(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: Inside Linebacker (3-4)
OVERVIEW: Much like an offense needs a strong signal caller to find success, a defense needs a quarterback in the middle of the huddle to direct all of the moving pieces. This is, in its essence, the primary job of an inside linebacker, both in a 3-4 and a 4-3. But focusing on a 3-4, where there are actually two inside linebackers, one finds that the two work in tandem to fortify the second level of the middle of the defense. When discussing 3-4 inside linebackers, there are really two separate positions: both a strongside player (the “Mike”) and a weakside player (the “Will”). The Mike is a downhill player who is charged with taking on blocks and freeing up space for over-the-top tacklers to operate. The Will is a more of a free-range player who is accountable to make a number of tackles with the space freed up by his Mike. Additionally, based on the direction of a given running play, a Will can also be the primary player to take on blocks, leaving the Mike to adopt the free-range role and move in space to make tackles. These two players are not always easy to identify, but are always hypercritical to a defense.
DESIRED TRAITS: Although the roles of a Mike and Will are different, each will be accountable throughout the course of a game to perform the tasks of the other. As mentioned, one of those roles is to be the quarterback of the defense. That involves strong communication skills and a high level of on-field intelligence. Inside 'backers must understand the scheme in front of them and the coverage behind them; they are at the center of the defensive web.
Another primary job of the inside linebackers will be to step up and take on blocks with regularity. It must be determined what type of stack and shed ability a linebacker has; that is to say, how well does he take on a block, not give ground, and use his leverage to shed the block in order to make a play on the ball. Jerod Mayo, the Patriots top linebacker, is one of the preeminent stack and shed linebackers in all of football, with an excellent anchor and ability to work off of blocks.
As is always paramount in linebacker evaluation, it must be determined how well a 3-4 inside linebacker tackles. Inside linebackers are often the leading tacklers on their defense. They’ll be in the action on almost every running play, and must be reliable wrap-up tacklers who are athletic enough to work in space. That involves sideline-to-sideline range and above average instincts.
Inside linebackers will also take on coverage responsibilities in the passing game. With the ever-evolving role of the tight end, linebackers are being stretched further down the field, heightening the need for a player that can gain depth in his back pedal and open his hips into deep space. In Dont’a Hightower, who did a little bit of everything at Alabama, the team appears to have added another player who can contribute on three downs, be it as a coverage player or a pass rusher.
No linebacker can man the middle without a load of toughness, and that is something that is exhibited in the way he takes on blocks, drives through tackles, and works through traffic on an every down basis.
SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Linebackers are pivotal members of all core special teams, with the toughness, speed, instincts and tackling ability to contribute on punt, punt return, kickoff, and kickoff return.
PATRIOTS TAKE: The Patriots may not play much 3-4 defense in 2012, but they have the inside linebacking pieces to do so should they so choose. In Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Hightower, the team has three starting caliber players. How those three are used in the team’s projected 4-3 scheme will be extremely interesting to follow. Behind them, the Patriots have a host of others who could be used as back up inside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme, including, Bobby Carpenter, Dane Fletcher and even Jeff Tarpinian (who would be on the lighter side in terms of build). The team has added athleticism to its linebacking core this offseason with Carpenter and Hightower.