Christian Kirksey is part of another talented trio of Iowa linebackers that had some fans remember back to the days of Chad Greenway and Addul Hodge. Along with James Morris and Anthony Hitchens, Kirksey has been one of the best players and part of the best unit on the field. Kirksey has been used as an outside linebacker, both lined up over the tight end, playing out in space and covering the slot, able to do all of them effectively.
For the NFL, Kirksey is a great athlete who makes the most of his strength to fly around the field and make plays. First and foremost, he is a great coverage linebacker, but he has shown he can be a good asset against the run and someone who can blitz. He has a lot of fundamentals and technique that should allow him to contribute early, potentially as a starter. Based on what he can do and how fast he should be able to contribute, Kirksey warrants a top 100 pick, but has a small chance to crack the top 75 picks.
Vitals & Build
Kirksey measured 6’2” 233lbs at the scouting combine with 32 3/8” arms. While he is not ideal in terms of size, Kirksey shows to be really light on his feet with good speed, quickness and agility. He demonstrates a good amount of power and demonstrates the ability to make the most of it. Kirksey really makes the most of his physical traits and while there is some potential in gaining some weight, he is largely what he is going to be, which is not a bad thing as far as the NFL is concerned.
Kirksey does a good job of keeping his feet moving and tackling through opponents rather than stopping on contact. While he may look small, he hits big and shows a good amount of functional strength in how he hits. For the most part, he is a solid wrap up tackler that does not miss many opportunities to make plays. He does a pretty good job of breaking down and getting his hips down without losing all of his speed and momentum in the process.
Kirksey is active in the running game and will attack downhill given the chance. He is not afraid to take on and shed blocks, though he does need to work on getting quicker and more efficient in how he does it.
Kirksey can get stuck on blocks and occasionally get bullied out of the way, but largely, he holds his ground, stays in his gap and is able to do his job. Occasionally, he will run around blocks when the play is close and he thinks he can get an angle, but he has a pretty good sense of when he can away with it. There are times, he will take himself out of the play in the process but they are not terribly often.
Kirksey has good range and speed, so he can cover a lot of ground and has experience playing in space as well as lined up on top of the tight end. He is not afraid to shoot a gap and make a play in the backfield as well as having the ability to go chase down a play from behind. Kirksey tends to play with good angles and in doing so, looks faster and is able to play under control so he does not overrun plays.
Kirksey has experience playing in a strong side linebacker role in certain situations, so he is he not afraid or unfamiliar with contact. Space and being able to play a more traditional weak side position should only make it easier for him to make plays in the running game while still maintaining the ability to do dirty work when called for it. If he can keep working on shedding more quickly, he can be a really effective player in this role. Kirksey does a nice job when it comes to slipping blocks and working through trash and part of how he is able to keep opponents off balance is because of his speed and quickness, which has enabled him to take on blockers from an advantageous position.
Kirksey has a lot of ability as a coverage linebacker and really displays some good fundamentals that should allow him to transition to the NFL without too much difficulty in this area. He has plenty of experience in zone as well as man and does a good job of not allowing opponents to run by him, making sure to get a chuck or hit on opponents trying to get past him.
Kirksey is comfortable playing in zone, gets to his drops quickly and is fluid in how he can fly around. He has terrific speed and burst going forward that allows him to break on the ball quickly. If he can react to what he is seeing more quickly, he could have more opportunities to make plays on the football. Occasionally, he will lose track of the receiver when he is watching the quarterback, but he shows a ton of ability in this area.
In man coverage, Kirksey has good hips and is a fluid athlete that enables him to play man coverage against both tight ends and some receivers in the slot. He does a good job of trying to dictate the coverage by leading with contact and trying to eliminate some momentum and put himself in the hip pocket of the opponent. Athletically, he has shown he can cover a range of athletes and while he is unlikely to cover a ton of slots receivers at the next level, he is a player that gives a defense a lot of options in what they can do.
Kirksey looks like he will be able to be a full time weak side backer early on in his career, but in a situation where he is not starting immediately, he should be able to contribute a ton in nickel and sub package situations based on stopping the pass. Not only is he able to help in stopping the pass, but he has shown he has the potential to cause turnovers.
Pass Rush & Blitz Ability
Kirksey is not a terribly nuanced pass rusher because of how the Hawkeyes employed him, but he certainly has viability in that area. For the most part, they had him either attack on the outside or shoot through a gap right from the snap and go all out to the quarterback.
Kirksey has not had a ton of experience in terms of delayed blitzes, but he does give teams another player who can attack the quarterback with great speed and burst, who can deliver a hit on the quarterback when he has an opportunity. While he is a speed rusher for the most part, he will not shy away from contact and try to beat a block. Much of his success came on overload type looks and being able to win on pure speed, but that was a staple of the Iowa defense. He can do more if given the chance.
Kirksey has a pretty ideal skillset to help a team on coverage units. Both his speed, strength and ability to settle down and make tackles in space should make him be a huge asset almost immediately.
Kirksey is ideally suited to play weak side linebacker in a 4-3, but he could play a weak inside backer spot in a 3-4 as well. He is an intriguing fit in the 3-4 because he does have the experience to take on and shed blocks, but his overall skill set is an easier fit in the 4-3 where he can play in space.
Kirksey has the capacity to start as a rookie depending on the team he is drafted by, but failing that, he should be an immediate contributor on both nickel as a coverage linebacker that can also blitz as well as on special teams.
Kirksey has a lot of similarities and may be similarly overlooked the same way Danny Travathan when he came out of Kentucky. Travathan, like Kirksey was effective and productive with a terrific, fundamental skillset that could make a quick impact for a team. Travathan went in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Kirksey should go much earlier than that, but it is a position that can have some incredible value.
Kirksey really has a lot of technique and ability that could allow him to contribute as a rookie. On top of that, he has a good amount of speed and fluidity that give him the potential to be a good, weak side linebacker in the league for a while. He excels in coverage, making good use of his hands, but also can play the run and rush the passer. The nature of weak side linebackers is an unpredictable market and Kirksey warrants a top 100 pick, but could go as early as the top 75 or get picked somewhere on day three.
Some of the film used in this scouting breakdown was provided by the good folks at draftbreakdown.com