As hybrid defenses become more prevalent in the NFL, linebackers are expected to do more things than perhaps ever before. Teams switching between 4-3 and 3-4 fronts need defenders that can line up all over the place, and the "amoeba" defenses used effectively by the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots aspire to create confusion with the kinds of odd fronts that force defenders to think on their feet.
The two linebackers in this comparison display the kind of versatility demanded in today's NFL, and they do it in different ways. UCLA's Akeem Ayers is a speedster with untapped pass-rush potential, and Georgia's Justin Houston has played on the edge in the line in just about every possible capacity. That schematic diversity is admirable and useful, but how does each player best manifest it?
Akeem Ayers, UCLA
Justin Houston, Georgia
Pass rush: Gets off the snap as quickly as anyone at his position in recent years; this is an advantage when he plays strong side in a straight 4-3, but it really shows up when he moves to the line and becomes a pure pass rusher. Glides around the turn, gets low without losing speed, and closes in on the quarterback while maintaining awareness of movement in the pocket. Ayers needs to develop hand moves and inside moves; his pass rush is mostly about speed at this point.
Pass rush: Houston has a serious schematic advantage when NFL teams are looking at him as a pass rusher because he has played full seasons as both a 4-3 and as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He does his best pass-rushing in a wide set outside the shoulder of the tackle; blasts around end and can get low when turning the corner. Closes with impressive speed when the quarterback is near. Needs more varied hand moves to get by better tackles.
Against the run: He moves with great quickness to the gaps and can fill in a hurry. Not a dominant run defender on the second level, though he can take gap zones in short areas. Will get pushed out of blocks; not a strong player with exceptional leverage. Not afraid to get physical against the run, but will need more strength and weight for that to work in the NFL.
Against the run: Houston has the ability to keep an eye on the run and will back off to fight through trash and blow up run plays, which are unusual attributes for an aggressive pass rusher. Not a naturally explosive tackler, but will use his speed/power combo to disrupt and force fumbles.
Diagnosing the action: Pass coverage is decent, but Ayers uses his pure speed more than route awareness to take on backs and tight ends. Will get fooled on play action and misdirection as an almost natural byproduct of his playing speed.
Diagnosing the action: Not asked to play the full range of skills required of a do-it-all end or linebacker; used primarily as a pass rusher, so he's better at "seek and destroy." Can keep the action in front of him on run plays, though he occasionally gets flat-footed when trying to avoid misdirection.
Tackling: Not a good wrap-up tackler at this point. Tends to tackle high and will occasionally whiff or arm/ankle tackle when he gets to ballcarriers that other linebackers would not be able to catch. Aims for forced fumbles. More a drag tackler than a hip-lifter who brings explosion to the field.
Tackling: Quick and fairly agile in space; good enough to avoid misdirection at the second level. Strong player who wraps well and brings his man down.
Intangibles: Team captain who takes the game seriously. Worked hard to post better times at his pro day after a disappointing combine.
Intangibles: Houston's stock could take a tumble after it was reported this week that he failed a drug test at the NFL scouting combine. He was suspended in May of 2009 for a reported violation of the team's substance abuse policy.
Conclusion: Like Houston, Ayers could succeed in several different spots – as a pass rusher from the edge in a 3-4 defense, as a strong-side linebacker with blitz and coverage potential, and even as a nickel linebacker for a team using a lot of 4-2 fronts. His straight-line speed at the combine was an unhappy surprise, but on the field, his raw speed makes him a very interesting prospect. Match that with his height and a frame that could probably put on about 10 pounds of muscle without affecting his performance, and Ayers' best football could be in front of him.
Conclusion: Houston may intrigue more coaches than just about any defensive player in this draft class because he has set the edge in four-man fronts and lined up wide as an "end backer" in true 3-4 and 5-2 sets. At his best, Houston shoots through the pocket out of wider line sets, which means that he also might excel in a nine-tech look like Kyle Vanden Bosch(notes). He's not the most versatile edge defender in this draft class from a skill-set perspective, but he provides extreme value for hybrid front teams because the questions are answered from a schematic point of view.
Doug Farrar is a writer for Yahoo's Shutdown Corner blog and a senior writer for Football Outsiders.