Upon a closer and more extended study of game film, the UDFA who stood out the most to me is LB Mike Needham of Southern Utah.
Needham plays fast and instinctively. He is a modern day 3 down linebacker who sifts through traffic, gets to ball carriers quickly, finishes tackles with a bang, and shines like a star in pass coverage.
It’s no wonder that he was first team All-Big Sky three years in a row (39th player in league history to be a three time all-conference first teamer). This kid is a playmaker deluxe.
I am shocked that he wasn’t drafted. The main knocks on him is that he’s 224 pounds and plays at a small school. However, look at how Needham’s numbers match up with two players who thrived in Wilks’ defense at Carolina:
Mike Needham (6-2, 224)---4.56 40---20 reps---35” VJ---10’ 6” BJ---7.15 3 cone).
Thomas Davis (6-1, 230)---4.64 40---N/A reps---36.5” VJ---9’ 7” BJ---7.09 3 cone).
Shaq Thompson (6-0, 228)---4.64 40---N/A reps---33.5 VJ---9’ 9” BJ---6.99 3 cone).
Notice that Davis and Thompson elected not to lift at the combine. 20 reps for Needham is impressive. Notice that Needham is slightly faster in the 40 and more explosive in the broad jump. Davis and Thompson were quicker in the 3 cone, but not by a significant margin.
Let’s look at Needham’s production at Southern Utah, which by the way, recently produced two NFL LBs in the Lions’ 2016 4th round pick, Miles Killebrew and the Raiders’ 2016 UDFA, James Cowser.
2015-2017: Mike Needham---201 tackles---135 solo---4 sacks---24 TFL---3 FF---4 FR for 66 yards in returns---8 ints. For 88 yards in returns.
According to USA Today, in 2014, even with two future NFL players in Cowser and Killebrew, SUU had one of the worst defenses in the conference. The T-Birds were last in the Big Sky in total defense and 11th in scoring defense.
However, in 2015, the T-Birds were No. 1 in scoring defense and No. 5 in total defense. The Needham effect?
“He allowed us to do the things we wanted to do on defense,” said head coach Demario Warren, who was Needham’s position coach and the team’s defensive coordinator in 2015. “His versatility really opened our defensive scheme up and allowed us to do a lot of things we have never been able to do before.” (USA Today)
Warren used Needham at OLB, SS and nickel CB. That’s correct, he was their nickel CB.
Per Rotoworld, Draft Analyst’s Tony Pauline listed Southern Utah OLB Mike Needham as a potential “small school gem” in the 2018 NFL Draft class.
Needham (6’2/227) is listed by Pauline as the best three-down small-school linebacker in the class, behind South Carolina State Darius Leonard who might go in the first three rounds. “Needham is athletic, covers a lot of area on the field and really stands out in pursuit,” writes Pauline. “His aggressive nature makes many believe he’ll be a standout on special teams.” He mentions the Titans, Vikings, Jaguars and Texans as teams interested in his services, and Pauline believes he’ll either go late on Day 3 or sign as a priority free agent.
Actually, in a radio interview a couple of days before the draft, Needham said that the two teams that had been showing the most interest in him were the Cardinals and Rams. Typically, Southern Utah draft prospects have to go to BYU’s Pro Day, but thanks to Needham, this year Southern Utah had its own Pro Day, which the Cardinals eagerly attended (one of 10 teams in attendance). This is where Needham ran his 4.57 40, 7.17 3 cone, 10’ 6” broad jump and put up 20 reps at 225.
Steve Wilks always talks about coveting “smart” football players. Needham’s GPA at Southern Utah is a 3.98. He says his favorite teacher is “Camille Thomas who taught my Biomechanics class.” Of the current players in the NFL he patterns his game after he says, “Daniel Sorenson of the Kansas City Chiefs. We both come from similar backgrounds and I feel like we have similar personalities. He’s a ball hawk, always likes to be around the ball and finds ways to make plays. He’s not the biggest guy but doesn’t seem intimidated by the NFL talent.”
Here’s a nifty video of highlight plays. The speed, the aggressiveness and the outstanding cover ability stand out on this tape. Take a few minutes to feast your eyes. This kid is a baller. Steve Wilks said that the Cardinals had high draft grades on several of their UDFAs. One can imagine that Mike Needham was high on their list. Nice too that he chose the Cardinals over the Rams.
Next up: UDFA Gem #2: CB Deatrick Nichols, Central Florida