(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: Inside Linebacker (4-3)
OVERVIEW: Regardless of whether a team opts to run a 3-4 or 4-3 defense, a consistent plug must be present in the middle of the huddle: a quarterbacking middle linebacker. In a 4-3, which the Patriots project to run in 2012, there are a number of candidates to hold down the fort in the middle, including captain Jerod Mayo. The 4-3 middle linebacker has become synonymous with a leadership role on defense, as he typically serves as the line of communication from sideline to huddle. He will also be involved in almost every play, and is responsible to handle a bevy of tasks as both a run and pass defender. In short, a 4-3 middle linebacker is a central cog in this defense, and must be a reliable pillar.
DESIRED TRAITS: Imperative traits for a 4-3 inside linebacker start with football intelligence, communication skills and tackling ability. A middle linebacker must be entirely in tune with the defensive calls, understand the scheme around him, and be able to dissect the offense’s plan as it evolves.
He also must be able to communicate, and not just the defensive call in the huddle. He must be active during the pre-snap shuffling that often takes place in the NFL, and be able to identify what the offense is showing him and what it might mean as it relates to a play call. A middle linebacker will help to identify the side of strength in the offensive formation, and will be in part responsible to communicate defensive checks (this is a collective effort as well).
A middle linebacker will find himself largely involved with the bulk of the plays that he is in for; that means an ability to tackle is paramount. We’ve stressed the importance of tackling throughout our linebacker portion of the scouting series, and it most certainly applies to middle linebackers. They must wrap-up, drive, and power through every tackle opportunity they receive.
From an athleticism standpoint, a middle linebacker must be functional. That is to say that regardless of what his time and metrics in various athletic tests suggest, he must prove on the field that he can roam sideline-to-sideline, drop into coverage (a middle linebacker is a pivotal middle-of-the-field player in Cover-2), and sniff plays out and bring runners down in the backfield. Laterally, he must be able to move without losing vision of the play in front of him and keep his head up while sorting through traffic; that requires terrific body control.
SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Linebackers are a staple on special teams, with the toughness, speed, strength, tackling ability and instincts to participate on all four core special teams units.
PATRIOTS TAKE: As was discussed in the 3-4 inside linebacker entry, the Patriots have three solid linebacker candidates who could project to play a starting role on the inside. Besides Mayo, both Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower exhibit many of the necessary skills needed to man the middle of a defense. For now, it remains unclear how the team will align within its base defense, but the three aforementioned players give New England both depth and front-line ability. Each offers a compelling package to start at the middle linebacker position.