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Dion Bailey's NFL future

LOS ANGELES -- By all accounts, Dion Bailey is a great collegiate player.

Only 17 games into his college career, the USC sophomore linebacker has shown an innate ability to make big hits and big interceptions without huge missteps in the form of penalties or breakdowns.

But he's undersized, even for the college level. There's not much chance a listed 6-foot, 210-pounder like him could be a real linebacker at the pro level.

But USC Trojans coach Lane Kiffin, who converted Bailey from safety a year and a half ago, seems to think it's a possibility.

"The thing about Dion is, he's never going to get that big," Kiffin said Wednesday. "But he's showing people he can make so many plays. So many people play eight-man fronts with safeties anyway, they end up being outside linebackers in the NFL. He can go back and play the middle third and play halves and be a hybrid too.

"People will want to play him in nickel, too, knowing he can be a nickel back because of his experience in the box."

Kiffin's on to something. As Grantland's Chris Brown detailed in a trendspotting piece over the summer, NFL defenses are changing to accommodate the increasingly speedy offenses, and they're not changing their schemes.

They're changing their players, incorporating more hybrid types capable of fulfilling two roles at once. That's where Bailey could thrive.

Brown writes of two of the NFL's biggest defensive stars of the last decade, safeties Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. Both are similar in stature to Bailey, and both have succeeded.

In the future, though, the Reed- and Polamalu-types will be playing linebacker.

"Their successors -- in body type, athleticism, and playmaking ability -- may not play safety at all," Brown writes of the two star safeties. "Regardless of the position at which he's listed, he'll likely be a linebacker in a safety's body."

That clearly bodes well for Bailey's NFL future. As a redshirt sophomore, he can declare for the draft after this season but also has two more years of eligibility remaining.

The best guess is that he'll stay for another year, show versatility and move around the defense, then declare after the 2013 season, after three years as a starter.

Kiffin talked at length this week about the professional-like preparation of a number of key players on his roster, who adapt quickly to changes because of their special skills and willingness to learn.

Bailey, who already has four picks this season, is a good example of that, Kiffin said.

He's also a good example of where the NFL's heading next.