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Xs & Os: How Chazz Surratt's Instincts Helped Switch & Could Benefit Vikings

The Vikings have drafted at least one linebacker in every NFL Draft since 2009 and extended that streak this spring by tabbing Chazz Surratt in the third round out of North Carolina.

Despite that frequency, Surratt is the first linebacker drafted by Minnesota in the third round of a draft since Carlos Jenkins in 1991.

During the current streak of 13 consecutive drafts, the only linebackers drafted higher by Minnesota have been Anthony Barr (first round, 2014) and Eric Kendricks (second round, 2015). Hitting on that pair of Pro Bowlers — and being able to re-sign both — has enabled the Vikings to prioritize other position groups in the first three rounds of drafts.

The Vikings — and other teams — have increased usage of nickel defense (five defensive backs and two linebackers) in recent years, but it's still important to have a running mate in Minnesota's 4-3 base, and linebackers often have contributed on special teams.

Like Barr, Surratt transitioned from offense to defense in college. Barr's shift from a rarely used running back at UCLA to linebacker worked out well for him, the Bruins and the Vikings. Surratt's audible — from quarterback to linebacker — is even rarer but could pay dividends for the 24-year-old from Denver, North Carolina.

"It was a move that I thought ultimately would get me to this point," Surratt said after his selection when asked about making the switch in 2019 before his redshirt junior season. "I'm thankful for the coaches and teammates I had along the way. I wouldn't be here without them.

"I'm thankful for the opportunity Coach [Mack] Brown gave me," Surratt added. "A lot of hard work was put into it, and I had strong support from my family, both of my parents and my brother (Sage). That's a big reason why I'm here."

Player Profile: Chazz Surratt, North Carolina, redshirt senior

After making seven starts at quarterback and leading the 2017 Tar Heels with 1,342 passing yards, Surratt appeared in just one game in 2018.

The dream wasn't completely dead but appeared to be dwindling.

Surratt found a way back to the field — and made a tremendous impact time and time again at linebacker, appearing in 13 games and making 11 starts in 2019.

He garnered First-Team All-ACC honors and finished as the runner-up for the ACC Defensive Player of the Year after ranking second in the conference with 115 tackles and fifth with a team-best 15 tackles for loss. Surratt also led the Tar Heels with 6.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hurries that season.

Surratt also came through in the clutch to intercept a pass on a first-and-goal for Duke with 18 seconds remaining. The pick preserved a 20-17 victory.

Teammates voted Surratt as a captain for his senior season, and he was named the team's Defensive MVP after again leading the team in tackles (91) and ranking second with 7.5 tackles for loss in 11 starts. He garnered another First-Team All-ACC selection and impressed scouts.

View photos of North Carolina LB Chazz Surratt who was selected in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Recently promoted Vikings Co-Director of Player Personnel Jamaal Stephenson described what Vikings scouts saw from Surratt's transition and game.

"That just tells you what kind of athlete that Chazz is, because he really only had one spring, the spring before the '19 season, at the linebacker spot," Stephenson said. "And he really was just so productive, and it really just kind of came natural to him. And then he built upon that this season.

"He's a guy that was recruited by Roy Williams at North Carolina as a basketball player, as well. That tells you what kind of athlete we're dealing with," said Stephenson, a fellow native of North Carolina. "And he's just a phenomenal playmaker. I saw him play live this year [against Notre Dame] at North Carolina, and I believe the first series he made, like, three or four plays in a row. He's a great blitzer; you just see the speed, sideline to sideline; his instincts, for a guy who's only played linebacker for two years, are unbelievable."

2021 Outlook: The 2020 Vikings linebackers group was decimated by injuries in 2020, but Minnesota has reloaded at the position this offseason.

Barr (missed 14 games) and Kendricks (missed five games) are back in action after having their seasons cut short, and Minnesota also brought in veteran Nick Vigil, who is entering his sixth pro season after playing for Cincinnati and the L.A. Chargers.

Beyond that trio, however, the group is young. Ryan Connelly and Cameron Smith are preparing for their third pro seasons. Smith missed all of 2020 because of surgery to fix a congenital heart defect. Troy Dye (fourth round, 2020) and Blake Lynch (undrafted a year ago) are entering their second season.

Surratt, as well as undrafted rookies Tuf Borland and Christian Elliss, soaked up information during Minnesota's offseason program, which was held in-person after last year's was virtual. Surratt's time on the field, however, was limited by an undisclosed injury.

When U.S. Bank Training Camp opens at the end of the month, he'll look to be ready to show his versatility as well as that he's as quick of a study in the NFL as he was in Chapel Hill.

"I think I'm a versatile player, so I think I can line up at any of the three linebacker spots," Surratt said after his selection. "I think they're just looking for me to come in, work hard and do what I can on the field, whether it's special teams or defense. … I'm just really taking the whole thing in. Whatever the coaches ask me to do, that's what I'm going to do and do it the best I can."

Kendricks, who played linebacker, quarterback, running back, kicker and punter in high school before rooming and teaming with Barr at UCLA, was asked during Minnesota's offseason program about Surratt's position change.

"Yeah, I feel like oftentimes that shows the kind of athlete the player is and just their football IQ and their football comfortability, I guess you could say in a way," Kendricks said. "I'm not saying I played quarterback in college, but I also played quarterback in high school, so you'd think it'd be a tougher transition, but you actually are very in-tune with the game."

Film Breakdown: Former Vikings linebacker and coach Pete Bercich, now a Vikings Radio Network analyst, looked at some of Surratt's tape from North Carolina and said the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder "has as much upside as anyone the Vikings drafted this year."

"He's a little bit undersized, but he possesses all of the speed, the quickness and the ability to read an offense," Bercich said. "You're going to see what he does so well and why the Vikings love him. His athleticism, his quickness, but also an area he needs to work on, and that's zone coverage. He didn't play a lot of zone coverage at North Carolina."

Bercich began with seven plays against Syracuse. The first illustrated Surratt's knowledge of the passing game, as well as his ability to anticipate what quarterbacks were thinking and instantly react to what they were doing.

"He gets an empty formation, with three receivers at the top of the screen and two at the bottom of the screen," Bercich said. "What he does so well here is as he's getting into his drop, his eyes and his vision are on the quarterback, so he's watching where that quarterback is looking, and as soon as that quarterback opens up to throw, he is already breaking and breaking downhill quickly.

"Gets in there, bam! Right there on the back of the receiver, the ball gets free, so this is where you'd think a former quarterback would struggle the most, but I think he excels," Bercich added. "His ability to read what's happening and to stay square and shuffle and make plays is really one of his strengths."

Bercich also noted Surratt's success at defending the run, whether it involved zone plays to the outside, nullifying blocking attempts by pulling guards or sifting through run-pass options.

"Really, some of the hardest plays for a linebacker to make, he does such a wonderful job and has done such a wonderful job on them," said Bercich, who identified "probably my favorite play by this young man" at the 3:30 mark of the above video while breaking down a snap near the goal line.

"He sees the fullback coming to kick out and then the backside guard pulling, so he knows he has to get outside of the tight end but stay underneath the puller … that is the perfect fit and play against a counter power type of a running game."

Bercich also looked at a successful blitz against Boston College and two plays in pass coverage against N.C. State.

Fans have the opportunity to see Surratt and the 2021 Vikings draft class in person at U.S. Bank Vikings Training Camp later this month when TCO Performance Center will be open to the public. Click here for ticket info about team practices, two joint sessions with the Denver Broncos and a first-of-its kind scrimmage at U.S. Bank Stadium.