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How Do Scouts Break Down NFL Outside Linebacker Prospects?

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How Do Scouts Break Down NFL Outside Linebacker Prospects?
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The one question I'm asked most by readers, Twitter followers or prospective writers is, "How do you break down NFL prospects?"

It is also one of the toughest questions to answer in a tweet or quick email exchange.

Here, I'll go deeper.

Each position requires different criteria for scouting, but the method of scouting remains the same. Tape study, background checks and pre-draft workouts are all a part of the puzzle that makes up a player's scouting report. But what goes into a deeper study of each position and each player at that position?

Want to see the other breakdowns? Check them out below.

 

1. 3-4 vs. 4-3 Defenses

In today's NFL, the 3-4 and 4-3 defense are used equally, with the line blurring between the two defenses more and more. Teams like the Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals fielded successful defenses using a hybrid-style defense that took the best qualities of each defense and applied them on the field. For the sake of clarity and consistency, we'll be looking at qualities for a 3-4 or 4-3 linebacker today, acknowledging that hybrid players do exist and have a value in the league today.

 

A 3-4 outside linebacker is generally a former college defensive end with good speed, flexibility and agility and can be taught to stand up at the next level. A look at the NFL's best 3-4 outside linebackers shows an overwhelming number of them played the majority of their college career with their hands in the dirt at defensive end. 

A base 30 defense asks the outside linebackers to be pass rushers first and foremost, which calls on the defender to be strong, fast and smart enough to read and react to play-action.

The 4-3 defense is more varied, as the strong-side and weak-side linebackers are asked to do different things within that defense. When looking for a 4-3 linebacker, the college prospect will almost always have played linebacker in college and show the quickness to play in coverage, the strength to take on the run and the agility to rush the quarterback. 

 

2. Defensive Alignments—Which Are You Scouting?

Outside linebackers don't play differing techniques like defensive linemen, but we are looking to see where they line up to give us a hint at what the player is most comfortable with on the field. When scouting outside linebackers, that means looking at strong-side and weak-side players.

 

3-4 Strong side linebacker:

Not every team running a 3-4 defense uses the strong vs. weak-side alignment for linebackers, choosing instead to keep one player on the left and the other on the right no matter how the offense lines up. Those teams that do run a strength alignment prefer their strong-side linebacker to be stronger, more physical and better equipped to take on the run. Most commonly, the strong-side linebacker lines up on the left side of the defense—outside the right tackle's shoulder—to take on the run and rush the quarterback.

Example: Ryan Kerrigan, Washington Redskins 

 

3-4 Weak side linebacker:

A natural pass rusher, the weak-side linebacker is most commonly lining up opposite the left tackle. That means the weak-side pass rusher must be strong, quick and technically sound to beat the offense's best pass protector.

Example: Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers

 

4-3 Strong-side linebacker:

The strong-side linebacker must have the power to take on blockers and attack the run, the flexibility to rush the quarterback off the edge and the feet to play in coverage against tight ends. A strong-side linebacker must be a complete player in a 4-3 defense.

Example: Von Miller, Denver Broncos


4-3 Weak-side linebacker: 

A classic 4-3 weak-side linebacker must be able to play the run and rush the quarterback, but more than anything they are used in coverage. The weak-side linebacker must be quick to keep pace with tight ends and backs releasing into routes. This calls for a true every-down player.

Example: Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots


3. Traits and Characteristics

Playing football at a high level all comes down to how well you perform the requirements of the position and how much aptitude you have to get better at those requirements. For outside linebackers, we're looking for quick, strong athletes who have the versatility to attack the quarterback, stop the run and drop back in coverage.

Here is my scouting checklist for 3-4 and 4-3 outside linebackers.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

 

A. Agility and Athleticism

I'm often asked what it is that makes a player show up to me and causes me to add them to a watch list or to my Top 300 list. The short answer is athleticism. I spend my Saturdays watching college football like everyone else, and while watching games in real-time I keep notes on which players impressed me the most during the game. Those players become my watch list for in-week scouting. 

Without athleticism at outside linebacker, the offense beats the defense every time. Playing outside linebacker requires a three-tool player who can move laterally, accelerate to the backfield, turn his hips in coverage and have the strength to beat blockers and bring down ball-carriers.

Players like Von Miller—who ranks as the best linebacker prospect I've ever scouted—were able to quickly translate to the NFL thanks to his athletic ability. Miller struggled with the mental aspect of the game early in his rookie season, but he made up for that with his rare athletic ability.

Whether it is a 4-3 or 3-4 outside linebacker, the foundation for the position is a good athletic base.

 

B. Technique

What can overcome amazing athletic ability? Great technique.

I've seen 240-pound outside linebackers overpower 330-pound offensive tackles. Basic physics tells us that should be impossible, but because of proper technique, the smaller player can win the battle in the NFL. What technique am I looking for when evaluating players?


1. Read and React

It sounds overly simple, but when scouting an outside linebacker I want to see how well he reads and reacts to the play. This is where box-score-scouting can get you in trouble, and it is what separates successful evaluators from the competition.

It's easy to look at stats on Sunday morning and see which college players had the most tackles, but what was the quality of those tackles? Should a tackle made 10 yards down field be held in the same regard as a tackle at the line of scrimmage? Of course not, which is why watching and charting tackles is key to truly knowing if the player can read-and-react to the offense and put himself in a position to stop the play.

Just like with the other positions, I like to keep this simple. When evaluating game film of linebacker prospects, I have a pen and paper with the basic offensive line drawn. I then put an "X" for every tackle the player makes and a "O" for every missed tackle. This gives me a count of tackles made and missed, but also a picture of where on the field the linebacker is making his plays.

 

2. Pass Rush

A 3-4 outside linebacker has to be a successful pass rusher, but college production isn't always a good indicator of how successful a player will be in the NFL.

When scouting the pass rush of a player, it's important to look at the type of quarterback sack they are producing. There is a difference between a sack made with no opposition—when an offensive lineman misses an assignment, for example—and a sack made by beating the opposition to the quarterback.

Jarvis Jones of Georgia was often criticized in the 2013 NFL draft process because many of his NCAA-leading sacks were made without any opposition. To some, those unchallenged sacks clouded the picture of Jones' pass rushing ability. Whether that's valid or not, it poses an interesting challenge for evaluators in judging the quality of a sack instead of relying on the stat sheet to tell them how productive a player is.

 

3. Coverage

In a 4-3 defense, both outside linebackers must show some coverage ability. While it is more common for the weak side linebacker to be the better cover man, the line marking the difference between the two positions has begun to blur.

How do you recognize coverage ability from a college player? It can be tough. Few colleges are asking their outside linebackers to play in coverage, opting instead for heavy defensive back packages to combat the spread attacks that are so predominant in the college game. 

When trying to evaluate coverage, it can be easier to scout traits than production. When looking at a defender's pass coverage skills, I'm concentrating on his feet, hips and eyes. To excel in coverage you must have the footwork to backpedal and get depth off the line of scrimmage, the quickness and flexibility in your hips to turn and run with receivers and the eyes to read the play and get into position.

The NFL Scouting Combine and Senior Bowl are great for giving scouts drills to evaluate hip flexibility, quickness and change-of-direction skills. Those workouts plus the film study will give a full look at how well a player can cover at the NFL level.

 

4. Quickness

Quickness, not speed, is an important aspect of the outside linebacker. A player can be quick without being fast, which makes the 40-yard dash time of a linebacker overrated at times. 

A look at the NFL's top 10 tacklers from the 2012 season at outside linebacker shows that speed isn't as important as quickness. In fact, none of the players ranks in the 10 fastest 40-yard dash times from the NFL Scouting Combine since 2006.

Rank Player Tackles 40 time
1 Chad Greenway 148 4.76 sec
2 Jerod Mayo 147 4.54 sec
3 Lavonte David 139 4.57 sec
4 Russell Allen 131 4.63 sec
5 Vontaze Burfict 127 5.00 sec
6 Wesley Woodyard 117 4.51 sec
7 Jo-Lonn Dunbar 115 4.85 sec
8 Nick Barnett 112 4.67 sec
9 Kevin Burnett 110 4.58 sec
10 Philip Wheeler 109 4.76 sec

Being quick to the ball, with explosive change-of-direction skills, is more important than the straight-line speed judged at the NFL Scouting Combine's most famous event. 

 

5. Strength

Field strength is the basis for being able to shed blockers and make tackles. If a player isn't strong enough to shed blockers, he won't be able to get into position to make the tackle, thus rendering himself useless on the field.

Strength can be overrated, but it cannot be substituted unless the player has perfect technique to disengage from a blocker and/or bring down a ball-carrier. Being strong enough to overcome technical and mental mistakes—especially early in a career—can be a make-or-break for players.

 

6. Flexibility

Outside linebackers are asked to rush the quarterback and drop back into coverage—two responsibilities that require incredible amounts of flexibility.

To "bend the edge" and rush the quarterback, an outside linebacker must be flexible enough to dip their shoulder and evade the hands of a blocker. To play in coverage you must be flexible enough to flip your hips open, change direction, and run with a receiver.

 

There is no number to tell you if a player is flexible enough to play in the NFL, instead the evaluator must rely on film study and evaluation to tell them if the defender has the flexibility to bend the edge and/or drop back in coverage. If you're watching a player and you consistently see them struggle to change direction in space, chances are their hips are not flexible enough for the pros. 

 

7. Stack-and-Shed

While tackling and block shedding are essentially all that a player does on the field, it is all of the above characteristics that allow a defender to make plays. Being an effective tackler in college is a major plus, but players can be taught to harness their athletic ability and become a better tackler. Same goes for being able to shed blocks.

It's always a major plus on my scouting report when a player enters the NFL with high-level shedding and tackling skills, but it's important to remember that technique can be taught, athleticism cannot.

 

Conclusion

Scouting linebackers is one of the tougher jobs of an evaluator due to the varying requirements of the 3-4 and 4-3 defense, the difference in pro-level and college-level offenses and the mental adjustments needed to diagnose an NFL offense on the go. 

A good evaluator marries a player's athletic ability, technique and potential to find the ideal prospect. It's not easy, but looking for a defender with the most positives of the qualities listed above will help you find the next Von Miller or Aldon Smith.

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