Ben Burr-Kirven tackled more players in 2018 than anyone else in the NFL Draft, or in all of FBS. The Washington middle linebacker’s 176 total tackles were 18 clear of the next-highest total in the country. They were more than anyone put up in a season since 2011, when Boston College’s Luke Kuechly had 191 before going on to an All-Pro career.
Tackles are only so useful in evaluating a player, because the actions of 21 other players on the field have a lot to do with who gets a tackle on any given play. But Burr-Kirven’s off to the pros now, and it’s worth considering how he put that many people on the ground.
At Washington, Burr-Kirven played in the middle of a defense that dared offenses to attack linebackers in the middle of the field.
A hallmark for the Huskies under Chris Petersen, their coach since 2014, has been strong secondary play. UW was No. 5 in Defensive Passing S&P+ in 2016, dipped to No. 26 in 2017 after losing two second-round cornerbacks, and went up to No. 18 in 2018, when it was No. 1 in limiting explosive plays but No. 50 in efficiency. There have been some warts, but Washington has pretty well emphasized not letting opposing passing games roam wild.
That was very much Washington’s plan in Burr-Kirven’s last year. The Huskies had a potential first-round cornerback, Byron Murphy, locking down one side of the field. Their starting safeties were both All-Pac-12 guys, Taylor Rapp and JoJo McIntosh. Yet teams threw a ton against the Huskies. Offenses passed on 71.9 percent of standard downs against them.
Many of those throws went over the middle of the field, where Burr-Kirven had to tackle. So did a lot of runs, which he had to tackle, too.
Burr-Kirven was up to the challenge. He became one of the most prolific tackling machines in recent college football history.
He made some splash plays in pass defense, with two picks and six breakups. He also forced four fumbles and recovered three. But Burr-Kirven’s biggest job was to cover the middle of the field in the passing game …
… and search and destroy in the run game:
Aside from a six-tackle game and a nine-tackle game, he was in the double-digits every week his senior season. He didn’t blitz a lot, though he did step up to play the run, which accounted for a huge chunk of his tackles.
The spread offenses that have moved around the sport demand linebackers who can move. That’s Burr-Kirven’s M.O. The issue is that he’s really small.
Burr-Kirven measured an even 6 feet and 230 pounds at the NFL Combine in March. He’ll be firmly on the smaller side of NFL middle backers, even in these spread days. But there were about 50 NFL linebackers within an inch and five pounds of Burr-Kirven in 2018, including the Bears’ Roquan Smith, the Bucs’ Lavonte David, and the Chiefs’ Anthony Hitchens.
“It’s not the days of the 6’4, 250 linebackers as much anymore,” Burr-Kirven told me at the combine. “You see safeties who are converting to linebacker, that kind of stuff. I definitely think I’m coming to the league at the right time, where there really is a place for me to play and a position that is now being filled with guys that look more like me, rather than the old monsters of the olden days.”
Burr-Kirven mentioned Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman as examples of the old prototype. He’s long realized his size wouldn’t help him in the draft, but:
“I can answer those questions, and when you put on the tape, you’ll see a productive player,” he told me.
In addition to being one of the smallest linebackers in the draft, Burr-Kirven’s one of the fastest, most agile, and highest-jumping, per combine tests.
Different systems demand different middle linebackers. But alongside perimeter players who funnel the ball inside, Burr-Kirven is strong.
He’s followed a particular mold at Washington. The Huskies love linebackers and box safeties who can move it. In the last few years, they’ve fielded ILBs like Cory Littleton (now a key cog for the Rams) and Azeem Victor, a college star who might’ve had an easier NFL career if not for injury problems. They’ve also had a few athletic safeties who thrive player near the line, like Rapp and the guy he replaced in Seattle, current Cardinal Budda Baker. Plus an outside backer/safety, Shaq Thompson, who went in the first round to the Panthers.
“We tend to have guys who are a little bit smaller and run in space,” Burr-Kirven said. “I think that kind of speaks to the league we’re in. We’re only seeing one pro-style offense normally a year in Stanford. For the most part, we’re seeing four wide receivers, one running back all year. So to play the position you’re playing, you’ve gotta be able to run.”
They’ve paired those talents with future NFL corners like Marcus Peters, Kevin King, Sidney Jones, and Murphy, who tend to force a lot of the action toward those physical interior presences. They’ve also paired them with good defensive lines, headlined by some of the best tackles in the country — 2018 first-rounder Vita Vea, Elijah Qualls, and Greg Gaines.
When they drew double-teams, Burr-Kirven had to rally to running backs.
For example, watch Utah’s right guard and right tackle double-team a lineman here, then watch Burr-Kirven shoot into the gap that creates:
“When you have D-linemen up there that are willing to do that kind of dirty work, and they’re not playing for stats, they’re not playing for getting all the tackles, all the TFLs, they’re playing to play defense good, that’s where you get to see linebackers start really flashing,” Burr-Kirven said.
To get the most out of Burr-Kirven in the NFL, do what Washington did: put him in already-sturdy system, and let him help clean up what’s left.
The numbers say he did that as proficiently as anybody.