Scouts have one of the hardest jobs in the NFL. It's their job to find the right players for the franchise.
In regards to linebackers specifically, scouts need to look beyond the obvious qualities to find great players.
Linebackers obviously need to be big, strong, fast and agile, but that is not enough to be a great linebacker.
In the NFL, every player is big, strong, fast and agile; so what do scouts look for to distinguish the average linebackers from future great ones?
The following traits are the ones that distinguish great linebackers from average ones.
One of the most important traits of an above-average linebacker is recognizing the play and having great vision.
Vision and recognition work together to ensure a linebacker is never out of position.
Vision means being able to see sideline to sideline and understanding how a play can develop during any given down.
You can't have tunnel vision on the football field.
Whether you are an inside or an outside linebacker, recognition and vision are key because without them, you can't play yourself in the right position to make a play.
What formation is the team in? Is this a passing down? Do I see any mismatches? Is the offensive line leaning in way, maybe trying to cheat a bit and set up blocks for a screen? Who's my blocker?
There are just a small sample of some questions linebackers need to ask themselves as they line up.
Great linebackers can recognize where the play is going to start or where the weakness is.
Being able to have an expansive field of vision is the other important trait; for example, Lawrence Taylor is a Hall of Fame linebacker for many reasons, but two of them were his vision and recognition.
Envisioning where the ball was going to wind up, recognizing weaknesses in the defense and being ready to exploit them—these are important skills for success.
You can have great vision, but if you lack the strength and size, you are going to be ineffective as a linebacker to say the least.
Not only do great linebackers put themselves in advantageous positions, they also use their speed and size to finish off the play.
Great linebackers are like freight trains—big, hard-hitting and they come at you fast.
Linebackers are often smaller than offensive linemen, but their speed in comparison is much better, which allows them to erase any disadvantages.
For example, center Jeff Saturday is 6'2" and 295 pounds. Linebacker Ray Lewis is 6'1" and 250 lbs.
There is a difference of 40 pounds, but when Lewis builds a head of steam and bull-rushes Saturday, I would say the advantage is in Lewis's favor.
Linebackers have to be big if they want to be game changers. Not only that, they need some speed.
I'm not talking about 40-yard dash times; if you are in the NFL, you can sprint. Whether or not your positions demands that you sprint all the time is a different story.
The best test for a linebacker's speed is the three-cone drill. The ability to change direction quickly, pick up your feet and change speeds is extremely important for linebackers so they can avoid broken plays and mismatches.
Linebackers are going to be big and strong; whether or not they have the right speed to use their size is a different issue entirely.
Tackling is the most important skill for a linebacker.
You need to not only wrap a player but also have the ability to bring him to the ground quickly and prevent yards after contact.
A good wrapping of a ball carrier stops all of their momentum, making it harder for them to break out of the tackle but also giving time to other defenders to swarm the ball carrier.
This is especially true when linebackers face shorter running backs like Maurice Jones-Drew or Ahmad Bradshaw.
With their lower centers of gravity, it is harder if you are a linebacker to wrangle them and stop the play.
Many NFL players often throw themselves into ball carriers, sprinting to them and careening at the last minute, hoping to knock them down or out of bounds.
Linebackers need to be able to restrain the running backs and ball carriers. Initial contact may disorient them, but if a ball carrier isn't wrapped, those yards after contact help set up shorter downs that keep drives alive and defenses tired.
Effective tackling is important for every position but essential for the linebacker.