Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Get to Know 'Em: Chris Borland

Back in March of 2012 when this blog was born, Thomas Ryan - who used to run The Ragnarok site - wrote here for a time. One of the segments he came up with was the "Get to Know 'Em" series, where he looked at potential Vikings draft targets and provided analysis on these players. Due to real life getting in the way of his Vikings blogging, Thomas doesn't write for us anymore. But I think the concept he developed was a fun read and pretty useful (2 of the players he wrote about - Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson - were selected by the Vikes in the 2012 draft).

So I have decided to revive the series now that free agency has died down and I have a clearer idea of what the Vikings biggest roster holes are. I will be writing as many of these posts as I can leading up to the draft (it could be one post. It could be 25). And like Thomas, I'm relying on my own instincts and various mock drafts (a dangerous prospect) to select players to preview. One other thing - these columns will not necessarily highlight whom I think the Vikings will have a chance to select with the #8 overall pick, but will also profile potential targets during the 2nd and 3rd rounds of the draft. Minnesota has four selections in the first 3 rounds - one each in the 1st and 2nd rounds and 2 in the 3rd round. 

The first four posts in this series focused on likely first round prospects: Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, Louisville quarterback Ted Bridgewater, Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. and Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert. Now I'd like to turn my attention to some college prospects who could be possible second and third-day draft targets for the Vikings.

So if you've read some of the other posts in this series, you're probably wondering when I'm going to start profiling linebackers. Well, don't despair, because this post covers that topic.

Let's be blunt. The Vikings linebacker unit was a pile of hot garbage in 2013. Upgrades are needed. However, I don't see the Vikings taking a linebacker in the first round. I don't see it because of the top outside linebackers worth taking at #8 are Khalil Mack, who will be gone by then, and Anthony Barr, who seems like a better fit for a 3-4 defense as an outside pass rushing linebacker in the DeMarcus Ware/Cameron Wake mold. As for inside linebackers, this year it's basically Alabama's C.J. Mosley and then everybody else. However, teams aren't picking middle linebackers at #8 anymore, even though it is undeniably a position of need for the Vikings. So is general manager Rick Spielman willing (and can he find a willing partner) to trade down from #8 to the teens where Mosley would be a better value pick? I don't think he is, and so improving talent at linebacker will have to wait until the second round - or later.

Which is where Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland comes in.

University of Minnesota football fans will be pretty familiar with Borland, who played inside linebacker for four seasons on Badger teams that consistently beat up on the Gophers. Borland was a key player on those Badger squads. He finished his Wisconsin career with the sixth-most tackles in school history (420), fourth in career tackles for a loss (50) and set a Big Ten record by forcing 15 fumbles in his four years playing Division 1 college football.

As a white middle linebacker who played in the Big Ten, his scouting report is pretty predictable. He's described as a smart player with great instincts and a fantastic motor, but also a limited athlete who can't hold up in one-one-one situations in pass coverage. How often have you heard white linebackers, or white football players at any position, dubbed as heady, try-hard guys who will themselves to succeed despite their athletic limitations? I've heard it plenty. For the record, Borland's 40 time at the NFL combine was 4.83, he had a 31-inch vertical, a 9'6 broad jump and a 1.62 10-yard split. Those aren't eye-popping results, but aren't in stiff territory, either.

Where Borland is limited, and it's probably what scares the hell out of NFL teams who are considering drafting him, is his height and arm length. At 5'11 1/2, Borland is the shortest player among the top 10 inside linebacker prospects by about two inches and his 29 1/4 inch arm length is extremely short. That poses problems for Borland both in run and pass defense. When defending the run, his short arms are a liability because he has trouble keeping blockers from getting their meat hooks on him as he pursues the ball carrier. And in pass defense, his height and short arms make it easy for teams to throw over him in coverage - something that will show up more in the NFL defending 6'6 and 6'7 freaks like Jimmy Graham than it did in the Big Ten. Finally, weighing in around the 245-248 pound range, I'm not sure how many more pounds Borland can add to his frame and how much stronger he can get without sacrificing the quickness that served him so well in college.

So why would a short, stubby-armed, and not particularly fast, linebacker interest the Vikings? Because Borland is a tackling machine who has a knack for creating turnovers. You also won't find many players who are as relentless chasing a play down from sideline-to-sideline as Borland. That speaks to the high effort he brings each and every play. It also shows Borland can sift through the trash that gets in his way when he's moving laterally and still make tackles. He's also very decisive in hitting a gap once the ball is snapped. This is a good thing a lot of times, but I found it also put him out of position at other times, and because he has a hard time getting off blocks from big lineman, Borland leaves running lanes that can be exploited when he guesses wrong shooting those gaps.

To get more of a flavor for the kind of player Borland is, check out his performance against Arizona State in this video cutup from the Badgers 2013 tilt with the Sun Devils.

Wisconsin sent Borland on blitzes a lot in the 2013 video cutups I watched, and he blitzes a lot in this game. They often lined him up on the left and right side and got him one-on-one with a tackle. Borland was pretty effective as a blitzer, getting to the QB more often than not and forcing hurried throws. He was especially effective when he used his spin move on blockers or tried to blow by them with speed to the outside (the 4:35 mark of the video). When Borland tried to bull rush his way to the QB (the 3:54 mark of the video), it rarely worked. But this blitzing does show Borland has the quickness to rush the passer and isn't just a one-trick tackling pony.

At the 8:33 mark, you get a glimpse of how Borland's lack of length hurts him sometimes. On this goal line play, he scoots through a small crease along the line of scrimmage and gets in prime position to take down the Arizona State runner for a big loss. But Borland can't close the deal. He dives for the runners legs and whiffs. If his arms were 3 or 4 inches longer, he might make that tackle and save a touchdown.

At the 11:11 mark of the video, we get a glimpse of Borland's effort and ability to make plays in congested areas. He tries to shoot up the middle to get to the ball carrier on this run play, but is met by Arizona State's center. No matter - Borland spins off him, has the awareness to locate the ball carrier and makes the tackle to hold the ASU runner to a minimal gain.  

With his work ethic, smarts and quickness in short areas, Borland has the look of a late 1st or high 2nd  round pick. But when you're a sub-six foot linebacker, have arms like a T-Rex and a decent but not great 40 time, you're probably a day-three selection in the NFL draft.  And although I saw no issues with Borland's pass coverage in the videos I watched, and he shows good awareness playing zone, there's no doubt his lack of height and short arms will hurt him in pass coverage in the NFL. He's probably a guy who will always be a two-down player.

The question the Vikings could be asking themselves right now in regards to Borland is whether they already have too many linebackers on the roster with a similar skill set. Minnesota really needs to find a linebacker who can play, and excel, in all situations, not just obvious running situations. Jasper Brinkley is a two-down run stopper who is weak in pass coverage. Mike Mauti is a taller and perhaps faster version of Borland. And the Vikings also have Audie Cole plugging up the middle linebacker depth chart. Where would Borland fit in if the Vikings drafted him?

Well, the Vikings don't have much invested in Brinkley. He signed a one-year deal that carries an $830,000 cap hit and only $25,000 is dead money. Brinkley can be cut without impacting the Vikings salary cap situation. And while Cole was the starting middle linebacker at the end of last year, it's been said he has the versatility to play either strongside or weakside linebacker as well. Meanwhile, we don't know what the Vikings have in Mauti. He was a very good player at Penn State, but three knee surgeries later, you wonder if he's permanently damaged goods. (Borland comes with some injury baggage himself. He missed pretty much the entire 2010 season with a shoulder injury.)

I think selecting Borland with the Vikings second pick in the third round would be very defensible. There are some physical limitations to his game that he cannot fix (height and arm length), and you wonder how well his college game will translate to the NFL when he's up against bigger, stronger and faster men, but there's no denying Borland knows how to play football. And there's no denying he's made plays at every level of football he's played at. I also think he's a better athlete than he's given credit for. He won't be overmatched in that way at the pro level.

Looking at Borland, he reminds me a bit of Zach Thomas. He may not start right away, but not many third-day selections do in the NFL. But give him some time to acclimate himself to the NFL and I think he'll find a way to be productive. One other thing - he should be a strong special teams contributor from day one. 

Picking Borland isn't a sexy way to improve the Vikings linebacking corps, but it could be an effective, low-risk, and fairly high-reward way to do it.  


  1. These are the kinds of players I'm excited about. Low-risk, high-ceiling guys that can be found in rounds 2-4. I'm really enjoying this series, DC.

    1. Peter:

      I'm glad somebody is enjoying it because it is time consuming (but instructive - I've haven't watched this much college football since I was a teenager.) I think Borland's ceiling isn't that high. I think he's already the player he will be at the pro level, which isn't bad at all, it's just a question of whether what he did in college translates into the pros.

    2. Getting a young guy with a high floor to start at a position of weakness on the defense is good decision making by the drafters. I will be quite happy with a solid group of guys this May - I don't care much for the ticket selling celebrities.