Since Rick Spielman took over primary responsibilities for general manager duties in Minnesota, he’s drafted a linebacker in the seventh round every single year. Audie Cole, Michael Mauti, Brandon Watts, Edmond Robinson, Stephen Weatherly and Elijah Lee all represent the kinds of athletic linebackers that end up making plays on special teams and ensure that the Vikings maintain their top spot with premier special teams units.
While Weatherly is an edge defender in reality and the streak is not quite as reliable — though Kentrell Brothers in the fifth round in the same year as Weatherly does sort of maintain it — as it initially sounds, it’s certainly one tendency to bank on year after year.
Watts, Robinson and Lee ran fast 40-yard dashes — 4.71 seconds or faster — with Watts running a 4.41. Cole, the least recent of the draft picks, ran a 4.81-second 40-yard dash while Mauti and 2018 seventh-round pick Devante Downs never ran one.
That makes an analytical analysis somewhat difficult — especially because he missed half of the college football season for the same reason he didn’t perform workouts: a knee injury that will complicate his ability to practice during training camp this year.
His projected 40 time from DraftScout.com is 4.82 seconds, with a fastest projected time of 4.72 seconds. While Tony Pauline at DraftAnalyst.com calls Downs an “athletic and explosive linebacker,” but also only projects a 40-yard dash time of 4.78 seconds.
That doesn’t tell us much in terms of athleticism, so we’ll work backwards from production.
We’ve got a few production metrics to work with, even in a shortened season — solo tackle market share, tackle-for-loss market share, run stop rate, missed tackle rate and adjusted yards allowed per snap in coverage.
The highest tackle market share in the draft class unsurprisingly belonged to Iowa’s Josey Jewell, with an astonishing 22.5 percent of his team’s solo tackles and tackles-for-loss.
After him were two players who had their tackle totals adjusted for their teammate’s draft position: Rashaan Evans and Roquan Smith at 21.8 percent and 19.4 percent. The lowest belonged to linebackers comfortable playing outside of the box like Azeem Victor (6.8 percent) and Andre Smith (7.4 percent).
Downs, in games he played, just beat the drafted linebacker average of 14.4 percent with his score of 15.2 percent. His run stop rate was similarly average, with 8.0 percent of his snaps against the run resulting in a run “stop,” where a running back gets tackled short of their goal.
In coverage, Downs looks a lot better. The average linebacker gave up 0.88 adjusted yards per snap in coverage (adjusted yards are simply total yards plus 20 yards for each touchdown and negative 45 yards for each interception) and Downs cut that in half by only allowing 0.42 adjusted yards per coverage snap — which ranks second of every linebacker drafted.
Though his ball-hawk rate is not particularly high for a linebacker — 11th of 21 qualifying players that Pro Football Focus has data for — it’s also not alarmingly low. The yards he allowed in coverage are much more meaningful, but it does drop his overall contribution in the passing game. Targeted on 19 snaps, he allowed 17 receptions, though only for 148 yards and with both incompletions turning into interceptions.
His production profile this year, with average run defense scores and good pass coverage numbers turns out to be a little above average overall.
His age gives him a slight boost as well and with an assumed athleticism score of 100, the Vikings found the rare late-round linebacker with a mid-round analytical score — of the 21 linebackers drafted on Day 3, only six had better total scores than Downs. There were some undrafted free agents with better scores, including Matthew Thomas, Frank Ginda and Jason Cabinda, but not many.
The Vikings may have made the right analytical choice when gambling on this injury worry.
All analytic scores are meant to be read like an IQ chart, with 100 being average and every 15 points in either direction representing one large tier.
PRODUCTIVITY SCORE: 104.7 | ATHLETICISM SCORE: N/A | AGE SCORE: 101.3
FINAL SCORE: 98.3