- Field Yates, ESPN Insider
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(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)
POSITION: Outside linebacker (4-3)
OVERVIEW: On the surface, it may seem that an outside linebacker is an outside linebacker, with little deviation in terms of skill sets and responsibilities. As it turns out, that's not so much the case, as we profiled the 3-4 outside linebacker Sunday before turning our attention to a 4-3 outside linebacker, whose role and physical skills don’t necessarily mirror that of a 3-4 scheme player. A 4-3 linebacker, for starters, normally aligns off of the line of scrimmage, in what is known as a bubble formation (roughly 3-5 yards off the ball). It also involves a different type of player: While a 3-4 outside linebacker often makes his headlines with sacks, a 4-3 linebacker must be stronger moving sideline-to-sideline. Further diversifying the position is the fact that a strongside outside linebacker in a 4-3 and a weakside outside linebacker in a 4-3 adopt different roles. The strongside player aligns to the side of the offense’s strength (i.e. to the tight end side), and is a block-taking edge-setter. The weakside linebacker, by comparison, is often responsible for scraping over the top of the play in front of him and cleaning up on tackles, while also maintaining leverage to prevent cutback runs.
DESIRED TRAITS: All three linebackers in a 4-3 scheme are going to be accountable to make a bevy of tackles, meaning the first trait to be observed in an outside linebacker is his ability to wrap, fit and drive through tackles. An average or even slightly unreliable tackler is not a good thing for a defense, and linebackers must be dependable on an every-down basis.
Additionally, a 4-3 outside linebacker must have the range and lateral agility to move sideline to sideline. This involves open his hips, running sideways, and at times side-shuffling while engaged in a block. His ability to string plays outside and close the gap on perimeter runs is paramount.
As is also the case with all linebackers, it must be determined how much of an anchor an outside linebacker has -- as in, can he engage a blocker, not give ground and shed the blocker in order to make a tackle? If a 4-3 outside linebacker is not a bigger player (it’s not uncommon to see them in the form of 230 pounds), he must have unique athleticism to work around blocks while not taking himself out of the play.
All linebackers are responsible to play pass coverage, but outside linebackers in a 4-3 need to have both reactive athleticism to match receivers in man coverage, and instincts and smarts to play zone. Playing man involves the ability to work backward, an understanding of leverage, and the physicality to jam at the line of scrimmage. Zone play involves finding his spot, keeping leverage on the quarterback, and having the anticipation skills to drive on the ball.
Weakside linebackers in particular need to be fast, as their duties will often involve working from the far side of the field right into the thick of the action. An inability to be a factor on a slow-developing play away from his alignment will render a weakside outside backer ineffective.
SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Linebackers are accountable to be core special teams players, with the toughness, speed, instincts and tackling ability to stand out in the kicking game.
PATRIOTS TAKE: In drafting Dont'a Hightower at No. 25 overall, the Patriots found a player whom many viewed as a great fit for the team’s defensive principles. What is less clear, however, is what role precisely he will play and how that could affect Brandon Spikes. With Rob Ninkovich having moved to a role that seems to involve aligning most commonly as a defensive end, the door has been opened for a potential trio of Spikes, Hightower and captain Jerod Mayo as the starters. Hightower and Mayo, given their versatility and athleticism, would seem like more natural fits as weakside linebackers in favor in Spikes. Beyond those three, other outside linebackers of note are veteran Bobby Carpenter (whom Bill Belichick spoke positively of this offseason) and youngsters Dane Fletcher and Jeff Tarpinian, each of whom played both a defensive and special teams role in 2011. Linebacker is a position that appears will be sorted out more comprehensively during training camp when the pads come on, but the Patriots have three solid contributors who will likely lead the way.