2014 NFL Draft: Pre-Season Breakdown – James Morris, ILB Iowa

September 17, 2011; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes player James Morris (44) tackles Pittsburgh Panthers running back Ray Graham (1) during the third quarter at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa 31 Pittsburgh 27. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa Hawkeyes may have their best linebacker in James Morris since Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge.  While the Hawkeyes have struggled in the standings, Morris has been an impressive middle linebacker with a combination of speed, quickness and instincts that allow him to be a playmaker.  As a junior, Morris had 52 solo tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and 4 deflected passes.

Morris is able to be aggressive and fight to make plays in the box while having the range and speed to make plays on the outside in addition to being an asset in coverage.  Outside of simply being more consistent and just making more plays for Iowa, Morris needs to get bigger and stronger going forward to the NFL.  Morris is a terrific college linebacker but he is slightly undersized for the next level and while he will certainly be able to find a role in the NFL, his size could ultimately limit how far he can go.  Based on his junior year, he looked like a fringe top 100 pick, but with more development, especially physically, Morris could easily find himself fighting for a spot in the top 75 this year and maybe earlier.

Vitals & Build

Morris is listed at 6’2” 230lbs with good speed and really impressive acceleration, especially going forward.  While his lateral speed is above average, it does not stand out as much as when he is able to go forward full speed.  Morris is not weak by any stretch but he can be overpowered at times and more strength would help him not only as a senior for Iowa but for the NFL.  It remains to be seen how much bigger he will be but the closer he gets to 240lbs while maintaining his athleticism, the better it will be for him going to the next level.  If he can pull that off, he could be a special athlete and a better player in the NFL.  Morris appears to have the room to add the weight without too much problem, but that is the biggest issue for him going forward.

Tackling

For the most part, Morris does a good job of wrapping up ball carriers and keeping his legs under him so that he maintains his strength.  There are times when he leaves his feet and it can get him in trouble.  Normally, he is going to make the tackle, but he loses his power and becomes more of a drag down tackler.  This is more problematic going laterally or chasing a guy down from behind as when he leaves his feet, he can fall off of the tackle.  As he tends to do a solid job of tackling with form, if he can continue adding strength, he will have more pop and more impact in his tackles, which could result in additional forced fumbles.  And speaking of forced fumbles, that is an area where he can try to improve as a senior.  In his first three years, he only has one forced fumble and that could be an area where he improves and makes him that much more dangerous in the middle.

Run Support

Morris does a terrific job of diagnosing the run and reacting accordingly.  He shows great quickness and can knife into the backfield before offensive linemen are able to react and get a body on him.  Morris has a great first step and accelerates quickly, which gives him a distinct advantage to attack the running game.

Morris does a good job of staying square to the line to absorb contact from a position of strength, but he can get overpowered at times.  When he is able to generate some momentum, he is able to take on and shed blocks and there are examples where he just overwhelms the boss block to continue and make a big tackle.  Morris keeps opponents guessing by being willing to go and take on a block as well as slipping past a block.  For the most part, he rarely takes a bad angle or takes himself out of a play by avoiding a block.

Occasionally, Morris will overrun a play but these are few and far between.  He is extremely comfortable playing in and around the box, does a good job of fighting through trash, getting skinny when needed, and getting to the ball carrier.

Coverage

Morris is an above average coverage linebacker, especially for someone playing in the middle.  He does a great job in zone coverage.  Morris gets to his drops quickly, is able to react and break on the ball with speed and he is able to read the quarterback’s eyes and go to the football.

The Iowa defense does not ask him to play a ton of zone though because he is also an asset in man and the Hawkeye coaching staff takes advantage.  Whether it is against running backs out of the backfield or tight ends or even slot receivers, Morris has the athleticism to do a pretty good job.  At times, he gives up too much cushion and needs to do a better job of playing in their hip pocket but he is able to contribute in a man scheme.  There is no question that Morris can be a three down linebacker in the NFL provided he is big enough to play against the run.  If he does not gain another ounce, he could find himself a niche as a nickel linebacker who can come in and contribute on special teams.

Pass Rush & Blitz Ability

Morris is not particularly nuanced or fancy with how he attacks the quarterback when he is asked to rush.  He relies on timing, quickness, and speed to attack and is usually going through the A gap.  Morris has the speed to exploit a small hole and get through and make the play.  There are times when Morris will blitz around the edge and he needs to do more in terms of hand use and giving blockers something to think about in terms of moves.  He tends to try to win on speed and if he does not get by the offensive linemen, gets run out of the play.  If he can add some sort of move that he is comfortable with that enables him to beat a block, he is not going to be blitzing so much that opponents get accustomed to it and are easily able to win.  Anything would be better than being done the second he is blocked.

At this point, Morris can be an asset shooting the gap in the A gap especially, but also the B gap.  The C gap is extremely iffy right now until he shows more in terms of moves.

System Fit

Morris is a classic middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense.  He might be at his best in a system that protects him up front and allows him to fly around the field and make plays, but he has shown he can take on a block when needed and more strength should only help in that area of his game.  As long as he is big enough and strong enough to play on run downs, Morris is definitely someone who can play on all three downs and offer some help in man coverage.  He is a real asset in zone and could be someone who is not only effective there but could be a threat to cause turnovers.

If Morris is not able to get strong enough to be a linebacker on running downs, even if only initially in his career, he should have a career as a coverage linebacker who can come in and be effective in obvious passing downs and really help a team in that area.  In addition, his athleticism suggests he should be an asset on special teams as well.

It is possible that Morris could get some looks as a weak side linebacker in addition to a middle linebacker.  Because of his ability to be effective in coverage and his athletic ability, he appears to be a possibility there but he needs to get more effective in man coverage and play tighter.  If he can put the weight on, he is a middle linebacker, but a team might look at him for the weak side if he is not big enough to play in the middle.

Schedule

Sat, Aug. 31 vs. Northern Illinois
Sat, Sept. 7 vs. Missouri State
Sat, Sept. 14 at Iowa State
Sat, Sept. 21 vs. Western Michigan
Sat, Sept. 28 at Minnesota
Sat, Oct. 5 vs. Michigan State
Sat, Oct. 19 at Ohio State
Sat, Oct. 26 vs. Northwestern
Sat, Nov. 2 vs. Wisconsin
Sat, Nov. 9 at Purdue
Sat, Nov. 23 vs. Michigan
Fri, Nov. 29 at Nebraska

Notable Games

Going to Columbus to play Ohio State is a huge game for Iowa but the combination of Braxton Miller as a dual threat quarterback and a big back like Carlos Hyde could really force Morris so show his athleticism as well as his strength in the middle of that defense.  Two weeks later, they host Wisconsin and they have a nice running game that has James White as one of their backs they will run behind a big offensive line.  If Morris can navigate through blocks and make plays, that should only help him.  Lastly, the Hawkeyes host Michigan and Devin Gardner.  Like with Miller, Gardner is a dual threat but he is a better passer at this point than Miller, so that could put a lot of stress on Morris’s ability to cover a lot of ground.

NFL Comparison

Although it will depend on him gaining the weight, Morris’s game is similar to James Laurinaitis of the St. Louis Rams.  Laurinaitis had substantially more hype coming out of Ohio State but like Morris, he is an athletic player that can help in coverage but does a good job in run support.  Both guys have great instincts that make them look even faster than they will time and are players that do not need to come off of the field.

Draft Projection

James Morris is a player that does a ton of things really well and while he can still continue to polish his game, get better in man coverage and work on causing more fumbles, his stock is largely going to be attached his size.  On talent for the game and understanding the position, Morris is a great linebacker and he is fantastic in Iowa’s scheme but he might be a terrific role player in the NFL and could go around the top 100 of the NFL Draft.  If he ends up putting on the weight, gets up to near 240lbs, and maintains his athleticism, his stock will fly up and he will compete as one of the top 4-3 middle linebackers in the draft, which would warrant a pick in the top 75 and could go earlier.

Topics: 2014 Mock Draft, 2014 NFL Draft, Inside Linebackers, Iowa Hawkeyes Football, James Morris, Middle Linebackers

Want more from With the First Pick?  
Subscribe to FanSided Daily for your morning fix. Enter your email and stay in the know.