Oren Burks’ job description as a Vanderbilt Commodore was as simple as it was vague: make head coach (and oft-defensive coordinator) Derek Mason’s life easier.
The multi-faceted defender covered roles ranging from secondary help to pass rusher in his five years at Vandy, using his blend of size and athleticism to give Mason a Swiss Army Knife patrolling the second level. Burks’ ability to play fill the “star” slot in the Commodore defense gave the team a hybrid linebacker-safety who could sneak up to the line of scrimmage and wallop tailbacks or drop into coverage and play centerfield against the SEC’s top passing attacks. But until this March, it seemed like his efforts would go overlooked.
Burks’ NFL prospects were an under-the-radar discussion until he opened scouts’ eyes in Indianapolis, running a 4.59-second 40-yard dash time and ripping off a 39.5 inch vertical leap at 233 pounds to stake his claim as one of the 2018 NFL Draft’s elite athletes. He’s clocked out as faster than nearly half the tailbacks testing at the Combine, including USC star Ronald Jones and SEC rival Kamryn Pettway. Only one wide receiver posted a better vertical leap.
So where could Burks land in the 2018 Draft?
Burks’ lack of hype and jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none collegiate performance have prevented him from reaching the kind of pre-draft buzz Zach Cunningham did last spring. He was a starter at safety as a sophomore, filled the team’s star role as a junior, and then moved to a more traditional inside linebacker as a senior. These changing roles prevented him from racking up attention-grabbing stats in any one category and often challenged him to take on new roles for a needy Vandy D.
His willingness to sacrifice personal numbers for his team is something NFL coaches will appreciate, and pundits have taken notice of the potential he brings to the NFL. ESPN draft zombie Mel Kiper Jr. came out of his nine-month stasis to rate the Vanderbilt captain a late third-round pick. Matt Bowen sees him as one of the SEC’s biggest risers leading up to the draft. The Chiefs put him at the top of their mid-round wish list in a pre-draft breakdown on their official website.
But there’s a chance his lack of big time game tape pushes him to the later rounds and a selection on Day 3 of the draft. Many of Burks’ biggest performances came against non-Power 5 competition, like a one-sack, one-interception, three-passes defensed 2015 game against Middle Tennessee. While he had some great days against SEC opponents -- he racked up an impressive 15 stops against Florida last fall — he failed to stand out in high profile contests like 2016’s bowl game against North Carolina State or 2017’s total bloodletting against Alabama.
Without a stable college position and uneven production, there’s some risk involved in taking Burks. You could be getting a busy tackler with the speed and athleticism to stick with even the NFL’s most athletic tight ends and the size not to get boxed-out or out-jumped in the end zone. You could also be getting the guy who got washed-out by bigger blockers against the SEC’s more talented teams and struggled against the run in spurts.
But he’s is still growing as an athlete, and his flexibility at Vanderbilt means NFL teams can draft him in April and figure out his professional role later. Having a player like Burks made Mason’s job easier, and he sacrificed throughout his five years to make the Commodores better. Vandy fans got to see just what an asset the rangy linebacker/safety can be on Saturdays. After a monster performance at the Combine, NFL scouts are figuring it out as well.