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When did the Vikings know Ivan Pace Jr. could play?
The UDFA has emerged as a bright spot of the Vikings defense
By Matthew Coller
EAGAN — If you asked an NFL history buff who the best undersized linebackers were in the last 40 years, they would come up with two names: Sam Mills and London Fletcher. Mills stood 5-foot-9, made the Pro Bowl five times for the Saints and Panthers and was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame. Fletcher played at 5-10, 240 pounds, made the Pro Bowl four times and won the Super Bowl with the Rams.
What do these two have in common? Neither player was drafted.
Without setting the bar for Minnesota Vikings undrafted rookie linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. at becoming the next Mills or Fletcher, we can say that there is precedent for really good players at that position being overlooked because they are height challenged.
Pace Jr. is 5-foot-10, which ranks in the 1st percentile of players at his position per the website Mockdraftable. That means 99% of linebackers are taller than him, which can be the only reasonable explanation for Pace Jr. going undrafted.
All other evidence supports his cause. At his pro day, the Cincinnati LB ran a 4.62 40-yard dash and had a 35-inch vertical. His Relative Athletic Score, which uses an accumulation of combine or pro day scores to give an overall athleticism grade, was above average at 5.71 out of 10.
Pace Jr.’s PFF grades were downright prolific. He was given a 93.2 overall grade with 90.7 versus the run and 93.3 in pass rush. Those numbers were all better than Lions first-rounder Jack Campbell.
Despite all that, 32 teams evaluated him and picked other players instead.
How did the Vikings’ coaches know that a small UDFA could do it? When did they know?
Turns out the answer is different for different coaches.
Pace Jr. caught the eye of defensive coordinator Brian Flores in the pre-draft process.
“When I saw him at the Senior Bowl, honestly,” Flores said. “The guy was two time defensive player of the year in college in two different conference. It doesn’t happen by accident. I thought he had a good Senior Bowl and I watched some film on him and the film was good. I always felt like he could play. He’s a guy that has a play style that fits this league.”
Special teams coordinator Matt Daniels, who probably thought Pace Jr. was going to be exclusively on his unit if he made the team, noticed him shortly after he arrived in the spring.
“It’s funny because in OTAs when there are no pads on this guy was on the ground a lot,” Daniels said. “You have a good idea of UDFAs coming in and who gets the hype and what you can expect out of these guys. Going into it, this isn’t a guy we thought we were getting. Then training camp comes around and he puts the pads on and who he is as a true player starts to show up. The physicality, being able to slip blocks, being able to eliminate surface areas and work edges on guys. Just being a flat-out ballplayer.”
(Pace Jr. has 33 special teams snaps to go along with his linebacker work, by the way).
Harrison Smith saw something natural in the ex-Bearcat almost immediately.
“It was pretty early,” Smith said. “His feel for the game, his ability to get off blocks and make plays is pretty uncanny. It was one of the earlier I’ve seen. It’s unusual especially when you’re undrafted. Shows that maybe everybody didn’t see the full picture with him.”
For his position coach Mike Siravo, it was a process. He had an inkling based on his play in college that there was a chance he could make the team.
“What they do in college shows up in the NFL,” Siravo said. “It’s not a surprise off the tape that he can play.”
But it wasn’t until midway through training camp when the pads started popping that Siravo started to get the hint that Pace Jr. might be somebody to watch.
“Ivan shows better with pads on,” Siravo said. “Nothing matters until pads go on and you are about two weeks into camp and the guy hits, tackles, sheds [blocks], diagnoses [plays], likes football. Full practices, 10 to 14 days of pads where I can get a sample set. Here they come they are running at you or you have to take on this blocker and how your vision works and then we have a clue.”
After showing out in practice, Siravo gave Pace Jr. the “green dot” in the first preseason game against Seattle, which means he was calling the defense.
“You have to go out and play games against other people with the lights on…The first game, OK he can do this and that and you keep working with him,” Siravo said. “I don’t think like, ‘Boy this guy can play!’ …There was no moment like, ‘Ahhh!’”
Siravo, who has been teaching the linebacker position to players since 2003 when he began his career at Columbia, started to notice as time went by that Pace Jr. had a deeper understanding of the game and he could smoothly translate what they were teaching onto the practice field.
“Football makes sense to his brain,” Siravo said. “Some guys will say how much they like football and how much they want to play but it’s their intentionalism about what a call means and how they are going to bring it to life and they understand the importance of execution within the scheme and then use their abilities within the execution of the scheme — that matters to them. You can feel that.”
Onto the next step: Real NFL game action. In two weeks Pace Jr. has 0.5 sacks, two QB hits, four pressures, the fourth best tackling grade among linebackers and has only been targeted twice for 11 yards.
“I’ve been impressed that it’s not too big for him,” Siravo said. “The communication, the execution, the competition, the game, the lights, a pretty cool Thursday night environment, it’s not too big for him.”
What about that pesky height issue though? The long-time LBs coach explained that Pace Jr. knows how to use it to his advantage.
“He can get under pads,” Siravo said. “He’s strong, he’s got a good base and if you’re 6-foot-6, his hands get under your pads and he can also get low and change his pad level to really low. That’s an issue in the land of giants.”
Of course, nobody on the staff is crowning Pace Jr. as the next Mills or Fletcher based off the early returns. The young linebacker has to learn all the things that the best pros have mastered like preparation, health and resilience.
“So far to go… when you say, ‘When did you know?’ I don’t know. It’s a two game sample,” Siravo said.
Still, it is highly unusual that a undrafted free agent would walk into Week 3 of his career looking like a ballplayer. In the past UDFAs who made it like Andrew Sendejo, Adam Thielen or Anthony Harris had to travel long roads before they got an opportunity. Pace Jr. has already defied the odds by putting his name on the map right away as a potential long-term presence in the middle of the defense.