Detroit Lions: How to Use Defensive End Willie Young Creatively at Linebacker

Michael SuddsCorrespondent IMay 18, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 1: Defensive lineman Willie Young of North Carolina State runs with the football in drills during the NFL Scouting Combine presented by Under Armour at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 1, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)
Scott Boehm/Getty Images

I was kicking around the Lions roster with my Mlive Telway Raider pals Jim Radford, Joe Ryan, Michael Cote‘, Dan Babinec and Ted Turner.

We were discussing the roster “squeeze” at the DE spot, where the Lions are stacked with talent. There’s Cliff Avril, Lawrence Jackson, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Turk McBride and then there’s Willie Young.

Young was the Lions 213th selection in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL draft out of NC State. He showed up at training camp at a lean looking 6’5” and 251 lbs.  To me, he looked too small to play DE.

Young’s 4.88 speed is somewhat misleading as his “football speed” was a pleasant surprise in camp. In fact, Young’s preseason was so good that the Lions were compelled to keep him on the roster as the fifth DE.

Young’s rookie season saw him activated for Week 17 only. He saw only six snaps, but recorded two QB pressures. There was an unspecified off field infraction of team rules that earned Young minor disciplinary action.

It is rather doubtful that the Lions will keep that roster spot open for him as a DE in 2011. But, what about converting Young to an OLB?

I wondered aloud about this briefly during the 2010 training camp in several blogs.

Boy, did I get flamed for floating that trial balloon!

I was reminded (in no uncertain terms) that when the Lions entered training camp in 2010, the LB corps was flush with DeAndre Levy, Julian Peterson, Jordan Dizon, Zack Follett, Ashlee Palmer, Landon Johnson and Caleb Campbell.

There was no room at the Inn. I kept my mouth shut.

As the 2010 season unfolded, the LB corps crumbled, and now is widely viewed as a position of extreme need.

Does converting DE Willie Young to OLB make sense? Well, yes and no.

I can say with certainty that if the conversion was taking place in a 3-4 defensive scheme, it would have a much greater chance of succeeding since Young’s primary responsibility would still be as a pass rusher.

The Washington Redskins converted 6-4, 260 lb. DE Brian Orakpo to OLB in 2010 as part of their switch to the 3-4 defense. Orakpo had a very decent season, finishing in 18th place in Pro Football Focus OLB34 rankings.

Now, the Lions play the 4-3 defense where the responsibilities of the OLBs are much more complex.

Some of the questions that Young would have to answer:


Can Young master the techniques required of an OLB43?

An OLB43 must have a quick, compact back-peddle. It doesn’t have to be pretty or as low as the DBs, but it must be quick.

An OLB43 must transition (break down) smoothly from the back-peddle to his coverage assignment. This requires some flexibility in his hips.

The technique is deceptively simple. Imagine being in a back-peddle. Arms bent at the elbows, and kept in front of your body. Now, that TE runs past your right side. Transition begins by thrusting your right arm straight back. This turns your hips, and one step-over completes the transition.

Stiff hips allows one step of separation. That's murder.

An OLB43 has to have an explosive back-stop-forward transition. This is important if a play fake or misdirection has been diagnosed.

An OLB43 needs good peripheral vision for optimum lateral movement in traffic.


Can Young catch the ball? 

Young had one interception for the Wolf Pack, but has to demonstrate ball skills in a position he‘s never played.


Can Young master the intangibles required of an OLB43?

An OLB43 spends more time in the film room than on the practice field and weight room combined. He must be instinctively aware of how his opponent’s pre-snap sets and motions affect his assignment, or zone.

An OLB43 must effectively communicate any change in assignments or coverages to his fellow LBs.


Is Young willing to make the conversion?

I’m sure that Brian Orakpo would characterize the move as a daunting challenge.

Let’s face it. Ultimately, it is Young’s choice to make. That is, if the Lions see the move as feasible, and practical.

For the Lions, moving Young to OLB fit’s the criteria of practicality. They are gambling on a 7th round pick who would likely not survive another year on the practice squad. Young has little chance of cracking the lineup for the foreseeable future at DE.


As an OLB project, Young could see meaningful action in 2012, but not before.

Is athleticism a concern? Not according to Chicago Bears LB coach Bob Babich, who recently said: “When looking at outside linebackers, instincts are much more important than athleticism.”

Cutting Young is a no-win situation for team and player alike. Young’s trade value is negligible, unless he goes to a 3-4 defense where he will be converted to an OLB34.

Another year on the practice squad could see Young getting claimed.

For Young, demonstrating the ability to play OLB43 would enhance his value greatly. It would mean losing another year as he learns new skill sets, but could reap big benefits come contract time.

To my mind, this experiment costs little, saves Young a position on the roster that represents an urgent need, and adds value that otherwise would have been wasted and ultimately lost.

Is the idea of moving Young to OLB crazy? Or, crazy like a fox.


Mike Sudds is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Mike is also an analyst for


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