For the 2nd installment of the Positional Breakdown series, I take a look at linebackers. Linebackers are multi-tool players that need to excel in many different areas. Maybe more than any other defensive position, linebackers need to be instinctive and fast to their responsibility. Instincts play such a big role in diagnosing a play and then a linebacker must get to his spot or get to the football without putting himself in an awkward position (no man’s land) while doing so. This is why in practices you’ll inevitably hear a coach say, “Trust what you see.” Linebackers are to see and respond. They don’t have time to think. Even a single false step leaves them on the wrong side of a hole on a running play or leaves the seam open for a TE to go streaking.
Linebackers to me are one of the hardest positions to evaluate because so much of the evaluation is done without knowing the playcalls. I may see a linebacker who appears to overrun the play but in reality it was the defensive end who took the wrong gap and left a gaping hole where he was supposed to be. The linebacker looks like the one out of position yet he was right where he was coached to be. Either way, I’m looking for guys who have a nose for the football. Even when he appears to be out of position he finds a way to get the ball quickly and punishes his opponent when he arrives. Instincts, physicality, and speed all play major parts in every linebacking position.
Here they are broken down even further. Remember, these are my evaluations only. Your expectation and prototype may be a little different. I like my defenders big and fast.
Outside Linebacker (3-4):
Ideal size is slightly smaller than a 4-3 DE but with much more athletic ability as he will be asked to play in space and coverage. 6’3” and can range from 230-270 lbs. As the WLB it’s more important to be able to get around and by the LT and to the QB while a SLB will sometimes cover the tight end and will be more responsible for containing the run game on his side. These players are noted for their pass rush ability, but setting the edge is just as important. It won’t win him any awards but forcing a RB back into teammates that tackle him is just as good as making the tackle himself. This guy will spend a lot of time in pursuit so speed is another key trait, with enough core strength to not get completely blown up by offensive tackles. Must have good technique to get skinny around the corner and be efficient to the QB. Hand work is a key technique to be taught as these guys will need to fight to keep the tackle’s hands off of them. A 3-4 OLB should have good physicality and be able to easily fight off a block by the TE with little effort. If he can’t, he shouldn’t see the field as he’s a liability in the run game. They will possess good burst out of a 2 or 3-point stance. This is definitely a position that I would classify as needing to be “controlled chaos.” He will end up all over the field but still needs to stay responsible for his duties and setting the edge on his side. He can’t allow himself to get pushed up field beyond the QB. He’ll be required to tackle RBs and WRs in space on screens and short passes. Pursuit is another key component to his success. The Sam backer needs to have the speed to be able to cover and matchup with the TE if necessary, as well as the strength and technique to fight off a block by him. The Will backer should have the ability to get low and skinny off the edge, with the instincts to set the edge when necessary. Usually with the weak side he doesn’t have a lot of help should the RB get to the outside so good tackling is a must.
Outside Linebacker (4-3):
All 4-3 linebackers should be engineered to be tackling machines. They should have a strong ability to wrap up tightly and drive through tackles. A Sam backer again tends to be larger and more athletic than his Will counterpart. A Will backer may be smaller and faster to allow him to get to the QB and to drop into his zone responsibility faster. A good WLB in a 4-3 should find himself in the backfield racking up tackles for losses. Both OLBs should be stout enough to take on a TE or a FB block and shed it as necessary. A good size for a 4-3 OLB is in the 240 lbs. range. These guys need to be able to move laterally along the line of scrimmage and chase down ball carriers. They both must have good man coverage skills to cover TEs and RBs out of the backfield. With these two duties, speed and athleticism is a must. They will play both sideline to sideline and vertically and need to have the ability to do both. Having good hips is still necessary to make that turn and run with a TE or even possibly a slot WR if he needs to. He should be able to string plays out so leg drive is important to stand a blocker up and still shuffle him side to side, then disengage and make the tackle. Vision and effort to get through or around blocks and to the ball carrier is incredibly important as well. Needs reactive athleticism for man coverage but also a good feel for zone coverage. These LBs must be able to move well in all 4 directions. These guys will also be major factors on special teams in every phase.
Middle Linebackers (3-4):
3-4 ILBs must work in tandem to keep plays from getting beyond them. One backer will take on blocks allowing the other to come in with free reign to make the play. I prefer my 3-4 ILBs to be heavier than most but with elite athleticism (see: Patrick Willis). Again, instincts and football intelligence are paramount to this position. Ideal size is 240-260 lbs. but this is relative to his height. A stocky and fortified frame is good to absorb the impact of blocks and hard-hitting ball carriers. These guys are not asked to play laterally as much as 4-3 Mike backers, but speed is still a key factor, as they will be playing vertically a lot more. They are asked to do so many different things – play downhill, drop into deep zones, flat zones, cover tight ends and running backs, take on and eat up blockers – so it’s important for the guys to be not just reactive but predictive. And 3-4 blitz schemes are more multiple than a 4-3 so they must be cognizant of their responsibilities at all times. One wrong step and they could leave a gap open that allows a RB to get to the 3rd level. Because these guys play downhill so much, block shedding is a vital trait to evaluate. A key to spotting the best MLBs are the guys who consistently make tackles in the backfield and at the LOS and can still cover the TE.
Middle (Mike) Linebacker (4-3):
The Mike LB in a 4-3 defense is larger than the 4-3 OLBs. Ideally he’s around with 240-250 lbs. with elite instincts. I want my MLB to play downhill towards the ball carrier when he gets the ball. I want him to be in attack mode all the time. He should be able to close on the ball in multiple gaps and clog the hole. Again, the ability to wrap up and drive through a tackle is absolutely necessary. Sometimes he will need to take on a FB and other times it will be a pulling guard. Power, aggression, and leverage are important to be able to blow up the play in the hole and make the tackle. Playing sideline to sideline is another important trait as if the play is strung out to the sideline he is usually the one who will get the clean shot on the RB. Consistency of play is important as the Mike backer is usually the core of the defense. Communication skills is an often overlooked trait that should be evaluated as the MLB is usually the one communicating play calls and adjustments to his defense. Football intelligence is another trait that must be well developed. Athleticism of the MLB should be described as functional. More athleticism is better, but this is one position where combine numbers fall short of telling you how good a player is. Film is the best way to determine this player’s functional athleticism. If the scheme is a cover 2, the Mike should have very good speed to drop into the deep bubble coverage in the middle of the field, then to change direction and drive on the ball. He will have to sort through traffic so good body control while keeping his head up is another trait to look for.