One of the interesting evaluations for the upcoming NFL draft is how to assess the hybrid defensive players at the safety-linebacker position.
Last season, St. Louis and Arizona buttressed their run defense by using former safeties closer to the line of scrimmage and had Mark Barron and Deone Bucannon essentially playing as linebackers.
The Falcons, who released strong safety William Moore over the offseason and are revamping their linebacker unit, have scouted several players who fit the linebacker/safety hybrid role including LSU’s Deion Jones.
“There are quite of few of them that are playing in college right now due to the fact that in the college game there are quite a few teams that list three wide receivers in their starting lineup,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “I did a study to ask how many (teams) still list a fullback among their starters. It’s a very low number in college. Less than 20, for sure.”
In addition to holding a private workout for Jones, the Falcons also had USC safety Su’a Cravens in for a visit and held a private workout for Florida safety Keanu Neal.
The hybrid linebacker/safety must be strong against the run and be able to cover running backs and tackle in the open field. In Seattle, Quinn had strong safety Kam Chancellor, who was used as a linebacker at times.
“In the college game, they are more spread out,” Quinn said. “They are more open. You’re seeing more space players come out, who are the 215-, 225-pound linebackers who are outside and playing in space. Those players, we are finding ways to feature them at the NFL level as well because of their athletic ability.”
Tampa Bay drafted LSU’s Kwon Alexander, who listed at 6-2, 227 pounds, in the fourth round last season. He started 12 games and made the Pro Football Writers’ all-rookie team.
Barron revived his career with the Rams after being the seventh overall pick by Tampa Bay in the 2012 draft as a safety. The former Alabama star struggled in former coach Lovie Smith’s system and was traded for fourth- and sixth-round picks in 2014.
He thrived for the Rams last season while playing weakside linebacker.
“One of the reasons that Mark played so well, in my opinion, is because he’s a really good tackler,” Quinn said. “When you put a guy closer to the line, you better make sure that the tackling comes to light and it certainly did in his game.”
Barron started 12 of 16 games and made 76 tackles and had one sack.
The Falcons, under Mike Smith’s staff, coached Bucannon in the Senior Bowl in 2014. They liked him, but Arizona took him with the 27th pick in the draft. He’s listed as an inside linebacker/strong safety.
“And then the safety position, figuring that out, that’s been a hard thing for everyone, because safeties have to do so much more in terms of coverage as opposed to just being those big thumpers that just knock you over,” NFL Network’s Charles Davis said.
As more NFL teams are spreading the field and using three wide receivers, the defenses are trying to catch.
“The traits are the speed,” Quinn said. “To play zone defense you better have the ability to close in the short areas with quickness.”
This trend is expected to continue in the draft.
“So you’re still looking for the same basic set but what you’ve got to deal with, big guys inside, dealing with the run game, but you need linebackers that can stay on the field and run,” Davis said. “That’s why the smaller linebackers out of college are finding homes.”
There are a few schools of thought on how the hybrid linebackers fit around the league.
“In terms of how you build your defense, I don’t think there’s that one formula that exists,” said NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah. “You look at the Super Bowl as an example. You hear about building up the middle and that’s the way Carolina has done it. …Then you look at Denver who is built off the edges.”
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