Let’s take a look at what the NFL looks for in outside linebackers. Today’s information comes from two very credible individuals when it comes to NFL personnel: the late, great, 3-time NFL Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Walsh, and Greg Gabriel, a gentleman with nearly 30 years of experience scouting for multiple NFL teams.
Let’s get it.
The Two Types of Outside Linebackers
It’s a little more complicated to breakdown what the NFL looks for in the outside linebacker position, because there’s so many different types. You have strong outside backers, and weak outside backers. And you have different types of weak outside backers, even.
Weak side outside linebackers
Walsh explains in his article that the weak side backer breaks down into two subcategories: a pass-rushing and pursuit-coverage OLB’s.
Pass-rushing weak OLB. Walsh points-out Lawrence Taylor as the standard in this category, and elaborates on the pass-rushing weak OLB’s job description:
The pass rush combination guy is going to be primarily a pass rusher and then a run defender. He is a zone drop defender. Rarely will he cover man to man because coaches should not ask him to.
That profile is of the quickest, fastest, large enough man to play this position. He can sell out as long as he works in relationship with the defensive end in combination.
He continues explaining the pass-rushing weak OLB as a guy that has to know how to deal with offensive tackles, that can be up to 100 pounds heavier than themselves.
He also points out that the pass-rushing weak OLB has to understand the importance of leverage, because in order to succeed against bigger, stronger tackles, they have to use leverage to get underneath them.
OLB’s have to be able to continue with pursuit towards the quarterback after they engage with the tackle, and the only way to do that is to use leverage against them.
Finally, he points out that pass-rushing weak OLB’s have to be strong, because they have to be able to regroup after getting blocked and continue to work towards the ball regardless.
Pursuit-coverage weak OLB. The pursuit-coverage weak OLB’s main job is lateral pursuit of the running back in running plays. Walsh explains his ideal pursuit-coverage weak OLB:
…he must be able to function in space. Yet when he does pursue he can’t get knocked around by blockers. He has to have enough strength to go across the face of a lineman to get to the ball.
Strong outside linebackers
Walsh speaks on what he looked for in strong side outside linebackers:
He should be larger than the weak side outside linebacker, about 6-4, 250. He must have the hands and the range to hold up the tight end and to wade through the fullback, or whoever is blocking, to get to the ball. This strong side linebacker must be able to hold the edge of the defense.
These guys have to be strong enough to stand their ground against fullbacks and tight ends. They also have to be able to win battles against running backs that try to block him in pass protection. Walsh goes on to explain that in the past, the strong OLB wasn’t needed in coverage much, but in defenses that cover him up with a defensive lineman, one of his main duties are to do well in pass coverage.
Now let’s take a look at the skills scouts look for in all outside linebackers regardless of whether they play or the weak side.
Personality: Strong leader and nasty disposition. Gabriel on the importance of these two personality traits:
…look at Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Carl Banks, Pepper Johnson, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. These are all players I’ve been around in my years scouting with the Giants and the Bears. All were/are very smart guys who can lead verbally and by example and are extremely aggressive players. Their ability to make big plays with big hits has a way of motivating a team.
Quick hands and blocker anticipation. Linebackers hang their hat on the number of tackles they get, and Gabriel says that in order to shed blocks, a linebacker must be able to anticipate blocks and have quick hands.
Instincts. Gabriel feels this is the most important trait, and he explains why:
He has to be able to read quickly while on the move and get to the ball. In most cases, the leading tackler on a defense is a linebacker and while many linebackers have a lot of tackles, you want those tackles to be made at or near the line of scrimmage, not down field.
Ability to shed blocks. Simply put, in his article, Gabriel says that he can tell whether or not a linebacker has the ability to shed blocks well by looking at the number of tackles they’ve accumulated:
If a linebacker has a high number of tackles that means he has the ability to shed blocks quickly.
Ability to tackle. We don’t really need to elaborate on this one, do we?
Explosion/burst. Linebackers need to have the explosion to cover tight ends and running backs in pass coverage, and last, but certainly not least, to inflict pain and fear in the minds and hearts of ball carriers.
Hands. As a linebacker, you’re often called to drop back in coverage, and it helps if you can catch the ball when it’s in your vicinity.
Pass coverage skills. Linebackers have to be able to cover and tackle running backs and tight ends, regardless of whether they’re being asked to play man or zone coverage.
Observing the Skills In-Action
James Harrison, of the Pittsburgh Steelers is asked to drop back into coverage quite a bit in zone blitzes. Obviously his pass-coverage is a major reason why they use him so much in that aspect.
Check out his interceptions at the :53 and 1:00 marks in the video. He moves like a defensive back in coverage, and is very comfortable catching the ball.
Now I don’t know much about the James Harrison in the leadership department, but he definitely has the nasty disposition you want to see in a linebacker. I don’t think many people can deny that.
James Harrison is about as explosive as they come at the outside ‘backer position. On the first play of the video, he misses the quarterback on his first try, but is able to get to near full-speed in just two steps as he motors to the quarterback. That’s explosion.
Tackling isn’t a problem for James Harrison. He tallied 100 tackles during the 2010 season, which is a hell of an accomplishment for a pass-rushing outside linebacker.
I think James Harrison might be the best outside linebacker in the game right now. The only other guy I think might be on his level is the guy we’re featuring in part 2. Stay tuned.
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Gabriel’s Scouting Linebackers article at the National Football Post.
NFL Scouts Grading Criteria – Linebacker from sportznutz.com.