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Bill Belichick sees 'strong trend' in NFL with hybrid defensive players

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The hybrid is all the rage across the NFL.

This was a topic that was touched upon in Sunday's quick-hit thoughts/notes piece with the New England Patriots and sixth-round draft choice Kamu Grugier-Hill of Eastern Illinois; a linebacker in college, Grugier-Hill is a hybrid who projects to either the more traditional safety role in the NFL, or a linebacker in the substitution defense.

The reason for the hybrid category: At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, he is on the bigger side for a safety but light for a linebacker in the team's base defense.

ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick tweeted on the trend Monday morning, which had me revisiting some of Bill Belichick's comments from the final day of the NFL draft.

"I think that you are definitely seeing a strong trend in the league towards corners that play safety or corner-type athletes that play safety, bigger safeties that play linebacker. Both of those are trends," Belichick said during the draft.

"We’ve always put a lot of premium on the passing game even going back to when we had Eugene Wilson [second round, 2003], who played corner at Illinois, and started for us at corner for a couple weeks and then we moved him to free safety, but that was an advantage when teams went to the multiple receivers. Then we already had that third corner on the field and we could go nickel or we could leave our regular defense out there, or leave our corner on the third receiver, what we call penny defense. That was pretty successful for us."

Fast forward to the current team and that dynamic is still in play.

"Devin [McCourty’s] given us some of that, so has [Patrick] Chung," Belichick said. "Devin’s a corner and not that Chung is a corner, but he has corner qualities, he’s had some corner-type responsibilities, particularly in the slot, even going back to when Wes [Welker] was here and he would cover Wes pretty competitively in practice sessions. I’d say that has always been something that, if you have a player that can do that, somewhat appealing."

Belichick reflected on veteran safety Rodney Harrison as another player who fit into that hybrid category, as he "was a very good coverage safety even though he was big and physical, and he played the run as well as anybody. He could also cover the run and that’s very unusual and that made him very special. You could literally match up on anybody, receivers, tight ends, blitz him, play him on goal line. He could do it all. He was tremendous."

The increased value that some teams are placing on hybrid players is a result of how offenses have become more spread out, putting more skill-position players on the field (which means defenses are playing more substitution defense). On top of that, as Belichick sees it, "Tight ends have become more athletic and less of the conventional kind of power-blocking type guys" and thus "those matchups keep getting tougher and tougher."

Add it all up, and it's why more teams are valuing safeties who have corner-like skills, or linebackers with safety-type skills.

"You see less of the big run-stopping Ted Johnson, Brandon Spikes type players," Belichick said. "It’s just harder when the offense spreads you out and then they go fast and you can’t substitute and you’re stuck with whoever you have out there. That creates some problems.

"The colleges are seeing the same thing and they probably have to deal with it more than we do because there are so many fast-tempo offenses where they put a lot of fast guys on the field. So they are in the same boat playing a lot of what we call dime defense, or little nickel, or whatever it is. Ends are playing tackle, safeties are playing linebacker, and corners are playing safety. It’s just kind of getting a little bit smaller in a lot of areas."