Extra Points: Borland measuring up as a 'safe' pick

(SportsNetwork.com) - It's easy to measure speed, strength and explosion when evaluating prospects for the NFL Draft.

Until the number crunchers finally figure out how to quantify instinct, however, players like former University of Wisconsin star Chris Borland will likely have to settle for being selected on the second or third days of the process, and earning the tag overachiever when they become productive players at the professional level.

Borland, a bruising linebacker with an innate feel for the game, reads and diagnoses so well that he can turn a 4.9 on the stopwatch into a 4.5 rather quickly.

And while "safe" isn't always the most popular adjective to describe people these days, NFL teams aren't teenage girls, so they should be running toward, can't-miss contributors like Borland, the 2013 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year with the Badgers.

There are no false steps with Borland, no taking on the wrong shoulder in the running game, no getting caught up in the wash between the tackles and no biting on play action in coverage. In other words, there is no wasted movement from Borland once the ball is snapped and that's the kind of aptitude which simply can't be taught.

He's also a form tackler in an era when that attribute is becoming an anomaly.

So what's the catch?

Well, Borland doesn't possess sideline-to-sideline speed (4.83 seconds in the 40), is just 5-foot-11 and possesses short arms, something that makes it very difficult to gain leverage in a sport in which leverage is everything.

NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock has projected Borland as a second-round pick and compared the Ohio native favorably with Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso, the 46th overall pick in the 2013 draft who hit the ground running and was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America.

Borland's ceiling in May's draft is probably the Denver Broncos, who have a hole at middle linebacker on their depth chart, with the 31st overall pick in the first round.

"Borland is one of my two or three favorite players in this draft," Mayock said. "The way I came on him was funny because I was getting ready to do a Notre Dame game. I was doing homework on BYU. The tape I happened to put in was Wisconsin. And I'm like, this 44 (Borland) is everywhere.

"(What) I've seen since then just reinforces to me that he's kind of like, he could have the ability to be the Kiko Alonso of this year's group. I think he is going to start for whatever team takes him. And as long as he stays healthy, he is just going to keep making plays. The kid makes plays. He's around the football all the time."

Interestingly, Alonso was downgraded a bit last year due to what some described as a tentativeness between the tackles and when taking on lead blockers. He also took some hits for shoddy production on misdirection plays while at Oregon and his tendency to turn and look at receivers in coverage.

In reality, scouts thought Alonso just didn't have the foot speed to excel at the NFL level. The kid who has showed up in western New York, however, was a smart, disciplined read-and-react defender who excelled from Day 1.

Mayock's comparison has some merit because many personnel people are taking similar shots at Borland's stopwatch speed while failing to recognize his instinctive play. At the same time, it's also a little off-base because at 6-3, Alonso does have the height NFL teams covet while Borland simply does not.

Borland comes across as a carbon copy of former Miami star Zach Thomas, a 1996 fifth-round pick who morphed into a five-time All Pro, with a little Ed McDaniel, the former undersized but athletic Minnesota middle linebacker, mixed in.

"Yeah, there's a lot of guys that have gotten it done at a high level being under six feet," Borland said. "London Fletcher, he's a guy I watched. Zack Thomas, Chris Spielman is about six feet. A lot of guys have played very well at that size and they kind of paved the way for guys like me."

On film Borland explodes out of his stance, shedding blockers with impressive side steps or swim moves. He has the vision to find the football quickly and often bursts through the gap, blowing up plays in the backfield. He also has an extremely powerful lower body and the ability to fill the hole on short yardage.

"Football's extremely important to me, it's my passion," he said. "I put everything into it, and I think that's more valuable than a half inch or an inch (of height)."

Being vertically challenged, though, can make it difficult for Borland to release from blockers when engaged, and makes it easier for quarterbacks to throw the ball over him down the seam.

All that said, even the top linebacker prospects available like Khalil Mack of Buffalo, C.J. Mosley of Alabama and Anthony Barr of UCLA have holes in their games that must be addressed.

Borland, on the other hand, remains a scheme-versatile prospect who could play in the middle or weak side of a traditional 4-3 or flourish as an inside player in an attacking 3-4.

"Safe" may not always be sexy, but it can be awfully productive.

"I don't know that there are a lot of players that are a better all-around athlete," Borland said. "I don't get maybe a lot of credit for it. I'm small, and straight-line speed is not my strong suit necessarily ... but as far as what it takes to play football, I've got all it requires."

The Sports Network's top inside linebackers in the 2014 NFL Draft:

1. - C.J. Mosley, Alabama

2. - Chris Borland, Wisconsin

3. - Shayne Skov, Stanford

4. - Max Bullough, Michigan State

5. - Lamin Barrow, LSU

6. - Preston Brown, Louisville

7. - Glenn Carson, Penn State

8. - Telvin Smith, Florida State

9. - Yawin Smallwood, UConn

10. - James Morris, Iowa

The Sports Network's Stock Watch:

Sleeper - Dan Fox, Notre Dame

Small School Standouts - Brock Coyle, Montana; Brandon Denmark, Florida A&M

Risk/Reward - Barrow

The Sports Network's top outside linebackers in the 2014 NFL Draft:

1. - Khalil Mack, Buffalo

2. - Anthony Barr, UCLA

3. - Ryan Shazier, Ohio State

4. - Dee Ford, Auburn

5. - Kyle Van Noy, BYU

6. - Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech

7. - Carl Bradford, Arizona State

8. - Prince Shembo, Notre Dame

9. - Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State

10. - Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas

The Sports Network's Stock Watch:

Sleeper - Dan Fox, Notre Dame

Small School Standouts - Jordan Tripp, Montana; Tyler Starr, South Dakota

Risk/Reward - Michael Sam, Missouri; Morgan Breslin, Southern Cal

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