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The New Age of the Middle Linebacker
By: Justin Onslow
September 21, 2010
Patrick Willis - 3x Pro Bowl Selection
In the NFL, the "Bigger, Fast, Stronger" mantra takes on a whole new meaning. In the modern sporting culture, entrenched within bigger, incentive-laced contracts and performance-enhancing drug testing, the "biggest" constants are size, strength and speed. One might argue that offenses utilizing their weapons effectively hold a distinct advantage over defenses in that regard. Effectively matching up against offenses is one essential key to stopping an opponent in its tracks.

Although some teams rely heavily on a staggering pass rush or shutdown corners, one thing is generally true for most defenses -- the middle linebacker plays a unique and important role as the leader of the defense. Middle linebackers are often the players on the field with a microphone in their helmet and a chip on their shoulder. Play calls go through the middle linebacker. Alignment and gap assignment questions go through the middle linebacker. Even running backs go through a middle linebacker on occasion. The point is this -- in today's game, the middle linebacker plays an important role, but it's a changing role.

More NFL teams employ 3-4 defenses than ever before -- 15 teams to be exact. That's 30 starting 3-4 inside linebackers and 17 starting 4-3 inside linebackers. And with the wildfire that is the wildcat formation, all linebackers face a new set of challenges. If it's not the wildcat, defenses now have to adapt to even more pass-happy attacks and five-wide sets. The middle linebacker not only has to be bigger, stronger and faster now, he also has to be smarter, more agile and more intuitive. Gone are the days of tight ends as blocking backs, and apart from the West Coast offense, fullbacks now play a lesser role as producers. Middle linebackers have to be able to run with tight ends stretching the field or runningbacks on routes out of the backfield.

Jermichael Finley at 6'5" and 247 lbs. and Chris Johnson (5'11" 191 lbs.) present very different challenges for linebackers in coverage. Finley is a physical tight end, but also has the speed and agility to get into space and stretch coverage up the middle of the field and down the sidelines. Johnson has elite speed and quickness -- plenty to provide agonizing match-up difficulties for opposing defenses. Take this situation for example: An offense lines up in a dual-back, I-formation with a tight end and two receivers. In a set like this in neutral (not specifically passing) downs, many base 3-4 teams will keep regular personnel on the field. That leaves four defensive backs on five potential receivers. Assuming at least one outside linebacker is blitzing in either run defense or as a pass rusher, and assuming the defense is playing cover one man coverage, at least one linebacker is responsible for covering an eligible receiver.

I'll take Finley or Johnson over any linebacker in the league in that situation. Of course, that is a very specific example that obviously does not happen on every down, but it happens, and it is only one of any number of scenarios in which a middle linebacker may have to cover an eligible receiver. But if linebackers only had to worry about passing situations, they'd be called cornerbacks. Let's take a look at the measurables of the following five NFL running backs, which finished at the top of the league in total yards last season:

• Chris Johnson (5'11", 191 lbs.) - 2,509 total yards
• Ray Rice (5'8", 212 lbs.) - 2,041 total yards
• Adrian Peterson (6'1", 217 lbs.) - 1,819 total yards
• Maurice Jones-Drew (5'7", 208) - 1,765 total yards
• Steven Jackson (6'2", 236 lbs.) - 1,738 total yards

As you can see from the measurables of those five players, and the way each picks up a lot of yardage, it becomes very clear that linebackers in the NFL are faced with any number of threats from the backfield they must defend. That means shooting lanes, maintaining gaps, man-to-man coverage and tackling in the open field. Facing just two backs with different abilities in consecutive weeks creates match-up challenges for every player on the field, including linebackers. Middle linebackers must diagnose, react and make plays on these types of players.

Bigger backs. Faster tight ends. The new age of the all-purpose middle linebacker.

From stopping the run to staying on the hip of a tight end, just the physical aspect of the middle linebacker position is evolving. Factor in a shift to pass-happy offenses and wildcat gadgetry and it's clear the middle linebacker must also be smart enough to diagnose more and more plays and formations, and make sure defenders are in the right place with the right assignments in mind.

Here are three top college inside linebacker prospects that will stack up in the always evolving league that is the NFL:

Quan Sturdivant
Quan Sturdivant (North Carolina) -- Sturdivant is an athletic inside linebacker with the perfect mix of speed and strength to play inside in a 3-4 system. He has fluid hips and quick feet. Sturdivant can run with some of the faster tight ends and runningbacks in college football, while also being a proficient zone coverage defender. Although he must bulk up to take on some of the NFL's most physical runners and blockers, Sturdivant has the frame to fill gaps and the presence to scrape through traffic to get to the ball. He is a leader, an athlete and a potential star in the NFL.

Ross Homan
Ross Homan (Ohio State) -- Homan is an all-purpose inside linebacker on one of the nation's top defenses. Homan is another backer with the frame to excel in a 3-4 scheme as both a run stopper and a pass defender. He intercepted five passes a year ago from the inside linebacker position, not just because of his athletic ability, but also because of his awareness and ability to diagnose and be in the right place on every play. In the NFL today, inside linebackers must be the smartest player on the defensive side of the ball, and Homan has the intangibles to make a big impact at the next level.

Alex Wujciak
Alex Wujciak (Maryland) -- Wujciak is the perfect fit as a middle linebacker in a 4-3 at the next level. He is a strong, physical backer with a big frame, who isn't afraid to fill hard, take on blockers and make the big hit. Although his size may prevent him from running with the top receiving threats in the league, Wujciak makes up for it with his awareness on the field. In the NFL, inside linebackers must be prepared for every situation, whether by studying film, understanding schemes or being intuitive. Wujciak is a big, tough linebacker with the mental capacity to be a leader and a playmaker on Sundays.

Gone are the days of "three yards and a cloud of dust" NFL football. The 40-carry-per-game power running offenses are all but gone. Middle linebackers aren't going anywhere, however. They're just playing the position in a whole new way.





(May 1) -- The NFL Draft is in the books and Sideline Scouting would like to thank our visitors for making this our most successful year to date. We hope you enjoyed our coverage. Sideline Scouting will be back next year and better than ever. We have some big changes planned that we hope will make your visits here even more enjoyable.


*Cameron Newton
QB, Auburn
Von Miller
LB, Texas A&M;
*Marcell Dareus
DE, Alabama
*A.J. Green
WR, Georgia
*Patrick Peterson
CB, LSU
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