NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
Over the last three months, NEPatriotsDraft.com has profiled college prospects that potentially fit the needs and seating of the New England Patriots in the 2014 NFL draft. In this 13th and final installment – the previous 12 profiles can be found here – we will take a closer look at the film behind Iowa outside linebacker Christian Kirksey.
No play has been too far away for Christian Kirksey.
It’s been that way since his days at Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis, Mo., where high-effort pursuit branded him a two-way player – a fullback and a linebacker – as well as a two-sport letterman.
But it was on the defensive side of the ball that the track athlete broke free. As a junior in the fall of 2008, Kirksey notched 89 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack and an interception, as he helped the Spartans win a state championship in two sports. Along the way, he was named an all-conference honorable mention in football.
That carried over in the fall of 2009, even after Kirksey, a 6’2”, 198-pound senior outside linebacker, verbally committed to the University of Iowa. It carried over, even though the three-star recruit had more on his mind than the game.
His father, Elmer Kirksey, had suffered a stroke. He was recovering in the hospital and unable to watch his son on the field. His son, however, was always close by – as the Journal Sentinel’s Tyler Dunne detailed – often visiting his dad as soon as his games concluded, sometimes spending nights at his bedside before heading to school in the morning.
That adversity forged strength for the younger Kirksey. He was playing for more than the sport, and that was realized as the team captain persevered to amass 163 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three sacks, two interceptions and a touchdown.
As the season ended, he saw his name linked to first-team all-state and Missouri All-American honors. And as he graduated that spring, he saw his father there in attendance.
Kirksey packed up to attend the Hawkeyes summer workouts in Iowa City not long after.
It was there, more than four hours from home, that he got the news. His father had died of a heart attack on July 12, 2010. He was 58.
Kirksey was picked up by family and returned to St. Louis that day, and he stayed there until August practices commenced. But from that day on, everything the 18-year-old did was for his father. Everything was for his friend.
As a true freshman, Kirksey played in 11 games and missed two due to injury, notching six total tackles while carving a role on special teams.
As a sophomore in 2011, he emerged to start all 13 tilts at the weak-side and “Leo” spots, collecting 110 total tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, three pass deflections and an interception.
As a junior in 2012, Kirksey was named a team captain and fourth-team preseason all-Big Ten by Phil Steele. From there, he went on to start all 12 contests and record 95 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble, four fumble recoveries, three pass deflections and two interceptions. In the process, he garnered Next Man In Award recognition.
By the time he was a senior in 2013, the captain found himself on the preseason watch list for the Butkus Award. He lived up to it, starting all 13 matchups between weak and strong linebacker to register 104 tackles, five tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, a pass deflection and an interception.
Kirksey’s collegiate career drew to a close on New Year’s Day; however it did not close without accolades. The versatile linebacker, nickelback and special-teamer received the Hayden Fry “Extra Heartbeat” Award, an All-Big Ten honorable mention, in addition to third-team All-Big Ten honors from Phil Steele.
No. 20 received an invitation to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., then an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Ind. And as the 2014 NFL draft looms, he is received as a third- or fourth-round selection.
Courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com’s film database, here is a closer look as to why.
Size & Angle Concerns, But A Resilient & Impactful Sideline-to-Sideline Flyer vs. Run
Kirksey may not exude the ideal size or physical strength for a linebacker; he weighs in at 233 pounds and benches 16 reps of 225 pounds. But there’s a reason the three-year starter and two-time captain was in the game down on the goal line, as well as on kickoffs and punts.
He flies around the field and gets to the ball-carrier with purpose.
His 315 career tackles rank 16th in Iowa history as a result.
Now production is one thing, the way in which the production was attained is another. Kirksey doesn’t win on leverage or a powerful base at the point of attack; he has to convert his 4.58 40-yard dash speed into power off the snap. He has to overcome the weight disadvantage of going up against opponents typically over 20 pounds heavier than him, and he can do so.
Nonetheless, there are plays where it will take him time to disengage if he’s held up by a tight end, fullback, wide receiver or offensive tackle. Because of this, he has to be particularly aware of second-level blocks. That time can be costly.
It’s fair to say that Kirksey’s best run stops for the Hawkeyes came from the back side of plays. It’s also fair to say that he may be more of a sub-package asset than a 4-3 base linebacker, yet in the age of hybrid fronts, that’s far from an end-all, be-all.
Kirksey may be rather thin-framed to work against the grain of blockers. Sometimes, he will storm into the backfield without a plan and get flipped on his back. Sometimes, he will be drawn to the speed option or overrun the ball, sacrificing rush lanes.
But at other times, he’s ideal for bursting around the edge to haul backs down from behind.
It’s because he plays fearless off the snap, whether he’s hovering over the edge as a stand-up ‘backer in an under front, whether he’s hovering over tight ends in the nine-technique, or whether he’s five yards off the slot receiver as a nickelback.
He isn’t afraid to fire through the teeth of gaps or maneuver through traffic to get to his destination. He usually does so with squared hips and low pad level, allowing him to pull the trigger on his target.
This was seen on a 2nd-and-5 in the first quarter of January’s Outback Bowl against LSU.
The Tigers dispersed in “21” personnel for a toss sweep to the 6’1”, 233-pound Jeremy Hill.
The halfback intended on barreling behind the pulling left guard and C-gap fullback block, while the Hawkeyes’ dropped-down 4-3 front intended on stopping it. Kirksey, meanwhile, crouched five yards off receiver Jarvis Landry in the nickel.
Quarterback Anthony Jennings handled the snap from center and turned back for the toss to Hill. As he did, the right side of the line cut down on Iowa’s edge, the interior doubled, and the left side approached linebacker Anthony Hitchens and defensive back Desmond King.
Kirksey would soon join them.
Hill took the toss and made his cut behind 6’6”, 342-pound guard Vidal Alexander. But the penetration by defensive back delayed the run for Iowa’s remaining defenders to swarm.
Kirksey did swarm, sifting outside the rubble as he maintained location of the ball-carrier.
At that juncture, Hill’s progress was impeded by his own blocker, who tripped, forcing the back to do the same.
Kirksey then made his move, as did the likes of linebacker James Morris and others ahead of him.
He sprinted into the peripherals of Hill, jumping into a play he wasn’t indebted in.
Soon after, he landed.
It wasn’t a tackle to Kirksey’s name. His attendance in the play wasn’t all that consequential to outcome – a one-yard loss. But his attendance spoke for itself.
On occasion, the same traits he’s admired for can get the best of him. This is seen when he overruns makeable tackles, and when his 122-inch broad jump sends him lunging at legs.
Even so, sometimes the side-effects are justified by the plays you wouldn’t expect him to make.
Rush & Reaction Concerns, But A Physical & Fluid Multitasking Nickel Linebacker vs. Pass
When Kirksey lines up on the defensive side of the ball, he’s often mistaken for a safety or a cornerback. If nothing else, that is a testament to his ability to look the part on passing downs.
He’s an agile defender who’s comfortable attacking space; he can swiftly shift his hips and transition to assignments other than his own. That said, there’s more to him than open-field finesse; he is a willing press-man defender who can use his 32 3/8-inch arms to jam slot receivers and tight ends out of their patterns within the five-yard bubble.
From there, Kirksey’s nimble skill set, illustrated in his 4.42 short-shuttle and 7.11-second three-cone, aids him in covering a lot of ground in a short amount of time.
When in man coverage, he has the technique to go along with his funneling press, staying stride for stride downfield or stifling at the pivot point. When in zone coverage, those same attributes accompany his football I.Q. and allow him to multitask between receivers.
Oftentimes, with safety help over top, Kirksey delegates between the slot, the inline tight end and the tailback all in one fell swoop. He will track the wideout while staying in front of the ball, but he will also close back underneath if the tight end or halfback has slipped out.
The way he sits and coverage and finds the football makes him unique. But in order to continue to separate himself as a coverage linebacker-slash-nickelback, he will have to address his route recognition and keep his head on a swivel. Kirksey plays instinctively, yet there are cases where he’ll drop back between a two levels of routes, ultimately deterring neither.
There are instances where he looks overtasked, preoccupied with a receiver and intersecting tight end, which hinders his own ability to respond downhill for the unguarded halfback in the flat. There are cases where he’ll run upright towards the catch, failing to sense the redirection in his opponent’s stance.
Yet while he’s not seamless, he is diversified.
He illustrated that in the second quarter against Michigan on Nov. 23. As on 3rd-and-10, the Wolverines assembled in “10” personnel with a four-wide set, stacking two receivers in the slot across from a pressing Kirksey and Iowa’s sugaring hybrid front.
By title, only four defensive backs were on the field. And in all, six Hawkeyes were prepped to rush quarterback Devin Gardner. In turn, much weighed on Kirksey and Co. to stick with their men through the fade, curl, deep-over, and dig patterns.
He would have to funnel the 6’3”, 206-pound Jeremy Jackson over the middle.
Gardner harnessed the snap and saw two extra blitzers hitting the right side. He also saw 5’8”, 187-pound wideout Jeremy Gallon establish inside positioning in his dig route.
But at the left hash, he saw Jackson levied by Kirksey’s inside hand, slowing the get-off.
Kirksey stayed in Jackson’s hip pocket through the duration of the arc upfield. And at that time, Gardner released the football, towards the other receiver named Jeremy.
Gallon slipped between the hashes to catch the ball at the first-down marker. But Kirksey’s momentum was bringing him there as well.
In a split second, Kirksey exchanged assignments and delivered a knock on Gallon.
The completion netted a gain of 13. But Kirksey’s ability to command his receiver and respond to another one kept it from being more.
Kirksey did tally 5.5 sacks over his last three seasons, though his prominence in pass coverage made his presence in pass rush all the more impactful.
He is more of a relentless straight-liner than an edge-bender who will unveil an array of rush moves opposite an anchoring bookend. He will sporadically struggle with efficiency against larger blockers. And while that is unlikely to change, he can make up for it by improving his reaction to the play’s developments.
As of now, if he over-pursues the play-action rollout, he will occasionally lose sight of the forest through the trees and leave himself eclipsed by check-downs. That isn’t a defining aspect of his game, though. Kirksey does more than rush the passer on third down.
But when he does get the green light, it’s a variable that’s often unaccounted for.
There are questions regarding Kirksey’s size, the angles he takes, his ability to get off blocks and rush the passer, as well as how he will transition into an NFL role.
Because of these concerns, some may render him a jack of all trades, master of none. This is, in part, because there are cornerbacks better suited for the nickel, and there are more imposing weak-side linebackers suited for the base defense.
Where does that leave Kirksey? The answer will be determined by the organization that drafts him. But what has been determined is his leadership, character, effort, athleticism and scheme flexibility.
Whether it’s on special teams, as a 4-3 off-ball linebacker, as a 3-4 inside linebacker, as a sub-package “Star” or “Money,” or anywhere in between, Kirksey will try it all. He’s an experienced, interchangeable defender who can chase ball-carriers, cover route-runners, and delay-blitz quarterbacks.
And while he does not fit one prototype, he does his best to fit everything else.