Size won't stand in Vilma's way
Jonathan Vilma might be a little short by NFL linebacker standards, but the former Miami standout is a playmaker.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Smart enough to know that size really does matter, especially in the career into which he will shortly (no pun intended) step, Jonathan Vilma made sure that he stood ramrod tall during a Sunday media session here.
No bending over the podium for the University of Miami middle linebacker. Certainly no slouching into the microphone. Appear too short at the NFL combine, even for a media crowd that has no vote in any teams' draft room during the first round or any other stanza for that matter, and perception might suddenly become reality.
"Different teams are saying different things about where they feel I would fit best," said Vilma, one of about a half-dozen former Hurricanes standouts projected as a first-round choice on April 24. "Some coaches seem to think I'll be fine in the middle. And others kind of hinted I might be better moving (to outside linebacker). I guess it just depends on who takes me where they need me to play."
If he doesn't quite dovetail with the computer-generated model of what a middle 'backer is supposed to be at the NFL level, Vilma clearly possesses the tools to be an impact starter as a rookie. There have been middle linebackers with similar dimensions -- Zach Thomas of Miami and Denver's Al Wilson among the NFL's contemporary players at the position -- who have excelled.
And if Vilma doesn't fit into what a team wants in the middle, several personnel chiefs insisted over the weekend he will be able to play one of the outside spots.
"He is a heck of a player," said Houston general manager Charley Casserly. "We're in a 3-4 defense, so we're a little bit different. But if I'm in a 4-3, I'd probably look at him as a weakside 'backer, and cover him up, and then the guy might make every tackle. You watch their tapes and their games, and this guy makes every tackle, it seems. (He is) highly instinctive (and has) great football smarts."
Vilma's aptitude extends beyond the field, however, as indicated by a 3.5 grade-point average and a degree in finance. He spent last summer as an intern in the client wealth management division of Lehman Brothers so it's a pretty good bet that when he pockets his first NFL signing bonus, he'll know where to invest it.
His father is an accountant, his mother a social worker, both from very educated families in Haiti, and they stressed early on to Vilma football would be just a temporary pursuit in the big picture. The son heeded the message and, the same qualities that placed him with some of the great linebackers in Miami history are simply reflections of his work in the classroom. One professor, who taught an organizational behavior class in which Vilma earned as "A" as a junior termed him "prepared, very analytical and (with) wonderful interpersonal skills."
All of those components are evidenced when watching tape of Vilma, who plays with an economy of motion, rarely makes a misread, and is usually in the frame when the film stops. In the 4-3 scheme deployed by Hurricanes coordinator Randy Shannon, the middle linebacker rarely comes off the field, even on third down, and Vilma has demonstrated the kind of range that should enable him to be a three-down player in the pros as well. He can run from sideline to sideline, isn't awkward playing in reverse, and is a sure tackler.
Once again, linebacker is hardly a deep position in the draft, and that certainly will work in Vilma's favor as well. The other top prospects include his former Miami teammate, D.J. Williams, Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas of Auburn, Oklahoma's Teddy Lehman, Michael Boulware of Florida State and a pair of Georgia Tech standouts, Daryl Smith and Keyaron Fox.
Asked where he felt he rated among the group of prospects, Vilma was characteristically modest and suggested that he only wants to measure up to his own potential.
"What's coming up for me is a big step," Vilma said. "It's something I've thought about for a long time and, now that it's near, I need to work even harder to make it a reality."
Around the combine
Observations from two NFC scouts:
-- Len Pasquarelli
Lee Evans, WR, Wisconsin: Wisconsin wide receiver Lee Evans, featured in the Friday combine notebook, followed up strong interview sessions with a scintillating Saturday workout that could move him up in the crowded field of prospects at his position. Just as he had predicted, Evans, who persevered through a pair of surgeries on his left knee following a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the spring of 2002, blistered the 40-yard sprint. He ran in the mid- to high-4.3s, looked very fluid, and forced people to pay attention. Another wideout who helped himself was Carlos Francis of Texas Tech, who also ran in the 4.3s and was probably the fastest player in the weekend field. Francis, though, is only in the 5-feet-9 range and might be more a special teams player.
John Navarre, QB, Michigan: Michigan quarterback John Navarre wasn't particularly good in the post-season all-star games and continued that poor performance on Saturday in the throwing drills at the RCA Dome. He has nice size, good smarts and seems to be a solid leader, but Navarre simply doesn't throw the ball well, is inaccurate and really struggles at times on the deep passes. The scouts like his attitude but really don't seem to know where he fits in now with a pretty deep quarterback pool. There was a pretty strong consensus on Sunday, though, that Navarre is definitely sliding.
The last word
"Not much really. The biggest change is nobody works out anymore. I don't know why we're here, but basically nobody's going to work out and then we're going to tour the country and see everybody work out. I haven't quite figured out that part yet." -- Redskins coach Joe Gibbs on how the combine changed during his 11-season hiatus from the league
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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