Why Linebackers Who Can't Rush the Passer Are Rarely Worthy of the First Round

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 19, 2013

USA Today
USA Today

In next week's NFL draft, two inside linebackers with limited pass-rushing prowess—Georgia's Alec Ogletree and Notre Dame's Manti Te'o—are considered to be first-round material.

If both are selected in Round 1 on Thursday at Radio City Music Hall, it would mark the first time since 2010 that two non-pass-rushing linebackers were drafted in the opening round.

Only three players that remotely fit that profile—Rolando McClain, Sean Weatherspoon and Luke Kuechly—have been selected in Round 1 over the past three years. During the same span, 18 edge-rushers have gone off the board within the first 32 picks.

In the last two years alone, first-round edge-rushers outnumbered first-round inside linebackers by a margin of 14-to-1. Considering that between 2000 and 2009 the difference was only 36 to 26, it's safe to conclude that either the well as inside linebacker has dried up or NFL front offices have become wary of highly ranked linebackers who can't rush the quarterback. 

Let's take a look at why that might be happening.

Before I break down the non-pass-rushing linebackers in comparison to the edge-rushers from recent drafts, let me preface my findings with the fact that there are simply more front-seven defenders who are required to rush the passer than ones who are only relied on as run defenders and/or in coverage.

As a result, there are  more elite pass-rushers than inside linebackers. Logically, the quantity enhances the quality.

Now, here are some raw numbers:

  • Just under 20 percent of the league's current starting inside linebackers (nine of 46) were drafted in the first round while just under 41 percent of the league's 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers (26 of 64) hail from Round 1. 
  • An astonishing 15 percent of the league's current starting inside linebackers weren't drafted while only six percent of starting edge-rushers went undrafted.

What's interesting is the success-rate of first-round inside linebackers in similar to that of first-round edge-rushers. Few are worthy of being top picks, but they aren't becoming busts any more often than pass-rushers. 

More numbers: 

  • Since 2000, there have been 30 first- and second-team All-Pro inside linebackers. Eleven of them were first-round picks, which works out to 37 percent. During the same span, there have been 37 first- and second-team All-Pro edge-rushers. Only 18 of those guys were first-round selections, which works out to 49 percent. 

Remove the second-team All-Pros to filter out more of the less-than-elite players, however, and the results are interesting:

  • Since 2000, eight of the 12 first-team All-Pro inside linebackers were first-round picks (Jon Beason, Ray Lewis, Jerod Mayo, Patrick Willis, Derrick Johnson, Brian Urlacher, Al Wilson and James Farrior). That's 75 percent. During the same span, only 13 of the 23 first-team All-Pro edge-rushers were picked in Round 1. That's 57 percent. 

This tells me that you don't pick a linebacker who doesn't rush the passer early unless he's nearly a sure-thing.

That seemed to be the case with Urlacher, Lewis, Willis and Mayo. The first three names on that list might end up with better résumés than any of the top-end All-Pro pass-rushers who came out of the first round such as Dwight Freeney, John Abraham, DeMarcus Ware and Terrell Suggs to name a few.

In regard to overall success rate:

  • Based on my analysis, I've come to the conclusion that 50 percent (27 of 54) of the edge-rushers taken in Round 1 since 2000 have lived up to, or exceeded, expectations while 45 percent (13 of 29) of non-pass-rushing linebackers have done the same. 
  • On the other hand, 30 percent (16 of 54) of first-round pass-rushers were busts while 28 percent (eight of 29) of non-pass-rushing linebackers did not pan out at the NFL level.

Here's a chart to support those findings (which is open for dispute):

While the success rate of first-round picks doesn't change drastically when looking at pass-rushers in comparison to linebackers that don't rush the passer, there's evidence that it's easier to find a starting-caliber non-pass-rushing linebacker later or elsewhere. 

Studs are studs, regardless of position. That's why the 49ers were never going to regret drafting Willis in the same way the Cowboys were pretty certain that Ware would pan out.

However, studs who can't rush the passer are fewer and farther between, and since inside linebacker isn't a premium position in a pass-heavy era, it makes little sense to go that route early unless you have a gem or no other positions of need. 

First-round picks have to be able to take over games in the same way that quarterbacks and those who protect and stop quarterbacks can. I'm referring to left tackles, pass-rushers and defensive backs who are strong in coverage.

Typically, backs, receivers, tight end and run-stopping defenders can be found later, and it seems general managers are beginning to realize that. 

All of this is something to consider before applauding your team for drafting Ogletree or Te'o, neither of whom appear to be sure things.