If you turned on the 2017 tape, he was tough to miss. He had Viking hair — blonde, tangled, whipping over his shoulders like a superhero’s cape — and Viking intensity, rocketing into offensive linemen with the worst of intentions. He’s Ben Burr-Kirven — Viking name — and he’s the middle linebacker for the Washington Huskies.
The Washington defense regularly churns out NFL talent. The Huskies have seen 11 defensive players selected across the last four drafts — and that’s with only one player leaving the board in 2016. So why would their middle linebacker be overlooked in the first place?
It’s the nature of that two-step between college and NFL football. Just when the professional league adopts one ‘college’ principle, two more pop up. And for a few years now, the NFL has struggled to evaluate the mini-linebackers that populate college defenses, as NCAA teams try to handle super spread offenses.
Ben Burr-Kirven played middle linebacker for the 2017 Washington Huskies at 220 pounds.
Doesn’t matter how much range (a lot) or quickness (a fair bit) a player puts on tape. Doesn’t matter how well he tackles (pretty well) or covers (decently well). He really can’t play MIKE linebacker in the NFL at 220 pounds.
As such, Burr-Kirven was a tricky offseason evaluation — a player I said I was “worried about liking.” He was inevitably going to be viewed very differently between teams, as they saw his fit in their defensive scheme. Was he a box safety for Cover 3 teams? A subpackage, dime ‘backer for 3-4 fronts?
BBK took the first step in the right direction this season: he added about 10 pounds, now playing north of 230. That’s an NFL linebacker’s weight for sure, though it lends itself better to WILL play — and it’s still on the low end. The next step was to put out even better tape: the same explosiveness and agility at the new weight, but improved physicality between the tackles.
And early in the season, Burr-Kirven has checked that box as well.
At 6-foot-nothin’, Burr-Kirven (No. 25) has the ability to play with natural leverage against a lot of bigger, less flexible linemen — and he capitalizes on that advantage. Slippery is the word that often comes to mind, when watching Burr-Kirven play between the tackles: he has an inherent sense of timing and space to duck underneath blocking attempts; and then he has the flexibility and core strength to slink through contact and present in the hole.
That’s what he models here: enough of a sidestep to make the punch miss, and the strength to not get removed from the play. I love how proactively he attacks — he comes downhill into the run, so that when he gets his nose back into the gap, he plugs it. That puller comes and makes contact with BBK, but there’s no room for the back to get through the A-gap. Burr-Kirven has accounted for two blockers, leaving his WILL free to close on the running back for a tackle at the line.
This is really cohesive play. Burr-Kirven understands how his responsibility fits within the structure of the defense. As such, he’s a surprisingly effective SAM linebacker: he’s very proactive coming into contact (he needs to be at his size), he keys quite quickly, and he knows how to establish fits to help his teammates.
Burr-Kirven sniffs this little pin-pull out like a bloodhound. If he cross-keyed off of the opposite guard (RG), who’s a bit off of the line of scrimmage as a potential puller, that’s mighty impressive.
Regardless, Burr-Kirven gets to the puller a yard deep in the backfield, which is an ideal situation — and check out that angle of approach, gaining width so as to turn the running back upfield into help. You’ll notice he puts his hips and shoulders into the blocker, and his hands arrive before his opponent’s — that’s really cool to see. His priority there is first to shock the blocker and ensure he doesn’t get engaged; then he’ll play into the running back if the back indeed chooses to come upfield and not bounce outside.
This is another great example of Burr-Kirven’s slipperiness. Bigger linebackers would take this on by leveraging their right shoulder into the lineman, delivering a shot, and presenting their full body in the interior gap. But BBK won’t win many reps that way — he just isn’t powerful enough — so instead he shocks and sheds in a heartbeat. This is a high-quality play from snap to whistle.
As one would expect, Burr-Kirven is at his best when playing into the boundary. He doesn’t have the stopping power to be a consistently elite between-the-tackles defender, but he excels when asked to beat outside plays to the punch.
This was one of his 20 total tackles against the Sun Devils, and again, it’s just a high-quality play from snap to whistle. He diagnoses play-action mighty quickly, reading through the playside guard to identify the screen developing before Arizona State QB Manny Wilkins has even released the football.
As such, by the time he’s closed down on the football, he’s there early — but he gobbles up space and shoots in between the offensive linemen, breaking down to ensure he doesn’t allow a cutback to the middle of the field. Easy tackle; 3rd and long.
Again: quick diagnosis of boundary play; maintain leverage to push runner into strength of defense; good angle and patience as a tackler.
And then the punch.
Burr-Kirven has forced a Pac-12 high 3 fumbles in 2018 (that’s 2nd in all of college football) to go along with his Pac-12 leading 39 solo tackles (3rd in NCAA) and 74 total tackles (2nd in NCAA). When he arrives to the tackle point, Burr-Kirven is always looking to address the football and make impact plays for his defense — and I absolutely love that about his game.
Now, to discuss that nagging NFL translation.
Firstly, Burr-Kirven frequently works as a hook/curl zone defender in Washington’s Cover 3 — and generally, he is untested by most passing attacks he sees on Saturdays. A big test awaits him against the Oregon Ducks this week, as Oregon QB Justin Herbert is the best passer the Huskies will face. Stanford’s passing attack, which relies heavily on seam routes from TE Kaden Smith, may also give us some good data there.
Burr-Kirven must be a positive pass defender to survive in the NFL. That’s true of every defender, given league trends, but it’s an even bigger demand on the undersized Burr-Kirven. I don’t think Burr-Kirven has the agility to handle scatbacks out of the backfield, but I do believe his physicality and explosiveness should serve him well against flex tight ends. That may forever be an extrapolation off of testing data, however, given how Washington deploys their coverage. If Burr-Kirven garners a Senior Bowl invite, that will be his big question throughout the week.
I think Burr-Kirven makes the most sense as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme at the next level, and I believe he does offer a bit of quasi-safety play given his explosiveness in space. That said, he’s effective near the line of scrimmage, and you should not be interested in taking him that far away from it. I liken his NFL translation to that of Shaq Thompson, another Husky defender, who plays an undersized 4-3 WILL for the Carolina Panthers.
With his NCAA-leading production, increased weight, and improved tape, Burr-Kirven checks every box on the identification chart of an NFL Draft riser. As Washington plays two huge national games against Oregon and Colorado, I expect the general Draft public will get wise to the stud at the heart of the Husky defense. Better late than never, I suppose.