How To Scout Linebackers
By Brent Foshee
Linebackers are the backbone of any defense. Equally sharing responsibility against both the run and pass on any given play they need a broad skill set as a unit. This allows for a high degree of specialization within a unit where each player might excel at one aspect of the game and, working in tandem with one another, create a formidable group. Linebackers need to have speed more so than size - although traditional middle (Mike) linebackers often need size and strength more than speed as they are tasked with controlling gaps and taking on offensive linemen - typically guards or centers. Strong side linebackers need to excel in pass coverage and are frequently used in pass rushing situations to provide extra pressure though blitzing. They must be able to take on blocks from larger tight ends in rushing situations. Weakside linebackers are typically smaller and faster. They are usually protected from the larger offensive linemen by the defensive line and Mike linebacker. With pass coverage responsibilities for the tailback - or large zones in certain defenses - they must be able to quickly diagnose the action and get into position. In 3-4 defenses at least one outside linebacker is the designated pass rusher. This player typically serves the same role as the weak side defensive end in a 4-3 alignment and should have similar attributes with the ability to play standing up.
Athleticism Being forced to diagnose the action, identify the proper assignment, and make a play requires incredible athleticism. It can’t be coached. The best linebackers are freakish athletes.
Speed Linebackers have to get in position in order to make a play. That position could be anywhere on the field and they need to get there quickly. Linebackers that are a step slow in college typically don’t play on Sunday’s.
Intelligence When playing linebacker it all comes down to how quickly a player can identify his assignment on a play. All to often freelancing college players or great athletes that don’t study find themselves a half step away from making a big play.
Middle Linebacker - The classic linebacker is a tall muscle bound tough guy that has no problems hitting and getting hit on every play. Rarely does a play go by where a middle linebacker is physically engaged. They need to be strong, quick, and have good size in order to hold up to the punishment they take on a regular basis. The middle linebacker also needs to play with a frantic (though controlled) energy and a nasty disposition. As the center of the defense the middle linebacker needs to establish the tone for the defense at all times. In pass coverage situations the middle linebacker needs to have the ability to get deep in his drops to control the center of the field so that the safeties can support the deep sideline zones.
Key Attributes - Physical Nature, Strength, Energy
Weak Side Linebacker - The weak side linebacker needs to be a jack of all trades. He’ll have pass coverage responsibilities against running backs and will frequently be asked to drop deep in zone coverages. Since the weakside linebacker frequently isn’t blocked on strong side running plays (and most NFL teams run heavily to the strong side - he needs to be able to move quickly along the line of scrimmage and wrap up the ball carrier. Sure tackling is a must and the weak side linebacker will frequently find himself making plays in space. He must be able to consistently wrap up the ball carriers without assistance.
Key Attributes - Speed, Athleticism, Tackling
Strong Side Linebacker - Tall and lean with the strength to take on blockers and the speed to get around them the strong side linebacker must also have adapted the ability to cover tight ends or slot receivers in man coverage. Strong side linebackers tend to be tall and almost lanky. They’ll face off with tight ends, offensive tackles and guards in the running game and need to be able to quickly shed those blocks. In the passing game they frequently will find themselves matched up in man coverage as opposing offencive coordinators look to exploit them with a pass catching tight end. Having the athleticism to move down field and still be able to make a play on the ball is essential.
Key Attributes - Strength, Length, and Coverage ability
Pass Rushing Linebackers - The pass rushing linebacker is all about one thing, getting to the quarterback. Playing from a stand up position just wide of the offensive tackle the pass rushing linebacker needs to have excellent speed and quickness. The best of these players also typically have the strength to mix in a bull rush - or other inside move - on occasion. Length is important in these players as it allows them precious inches when they get close to a quarterback under duress. Since rushing the passer is his only responsibility the rush linebacker needs a quick first step off the ball and the ability to hit top speed quickly. The first 10 yard split in the 40 yard dash time is the most useful metric for this position. The eyeball test is also telling. THis quarterback sack specialist needs to have a relentless desire to get to the quarterback.
Key Attributes - Explosion, Speed, Relentless Energy