The Importance of Versatility in the NFL

Ken SheehanAnalyst IMarch 21, 2008

In today's NFL we are seeing players that are more athletic that ever. We see players who are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever before and their coaches are loving it.

On defense linebackers like Brian Urlacher and even Ray Lewis back in his younger days the league is getting more inside linebackers who have the speed of their outside brethren but the size and strength of a classic inside linebacker. In outside linebackers we see the mirror image of that. Players like Adalius Thomas and Shawne Merriman are players blessed with great speed and agility not typically found in linebackers. Accompany that with their inside backer, and occasionally defensive end, size and strength and you have edge rushers that can destroy and offenses game plan.

These traits lead to linebackers who can have the traits needed to play multiple aspects of a defense. This new breed of football player lends teams the ability to use their defensive play books to their fullest extent while not changing the personal in a way that may give the offense clues to what they're doing. Linebackers in the mold of Urlacher, like Patrick Willis of San Fransisco or eve Jon Vilma, have the speed and agility to drop back in coverage, protecting the short passing game while keeping tight ends under control all while being able to stop the run on any given play.

On offense we see this same versatility in tight ends. Throughout league history there have been tight ends with the ability to be receiving threats, but rarely have the been able to stretch the field or demand the attention of opposing teams defense's like todays tight ends. Players like Antonio Gates and Dallas Clark have a size and strength relatively unseen in wide receivers while still being able to run, jump, and catch like their receiving counterparts. We can even find among these receiving tight ends players like Todd Heap and Daniel Graham that can block and be just as effective in their offenses run game as they are in the passing attack

This new breed of tight end is being used to force defenses to change the way they play. The modern tight end is too big to be covered by your average defensive back while at the same time having to much speed and agility to be covered by your conventional linebacker. These mismatches are lending their advantage to offenses that have the right player at tight end, and as we've seen in places like Indianapolis and San Diego it is very hard for opposing defenses to keep up with the modern tight end.

The importance of being versatile is being exemplified now more than ever. As teams get more and more creative with their schemes we are seeing all kinds of players used in different ways. With the Giants Justin Tuck we saw a player who had the size and strength to play defensive tackle as well as having the speed and agility to come out as a defensive end. His versatility allowed the Giants to use him at any d-line position creating match ups in their favor. Even with the known presence of Strahan and Umenyiora on that line the Patriots Superbowl game plan focused mostly on stopping Tuck.

This focus on versatility has even changed the way teams look at the draft. Now we see college defensive lineman who don't have the size or strength to play their natural position in the pros getting second looks. Those players who were productive due to other factors, such as making up for a lack of size with an exceptional speed and agility, get looks as linebackers. In this upcoming draft we're even seeing two premier college defensive ends getting looks as linebackers, Chris Long and Vernon Gholston both have the build of NFL defensive ends but their exceptional physical abilities are catching the attention of 3-4 teams looking for their own versions of Shawne Merriman.

This focus on versatility is good for everyone. For teams its free up space on rosters, by having a linebacker who can play the run and the pass they essentially have a two for one player. Its allowing those physically gifted players the best chance at play time with their ability to play multiple roles, while its allowing the more intelligent players better careers due to their abilities to learn the roles of multiple position increasing their importance on teams that loose players. Most importantly, for the fans its making the NFL more exciting than ever. We get to cheer for defenders who seem to be all over the field while watching offensive players beat defenses in different ways. Versatility, it's a good thing.