Borland out to prove critics wrong
Chris Borland knows. He accepts it. From now until May, the scrutiny will intensify. Conversations with scouts, coaches, reporters will all circle back to his height.
Or lack thereof.
“Hey, I've been asked the same questions for the last five or six years,” the Wisconsin inside linebacker said, “so it's a not a problem for me. I just smile and perform well.”
In Mobile, Borland measured in at 5 feet, 11 inches tall. For some teams, this may be a red flag. He's not a long, rangy athlete you'll see doing back flips on a YouTube clip. Yet Borland did have 420 tackles (50 for loss), 17 sacks and 15 forced fumbles in the Big Ten. He was, in fact, the heart of the Wisconsin defense.
Watch the tape, a Senior Bowl practice and so often he's the best player on the field.
Yet the great unknown—if the short and short-armed Borland can do this all in the NFL—will persist.
Borland has no problems with this. He says himself it's “a legitimate concern” for teams.
“I just have to prove I can play well against the biggest and fastest,” Borland said. “It's not an issue to me but I get to prove it every day.
“I understand where it comes from. If you turn on the film, I can play.”
Instincts must mask physical limitations. Instinct-wise, Borland is in a different class. At Wisconsin, he was a chess player two, three, four moves ahead of the offense. This sixth sense comes from a childhood playing many different sports. Borland says it all helped him “see things before they happen.”
This was no grade-school linebacker mocking soccer classmates in the cafeteria. From age 3 to eighth grade, Borland was a soccer player himself. Playing futbol made him understand angles.
“Obviously football and soccer seem to clash a lot,” Borland said, “but soccer was great for me. It's a game that you play with triangles. You make a pass thinking that the person you pass the ball to is going to make the next pass. To understand the depth of that game, maybe that'll translate to the demeanor of a guard based off a formation set, why that would happen, what's going to happen.”
Basketball helped, too. Borland compares linebacker to being an on-ball defender. You're playing on coals. Change of direction is at a premium. And Borland also played tennis, another sport that demands lateral movement.
This week at the Senior Bowl, Borland has been active in the run game. On Wednesday, he slid in front of a receiver for an interception.
The tape scouts keep bringing up to Borland is Wisconsin's loss to Ohio State. A game-long presence against one of the nation's top offenses, he finished with 16 tackles.
He stuffed Carlos Hyde short on fourth and 1. He took up residency in the backfield.
Then you stare at him eye to eye. He is “undersized,” one pro scout deadpanned. Borland doesn't possess long arms, which could pose problems in NFL traffic. But bring up Borland's name in Mobile and a “Zach Thomas” reference almost always follows.
The 5-foot-11 Thomas amassed 1,106 tackles over a 13-year NFL career. He was also 5-11.
The North team's head coach, Atlanta's Mike Smith, doesn't believe Borland is too short to go on this ride.
“He reminds me of Zach Thomas, who had a great career in the NFL,” Smith said. “And again, sometimes we put these measurables up as teams and organizations that we're looking for a guy to fit this mold and some teams have different philosophies that they're not going to take a player at a certain height at certain positions.
“I think the tape doesn't lie. You've got to watch it. That's your DNA. He's done some nice things in practice. He's got great FBI (football intelligence) with what we've asked our guys to do in a short time.”
Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, a former NFL general manager, adds that Borland “absolutely can” excel in the NFL.
Look at Ray Lewis (6-1), at London Fletcher (5-10), at Thomas, he says.
“The only knock on him is height,” Savage said. “At that position, height really doesn't matter…. It doesn't really impact the position. I think that's one of the few positions where height, you can overlook it a little bit as an inside 'backer.”
When Savage was the Baltimore Ravens' director of college scouting (1996-2002) and the GM of the Cleveland Browns (2005-2008), he did have height limits at certain positions. Many teams do. But occasionally, Savage would make an exception.
“He might be an exception,” Savage said. “He's awfully productive.”
So these next five months will be critical. Borland hasn't even run a 40-yard dash since his junior year of high school. After four years of Big Ten dominance, a simple straight-line dash might be the difference, too. Last year, Notre Dame's Manti Te'o drew groans after a 4.82 time at the NFL scouting combine.
Borland will tell teams that being short has its advantages. He can hide behind defensive linemen. He has instant leverage as a blitzer. He has experience in 4-3 and 3-4 schemes.
And, oh yeah, teammate Russell Wilson went 75th overall in 2012 and he's going to the Super Bowl next week.
Such is the life of a pre-draft lab rat. The Green Bay Packers cut loose the 5-foot-11 D.J. Smith before last season, possibly a sign of where they stand on height.
Questions are warranted and they'll continue, too.
Size. Speed. Arm length.
“You have to prove that you're an elite athlete,” Borland said, “so hopefully I run a good time at my size. I understand it. They're spending a lot of money on you, so you have to do a lot of things.
“There are Hall of Famers at 5-11 and 5-9,” Borland said. “I don't think it's a big deal.”