Is Middle Linebacker the NFL's Next Forgotten Position?

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Is Middle Linebacker the NFL's Next Forgotten Position?
USA TODAY Sports

The NFL is going through a Great Dying, a mass extinction of historical proportions.

The fullback. The blocking tight end. The "extra linebacker" strong safety. All of these positions were plentiful and important just 15 years ago. Now, they're nowhere to be found.

The next position threatened with extinction? The middle linebacker.

Former Miami Dolphins great Zach Thomas, in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, was one of 126 modern-era nominees for the class of 2014. Though he's just eight years removed from being a first-team All-Pro, it's hard to see where he'd fit in today's NFL.

Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

With the 2014 NFL draft fresh in our minds, let's stop and consider: Where would a (generously listed) 5'10", 230-pound, run-stuffing middle linebacker with glacial foot speed and a 28.5" vertical leap, as he told Sports Illustrated, get drafted?

Even in 1996, Thomas only went in the fifth round. Today, he'd be lucky to sign as a free agent—let alone get a chance to catch on with the first-team defense.

 

Climate Change

There's no doubt the NFL ecosystem has undergone radical change in recent years. There's been a league-wide evolution away from the traditional running game and toward shotgun-based spread offenses:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

Not only have offenses moved away from running the ball overall, but they don't run the way they used to either.

Instead of a feature back who gets the rock 25-30 times a game, setting the tone for the offense and establishing physical dominance, there's a primary back who'll get 15-25 carries a game. In 2002, the first season the NFL played with 32 teams, nine running backs had at least 300 carries, per Pro Football Reference. Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams led the league with a whopping 383 rushing attempts.

In 2013, just 12 seasons later, only two running backs cracked 300. LeSean McCoy's 314 carries were the league's heaviest workload.

Instead of a lot of between-the-tackles downhill running, backs are used on a lot of draws and counters, using the aggression of today's hybridized, multiple defensive fronts against them. Instead of running to set up the pass, with rare exceptions, offenses pass to set up the run.

This pass-first approach is reflected in personnel packages.

 

Loss of Habitat

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

The fullback was the middle linebacker's natural prey. Taking on a fullback at the point of attack was the Mike 'backer's bread and butter; getting off the block gave them a shot at the ball-carrier. Legends like Thomas, Mike Singletary and Ray Nitschke made their name by consistently winning these one-on-one matchups.

Since 1960, 10 fullbacks have been drafted in the first round, per Pro Football Reference. The most recent was in 1994, when the San Francisco 49ers drafted William Floyd. Can you imagine a team wasting a first-round pick on a fullback today?

Since 2002, only 35 fullbacks have been drafted at all, none higher than the third round. Only seven fullbacks have been drafted in the last six years, and only two as high as the fourth round.

The increasing number of teams playing 3-4 defenses and hybridized fronts has impacted the traditional Mike as well; 3-4 inside linebackers have to be bigger to take on offensive linemen when attacking the run or rushing the passer.

The shift toward multiple wide receivers has forced defenses to respond by playing with more defensive backs. In 2012, Mike Clay at Pro Football Focus studied defensive alignment rates. In 2008, 40 percent of all NFL defensive snaps were taken in a base 4-3 alignment; in 2011, that number was just 29 percent.

In just two seasons, traditional "two-down" middle linebackers had 27.5 percent fewer snaps available for them to play, league-wide. That's a massive shift in usage.

Whether teams used a 4-3 or 3-4 base alignment in 2011, Clay found they used that base alignment just 45 percent of the time—meaning they subbed in more defensive backs on more than half of all snaps. PFF hasn't made the same data available for 2012 and 2013, but the trend seems to be accelerating. ESPN's John Clayton reported the Bengals used extra defensive backs 71.9 percent of the time in 2013.

The "two-down" linebacker is becoming a one-down linebacker—and doesn't have much value to today's NFL teams.

 

Going Extinct?

Middle linebackers (and 3-4 inside linebackers) aren't going away completely, like fullbacks. Just like safeties are becoming symmetrical, middle linebackers have to play zone and man coverage nearly as often as outside linebackers—and no less well.

In fact, there may be a bigger difference between 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 outside linebackers than between inside and outside 4-3 linebackers.

Elite pass-rush prospects like Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack have the athleticism to bring heat as a 4-3 end or 3-4 outside linebacker—but either would be completely out of place shadowing tight ends and dropping into shallow zones like a Derrick Brooks or Lance Briggs.

Meanwhile, the bar for difference-making 3-4 middle linebackers is getting higher and higher. Bucky Brooks of NFL.com called Chris Borland a "Zach Thomas clone," but at 5'11", 248 pounds, Borland is significantly bigger than Thomas ever was—and Borland will be playing in a 3-4.

Perhaps the highest-touted classic 4-3 middle linebacker prospect was Louisville's Preston Brown. NFL Media's Mike Mayock called Brown "a throwback type of player." NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki said he's "most ideally suited as a two-down thumper vs. the run," and projected the 6'1", 251-pound Brown (a "physical tackler" with "good football intelligence") as a fourth- or fifth-round pick.

Why? "Tightness in his movement," wrote Nawrocki, along with a lack of depth, range and instincts in coverage. He also "struggles" to cover tight ends man-to-man. The bottom line? A middle linebacker who can't cover like an outside linebacker doesn't have much value.

The Buffalo Bills took Brown with the ninth pick of the third round, but the message is the same. A player with Brown's measurables and skill set might have been taken much higher five years ago and almost certainly would have been a first-rounder in decades past.

The middle linebacker will never truly disappear, but as long as the NFL remains a pass-first (and pass-second!) league, the classic run-stuffer will remain on the endangered species list.

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