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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New England 21 4th Qtr 6:40
Seattle 24
Miami 83 FINAL
Boston 75
LA Lakers 80 FINAL
New York 92
Arizona 3 FINAL
Montreal 2
St. Louis 4 FINAL
Washington 3
Nashville 4 FINAL
Pittsburgh 0
Minnesota 4 FINAL
Vancouver 2
Miami-Florida 54 FINAL
Florida State 55
Oakland 96 FINAL
Youngstown St 80
Cincinnati 46 FINAL
East Carolina 50
Michigan 66 FINAL
Michigan State 76
Marist 75 FINAL
Canisius 67
Fordham 77 FINAL
Dayton 101
Manhattan 87 FINAL
Monmouth 76
Quinnipiac 100 FINAL
Niagara 105
Utah 67 FINAL
USC 39
Connecticut 68 FINAL
Houston 70
California 90 FINAL
Washington 88
North Dakota St 64 FINAL
Western Ill 62
Penn State 65 FINAL
(22) Rutgers 76
(14) Texas 59 FINAL
TCU 64
Coll of Charleston 49 FINAL
Towson 71
Cornell 53 FINAL
Yale 60
Xavier 68 FINAL
Providence 57
Drexel 61 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 44
Stony Brook 60 FINAL
New Hampshire 52
Maine 52 FINAL
Albany 44
Miami-Florida 66 FINAL
Pittsburgh 81
(21) Georgia 72 FINAL
(10) Kentucky 80
Arizona 69 FINAL
Colorado 81
Wake Forest 63 FINAL
(4) Notre Dame 92
Loyola-Chicago 56 FINAL
Illinois State 72
(24) Oklahoma 69 FINAL
West Virginia 78
St Johns 73 FINAL
Seton Hall 78
Delaware 73 FINAL
Hofstra 62
Binghamton 49 FINAL
UMass Lowell 66
Vermont 49 FINAL
Hartford 60
William & Mary 72 FINAL
Northeastern 66
Boston College 60 FINAL
(16) North Carolina 72
Virginia 77 FINAL
Clemson 72
(2) Connecticut 83 FINAL
Temple 49
Arkansas 53 FINAL
Alabama 42
Virginia Tech 71 FINAL
Georgia Tech 79
Kansas 58 FINAL
(3) Baylor 66
Canisius 51 FINAL
Rider 52
Monmouth 52 FINAL
Fairfield 54
Quinnipiac 81 FINAL
Saint Peters 50
Butler 55 FINAL
Creighton 62
Wichita State 61 FINAL
Drake 64
Evansville 52 FINAL
Indiana State 67
(18) Miss State 67 FINAL
(6) Tennessee 79
Villanova 47 FINAL
DePaul 49
Georgetown 73 FINAL
Marquette 80
North Texas 55 FINAL
Rice 58
Auburn 45 FINAL
(12) Texas A&M 78
(11) Arizona State 58 FINAL
Utah 48
Missouri State 56 FINAL
Northern Iowa 64
Michigan 60 FINAL
(15) Nebraska 75
Minnesota 49 FINAL
Northwestern 70
Wisconsin 73 FINAL
Illinois 62
Bradley 59 FINAL
Southern Ill 76
Florida 67 FINAL
Vanderbilt 58
(20) Iowa 88 FINAL
(5) Maryland 93
(1) South Carolina 77 FINAL
Ole Miss 59

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