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Wednesday, April 16, 2003
Updated: April 17, 2:24 PM ET
Lack of size, productivity hurting LB prospects
By Len Pasquarelli
From a pure timeline standpoint it has only been 10 years since the great Lawrence Taylor, fantastic on the field and obviously flawed away from it, played in his last game and retired from a position he helped to redefine.
Looking at the draft over the past few years, however, it seems an eternity since Taylor and a few others nudged the linebacker position toward a level of prominence it had never before enjoyed. Scrutinizing more specifically the 2003 draft, one might justifiably wonder if the position will ever regain the profile it had a decade ago, when it was evolving into a glamour spot.
For a third consecutive year, the draft will suffer from a lean linebacker class, one that probably features just two legitimate first-round prospects. It will continue a disturbing trend, one in which just three linebackers have been taken in the first round of the last two lotteries combined, or half the number that was selected in the opening stanza of the 2000 draft.
Get past weak-side standout Boss Bailey of the University of Georgia and Maryland middle linebacker E.J. Henderson and there are no sure things. Truth be told, even Henderson isn't guaranteed a first-round perch, given that he figures to be just a two-down player who proceeds to the sideline on third-and-long.
Bailey will go off the board in the first half of the round, possibly as early as No. 12 to St. Louis, and is the lone stud in the pool, a defender whose stock continues to rise even at a relatively late juncture of the evaluation process.
Unfortunately, for defensive coordinators, many of the linebackers in the 2003 draft represent the equivalent of junk bonds.
"It's a position that seems to be stuck in reverse right now," said Redskins personnel director Vinny Cerrato. "Part of it is a lack of (viable) prospects. Part of it is the way the position is used now. For a lot of teams, linebacker isn't the priority it used to be. People think, like, 'Why should I pay all this money to a guy who's on the field for two downs?' Everybody wants the dominating defensive lineman and the 'shut down' corner. Linebackers sort of got lost in the shuffle."
At least they have when it comes time for the draft.
The position was one of the few hot spots in unrestricted free agency this spring, with the Atlanta Falcons investing an eight-figure signing bonus to retain Keith Brooking, and teams like Buffalo (with Takeo Spikes), Kansas City (Shawn Barber) and New England (Rosevelt Colvin), among others, striking big-money deals to acquire top-shelf linebacker help.
But those veterans are proven commodities, players with a track record, defenders who by performance and team preference met a need. The draft, in terms of finances and fit, has not been quite as kind to young linebackers. Certainly the windfall some veterans have realized hasn't been transferred to the pool of entry-level linebackers.
The linebacker spot hasn't been reduced yet to afterthought status in the draft but, as has been the case with running backs and safeties, history has demonstrated that serviceable players at the position can be located outside the first round. Few linebackers start as rookies -- there were just three first-year players who started more than 10 games in 2002 -- and most earn their stripes playing on special teams.
Perhaps the most productive linebacker from the 2002 rookie class was Ben Leber of San Diego, who started 14 games, and it's significant to note that the Chargers unearthed the former Kansas State star in the third round.
That ability to get contributing linebackers in the middle rounds certainly reduces the incentive for teams to grab them up early in the draft.
In fact, over the past five years, there have been just three linebackers taken among the top 10 choices. There haven't been any top 10 linebackers since 2000, when Washington snatched LaVar Arrington with the second overall pick and Chicago took Brian Urlacher with the ninth choice.
Such short shrift doesn't seem to concern Bailey, the brother of Washington star cornerback Champ Bailey, and a prospect with a rare combination of size, speed and innate athleticism. Miscast as a strong-side linebacker by the Georgia coaches, and with his playmaking abilities somewhat thwarted by having to play over the tight end, Bailey might actually be a better defender at the NFL level.
Teams project Bailey as a weakside linebacker and, while no one suggests he will approximate the career of Derrick Brooks, the Tampa Bay star is the player to whom he is most often compared. Defensive coordinators feel that if they just cover up Bailey, and allow him to flow to the ball, he can be a legitimate playmaker. He has always been strong in coverage and there are hints Bailey possesses more pass rush skills than he flashed at Georgia.
"People have been very flattering with the (comparisons) to Brooks, and it's great, because he is the NFL player I watch the most," said Bailey, who has more straightline speed than some wide receiver prospects to go along with an NBA-level vertical jump. "To me, I want to be on the field all the time because I know I can contribute on third down, either rushing the passer or in coverage. But I can understand, on a whole, why people are saying that the (linebacker) position has kind of been (de-emphasized)."
The numbers certainly indicate that, in the NFL, the stature of linebackers is being reduced, both literally and figuratively.
Urlacher, for instance, was the lone NFL linebacker in 2002 to participate in more than 80 percent of his franchise's defensive snaps. Even the wondrous Brooks, the league's defensive player of the year and the epitome of a three-down player, logged just 70.1 percent, according to NFL figures.
|Bailey's versatility gives him an edge over the other LB prospects.|
||For a lot of teams, linebacker isn't the priority it used to be. People think, like, 'Why should I pay all this money to a guy who's on the field for two downs?' Everybody wants the dominating defensive lineman and the 'shut down' corner.”
||—Vinny Cerrato, Redskins personnel director
Among the starting middle linebackers, just 10 participated in more than 60 percent of the snaps, with only a half-dozen logging more than 70 percent. The lone first-round middle linebacker in the 2002 draft, Napoleon Harris of Oakland, was lauded for stepping right into a starting job. Yet Harris played in just 47.6 percent of the snaps.
It is that reality for middle linebackers, where the league average for playing time last year was in about the 60 percent range, that could bump Henderson into the second round. A veritable brick wall against the run, and a guy who totaled 434 tackles in his final three seasons at Maryland and posted 150 stops in 2001 and 175 in 2002, Henderson has been a solid pass rusher, but is often a liability in coverage.
"I want to prove to the scouts that I can play three downs," Henderson said at the combine. "I want to buck the two-down trend."
One trend neither Henderson nor most of the other linebacker candidates will be able to counter is the position's shrinking physical dimension. Over the last few years, linebacker clearly has become a vertically-challenged position, and the 2003 draft won't change that.
Not unless players bind themselves to a rack for a bit of stretching.
Ten years ago, the average starting linebacker in the NFL was nearly 6-feet-2. Of the top 11 linebackers in the 2003 draft class, only four are taller than 6-feet-1 and just two measure 6-feet-2 or better. At 6-feet-3 1/8, Bailey is a relative giant. Virtually all the inside linebacker candidates are what one NFC defensive coordinator referred to as "six-oh-plus" players.
Translation: They are just a fraction over six-feet tall.
"A lot of colleges are taking guys who might have been linebackers in the past and moving them to tight end or defensive end," said the coordinator. "And they're recruiting quarterbacks and safeties out of high school and projecting them to linebacker. The result is, it's been tough for us to find the kind of linebackers the computer says should be the model for the position, you know?
"At that position, it really has become an incredible shrinking world."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.