Since we spend sooooo much time around here talking about why the New York Giants have not been able to draft a big-time linebacker since Jesse Armstead I thought I would pass along part of an article I found in the National Football Post recently regarding important traits to look for when drafting a linebacker.
The thing that really caught my eye about this article was, of course, partially what it contained. More important for me, though, is the author of this piece. It is written by Greg Gabriel, who worked in the Giants scouting department for 16 seasons beginning in 1985. During Gabriel's tenure the Giants drafted Armstead and Pepper Johnson, though there is no indication that they were players recommended by Gabriel.
Here is some of what Gabriel said about judging linebackers for the draft.
In my opinion the most important trait a linebacker has to have is instincts. He has to be able to read quickly while on the move and get to the ball. In most cases, the leading tackler on a defense is a linebacker and while many linebackers have a lot of tackles, you want those tackles to be made at or near the line of scrimmage, not downfield. If a linebacker has a high number of tackles that means he has the ability to shed blocks quickly. To do that he has to have quick hands and great blocker anticipation.
Linebackers have to be very athletic. That includes very good change of direction and balance. The have to have quick lateral movement and be able to clear their feet moving through trash. As with most positions on the field, linebackers have to have excellent speed. Different schemes have different speed requirements, but everyone would love a linebacker who could run between 4.55 and 4.65. Ideally, 4.65 to 4.75 will work for many different defenses. More important than timed speed is play speed and that is tied in with instincts. There are not many who would argue that last year’s rookie Brandon Spikes played fast, but he was able to do that because of his great instincts and anticipation. Reality is he is a 5.00 type but he plays mush faster then he times.
Over the years most great linebackers have been strong leaders and have a nasty disposition on the field. Just look at Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Carl Banks, Pepper Johnson, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. These are all players I’ve been around in my years scouting with the Giants and the Bears. All were/are very smart guys who can lead verbally and by example and are extremely aggressive players. Their ability to make big plays with big hits has a way of motivating a team. Lawrence Taylor is the best football player I’ve ever been around and what he could do on a field made every other player better.
Pass coverage skills are very important when evaluating linebackers. They need the speed and suddenness to mirror backs and tight ends in man coverage. In zone, instincts and awareness are required. He has to be able to get depth with his drops, have the loose hips to turn and the burst to run with most backs and tight ends. He has to be able to plant and drive in transition to make plays on the ball and of course he needs good hands.
BIngo! Instincts. Of course athleticism matters, but it's not ALL that matters. Can you diagnose the play quickly? Can you make the right first move? Speed doesn't help if you can't figure out what is going on. Can you shed a block and make a play at the line of scrimmage? Do you understand how to play the position? Can you deliver some punishment when you get to the football?
I would love to talk to Gabriel directly about this and other scouting issues. I will have to see if I can make that happen.