NFL draft preview: Linebackers, defensive line

  • Updated: April 21, 2012 - 8:45 AM

The Vikings need help on the defensive front, but likely won't need to use a first-round pick to fill it.

Are middle linebackers underrated?

The No. 1 need in the Vikings' front seven is smack dab in the center at middle linebacker.

E.J. Henderson, who turns 32 in August, remains unsigned. His heir apparent, Jasper Brinkley, is coming off hip surgery that wiped out his entire 2011 season. And the other options include newly signed Marvin Mitchell, who has two career starts, and moving Erin Henderson, which would then create a hole on the weak side.

The Vikings won't address the position in the first round. But fortunately for them, it's well established that teams don't have to spend a first-round pick to acquire a starting-caliber middle linebacker.

The Vikings don't have to look too far for shining examples of this NFL trend. E.J. Henderson, who started 105 games for the Vikings, was a second-round pick (40th overall) in 2003. And, better yet, linebackers coach Mike Singletary went from the 38th overall pick of the Bears in 1982 to arguably the best middle linebacker in NFL history.

A year ago, the first inside linebacker wasn't taken until the third round, when the Broncos took North Carolina State's Nate Irving 67th overall. This year's crop is significantly better and could see its No. 1 prospect, Boston College's Luke Kuechly, go in the top 12.

As for the Vikings, a player to watch at the top of the second round (35th overall) is Alabama's Dont'a Hightower. He's a 6-2, 265-pounder with strong instincts, athleticism and tackling skills. Whether he's fast enough to handle the coverage responsibilities in the Tampa 2 would be the primary concern in taking him.

One of the faster middle linebackers is Mychal Kendricks of California. He's smallish at 5-11, 240 pounds, but he's also tough, strong and comes with 4.47 speed in the 40-yard dash.

Like a lot of college middle linebackers, Kendricks doesn't enter the draft as a hot prospect. He's projected by some as a third-round selection.

The Vikings have nine picks in Rounds 2 through 7, so don't be surprised if they use one of them on a guy who plays the most underrated of all the front seven positions: middle linebacker.

Today is Day 6 of the Star Tribune's position-by-position preview of the NFL draft April 26-28 in New York City.

Today: defensive line and linebackers

THE FRONT-RUNNER

Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State

The defensive tackle has exceptional quickness and a knack for making big plays. Cox plays with high energy and has eye-opening athleticism for a guy who's 6-4 and 298 pounds. He should be able to start from Day 1 but also has ample room for growth.

THE CONTENDERS

Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina

At his best, Coples can be a menacing end, blessed with imposing size (6-6, 284 pounds) and power. Problem is, he showed a worrisome tendency to disappear at UNC. Four of his 7.5 sacks last season came against James Madison and Duke.

Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis

Ever seen a 346-pound beast run the 40-yard dash in under 5 seconds? The folks at the NFL combine did. Now NFL teams have to weigh Poe's combine explosion vs. his pretty ordinary 2011 on-field performance.

Luke Kuechly, ILB, Boston College

An instinctive 6-3, 242-pounder with a knack for being around in the right place at the right time. He also ran a 4.58 40 at the combine. With his stock rising, Kuechly could end up at Seattle with the 12th overall pick.

THE SLEEPER

Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall

A no-brainer pick if still available past Round 2, Curry understands leverage and plays with nonstop effort. He'll likely never be a Pro Bowler but could be an impact player for a long time if used right.

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Chicago WSox 0 Bottom 1st Inning
NY Yankees 0
Tampa Bay 0 Bottom 2nd Inning
Toronto 0
Detroit 0 Bottom 1st Inning
Minnesota 1
Seattle - C. Young 12:35 PM
Boston - B. Workman
Baltimore - B. Norris 1:20 PM
Chicago Cubs - K. Hendricks
San Francisco - T. Lincecum 3:05 PM
Washington - J. Zimmermann
Houston - C. McHugh 6:05 PM
Cleveland - D. Salazar
St. Louis - S. Miller 6:05 PM
Philadelphia - D. Buchanan
Atlanta - E. Santana 6:10 PM
Cincinnati - M. Leake
Pittsburgh - E. Volquez 6:10 PM
Milwaukee - W. Peralta
San Diego - A. Cashner 7:10 PM
Arizona - V. Nuno
Miami - T. Koehler 7:10 PM
Colorado - J. Lyles
Detroit - J. Verlander 7:10 PM
Minnesota - T. May
Kansas City - J. Guthrie 7:25 PM
Texas - N. Tepesch
LA Angels - C. Wilson 8:05 PM
Oakland - J. Lester
NY Mets - J. deGrom 8:10 PM
Los Angeles - Z. Greinke
Carolina 7 FINAL
New England 30
NY Giants 35 FINAL
NY Jets 24
Jacksonville 12 FINAL
Detroit 13
Oakland 21 FINAL
Green Bay 31
Chicago 6 FINAL
Seattle 34
Tampa Bay 3:30 PM
Buffalo
Tennessee 6:00 PM
Atlanta
Dallas 6:00 PM
Miami
Washington 6:30 PM
Baltimore
New Orleans 7:00 PM
Indianapolis
Minnesota 7:00 PM
Kansas City
St. Louis 7:00 PM
Cleveland
Houston 8:00 PM
Denver
San Diego 8/24/14 3:00 PM
San Francisco
Cincinnati 8/24/14 7:00 PM
Arizona
Atlanta 8/28/14 5:00 PM
Jacksonville
Detroit 8/28/14 6:00 PM
Buffalo
Indianapolis 8/28/14 6:00 PM
Cincinnati
Kansas City 8/28/14 6:00 PM
Green Bay
NY Jets 8/28/14 6:00 PM
Philadelphia
St. Louis 8/28/14 6:00 PM
Miami
Carolina 8/28/14 6:30 PM
Pittsburgh
New England 8/28/14 6:30 PM
NY Giants
Washington 8/28/14 6:30 PM
Tampa Bay
Baltimore 8/28/14 7:00 PM
New Orleans
Chicago 8/28/14 7:00 PM
Cleveland
Denver 8/28/14 7:00 PM
Dallas
Minnesota 8/28/14 7:00 PM
Tennessee
San Francisco 8/28/14 7:00 PM
Houston
Arizona 8/28/14 9:00 PM
San Diego
Seattle 8/28/14 9:00 PM
Oakland
(21) Texas A&M 8/28/14 5:00 PM
(9) So Carolina
Wake Forest 8/28/14 6:00 PM
ULM
Boise State 8/28/14 7:00 PM
(18) Ole Miss
Tulane 8/28/14 7:00 PM
Tulsa
Temple 8/28/14 8:15 PM
Vanderbilt
Rutgers 8/28/14 9:00 PM
Washington St
Weber State 8/28/14 9:30 PM
(19) Arizona State
BYU 8/29/14 6:00 PM
Connecticut
(6) Jacksonville St 8/29/14 6:30 PM
(8) Michigan State
Bowling Green 8/29/14 6:30 PM
Western Ky
TX-San Antonio 8/29/14 8:00 PM
Houston
Colorado State 8/29/14 8:00 PM
Colorado
UNLV 8/29/14 9:30 PM
Arizona
UCF 8/30/14 7:30 AM
Penn State
Chicago 6:00 PM
Toronto FC
Montreal 6:00 PM
Red Bull New York
Chivas USA 6:30 PM
New England
Houston 6:30 PM
Columbus
D.C. 7:30 PM
Sporting Kansas City
Vancouver FC 9:30 PM
Los Angeles
Montreal 16 FINAL
Winnipeg 24
Toronto 3:00 PM
Edmonton
Calgary 8/24/14 2:00 PM
Ottawa
Saskatchewan 8/24/14 6:00 PM
Brt Columbia
Ottawa 8/29/14 6:30 PM
Montreal
Winnipeg 8/31/14 2:00 PM
Saskatchewan
Toronto 9/1/14 12:00 PM
Hamilton
Edmonton 9/1/14 3:30 PM
Calgary
Indiana 4:00 PM
Washington
Minnesota 6:00 PM
San Antonio

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