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The NFL’s Linebacker Evolution

For decades, linebackers have had the same makeup: big, imposing presences in the middle of a defense. But as offenses have changed, the position’s physical profile has, too.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Being the first at anything is complicated. Deone Bucannon found that out the hard way. When the Cardinals drafted him 27th overall in 2014, he was a lifelong safety — a massive, bone-crushing safety, but a safety nonetheless. At 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, the former Washington State star figured to be the second coming of Seahawks soul-stealer Kam Chancellor. Then he got to Arizona.

During his rookie season, whenever the Cardinals went to their nickel defense, Bucannon would take the field at the “Money” position, a between-the-tackles role specifically designed for him. It meant that a first-round safety spent his entire first season at a spot traditionally classified as a linebacker. The football world reacted much like everyone at Hill Valley’s prom did when Marty McFly started shredding “Johnny B. Goode.” Excitement quickly turned to confusion. Bucannon was called a hybrid and a rover. But he couldn’t stand being called a linebacker.

“For me, [my position] isn’t a linebacker!” Bucannon, 23, exclaims. “That’s already set in stone, what the measurables of a linebacker are. I don’t have those same measurables. I’m a whole different person; I’m a whole different player.”

Last season, Arizona took its mad science beyond that. No matter the down or package, Bucannon was on the field, working between the tackles. He was now playing full time, but a year’s worth of linebacker snaps wasn’t enough to pry him from his old ways. This offseason, Bucannon trained with safeties. On game days, he warms up with them. It’s not about an identity crisis, he says. It’s about a shift in expectations.

“When you say ‘linebacker,’ people think that means I can’t cover receivers, I can’t do what a safety does,” Bucannon says. “I can do all those things. I don’t like limiting myself or putting myself in one category.”

Bucannon’s football idols weren’t built like the 250-pound Ray Lewis. They were built like Chancellor, Troy Polamalu, and Adrian Wilson — big-bodied safeties who made a living close to the line of scrimmage. “They gave me that path, for coaches to believe a guy with a little less size could go in the box and survive — actually, thrive — within a system,” Bucannon says. “I don’t think I’m the first one ever to do it. I might just be the first one to actually be at that linebacker spot permanently instead of going back and forth.”

And that’s the key. Plenty of box players in recent NFL history have checked in at 220 pounds. Until recently, though, we wouldn’t have labeled them as linebackers. In that respect, Bucannon’s reluctance to be categorized as one mirrors the league’s reluctance to make him one. When the need for smaller, more athletic, middle-of-the-field defenders began to swell, outdated thinking about the position’s physical profile often prevailed, causing coaches to balk at moving guys built like Bucannon there full time. Now, those walls have come down, and as the size of linebackers around the league shrinks, their value only continues to grow.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

NFL coaches say the change in thinking about linebackers started five or six years ago. Spread offenses were dominating college football, and the task for defensive coaches at that level was to find linebackers who could cover and tackle in the space created by this new, wide-open approach. “We started looking for guys who played skill positions or safety, and those were guys we actually looked to see if we could turn into linebackers,” says Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher, who served as a graduate assistant at North Carolina from 2007 to 2009.

The same challenge soon came to the NFL. When the Sauron-like eye of the spread shifted its gaze to the pros, the need for linebacker reimagination only intensified. Gone are offenses’ smashmouth, two-back, downhill-running days of old. Over the past 10 years, the emphasis on space has put the fullback on endangered species lists and given way to a shotgun-based, spread-out world. According to Football Outsiders data, 16.8 percent of the league’s offensive plays in 2011 were run with two backs; by last season, that figure had been cut to 8 percent. Even the packages that used to call for run-stopping responses no longer do. More offenses are mimicking teams like the Patriots and Saints, who often deploy their tight ends and running backs as makeshift wide receivers to present nightmare scenarios for three-linebacker defenses.

The game has evolved to a point where NFL defenses are forced to make a choice: adapt or risk being gashed by the array of new weaponry at an offense’s disposal. “From our standpoint, since the game has grown horizontally, we’ve had to incorporate the players who have the athletic ability and the speed to play on the perimeter,” says Panthers linebackers coach Al Holcomb. “That’s the philosophy that we have here.”

That line of thinking has helped produce leaner linebackers like Bucannon, Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David, and Jacksonville’s Telvin Smith. Two of Carolina’s starting linebackers — Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson — spent time at safety in college, but in Luke Kuechly, the team has found the perfect embodiment of the approach. Kuechly was known as a tackling machine when the Panthers took him ninth overall out of Boston College in the 2012 draft, but what’s made him one of the most valuable players in the league is his ability to wreak havoc in coverage. Both Holcomb and Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott say that starts with his uncanny ability to diagnose plays before the snap.

Kuechly’s signature moment last season came in front of a national TV audience on Thanksgiving. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo called an audible late in the first half, and Kuechly, almost like an overeager kindergartner who wants to be called on, frantically started waving his hand in the air. The rest of the Panthers defense followed suit, raising the roof in a way no human has unironically done in a generation. At the snap, Kuechly carried tight end Jason Witten up the seam while keeping his eyes on outside receiver Terrance Williams. He knew. When Romo released the ball, Kuechly undercut Williams’s route and bolted toward the end zone.

“He picks up tips and keys, all the way across the board, from offensive linemen, to receiver splits, to the running back’s eyes, to the quarterback’s body language,” Holcomb says. “When we prepare for an opponent, he does a fantastic job of looking for something to gain another 6 inches to get him closer to the play.”

Given Kuechly’s absurd athletic ability, the idea of him gaining any additional advantage seems unfair. Yet he finds them constantly. When asked if he’s ever seen a player who can identify an offense’s small ticks the way Kuechly can, Holcomb laughs. “No,” he says. “[Luke] is special.”

Typically, pass defenses have hinged on back-end players like cover corners and center-field safeties, but a guy with Kuechly’s ability to take away routes all over the field gives the Panthers flexibility throughout their defense. Before this spring, Carolina had not drafted a defensive back earlier than the fourth round since 2009. This year, only four teams will pay their safeties less than the combined $6 million that the Panthers are doling out to the position. Those types of concessions have allowed the franchise to compensate Kuechly and Cam Newton at market value while also remaining comfortably under the salary cap.

Even with Kuechly’s five-year, $62 million extension set to kick in next year, the financial freedom he brings has made him one the league’s most indispensable stars. Without racking up sacks or manning up no. 1 receivers, he transforms everything the Panthers defense can be, and in doing so, provides a blueprint for the impact an inside linebacker can have.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As a rookie, Bucannon was thrown into the linebacker fire right away, lining up at “Money” from the start of minicamp. The goal for then–Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was simple: If offenses were going to blur the lines between base and subpackages, he wanted his defense to do the same. Playing about 65 percent of snaps, Bucannon acquitted himself well, racking up 83 tackles, including two sacks, for a team that went 11–5.

Arizona’s stalwart 2014 showing earned Bowles a head-coaching job with the Jets, and as the newly promoted Bettcher evaluated his unit last August, he decided that his best starting 11 featured Bucannon playing linebacker — not just in subpackages, but every down. After the Cardinals’ first preseason game against the Chiefs last year, head coach Bruce Arians called Bucannon into his makeshift office at the Renaissance Glendale Hotel & Spa and asked him if he’d be willing to make the permanent change.

Larry Foote, who had been hired as one of Arizona’s linebackers coaches that February, was Bucannon’s teammate before becoming his instructor. Foote’s advice reflected his playing background, not his role as a coach. “[I said], ‘You’re a first-round pick. This is your career,’” Foote says. “‘Speak your mind. Don’t tell them what they want to hear. You tell them how you feel.’

“He told me with a straight face, ‘I don’t mind. I just want to be on the field.’”

Bettcher says any initial thoughts about designing fronts to help keep massive offensive linemen away from his new pocket linebacker didn’t last. “Deone’s a special player,” Bettcher says. “In my mind, I’m never worried about him getting his ass kicked.” The difficult part of the move, according to Bucannon, had nothing to do with size. The challenge to facing every type of formation was processing the reservoir of new material that came with them: pulling guards, moving gaps, reading pass sets. It was all foreign, and it was coming at him fast.

Last September, the Cardinals hosted the Saints in a Week 1 matchup against Drew Brees and Sean Payton — a tandem that helped make “Money” linebackers necessary in the first place. The Saints’ exotic route concepts and varied formations presented Bucannon with a perfect test, and Foote says his pupil aced it without trouble in the Cards’ 31–19 win. With that, Bucannon’s full-time transition to inside linebacker was complete.

Three weeks after the win over the Saints, the Cardinals hosted the Rams in what would go down as running back Todd Gurley’s explosion onto the NFL scene. But he wasn’t the only gem the Rams unearthed that day.

In the second half of St. Louis’s 24–22 win, Rams starting linebacker Alec Ogletree was carted off the field with an ankle injury that would force him to miss the rest of the season. As the Rams searched for an answer, they found unlikely inspiration in the undersized Arizona linebacker who had shot into the backfield to drag down Gurley more than once. “I’m sure at some point, when we were thinking of moving Mark Barron to linebacker for Alec, it was probably, ‘Well, Bucannon did it in Arizona, so let’s do it here,’” says Rams general manager Les Snead.

The Rams had acquired Barron before the 2014 trade deadline, but at the time the move was strictly about value. “Our thinking at that point was probably as simple as, ‘Hey, we’re going to give up a fourth-rounder. We’re probably not drafting a Mark Barron in the fourth round.’ So let’s do it,” says Snead. He exchanged fourth- and sixth-round picks for a former top-10 selection who had just turned 25.

Barron, who is 6-foot-2 and 213 pounds, got some work in subpackages during his first season in St. Louis, but with Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald at safety, he was largely relegated to spot duty. All of that changed after Ogletree went down. For the first time in his career, Barron took on a full-time linebacking job, knifing into backfields as part of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’s scheme and helping the Rams’ front seven run amok on opposing offenses. He switched meeting rooms, and then he flourished, finishing the 2015 season with a career-high 116 tackles and three forced fumbles.

Early on, Snead made the same discovery that both Bettcher and Bucannon had during their experiment. The key to smaller linebackers surviving in a land of 330-pound giants isn’t taking them on in single combat; it’s anticipating movements to avoid combat altogether.

“Those guys seem to make their living not by getting off blocks, but by never getting blocked,” Snead says. “They’ve got to read things quickly so they can use their deficiency to their advantage.”

Barron’s chance for a payday came when his contract expired at the end of last season. He had several suitors — some asking him to play safety, others to reprise his new role — but he opted to stick with the franchise that had breathed new life into his career by putting him in an unfamiliar place. “I used to joke with him: ‘Mark, I don’t know what you are, but you’re a really good football player,’” Snead says. “‘So we’ll just call you a really good football player.’”

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Before Kuechly was taken in 2012, recent NFL drafts had been devoid of top-10 linebacker success stories. Aaron Curry, the fourth pick in 2009, washed out with the Seahawks after less than three seasons. Rolando McClain, the eighth pick in 2010, has stumbled through an embattled career with the Raiders and Cowboys. Linebackers seemed to be going the way of running backs — once the premier position on that side of the ball, now marginalized because the former prototype couldn’t fulfill the modern game’s new, wide-ranging obligations.

“Just from my personal view, the running back has changed and evolved over the past 10 or so years,” says Jaguars linebackers coach Robert Saleh. “The Danny Woodheads, all those shifty backs. The linebacker, from an evolution standpoint, hasn’t evolved as quickly as the running back has. It’s just now, in my mind, where the linebacker is starting to catch up with the running back again. That’s kind of what was lacking over the past 10 years.”

That correction is finally happening, as the decision to get more nimble at the position has spawned hybrids like Bucannon and Barron. But there are some players not beholden to any sort of linear evolution, and they look like the 6-foot-1, 245-pound, cover-everything-that-moves Myles Jack.

In Jack and Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith (6-foot-2, 223 pounds), the 2016 draft class featured two of the best linebacker talents to come along in years. The only concerns about them before the draft had to do with health. Jack tore his meniscus last September, and the fear this April was that he might have a degenerative knee problem that could shorten his career. Smith, meanwhile, was reportedly suffering from nerve damage that might cost him his rookie campaign. “If those two were completely healthy,” Saleh says, “they easily would have been top-five draft choices.”

Instead, both tumbled out of the first round. When Saleh and some of the other Jacksonville assistants saw the Jaguars trade up toward the top of the second round, they knew why. Saleh wanted Jack with the fifth pick; the Jags managed to snap him up 31 picks later. “For us,” Saleh says, “it was one of those moments, like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

For a linebackers coach in 2016, landing Jack is like stumbling onto a leprechaun riding a unicorn. During his sophomore season at UCLA in 2014, Jack spent an entire game shadowing USC receiver and future Eagles first-round pick Nelson Agholor. That’s a task typically reserved for high-level cover cornerbacks. “He has old-school size with new-school speed and quickness,” Saleh says of Jack. “His combination of size, speed, athleticism, quickness, intelligence, instincts, all that … he’s tailor-made for this era of football.”

Jack may not have gone in the top five, but if he becomes the player many think he can be, it will further strengthen the idea that linebackers who don’t primarily rush the passer can have value similar to defensive linemen, QBs, and offensive tackles. Linebackers who can transcend packages and scheme are out there, and more of them may be on the way.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Any team would leap at the chance to have a healthy Myles Jack, but there aren’t many of those to go around. Cracking the coverage linebacker problem is going to require defenses to get creative in the same way that the Cardinals and Rams were with Bucannon and Barron, only now that ingenuity is starting during the scouting process. For the first time, players like Barron aren’t perceived as scattered tweeners; they’re seen as having a distinct identity.

“When we’re meshing scouting with coaching, it’s, ‘Hey, look, does this guy fit the Mark Barron role?’” Snead says. “That’s kind of become a buzzword in our draft room already. It’s taking this handful [of prospects] — and it’s a handful right now — and going, ‘Look, he played safety in college, but he might be better suited to be a linebacker.’” One member of that handful this spring was former All-America and do-it-all USC defender Su’a Cravens.

Washington defensive coordinator Joe Barry, who was doing plenty of homework on Cravens before the draft, has connections to both the former Trojans star and players built like him. Barry’s first job as an NFL position coach came in Tampa Bay, where a lean, fast Bucs defense led by 235-pound linebacker Derrick Brooks was ahead of the schematic curve. Barry also worked as USC’s linebackers coach in 2010 and helped recruit the blue-chip Cravens to Los Angeles. As Barry pored over film from Cravens’s final year on campus, he recognized that while the 6-foot-1, 226-pounder’s best positional fit wasn’t immediately clear, his knack for being around the ball was. “He made just a shitload of plays, whether he was blitzing, whether he was playing the run, whether he was dropping into space making tackles or interceptions,” Barry says.

No matter how captivating a player’s skill set is, though, Washington’s front office won’t draft someone unless the staff has identified a role for him. That meant having a plan for Cravens from the moment he’d arrive in town. “I didn’t want to do one of those, ‘Let’s play him at safety one day, let’s play him at dime linebacker one day,’” Barry says. “A fricking 20-year-old kid that only played three years in college coming in. As instinctive and football-aware and football-savvy as Su’a is, I didn’t want to do that to him.”

Washington selected Cravens in the second round, 53rd overall, and in doing so, took the approach pioneered by the Rams and Cardinals a step further. Cravens won’t split his time between positions. At 226 pounds, he is going to become a full-time weakside linebacker.

For his part, Cravens knows his timing couldn’t have been better. He has squeezed through a tiny window made possible by football’s evolution. “I think I lucked out with the time that I came in,” he says. “Safeties that came in maybe two, three, four years ago that would have been perfect to play this position would have been considered a slow safety or a safety that can’t cover.” Now, because of players like Bucannon and Barron, they’re considered linebackers. And they can call themselves whatever they want. We’ll just call them the future.