In Part 6 of our scouting series, we examine the linebackers. Not 3-4 outside linebackers that mostly rush the passer, but players who back the defensive line. True second-level defenders.
Scheme matters here, but less than ever. There used to be a major distinction between 3-4 inside linebackers and 4-3 second-level players. In fact, there was a big difference between outside and middle linebackers in a 4-3 and most 3-4 teams wanted two different styles of players on the inside. Now, defenses are seldom in their “Base” alignment. Instead, there is far more nickel and dime defense being played, often with four defensive linemen and one or two linebackers on the field-or some variation of this grouping. Linebackers are more space players now than ever.
Because of this, size, strength, and power aren’t as important as athleticism and the ability to play in the open. Changing directions is extremely important, as rarely does a tackler pursue entirely in a straight line. Tackling is something linebackers must be quite good at and the rules in the NFL make it tougher now than ever to get offensive players on the ground. Great form tacklers are few and far between, but hopefully, more players come into the league going forward with this proper skill. Chopping your feet, breaking down in space and driving through a ball carrier is difficult with the speed of the NFL and there are many different styles of tackling needed depending on angles and whatnot. The ability to communicate is also important, as one of the linebackers almost always has the communication device to relay the play calls. But, only one player has this responsibility, so if a defense only has one linebacker that is strong in this department, they are generally in fine shape still. But here are the three most important aspects of evaluating linebackers in today’s NFL.
Speed can’t be taught, and it can make up for a lot of errors. There is an old football saying that if a defense doesn’t have speed on the second level, specifically at middle linebacker, it is a slow defense overall. There is a lot of truth to that, as most defensive play calls best set up the linebackers to get to the ball carriers. Speed on the second level is something every team covets. Offensive skill position players can all run. They all have burst, acceleration and long speed. Heck, the running quarterbacks entering the league are often faster than many linebackers. The defense needs to keep up.
2. Coverage ability
Stopping the run is great and it still has value without question. But taking on a fullback or guard in the running game and then dragging down a running back isn’t as important as playing the pass. Generally, you think of linebackers zone dropping and reading the quarterback and route combinations. That is very important without question and we have seen masters of this like Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner as very dangerous and effective middle of the field zone defenders. We have even seen all-time greats like Brian Urlacher handle the deep middle of a zone defense in the Tampa 2 scheme. But now more than ever, if a linebacker can play man coverage, usually against a tight end or receiving back, it makes an offense’s life much more difficult. Obviously, no great coverage linebacker is going to win snap after snap against guys like George Kittle or Alvin Kamara, but if they can travel with such great receivers all over the formation and hold their own, that goes a long way for what the rest of the defense can accomplish. Being a liability in coverage puts a huge target on the chest of that deficient linebacker. How many times have we seen Tom Brady pick on a second-level pass defender without relent?
Speed and athletic ability aren’t worth much if a linebacker doesn’t know where to go, is taking false steps or is late with his reads. When athleticism meets recognition, that is when you truly get a great second-level player. The word “Instincts” is often thrown around when describing a linebacker’s ability to read and diagnose a play. But that indicates that this is an inherent skill, like a great white shark hunting a seal. The truly great recognition linebackers work at it. This is very much a learned skill gained through experience and tape study. With all the play-action, run action, misdirection and pre-snap motion in today’s NFL, a linebacker’s recognition is more important and being challenged more than ever. In turn, these players generally also “Quarterback” the defense, so if they are not adept with their pre-snap reads it can have a negative trickle-down effect to the entire defense. But, in turn, you hear stories of guys like Kuechly and Ray Lewis calling out the play the offense is going to run before the ball is snapped. Think that might be something that is advantageous to the rest of the defense?