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Teams focus less on schemes, more on talent

4/25/2007 - NFL

It's a weird time to be a linebacker coming out of college these days.

Over the past couple of years, NFL teams have slowly started to use 3-4 defenses, which is a good thing for linebackers since more jobs are available. Of course, that's not necessarily a good thing for teams scouting linebackers.

Only a handful of college teams use the 3-4 defense, so few linebackers enter the NFL with any expertise in the scheme. Worse, the rapid use of spread offenses in college make the middle linebacker position virtually obsolete. With four or five receivers on the field, it's hard enough for a college defensive coordinator to justify putting more than one or two linebackers on the field, let alone designate one to roam from tackle to tackle making run stops.

While linebackers might not be getting NFL-type job training in college, the results of the transition has been an unbelievable success. The past two defensive rookies of the year -- DeMeco Ryans of the Texans and Shawne Merriman of the Chargers -- were linebackers. Seven rookie linebackers, including A.J. Hawk of the Packers, Ernie Sims of the Lions and Thomas Howard of the Raiders, won weakside linebacker jobs, played more than 68 percent of the defensive downs and started at least 11 games.

The bottom line for a linebacker in the 2000s is just be a good football player and the NFL will find a way to make it work.

The 2007 draft might not have as many immediate first-year linebacker starters as the past three drafts -- which boasted an average of 10 linebackers getting at least five starts -- but it's loaded with good football players who should be adaptable to whatever system in which they land.

Heading the list is Patrick Willis of Mississippi, whose strengths include versatility and the ability to adapt. His training against SEC offenses helps for what's ahead of him on draft day. The 49ers, who draft 11th, like him for their 3-4 defense. The Bills, who are looking for a run-stuffing tackling machine to replace London Fletcher, want Willis in the middle. The Panthers, who draft 14th, don't know if he would play outside or in the middle. All they know is he can play for them at any of the linebacker spots.

At Mississippi, Willis played in the 4-3 scheme and he's prepared for whatever.

"You've got to be versatile as a linebacker," Willis said. "I kind have my own style. At Mississippi, we saw so many different types of offenses. You don't get as much two backs in the backfield in college anymore. Teams like to spread it out all over the field like basketball but you do get to play some man defenses."

Willis calls himself an all-around linebacker. Clearly, he's a self-made linebacker who's adjusted on the fly at Mississippi. He played Class A football in Tennessee and some didn't think he'd make it big in the SEC coming from such a small school. Big-time schools shied away. Ole Miss and Mississippi State were the biggest schools offering him a scholarship.

Mississippi and Willis were a perfect marriage. He grew into a big-time player at a smaller SEC school. He loved the atmosphere. "I felt like I was at home," he said. On Saturdays, Willis was at home because he was a tackling machine. He made 163 tackles as a senior, including a staggering 36 for losses. He had 12 sacks. Willis was everywhere, which makes him wonder why some scouts have said he might be only a two-down player in the NFL, moving to the bench in passing situations.

Of course, why would you bench a 6-foot-1, 242-pound linebacker who can run a 4.51 40? He's fast enough to recover if he takes a wrong angle on a pass play.

"I guess I'll just let the facts speak for themselves," Willis said. "The last two years -- injured or not injured -- I've been out there every down. This season, I didn't come off the field one snap. For the most part, I'm good enough at my pass defense."

Sometimes, NFL scouts lose their vision and creativity in looking at college linebackers. But as college teams play more and more spread offense, scouts have to be visionaries.

"Finding middle linebackers is hard," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "You've got to get guys who are versatile and be able to play more than one position. A lot of these linebackers coming out of college can play inside or outside."

And NFL coaches are making it easier, to some degree, to make that conversion because of the schemes. Tony Dungy's Tampa 2 defense stresses getting as many versatile athletes on the field as quickly as possible. The weakside linebacker is the key. He lines up away from the tight end and is designed to be the playmaker. He's usually the quickest, fastest linebacker.

Dungy expanded the role of the middle linebacker by having him patrol the middle of the field against the run but also able to drop into the middle third of the field in coverage. Two years ago, other teams looked at the Seahawks with puzzled eyes when they traded up in the second round to draft Lofa Tatupu. Not the fastest linebacker, Tatupu had second-day draft choice grades because of his supposed lack of speed. Since going to the Seahawks, Tatupu has been to two Pro Bowls and one Super Bowl in his two seasons.

In other words, when you look at linebackers coming out of college, throw out the stereotypes, just look for good football players.

Some of the 3-4 teams are trying to see how prototypical 4-3 linebackers such as John Beason of Miami and Lawrence Timmons of Florida State project into 3-4 schemes. Beason takes a little knock because he's not the tallest. He's 6-0, 237 pounds. At Miami, he started as a fullback and then moved to linebacker, where he became a star.

Beason bristles at the talk of being too short.

"It doesn't limit me at all," Beason said. "You look at Zach Thomas and London Fletcher. Those guys are 5-9. If there was one thing I could change, it would be my height because supposedly they think that has something to do with playing linebacker. To me, it doesn't matter how big you are. It's all about getting the job done."

Timmons is considered a little light for 3-4 NFL defenses at 234 pounds, but he played enough 3-4 at Florida State to intrigue the Steelers, who are trying to add more athleticism as new coach Mike Tomlin puts his stamp on the team. Timmons played both outside linebacker spots in Florida State's 3-4.

That's the one thing about the current crop of linebackers. While linebackers play less and less NFL style defenses in college, they are adaptable.

"With the offenses you see now in college, you are in pass coverage 60 to 70 percent of the time," Wake Forest linebacker Jon Abbate said. "You just have to stay sharp on the coverage side of it."

And the teams that draft the right linebackers have to be sharp when watching these linebackers perform in space and fit them into the more conventional NFL defenses.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.