2015 NFL Scouting Combine Watch List: Middle Linebackers

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Sep 21, 2013; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs linebacker Benardrick McKinney (50) prepares for the play during the game against the Troy Trojans at Davis Wade Stadium. Mississippi State won 62-7. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State

There is no more mind-boggling physical phenom in this years’ linebackers class than Mississippi State’s Benardrick McKinney. McKinney, a junior and a three-year starter for the Bulldogs, is a giant of a man, listed at 6’5″ and 250 pounds. He is also fast, strong, athletic, and a pretty darn good football player who has matched up for three seasons against tough SEC offensive linemen and running backs and excelled. McKinney is a monster of a man, and will likely attract a lot of attention for what he can do in the bench, the 40, the vertical and the long jump, all of which he will likely excel in. Reggie McKenzie loves big, strong linebackers, and Jack Del Rio loves fast, athletic linebackers, and Benardrick McKinney is all that and then some. But in grading an NFL middle linebacker, especially when deciding if you want to draft him to be your starter at some point in the near future, you need more than a big, strong, fast athlete. While McKinney has shown that he has a good football IQ, is a solid tackler and can shed blocks, he has also shown that he prefers to get around blockers rather than stacking them up and shedding them at the point of attack. He has also shown bad feet and slow reaction time in the passing game, something that could limit his ability to play all three downs in the NFL. Here’s what he can do to fix that perception:

1. Pass Drop/Hip Rotation Drills: since the biggest question with McKinney is if he can consistently drop back and be effective in pass coverage, the best way he can address it is to go out and show up well in the pass drop and hip rotation drills. These drills will show observers a few things: first, how fluid is his backpedal and pass drop, or does he have stiff hips? Second, can he keep proper footwork and change direction rapidly all while looking at the opposing quarterback? Third, how fast can he change direction in coverage and how quickly will he react to input in the passing game? Finally, it will assess how well he is able to break on a ball and seal the deal with an interception. In three years of college, McKinney has never managed an interception and has only been credited with four pass defenses, so NFL coaches and GM’s are going to want to get a good look at him in this drill.

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Mississippi State Football: Looking back at the Bulldogs career of Benardrick McKinney
Mississippi State Football: Looking back at the Bulldogs career of Benardrick McKinney /

South Bound & Down

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  • 2. Linebacker Pass-Rush Drill: pass rush drills for linebackers are simple. Start in a two point stance, attack a bag that is simulating a blocker, and execute either a swim or a rip technique depending on what angle you are coming from. McKinney was used heavily as a pass rusher in college, even lining up as an outside linebacker and stand-up defensive end at times, and he used his speed, strength and leverage to simply beat blockers and get to quarterbacks, finishing his college career with 7.5 sacks. But he also shows on tape that he relies solely on his athletic prowess and is poor in using his hands to defeat pass-blockers. While that can work in the SEC, it won’t work in the NFL, and he will need to show that he can use rip and swim techniques. And although a heavy bag is not the same as an NFL offensive lineman, it will show that he at least understands the technique and can apply it in theory, leaving room that he can be coached up into using it in a game. If your middle linebacker is not a great pass defender, you can always use him as a pass rusher in passing situations. While Jack Del Rio defenses aren’t heavy on blitzing Mike linebackers, they are heavy on putting linebackers in different positions in different situations. If McKinney can show prowess as a pass rusher, a different player can be used as a cover linebacker while McKinney lines up on the edge and comes after the quarterback. Having three linebackers on your roster who can get after the passer is never a bad thing for an NFL defense.

    3. 4-Bag Drill: the 4-bag drill is the gold standard of linebacker drills. Anyone who has ever played the position at any level has run this drill a million times. I ran it over and over as a high school middle linebacker (and I was lousy at it, which is why I’m sitting here right now writing about football). Essentially, this drill is designed to both measure – as well as improve – the footwork and lateral movement in traffic of a linebacker, an essential skill. With a tall linebacker like McKinney, this drill will also be used to determine if he can lower his body in order to use his hands against low blocks or grounded offensive linemen. It also is a great way to examine the fluidity of his movements as he changes direction several times rapidly in the beginning of the drill. Every linebacker should do well in this drill, but for McKinney it is important to demonstrate that, at his size, he is not too stiff and does not play too high to excel at the fundamental movement of his position.

    Next: Linebacker to Watch: Paul Dawson