Finding Fit for Linebackers Increasingly Difficult

Posted Feb 24, 2013

Georgia LB Alec Ogletree will be one of the most debated picks in this year's draft. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images) 

INDIANAPOLIS – In a league of trends, there is perhaps none hotter right now than the evolution of the running quarterback and, accordingly, offense that best utilize the more athletic signal callers.

Perhaps no team can document that shift in offensive styles better than the Rams, a team in the NFC West pack that is faced with the task of taking on dynamic quarterbacks like Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick four times a year for the next decade or so.

The emergence of those two players as well as others such as Washington’s Robert Griffin III has teams re-thinking their defensive strategies as they approach free agency and this year’s NFL Draft.

“We studied it during the year,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “We don't have a lot of time. We played as best we could considering the amount of time we had and the ability level at the position. That's going to be an ongoing process for us. Obviously we feel like we sense for what we need to do and the type of players that need to be on the field when you've got that type of talent at the quarterback position.”

With that in mind, the Rams and everyone else in the league are taking a closer look at the prototypes of what they want at various positions. They’re also looking at what types of players will be on the field on a more regular basis.

As the NFL has turned to a more pass-oriented league, the value of cornerbacks has increased with two linebackers generally being the norm for most of the downs. But with running quarterbacks in run-oriented offenses like Seattle and San Francisco, the need for linebackers that can hunt and chase has only increased.

Even in places like Seattle, where Wilson gives the defense that run look every day in practice, they are looking for ways to combat the mobile quarterbacks and the zone read offenses that go with them.

“Well, everybody has to,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “We've forced the issue by these last couple years of football has forced the issue to be at hand for all the defensive staffs. Everybody has got to figure it out. Same way we had to do in college. If you guys remember, there were always these swings in college whether it was wishbone or the split back veer offense or the misdirection I formation option game. It always calls for the defense to catch-up. and that's kind of what we're doing right now. We have to catch up scheme-wise and make sure we're positioned and deployed properly. Everybody is working on that when you have a quarterback that's going to run.”

While there’s no definitive solution to slowing the athletic signal callers, there’s a strong belief that having talented cover corners who can go one on one against wideouts is part of the solution. That allows teams to account more for a quarterback’s propensity to take off.

Having an additional linebacker on the field, particularly for a 4-3 team, can be helpful but part of the problem is finding the types of linebackers who can keep up with the faster quarterbacks.

In NFL drafts of recent vintage, 4-3 outside linebackers with the combination of speed to keep up and size to take on blockers are increasingly difficult to find.

“Because of the nature of the college game now, the physical characteristics of the linebackers that are coming out is not necessarily what we need,” Fisher said. “You've got to develop. They're smaller. You see safeties now playing (linebacker) because of the speed and the multiplicity of the game. So when you talk about addressing the need at the linebacker position, there's typically not a lot of depth from year to year.”

That appears to be true again this year as the Rams head toward this draft in need of another athletic outside linebacker to complement the duo of middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and WIL linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar.

Veterans Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh filled the strong side role in 2012 but played limited roles as the Rams often found themselves in nickel and dime packages.

In five games against Washington, Seattle and San Francisco, the Rams had a third linebacker on the field for 208 of a possible 324 snaps or 64 percent of the plays. Wilson, Kaepernick and Griffin combined for 304 yards on 45 carries, an average of 6.75 yards per attempt.

McIntosh and Haggan are scheduled for unrestricted free agency this year and the Rams could look to try to decrease those numbers by adding another player capable of going sideline to sideline and perhaps adding some pass rush pop as well.

For the few true sideline to sideline outside linebackers entering the league this year, the timing could be quite beneficial for their draft stock.

That list includes guys like Georgia’s Alec Ogletree, Rutgers’ Khaseem Greene, Connecticut’s Sio Moore and Kansas State’s Arthur Brown.

There may be no more polarizing figure in this draft than Ogletree, who is one of the draft’s best pound for pound athletes and though he spent most of his college career at inside linebacker in a 3-4 projects as a natural fit outside in a 4-3.

Seeing the evolution of the running quarterback has Ogletree excited about his fit in the NFL.

“It makes me feel good,” Ogletree said. “I’m very comfortable with my skills. I think I’m very versatile. I can cover and come up against the run and hit. I can just fill the gap.”

But Ogletree’s status will be greatly altered by things that took place beyond the football field. He was suspended four games at the start of last season for failing a drug test and charged with theft as a freshman for stealing a motorcycle helmet.

Then, just last week, Ogletree was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. How he answers those questions will likely have more impact on his status than anything he will do working out here on Monday.

“Well, let's preface it by saying if he was clean off the field I'd be banging the table for a top 10 pick,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “So, teams value this kind of when you start talking about medical issues or off the field problems, you get a risk‑reward scenario, and every team is different with how they assign risk versus reward.”

For his part, Ogletree is just hoping to move past his issues and re-establish himself as one of the best players in the draft.

“It’s just. . . .everybody makes mistakes,” Ogletree said. “It was a bad decision at the time. But like I said, I talked to the teams and we had good discussions about it.”

While he doesn’t quite possess the size of Ogletree, perhaps a safer play might be a guy like Greene.

At 6’1, 234 pounds, Greene projects as a true WIL linebacker, the type who can run sideline to sideline and do well in coverage. He’d likely cause the Rams to move Dunbar to the strong side but he’s the type of athlete that could make sense.

As a converted safety, Greene believes he could play anywhere if need be.

“I could play anything,” Greene said. “If a coach told me to punt the ball, I’d learn how to do it, just to be successful and make a team. I can see myself playing Sam, Mike, Will — whatever coach needs me to do or wants me to do, I’m going to work my hardest to be the best at it.”

After posting 140 tackles, 14 for loss and 3.5 sacks in 2012 and playing well at the Senior Bowl, Mayock sees Greene as a potential first-round pick.

“If you're talking about the first round, I think Khaseem Greene, the outside linebacker from Rutgers makes a ton of sense,” Mayock said.  “He's fit for today's NFL.  He runs, he's explosive.  He makes plays.  Most will have him as a mid to late first round guy.”

Mayock notes that a player like Brown could also make sense as a second round choice cut from the same cloth as Greene.

On a different note, one of the draft’s most intriguing players is Ogletree’s former Georgia teammate Jarvis Jones.

Jones was one of the most dominant players in college football last year, posting 78 tackles and 12.5 sacks. Many believe he’s best suited as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense but his type of pass rush skills could make him appealing for any team.

The thing with Jones, of course, is a spinal stenosis condition that has some wondering how high he’ll go. For a team like the Rams who run a 4-3, it’d be interesting to see how they view someone like Jones should he fall.

Either way, Jones believes the team that gets him will be adding a difference-making talent.

“I feel like I’m an impact player,” Jones said. “I make plays. I love the game of football. I’m a great leader. Not so much a vocal leader, but showing.  I think I bring versatility to the team. I can play SAM linebacker. I can play WILL linebacker. I can play 4-3. I can play a 3-4. I’m just gonna get after you. I’m gonna get after the QB every play.”

In the pocket or out.