(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)
POSITION: Outside linebackers (3-4)
OVERVIEW: The importance of sacks as a statistic is one that varies depending on whom you talk to; some view it as a metric to measure elite pass rushers, others view it as an overrated way to define a player as a game-changer. The 3-4 outside linebacker position is one that features players who become stars in part because of their high sack totals, with the likes of DeMarcus Ware and Clay Matthews topping the list. But more goes into being a successful 3-4 outside linebacker than an ability to rush the quarterback – he is responsible to be an edge-setting player who can defend the run and operate in space as an occasional pass defender.
DESIRED TRAITS: In being an edge-setter, a 3-4 outside linebacker must have the length to leverage defenders and the strength and athleticism to perform from the edge. A player with long arms and functional strength can lock out on a tight end or tackle on the outside of the line to create a boundary for the offense to have to work within. Longtime Patriot Mike Vrabel was sensational at setting the edge by using tremendous hand placement and leverage to square-in the play in front of him.
A 3-4 outside linebacker must have enough proactive athleticism to generate pressure against the passer, as well as enough reactive athleticism to be accountable in coverage. As a pass rusher, it must be determined how a 3-4 outside linebacker makes his moves; speed, quickness, technique, power and other methods work – it varies from player to player.
Although 3-4 outside linebackers will not always be used as coverage players, throughout the course of the game they’ll need to work into a backpedal or open their hips underneath routes to buzz into coverage. Finding players with fluidity through their midsection and body control to move in space while keeping an eye on the play in front of them is critical.
As is the case with Ware and Matthews, top 3-4 outside linebackers are explosive. They are explosive off the ball and explosive to close the gap in space. Rarely does either of those players miss an opportunity to corral a quarterback or runner in short spaces. A 3-4 outside linebacker who can explode off the edge forces an offensive tackle to work quickly to get out of his stance.
SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: A 3-4 outside linebacker can play on all four core special teams, as well as on field goal block. Given their combination of length and athleticism, they can be particularly adept coverage players on the punt and kickoff teams.
PATRIOTS TAKE: The Patriots have essentially moved away from a reliance on a 3-4 front, although the team has a number of players who would project as outside linebackers in such a scheme. Veteran Trevor Scott is a sturdy, tough presence, while top draft choice Chandler Jones looks to have the necessary explosiveness to be a dynamic player on the edge (we’ll see if that will come to fruition as he aligns as a defensive end in 2012).