Carter’s Classroom: Ex-safety Burks could be linebacker sleeper

In the later rounds, the Steelers could look for diverse talents like Oren Burks of Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt Linebacker Oren Burks. - AP

If the Steelers are still looking for players to boost their defensive depth chart in the later rounds of the draft, there is always a wild guessing game about which players could actually achieve their potential.

While we’ve gone over later players such as Josey Jewell and Shaquem Griffin, we turn our attention to a defensive player who’s been all over the field — Vanderbilt linebacker Oren Burks:

Burks is a four-year player who has been at every level of an NCAA Division I program’s defense except its defensive line. As a freshman he played at different defensive back positions, as a sophomore he played as a roaming safety, then he eventually settled as a linebacker in his junior and senior years.

He blossomed in his junior year when he played next to Zach Cunningham, the Texans’ second round pick as an inside linebacker in the 2017 NFL draft.

Here’s an example from 2015 when Burks used to play as the centerfield safety for Vanderbilt, and he broke on a post pattern for a pass defensed:

That play should have been an interception with how well he squared up on the ball, a folly that became common enough for Vanderbilt to want to use his size at linebacker. At 6-foot-3, 233 pounds, Burks has the build of a monster safety, but although he possesses decent cover instincts, he wasn’t the supreme ballhawk and found a home at linebacker.

In his senior year he had 80 tackles, seven for losses, three passes defensed and an interception. He had more passes defensed, six, as a junior while next to Cunningham when he was used more as a coverage linebacker.

Here’s an example of how his cover instincts came into play at linebacker. He could play intermediate zones and cover like few linebackers. Watch how he reads this in route and trails it to make a solid play on the ball for the incomplete pass:

The NFL Scouting Combine is where Burks made a name for himself. He boosted his reputation at the combine as one of the more explosive athletes who participated. His 3-cone drill time of 6.82 was the third best (behind Jewell and Dorian O’Daniel of Clemson). He had the best broad jump of 131.0 inches, and the second-best vertical jump with 39.5 inches. He tied for the second-best time in the 20-yard shuttle with Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch, who we also have previewed, with a time of 4.15 seconds.

So what does all that mean?

Burks is quick at stopping and starting and can explode to move well in open space.

But the reason he’s not being valued as anything above a late third-round pick is because he has not proven he’s adjusted to being a full-time linebacker. Most of that was shown by his inconsistent tackling.

He’s just not strong enough and hasn’t gotten down the mechanics of being a downhill tackling machine. That happens when you train as a defensive back for most of your career, but if you’re going to be a linebacker in the NFL, it’s not a weakness you can afford.

Here’s an example when he nicely scraped down the line, only to foul it up with a missed tackle. Burks does a solid job of getting in position, but he attacks the outside shoulder of a running back and puts his head down, two big mistakes, and gets spun on while falling down with a fellow defender and giving up a touchdown:

When we previewed Jewell, we showed a tackler who lacked speed and explosiveness. Burks shows the complete opposite in his tape, except that he does appear to have an understanding of which gaps he’s supposed to protect.

Rarely did I see Burks be completely out of position, as you’ll see him make a tackle in the play below, but the problem came from how he attacked when he was in the right position. Look how he patiently approaches the line and maintains his gap right before he charges the running back, wrapping his arms around him and eventually bringing him down:

Of course that wasn’t the best tackle, but that’s the kind of play you can expect from Burks. He gets a hit on the player, but isn’t going to bring the boom to a running back who’s charging through the line with his head down.

His other problem comes when he’s engaged with blockers. The best inside linebackers find ways to create separation with their arms and mitigate blocks to maintain their gap assignments. Burks seems like a major project at this part of his game, as you can see him get completely dominated at the point of attack and have to turn and chase the back in the open field:

Burks does have plenty of flaws, which is why he should most likely be available late in the draft. Some have him projected as low as a sixth-round pick, which could make him a steal considering his size and coverage skills.

While his combine stats were impressive, the Steelers are familiar with combine warriors such as Shamarko Thomas, who never panned out. So they have to be skeptical, but Burks poses as a potential jack of all trades, but master of none, who could provide help across a defensive depth chart.