussed as an MLB so I included him, even though he's not a fit there for the Vikings.

Despite good instincts in general, he's not a great player in zone; both because he doesn't get to the right landmarks in time and because he can't break on the ball particularly well. At Penn State, he played closer to the line, which helped disguise some weaknesses, but is probably a good indicator of his overall strength covering in space.

Against the run, he knows where he needs to be, reads the play well and fills up holes to prevent the running back from bursting through. He's solid in run support overall, although he needs to have more technique when taking on lead blockers. He has good strength for his position that generally allows him to stay put when blocked.

Mauti's biggest issue is a very extensive injury history, including ACL tears on both knees. He may have slowed down even more as a result and seems to play somewhat tentatively. He is a fantastic leader and has very positive intangible qualities, however.

17. Nico Johnson - Alabama, 6'2'" 248 pounds

I'm not entirely sure why Johnson has been given a relatively high grade by a number of scouting agencies—I've seen him at the bottom of the third/early fourth, which is unusual for a player that didn't even play the majority of snaps for his position. He's not a lineman, who might be expected to rotate, so it's sort of puzzling.

Johnson is so bad at coverage, that Alabama didn't just take him off in passing downs; they took him off of every down that wasn't an obvious running down, and started very few games for Alabama.

In coverage, you would rather have him defending in a zone than in man, because he lacks the flexibility and fluidity you want to cover tight ends and running backs. He also lacks speed and agility, so would be flummoxed by more agile players. He's still not good in zone, as he doesn't have the awareness to defend a zone, much less the larger zone you need to defend in the Tampa-2.

He hasn't shown an ability to break to the ball or read a quarterback's eyes. More than that, he doesn't have route recognition or the ability to jump underneath routes. It's not simply that he isn't a playmaker, it's that he's a liability. His greatest asset, however, is an ability to limit YAC, even though he is known for taking poor angles in the open field.

Johnson is a very good run defender, however. Not only does he have a somewhat intuitive understanding of run fits and where he needs to be, and he wraps up his tackles well. What's interesting is that he doesn't hit ball-carriers with a ton of power, but he will play everywhere else with a lot of physicality. He is very refined as a run defender, given that he has subtle footwork and hand technique to shed blockers. He can avoid blockers, too, if need be.

Unsurprisingly, he has core, leg and upper body strength, all of which he uses to dominate in the run game. But he's very limited. He might end up being a backup, but he really just projects as a one-dimensional 3-4 linebacker who needs help on passing downs.

18. Vince Williams - Florida State, 6'1" 247 pounds

Williams is another old-fashioned downhill run plugger with weaknesses against the pass. While he's consistently been a performer for Florida State, there are weaknesses in his game that would make him a poor fit for the Vikings.

Against the pass, he lacks both the burst to get to the ball in zone coverage and the instincts to time his moves correctly. He's not laterally quick and he improved his coverage skills at the Senior Bowl, but his limited athletic upside and his history of playing poorly against the pass do not speak well of him. He's worse in man coverage as he can't play a trail technique, but putting him in an important zone—something Florida State rarely did—is asking for a lot of trouble. Stiffness and poor agility make him a two-down linebacker at best.

When defending the run, he's versatile, instinctive and strong. He reads the keys properly, although he will get sucked in by play-action passes, and finds where he needs to be to make the play. He can shoot gaps or play to redirect running backs and has good closing speed in pursuit. He breaks down tackles well in the open field and wraps his arms with his head up on most tackles. With a very strong body, he isn't often blown off the ball or pushed aside. He still needs more technique work to displace blockers, but is nevertheless effective. He hits hard, too.

19. Steve Beauharnais - Rutgers, 6'1" 240 pounds

Beauharnais plays at a strength that exceeds his weight, but is still not overly strong. What hurts Beauharnais the most is that he doesn't have any athletic ability that stands out as elite.

He does get to his zone markers in coverage, although he wasn't asked to drop deep too often. But he doesn't have the quickness to really play in coverage, either in man or zone. He wasn't tested in coverage as much as I liked because Rutgers took him off on passing downs. From what I could tell, he doesn't get a headstart in coverage because he doesn't read the release well to break on the ball. While he has recorded interceptions, he's not reliable enough in the passing game to keep him on the field.

As a run defender, he's a little bit better, although he still needs to add strength. He understands leverage, and he uses this understanding when shedding blockers to get to the ball-carrier or the quarterback. At the point of attack, he does have a suddenness that makes him difficult to block and he's always moving his feet to gain position against lead blockers. He generally has good form when tackling and knows how to generate additional power.

He is, however, usually a step late and doesn't have the type of gap integrity that is so important when defending against zone running teams. He will get better, but it will take time in the weight room and on the practice field. His ceiling is a bit higher thanks to his natural strength and frame, but he doesn't fit well inside in the Tampa-2.


I hope to do other positions in time; this one was quite fun. Hopefully, this informs, inspires debate, or makes my comments make more sense. If it does any of those three, I think I've accomplished my goal. I understand that some of my rankings are unusual (Jake Knott is listed as a UDFA outside linebacker pickup by CBS), but I have my reasons for putting players where they are.

Which position do you want me to rank the prospects in next?