One thing that has always been true about the NFL is that for every offensive innovation, a defensive genius will come up with a counter. Bill Walsh makes the West Coast offense his own personal brand? Fine. Dick LeBeau will come back with the zone blitz, and Monte Kiffin will perfect the Tampa-2. You want to run out of passing formations, Mr. Smarty-Pants offensive coordinator? That's just dandy -- defenses will sub in "Big Nickel" packages and interchangeable safeties to mess up your little plans.
And with the NFL's increasing reliance on spread formations -- not just spread concepts, but actually widening a defense by lining up outside the numbers on both sides -- defenses are changing their games by using linebackers that, 10 years ago, may have been seen as safety prospects. In the 2012 NFL Draft, only one drafted inside linebacker (Dont'a Hightower of the New England Patriots) weighed in at over 250 pounds, and the rookies who set the pace at that position were not at all like the "thumper" templates of years past.
Now, defenses look for half-field defenders to supplement their ever-increasing nickel and dime packages, and linebacker prospects must be seen to cover more ground than ever. You can't hit a run fit like Dick Butkus or Mike Singletary or Ray Lewis? That's fine -- it's not what the NFL generally requires of you anymore, anyway. The three players who led the NFL in tackles among rookies -- Carolina's Luke Kuechly, Seattle's Bobby Wagner, and Tampa Bay's Lavonte David -- averaged 239 pounds in their scouting combine weights.
Kuechly was the only one of the three to be classified as an inside linebacker, but all three of those players lined up in a lot of situations in which they could better be designated as left or right 'backers on a down-to-down basis. All three players were better prepared to do that than to come downhill and blow up a fullback, and that was okay -- most of the time, the fullback wasn't on the field, anyway.
Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup, a man who has been following NFL trends since the late 1970s, says that the evolution of the linebacker position is a matter of specific need regarding how offenses have expanded.
"You're dealing with the change in the NFL game to a lot more spread formations, regardless of down and distance, and a lot fewer two-back sets with the iso-lead style run game," Cosell recently told Shutdown Corner. "Teams still do that, but it's no longer viewed as how teams win or lose in the NFL anymore. Nobody goes into a draft room and says, 'In order to be a contender for a championship, we have to defend the iso lead.' Whereas people do go into draft rooms saying, 'We need to defend against spread passing games.'
"So, it's natural that linebackers would end up having to be quicker, faster, and rangier, and able to move sideline to sideline. Nobody goes into a draft thinking that they need that 250-pound base personnel linebacker anymore. You must defend spread, and if teams go with 3-by-1 receiver sets, and number 3 is a wide receiver, that puts a linebacker on him. The Lavonte Davids and Bobby Wagners have a far better chance of ... not locking them up man to man, but at least running with them, and staying with them longer, and playing to their help, than a 250-pound thumper."
And all three of those players showed those specific attributes on their college tape. Boston College's Kuechly may have been the best seam coverage linebacker to come out since Brian Urlacher, who frequently played a hybrid safety position when he played for New Mexico. Nebraska's David was a box player at times, but proved to be superlative in coverage when asked, and Utah State's Wagner excelled when he was the only player set up at linebacker depth.
This draft class is similar in that Notre Dame's Manti Te'o is the only "draftable" inside linebacker listed in NFL Draft Scout's rankings that weighs over 250 pounds, and he may very well choose to shave a few pounds before the scouting combine. Perhaps the best example this year of the linebacker who can cover ground as the new NFL requires is Georgia's Alec Ogletree, who is listed in NFLDS' profile at 6-foot-3 and 234 pounds. He's also listed as an outside linebacker, but as we have seen, those specific designations are losing traction. Watch Ogletree's game tape, and you'll see him taking off like a scalded dog in a lot of two-inside 'backer sets.
And as Cosell said, that fits what the league wants these days.
"If you look at what [Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith] does, he's always had two stack linebackers -- not necessarily a Mike [middle linebacker] or a Will [weakside linebacker]. A lot of teams are moving in that direction, because you need guys who can run. These guys are becoming more valuable in base defenses, because if you're playing the Patriots ... no linebacker is as big as Rob Gronkowski, we know that, but you still need a guy who can match up athletically."
And that's why Ogletree, LSU's Kevin Minter (more of a traditional thumper who can also move in space), Arthur Brown of Kansas State, Rutgers' Khaseem Greene, Sean Porter of Texas A&M, and UConn's Sio Moore will be attractive candidates for early-round picks, despite the fact that Minter and Moore are the only ones in that group weighing in at 240 pounds or more. Inside 'backers Kiko Alonso of Oregon and Florida's Jon Bostic should also gain advantage as the pre-draft process goes along, and more NFL teams realize that the curve is now weighed heavily in favor of the lighter guys.
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