Revisiting notes by ESPN NFL Insider Field Yates, originally posted in 2012, on how teams scout for players at each position, focusing on off-the-line linebackers:
DESIRED TRAITS: It starts with football intelligence, communication skills and tackling ability. An off-the-line linebacker must be entirely in tune with the defensive calls, understand the scheme around him, and be able to dissect the offense’s plan as it evolves as he is often tapped to lead the huddle.
Linebackers who align off the line of scrimmage generally must be more adept at moving sideline to sideline, showing range and lateral ability. This involves the ability to open hips, run sideways, and at times side-shuffling while engaged in a block. The ability to string plays outside and close the gap on perimeter runs is paramount.
Furthermore, some of the other critical traits to look for in any off-the-line linebacker are the ability to wrap, fit and drive through tackles. It must be determined how much of an anchor the has; can he engage a blocker, not give ground and shed the blocker in order to make a tackle?
The old-school off-the-line linebacker who fits in a 3-4 defense is usually strong in this area. That player is charged with taking on blocks, stacking and shedding, and freeing up space for over-the-top tacklers to operate (e.g. Brandon Spikes).
But with defenses finding themselves in sub packages at increasing rates in recent years, inside linebackers in the 3-4 have seen their value drop a bit because they often are viewed as a liability in pass coverage.
All linebackers are responsible to play pass coverage, but off-the-line linebackers need to have both reactive athleticism to match receivers in man coverage, and instincts and smarts to play zone. Playing man involves the ability to work backward, an understanding of leverage, and the physicality to jam at the line of scrimmage. Zone play involves finding his spot, keeping leverage on the quarterback, and having the anticipation skills to drive on the ball.
Off-the-line linebackers in particular need to be fast, as their duties will often involve working from the far side of the field right into the thick of the action. An inability to be a factor on a slow-developing play away from his alignment will render that player ineffective.
SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Linebackers are accountable to be core special teams players, with the toughness, speed, instincts and tackling ability to stand out in the kicking game.
PATRIOTS TAKE: The New England Patriots have two of the NFL's better players at the position in Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower. Five-year veteran Jonathan Freeny is currently projected as a the No. 3 option, while free-agent signing Shea McClellin, who received the majority of his work in spring practices as an on-the-line defensive end, could factor into that top mix as well. Meanwhile, veteran Rob Ninkovich, who has the smarts and versatility to play off the line, received some reps in spring practices, which might have just been contingency planning. Sixth-round draft choice Kamu Grugier-Hill, who is a hybrid linebacker/safety, projects to a core special-teams role, while Kevin Snyder, Rufus Johnson, core special-teamer Ramon Humber and sixth-round pick Elandon Roberts will vie for back-end roster spots.