Wisconsin’s middle linebacker Chris Borland is a fifth year senior that has really improved in every year since he has been in Camp Randall. After being a freshman All-American, Borland was forced to take a medical red shirt his sophomore year after recurring shoulder injuries forced him out for the year. In his redshirt sophomore year, Borland played strong side linebacker and contributed in nickel situations before taking the middle linebacker job full time as a junior where he earned All-Big Ten honors from the coaches. Borland has been an invaluable member of the Badgers defense going back to his freshman year and when he was unavailable, it was a huge loss.
In Bret Bielema’s last year as head coach at Wisconsin, they added a wrinkle in having Borland also play as a rush linebacker in situations along the lines of Brandon Spikes when he was at Florida and Dont’a Hightower while at Alabama. In those situations, each player lined up with his hand on the ground as a traditional defensive end while Borland played as an edge linebacker lined up close to the end. Borland showed he could make an impact in this area in addition to playing some nickel linebacker depending on the defense they called and what the situation dictated. This is something that new head coach Gary Andersen has picked up with and run with since he has taken over and Borland is getting even more reps as a pass rusher on the edge.
Borland will be extremely popular to some critics because of his super aggressive style that has him going all out all the time and ability to create chaos. Others will hold back their enthusiasm criticizing the fact that he is often out of control, takes himself out of position, and has bad habits as a tackler and in coverage. He has the ability to be a productive player for a team in the NFL, but he could really help himself if he gets into better habits of a tackler and gets more comfortable in coverage while he has this added wrinkle of being a pass rusher that he might be able to expand this year. To his credit, Borland has improved on his bad habits as his career has progressed. They still show up but less and less often, so he is becoming a more effective player. Overall, Borland looks like a player who could be all over the place on boards because of his style, but at this point, he looks like an early day three prospect that has the ability to work his way into the Top 100.
Vitals & Build
Borland is listed at 5’11” 250lbs with a good build and impressive strength. He does not always play it but he possesses decent fluidity and shows flashes of flipping his hips effectively, but will make himself look stiff by not breaking down in space to make plays. Borland has impressive acceleration and quickness and can take opponents by surprise with how fast he can get into holes, close, and fly around on the field with solid straight line speed. He is not a guy with much more physical potential and is largely going to be improving what he already has, but he is not going to get any taller and should not get any bigger. Borland has a good motor and plays with a ton of energy and passion consistently.
Borland can be a powerful wrap up tackler that can drive the ball carrier backward as well as jarring the ball loose with a violent hit. Unfortunately, this does not happen nearly as often as it could, because Borland has the skills do it, but bad habits cause him to make him wildly inconsistent. Too often, Borland ends up lunging, leaving his feet and throwing himself at tackles rather than getting himself in position and exploding from the hips. When he is right, he can make a highlight hit that looks great, but especially as an underclassman, Borland has been far too often wrong and missed far too many tackles due to lunging and diving at ball carriers that did not need it and picking himself up off of the ground and chasing the play. This is something that has gotten better as a senior but there are certainly still problems with it and he will still dive too much.
The other problem that Borland ran into is he would not break down, especially when he comes downhill and that is where the lunging was at its most problematic. Borland seemingly has come to the realization that even though he is coming full speed, he can take the time to break down, gather himself, adjust to locate the ball carrier and make the good tackle as opposed to trying to make the highlight reel. His consistency has improved between the tackles as a result, but he still has issues chasing plays laterally. Typically, when he is backed up off the play, he will be in a good tackling position and stay in one as he adjusts to the ball carrier and makes the good play. Borland has been a pretty good athlete and when is unwilling to break down makes him look far stiffer than he appears capable, making him play less fluid than he could be. This can be hit or miss but he looks more athletic on balance. He can still work to be more consistent with his technique so he avoids making these mistakes, but they do still pop up from time to time.
Borland is at his best and most comfortable when he is able to diagnose the play and come downhill with his speed and strength to fill the hole. He needs to do a better job of locating the football which can cause him to misread plays on occasion and catch him out of position, especially with read option type looks. And with Borland’s aggressive style, it can be a case where he will run himself out of the play entirely and have to play catch up from behind.
His aggressiveness and strength make him effective when it comes to taking on blockers and Borland can really jolt offensive linemen when he comes into them as he does not slow down. Instead, he goes as fast as he can and thrives on contact and takes the opportunity to send a message. Borland is not afraid to fill the hole and his acceleration and quickness enable him to do it as well and he can make big plays in the middle of the line when he has made the right read or the play calls for him to go in that direction anyway.
His range is not great but it is probably better than some might give him credit. He is never going to be a sideline to sideline defender but he can do more than just cover the A and B gap. As long as he reads well, he can out there and cover plays on the outside. Borland is far more comfortable and happier to go downhill, but he can out and make plays when needed and has the speed and quickness to track plays down from behind.
This is another area where Borland flashes the ability to do the job but has habits that make him play worse than his physical ability would allow. Again, Borland is an extremely aggressive player and he wants to get a good chip on receivers and running backs when they come into his zone. At times, he will overextend and it can cause him to get himself out of position.
In zone, Borland will watch the quarterback’s eyes but at times will get caught standing still too long and the quarterback can make the pass before he slides into position. Borland is a player who wants to play underneath so he can make plays on the football in the form of pass deflections and interceptions. This is perfectly fine in situations where he has help over the top in the form of a patrolling safety and it can be extremely effective coverage in taking away underneath passes especially to slot receivers who are so much thinner than he is where he becomes a virtual eclipse that blocks them out of the play. If the safety is helping elsewhere or is not playing zone over the top, Borland can get underneath and the result is that he is vulnerable deep.
Overall, the sense with Borland is that he is not comfortable in coverage but he made strides from his sophomore to his junior year. He has the athleticism to help in zone in the NFL and at times has flashed moments of brilliance where he was able to take away opportunities for slot receivers as he takes away their lane, anticipates their route and puts himself in position to make some great plays. Borland is going to have problems against taller tight ends but he is not afraid to use his strength to match up with them physically. At this point, Borland looks like a 2-down linebacker but if he can continue to improve by getting more comfortable most of all, he could be a player who might surprise people in his ability to play in coverage at the next level.
Pass Rush & Blitz Ability
In a move that is becoming more common in a best-11 concept, Borland has experience playing in coverage from a nickel linebacker position, but he has also been used as a rush linebacker off the edge as well. He is surprisingly natural at it as well and his natural tendency to be aggressive works for him here as he can really give some offensive linemen and especially tight ends problems on the edge.
His length does not work for him, but his strength enables him to bull rush and keep guys off balance enough to where he can go inside with strength and then go outside with speed and quickness. His acceleration and agility have Borland with impressive closing speed that will take quarterbacks by surprise. The other notable part of this is Borland possesses an effective spin move he will use that has been effective at getting him off blocks and netted him a few sacks and pressures.
This is something the new coaching staff has picked up on and used even more than did last year. There are games where he is exclusively being used as a pass rushing specialist in obvious passing downs and he shows ability to win even though offensive linemen are having enough opportunities to see him and adjust to what he is doing. He does have a problem with adjusting to quarterbacks that are able to escape with quickness and he can look incredibly stiff. When he catches quarterbacks by surprise or they are not as athletic, he can come and really unload on them, but needs to work on making better use of opportunities to make plays when he gets into the backfield.
Borland offers a lot of options in terms of what he can do, but his best fit may be as a strong side inside linebacker in the 3-4. Because of his aggressiveness, acceleration and willingness to go downhill and take on blockers and fill the hole, he is extremely well suited to play in a scheme that lets him do it. Teams like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Green Bay, and Arizona run schemes that would allow him to excel in that role. He projects as a 2-down linebacker but has the potential to give more than people might expect in coverage.
In the 4-3, Borland can contribute as a strong side linebacker or middle linebacker depending on the team looking at him. The NEw York Giants are a team that have really liked these type of linebackers to play in the middle of the defense that are run first, second, and third and if they can help against the pass, that is a bonus. For the strong side position, the Cincinnati Bengals stand out as a team that could like what Borland does because they love aggressive linebackers that can clamp down on the run but his ability to rush off the edge is something they have liked under Mike Zimmer. He could actually play both inside and outside in that particular scheme. The Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings are two other teams that could be good fits for Borland in terms of scheme.
In many ways, Borland’s game is similar to Rey Maualuga of the Cincinnati Bengals. He came out of USC with a lot of production and hype coming from a stacked defense, but the issues he had at USC such as getting caught out of position too often as a result of incorrect reads, going for too many highlight hits and lunging in bad spots to being a liability in the passing game have come true in Cincinnati. He has been a productive run defender there as Borland could be and they have similar size and strength. Like Maualuga, Borland could have a long career in the NFL and be a starter in the right situation.
Borland has so much that coaches will like. His attitude, work ethic, aggressiveness, toughness and willing to play the run hard will make him popular to some. He is pretty limited in coverage and while he has experience playing as an edge rusher on passing situations, that is unlikely to happen too much in the NFL. Borland appears to be a run down specialist who could also add value on the blitz because of his experience rushing the passer from the edge. His range is a little limited but especially for teams running a 3-4 that may limit how far he needs to be able to go, he can be a tremendous thumping presence and help put opponents in obvious passing situations. Borland projects as a fringe top 100 pick but he could be a player that lasts quite a while in the league because of the way he plays, provided he can avoid getting hurt.
Some of the film used in this scouting breakdown was provided by the good folks at draftbreakdown.com