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Cowboys 2015 Draft Targets: Mississippi State LB Bernardrick McKinney

Because there has been such a high correlation in recent years between the top collegians invited to Valley Ranch for pre-draft visits and who the Cowboys end up drafting, it's important to know as much as possible about these players. As a service to you, BTB offers a series of detailed scouting reports on these players, compiled from the work of top draft analysts. Today, we look at Mississippi State LB Bernardrick McKinney

Derick E.Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Bernardrick McKinney played quarterback and linebacker in high school, but moved to the defensive huddle full-time upon arrival at MSU. After redshirting in 2011, he started the final 10 games at middle linebacker the following campaign, leading all SEC freshmen and finishing second nationally with 102 total tackles, enough to garner All-SEC Freshman honors. In 2013, he started all 13 of the Bulldogs' games, leading the team in tackles with 71 (seven for loss) and sacks, with 3.5. As a fourth-year junior in 2014, McKinney again started all 13 games and again led the team in tackles, again with 71 (eight TFLs) and three sacks, earning First Team All-SEC and Second Team All-American honors.

McKinney boasts an impressive combination of size and athleticism. He's a stout run defender who plays with strength and is capable of taking on offensive linemen and getting downhill to finish the play. In addition, he moves well for a player with his size and length, as evidenced by his 4.6 forty at 246 pounds.Throughout his college career, McKinney had been a smart, productive player with good diagnostic skills.

That said, he doesn't have the elite burst to take full advantage of those skills, lacking the range to be a sideline-to-sideline defender or to track an athletic tight end down the seam. This is more true the further he is from the line of scrimmage. McKinney's inconsistency in space give scouts pause; they are concerned that his ineffectiveness defending in coverage could limit his NFL role to that of an inside 'backer in a 3-4 or a two-down run defender in a 4-3 scheme. But here's the rub: scouts also believe that McKinney's skill-set projects him as an edge rusher in the pros - which leads me to believe he might be a worthy candidate for the experimental OTTO linebacker position that I wrote about back in late March.

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Want to scout like a boss? Let's start by looking at his measurables:

Height Weight Arms Hands 40yd 10yd Bench Vert Broad 3Cone 20ss SPARQ (%)
6' 4" 246 33" 9" 4.66 1.64 16 40½" 121" 7.21 4.27 127.1 (70.9)

And here they are in the form of a spider graph, courtesy of the folks at Mockdraftable.com:

And over at Draft Breakdown, they have seven of McKinney's games on tape. Some highlights: from 2014, early-season games against UAB (12 tackles and a sack) and at LSU (seven tackles) as well as an October tilt against Auburn (five tackles). From 2013, check him out against Johnny Football and Texas A&M (three tackles, 1.5 sacks).

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Let's see what our esteemed panel of scouts has to say about McKinney:

Gary Horton (ESPN.com) 4th-ranked ILB; 50th overall:

Instincts/Recognition: Has adequate key-and-diagnose skills but needs to be more consistent in order to take his game to next level. Has a good natural feel for the game and appears to have fast eyes. Has improved discipline against the run. Improved run fits and maintained better gap integrity within scheme in 2014. Still frequently takes the bait and will get caught in no man's land versus play-action and misdirection.

Take-on Skills: Shows no fear of stepping up and taking on the lead blocker. Has shock in hands to jar blockers with initial contact. Also has long arms to help keep blockers off his pads. Needs to improve consistency of pad level and will be slow to disengage at times as a result. Does not protect his feet well, particularly when pursuing laterally.

Range vs. Run: Runs well on a straight-line for his size. Is tall and has some tightness. Lacks ideal redirect quickness but is at least adequate. Could be more consistent with pursuit angles but does show good quickness shuffling laterally and above-average closing burst.

Tackling: Not a vicious hitter but has good size and enough strength to occasionally deliver a blow. Is an adequate open-field tackler. Has long arms to lasso ball carriers when he's not in an ideal position to break down and wrap up. Keeping pads low will always be a challenge for him. Falls off some tackles because he comes in too high.

3rd Down Capabilities: Shows adequate feel in zone coverage. Anticipates crossers and shows good field awareness. Closes quickly when coming forward and does a good job of limiting the run-after-catch. Has some tightness in his hips and will struggle to match up one-on-one with quicker NFL RBs. Flashes upside as a pass-rusher, especially off the edge. Has length and athleticism to improve with more coaching and reps.

Intangibles: Coaches rave about his football character. Brings a lot of energy to the defense. Takes well to coaching and has no off-field issues to our knowledge.

Nolan Nawrocki (NFL Draft 2015 Preview) 2nd -ranked ILB; 43rd overall:

Strengths: Outstanding size and straight-line speed. Looks the part. Very good take-on strength to step downhill and fill. Good striking ability and pop in his hands. Paced all inside linebackers at the Combine with a 40 1/2 inch vertical jump and has explosive talent in his body.

Weaknesses: Tends to play too upright and is not quick to flip his hips and transition. Does not consistently play to his timed speed. Straight-linish and tight ans is limited in man coverage. Struggles to make plays outside the tackle box. Tied for the fewest bench-press reps (16) at the Combine.

Future: A fast, explosive, two-down "Mike" linebacker who is often used as a situational edge rusher or gap-shooting blitzer on passing downs to conceal his coverage limitations and turn him loose to disrupt the quarterback. Is at his best moving forward and could fill a Brandon Spikes-type role in the pros

Draft projection: Top-50 pick.

Scout's take: McKinney "has snap and pop - he will whack you. He has enough speed to go outside the tackle box, but not enough to be able to consistently go sideline to sideline. He's a 3-4 'Mike' linebacker. He cannot cover in space at all - not with the way they are spreading everyone out these days....He could be a better college player than pro. He's high-hipped in coverage and can;t change direction fluidly - all of that makes for a slower reactionary athlete. He's a good college player."

Lance Zierlein (NFL.com) 2nd-ranked ILB; 38th overall:

Strengths: Tall, proportionally built inside linebacker with ability to play outside. Has thick, powerful legs. Good straight-line speed to chase. True take-on linebacker who can meet linemen head-on or beat them to the spot and leverage his gap with above average play strength. Scrapes and stalks while using length and powerful hands to keep himself free and clear of blockers. Steps into hole and fires into running back, finishing with wrap-up tackle. Able to run downfield in seam with tight ends. Aware of cutback lanes and rarely runs himself out of the play. Shows very good attention to assignment. Seems to have a nose for the play and is frequently in the mix. Has value on special teams and as a blitzer. Has adequate football intelligence.

Weaknesses: Plays high and is lacking suddenness. High center of gravity causes clunky change of direction in space. Foot quickness in tight quarters is below average and limiting. Instincts against run are there, but tends to fight his feet and marginal agility. Has trouble clearing the trash near his feet and labors against cut blocks, losing lateral momentum. Potential liability against the pass. Looks stiff when asked to cover in space and gives away too much separation to routes in his area in zone coverage.

NFL Comparison: Brian Cushing

Dane Brugler (NFL Draft Guide) 6th-ranked LB:

Strengths: Looks the part with meaty hips and a muscle-bound, long-limbed frame...added 40 pounds since high school, working his tail off in the work room...uses his length and hands to jar, engage and control the point of attack, not avoiding blockers...physical demeanor and prefers playing near the line of scrimmage where he can battle big bodies...flexible joints and natural bend as a rusher...long, decisive strides to eat up grass in a hurry with closing burst to track and attack...instinctive and breaks down the action well...assignment sound and unselfish in his responsibilities...strong wrists to be a reliable tackler when he breaks down properly...nonstop motor with a competitive drive always working overtime...conductor of the defense and embraces the leadership role, getting the defense set...works hard in the film room to learn offensive formations and tendencies...plays on special teams coverages...durable frame, starting the last 36 straight games in college...consistently productive the last three seasons.

Weaknesses: Plays tall and doesn't consistently bend at his knees, struggling to protect his lower body and play with consistent pad level...tight-hipped with rigid redirection skills...not a sudden mover and struggles in the open field...lacks a natural feel for spacing in coverage and needs tight quarters to be effective...late to read and too easily fooled by eye candy, taking unnecessary steps and finding himself late to recover...needs to finish once he makes contact, playing wild and allowing his technique to break down, especially in a crowd...suspect ballskills, doesn't finish interceptions when he gets his hands on the ball...questionable fit at the next level with some scheme limitations.

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Those among our panel who give McKinney an overall grade rate him as an early second-rounder; Although Brugler doesn't offer an overall rating, he sees him as a third rounder. On my little board, I'll go with the majority, but allow Brugler to influence my thinking a bit, such that I can see the former Bulldog as a viable candidate at the 60th pick. Therefore, I'll slot him in round two on my "little board."

If the Cowboys were to pick him there, I would be a bit uneasy until I heard what they hoped to do with him. Will he be a two-down 'Mike," as several of the profiles propose (in which case second-round capital seems like a lot to spend) or might they see him as a hybrid OTTO-type who can play the strong side yet also put his hand on the ground in certain passing situations (a scenario where value would appear to align more clearly with cost)? My concern is that, by using McKinney to address their linebacker problems, they might miss out on a more impactful player at another position such as CB or DE.

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Next up: Late-round OLBs Gabe Martin and Darius Allen