The Minnesota Vikings have not had adequate play from their middle linebackers since E.J. Henderson broke his leg in 2009. Henderson tried, but was never able to regain the explosiveness and athleticism that made him one of the better tacklers in the league.
Over the last two seasons, the team tried Jasper Brinkley in 2012 and E.J.’s younger brother, Erin, in 2013, but still could not excel in the Tampa-2 defensive scheme of former head coach Leslie Frazier.
Out with the coaching staff and system. Enter new head coach Mike Zimmer and an emphasis on stopping the run.
With the new scheme designed to play downhill and in the backfield, Brinkley was brought back after he spent last season with the Arizona Cardinals. His time in the desert didn’t exactly work out. He will be battling with third-year veteran Audie Cole and and second-year veteran Michael Mauti.
Cole and Mauti were seventh round draft picks in each of the last two drafts. Brinkley was a fifth round draft pick. All three have exceeded their draft positions, but the Vikings still need to upgrade the top end talent. Here are the top five inside linebackers in the draft as well as an underrated, an overrated and a sleeper prospect.
No. 1 - C.J. Mosley, Alabama
Mosley has been the only middle linebacker likely to be selected in the first round of the draft for several months. He has the athleticism, strength, physicality, toughness and football-IQ to be a longtime starter in the NFL. The only thing keep him from being a top-10 lock is that he has a tendency to lack proper form when making tackles.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 234-pound former Crimson Tide finished his senior season with 108 total tackles, nine tackles for a loss, five pass breakups, five passes defensed, 10 quarterback hurries and one forced fumble.
No. 2 - Chris Borland, Wisconsin
Borland is a classic overachiever. He does not have the ideal size or athleticism or speed. But, on game days, he makes plays. He is a smart player that relies on making the correct read and fighting his way to the ball. He is not a sideline-to-sideline player, but excels in traffic.
The 6-foot, 248-pound former Badger finished his redshirt season with 112 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks, two pass breakups, two passes defensed, six quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles. He has drawn comparisons to long-time NFL starter Zach Thomas.
No. 3 - Christian Jones, Florida State
Jones is one of the better athletes among the inside linebackers in the draft. He is fluid in his footwork and hips. He can cover tight ends, running backs and wide receivers down the middle of the field. That athleticism and size make a perfect fit for the Vikings old scheme - the Tampa-2. He has a tendency to play too high because of his frame and can get out of position.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 240-pound former Seminole finished his senior season with 56 total tackles, eight tackles for a loss, two sacks, one interception, one pass defensed and six quarterback hurries.
No. 4 - Max Bullough, Michigan State
Bullough was the heart and soul of one of the best defenses in the nation. He did not help himself for the next level though at the East-West Shrine Game after missing the Rose Bowl because of a suspension. It was reported by the Tampa Times that he weighed in at 20 pounds heavier than his playing weight. His stock has taken a dive, but he is a sound tackler with a high football-IQ and good play recognition skills.
The 6-foot-4-inch, 249-pound former Spartan finished his senior season with 76 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, two pass breakups, 10 quarterback hurries and one forced fumble.
No. 5 - Shayne Skov, Stanford
Skov’s name could have been right up there with the best had it not been for two torn ACL’s in collegiate career. He has ideal size and physicality, but does not have the explosiveness or athleticism he had before the injuries. He can make plays in traffic around the line of scrimmage. His scheme flexibility may be limited.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 245-pound former Cardinal finished his redshirt senior season with 109 total tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks, four pass breakups, four passes defensed, 10 quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles.
Underrated - James Morris, Iowa
Morris anchored one of the better linebacking corps in the country. He is a physical tackler with good technique and play recognition skills. He has good size and production. He does not have ideal athleticism or speed, but plays a hard-nosed, tenacious style that has made a lot of middle linebackers successful in the NFL.
The 6-foot-1-inch, 241-pound former Hawkeye finished his senior season with 106 total tackles, 17 tackles for a loss, seven sacks, four interceptions, three pass breakups, seven passes defensed, two quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery and two forced fumbles.
Overrated - Lamin Barrow, LSU
Barrow is more athlete than football player. He has the size and athleticism to be an NFL football player, but lacks the proper tackling technique and play recognition skills. He consistently tries to grab onto the ballcarrier and drag them to the ground rather than wrap up and drive. He has position flexibility and probably will be better outside and on special teams than in the middle.
The 6-foot-1-inch, 237-pound former Tiger finished his redshirt senior season with 91 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, two pass breakups, two passes defensed, two quarterback hurries and one fumble recovery.
Sleeper - Marquis Spruill, Syracuse
Spruill is athletic and a bit undersized, but all he did was produce for Syracuse from day one. He started all but one game over his four years. He is an explosive hitter with a mean streak. He can play any linebacker position with the athleticism and fluidity to play in coverage and the physicality and strength to play in traffic. He has room to improve the mental aspects of the game.
The 6-foot-1-inch, 231-pound former Orange finished his senior season with 66 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries and one fumble recovery.