Playing dominant defense in the NFL in 2018 means finding linebackers that are matchup-proof.
Versatile, tireless studs who come off the edge and provide blanketed coverage in one. Their value lies in the fact that an offense can never fully predict what their responsibility will be in all-important pre-snap reads. Since they can rush the passer, cover, and explode into the backfield, they have an advantage that becomes the difference in many game-changing plays. They’re a dimension of defenses that modern offensive coordinators aren’t able to consistently account for.
The best example of this type of versatile linebacker is the Vikings’ Anthony Barr, a three-time Pro Bowler and Mike Zimmer’s Swiss Army Knife. If Minnesota, one of the league’s top defenses, needs a crucial third-down stop, Barr is so well-rounded that he can fluidly drop back to take away a throwing lane, or pressure the quarterback from a standstill. Barr does this lined up from anywhere. He’s the cream of the crop for this archetype that other NFL teams are unsurprisingly looking to copy with better athletes.
By having the necessary speed and build at 6-foot-5 and 247 pounds, Barr’s defensive pliability comes full circle.
Luckily enough, there are linebackers in the Barr mold available in this 2018 draft class. Here’s a breakdown of a couple top names this April to carry this versatile mantle.
Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech
2017 Statistics: 108 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks
Weight: 250 pounds
The 2017 Butkus Award finalist, Edmunds is a hybrid dilemma because it’s difficult to determine where he’ll play in the NFL. Some consider him a better off-ball linebacker, as he’s drawn comparisons to Brian Urlacher with his sideline-to-sideline tackling and coverage capabilities.
Others project a prolific edge rusher that can potentially get after the passer at a premium level, despite having never done it at the college level full time — especially someone who didn’t put his hand in the ground when blitzing.
A creative defensive coordinator will invest in both ends of the pool. Edmunds as a pro won’t be defined in a set fashion.
Here’s a demonstration of Edmunds, the octupus-armed pass rusher, against No. 2 Clemson — the top competition Virginia Tech played last year.
Late in the play clock, the Hokies’ defense shifts over, so Edmunds (No. 49) gets to line up over the right side unblocked. As soon as the ball’s snapped, Edmunds doesn’t bite on the play fake. When he recognizes the quarterback rolling out, he breathtakingly goes from 0-100 in two strides.
What’s key is that Edmunds, as the last edge defender, is in the quarterback’s face before he’s able to set his feet. And without breaking contain. That forces an early throw into good coverage and no other damage is done. All because Edmunds reacted well at the jolt of a gun. A solid show of much of his pass-rush experiences.
To demonstrate Edmunds when stretched in coverage, we go to Virginia Tech’s 2017 game against West Virginia.
Second from the top right in man coverage here, when the ball’s snapped Edmunds flips his hips in an instant to cover the wheel route by the running back. Because of Edmunds’ smooth reaction, he uncannily stays stride for stride with his assignment. Linebackers aren’t supposed to run that gracefully.
With the quarterback looking left to start, Edmunds takes away his first and second read by sticking with his receiver and going across the quick slant throwing lane. His coverage essentially creates a coverage sack for fellow top prospect Tim Settle. A hidden result from a gifted athlete.
There’s concern with how the "tweener," Edmunds, translates to the NFL. Those concerns should wash away in part because Edmunds will only be 19 when he's drafted. In time, in the proper scheme, he’ll develop into the multi-faceted defensive nightmare he’s capable of becoming. If there was ever the apt Barr comparison, it’s Edmunds.
Lorenzo Carter, Georgia
2017 statistics: 62 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks
Weight: 243 pounds
A lanky strider in college, Carter reminds me of his former Georgia teammate, Leonard Floyd, whom the Chicago Bears selected No. 9 overall in 2016. Much like Floyd was as at Georgia, Carter was asked to lined up everywhere and anywhere.
Carter was most commonly seen on either defensive edge, or lined up in the slot zone. Despite lacking a diverse pass-rush repertoire (again, like Floyd), Carter excelled because he used his length well and because he had the wherewithal to flip his hips at a moment’s notice when dropping back. He’s not a full-time edge rusher, nor an off-ball linebacker in the NFL, and that’s important to distinguish.
One of Carter’s better games in 2017 was against Notre Dame. Let’s take a look at how Carter sets contain with tenacity as a run defender first.
On the bottom right of the screen, Carter (No. 7) crashes hard once he’s left unblocked on the power run. He understands there’s a pulling guard coming, none other than this draft’s top offensive line prospect in Quenton Nelson (No. 56).
Playing it to a tee, Carter doggedly splits Nelson and gains control of his inside shoulder to corral the Irish runner that’s following for no gain. Nelson eventually drives Carter into the ground, but by that point Carter’s already won. It’s not often you see Nelson lose to anyone.
Next, note Carter’s moves in coverage. The hips will never lie to you, even if they tried.
Lined up at the bottom of the field logo, the slot receiver breaks Carter’s bubble in zone. Carter doesn’t break a sweat to stay in line.
Once the quarterback moves through his progressions with the middle taken away, Carter switches gears and closes. In essence, he covers two-thirds of the intermediate area by himself back to the eventual target. An easy completion neutralized because of awareness and talent.
Finally, we test Carter’s pass-rush aptitude.
With Notre Dame driving in Georgia territory, the Irish leave Carter unblocked off their right side. Way too large of an oversight and a lesson learned. Carter hesitates for a moment, but the speed demon takes the fast track to get a strip-sack late in a tight game. That’ll do just fine.
Because of the releasing tight end and five-tech defensive end lined up over the right tackle, Notre Dame leaves no one to account for Carter. In an obvious passing situation, Carter urgently took the upper hand by the reins.
In Carter’s case, he’s going to have to add to his skinny frame. He’ll also have to improve technically — his hand use in particular — if he wants to flourish in the NFL. With the trajectory of Floyd in mind, patience is necessary for Carter to reach his immense ceiling. Whichever team makes the investment in him better be prepared to receive a high caliber jack-of-all-trades.