4-3 linebackers are not in vogue
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It used to be the glamour position for NFL defenses. Teams sought playmaking linebackers who could sack the quarterback, knock the ball loose and possibly recover the fumble and stuff the run.
But it seems like they don't make 'em like that anymore.
After the first two days of this year's draft, with the primary rounds already in the books, it appears they don't choose 'em that way anymore, either.
"The [linebacker] position has evolved," said Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio, himself an 11-year veteran middle linebacker who played in the 1994 Pro Bowl game. "You'd love to find a guy who can do everything for you ... but it's become a more specialized position now."
That was obvious in the draft, when just four "pure" linebackers -- Rolando McClain (Oakland, first round), Sean Weatherspoon (Atlanta, first round), Sergio Kindle (Baltimore, second round) and Daryl Washington (Arizona, second round) -- were selected among the top 50 choices. The first two rounds produced only seven linebackers, and just 10 linebackers were selected in the first three stanzas of the draft.
And there is plenty of debate as to whether the Ravens will deploy Kindle, a first-round talent who slipped because of concerns about his knees, as a linebacker or an end in their 3-4 defensive front. McClain could end up playing as much inside linebacker in a 3-4 as he does 4-3 middle linebacker because it appears from their offseason personnel maneuvers that the Raiders will use multiple fronts.
In the previous five draft classes, an average of 5.8 linebackers not considered as "hybrid" defenders were chosen among the top 50 picks.
The move to the 3-4 scheme among league teams -- with 13 franchises using it as their base front in 2009 and a presumed two more converts (Buffalo and Washington) for the '10 season -- is likely to blame at least in part for the recent decrease in the versatile linebacker paradigm of years past. In the 3-4 scheme, linebackers play the traditional spot on first and second downs and then typically become rushers in passing situations.
As Del Rio, a 4-3 proponent, pointed out, the "specialist" linebacker -- particularly the guy who can move to end on third down and rush the quarterback from the edge -- has become in vogue in the league. Pittsburgh is particularly adept at drafting undersized linebackers or ends and then converting them to outside 3-4 defenders. The Steelers on Friday night picked Jason Worilds of Virginia Tech in the second round for that role.
Middle linebackers such as 2008 rookie of the year Jerod Mayo of New England still retain some popularity, but the knock on the Patriots' starter is that he doesn't make enough big plays, and teams are honing in more on game-altering defenders. Said free-agent linebacker Keith Bulluck of Tennessee: "Just being steady isn't enough anymore."
First-round pick Jerry Hughes of Indianapolis was rated by some clubs as a linebacker prospect, but most of the franchises that scouted him heavily made little pretense that it was his outside pass-rush skills that made him special. The Colts play a 4-3 defense, but will use Hughes at end, to complement their twin "edge" terrors of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
Said Hughes, who posted 26½ sacks at TCU the past two seasons and who forced eight fumbles in four years: "I think I can [cover], but no one's asked me to do it in a while, and no one has talked to me very much about doing it. It's pretty obvious to teams what I do best."
Not all that long ago, linebackers who did everything were the rage, but not anymore. The emphasis now is on defenders such as Elvis Dumervil (Denver), DeMarcus Ware (Dallas) and Shawne Merriman (San Diego), the NFL's individual sack leaders in three of the past four seasons. To his credit, Ware is arguably the best all-around defender of the bunch, but the Cowboys didn't sign him to a six-year, $78 million contract extension last season because he plays the run much stouter than advertised.
Last season's defensive rookie of the year, Houston standout Brian Cushing, is one of the few linebackers who have come into the NFL in recent years whose skills were not pigeonholed. The same was true of Seattle first-rounder Aaron Curry, the fourth choice overall last season, but he hardly had the same impact. The other first-round linebackers in 2009 -- Brian Orakpo of Washington, Clay Matthews of Green Bay and Larry English of San Diego -- were all known primarily for their pass-rush abilities.
The NFL has skewed considerably toward the pass and, in a game whose manifestation is now like fast-break basketball on the field, the emphasis is on checking the point guard.
"I always thought being able to do a little of everything pretty well was the key," noted Cushing at the Super Bowl three months ago. "And I'm still proud of that aspect of my game. But there aren't as many guys, it seems, who want to do everything."
And the numbers keep getting smaller, as the first three rounds indicated.
With four interceptions last season, Cushing was the only linebacker in the NFL with more than three pickoffs. In the past five seasons, only two linebackers, Thomas Howard of Oakland (2007) and Cato June of Indianapolis (2005), registered more than five. In the same five-year period, only 14 linebackers posted more than two fumble recoveries, and just two players at the position had more than three in any year.
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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