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Evaluating Draft Prospects 101: OLBs

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Buffalo's Khalil Mack will find work as an NFL outside linebacker, whether it be in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. Photo by David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty Images.
Buffalo's Khalil Mack will find work as an NFL outside linebacker, whether it be in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. Photo by David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty Images.

Editor's Note: This week, we will launch a series of features designed to teach fans what to look for when watching game film and evaluating prospects at different positions. Through YouTube, DVRs, sites like Draftbreakdown.com and other digital technologies, fans have access to game broadcasts that they can utiize in ways similar to what scouts, coaches and GMs do with game film. It's important to see the intangible factors that unfold over the course of a game, to watch how players perform when they are under duress. Highlights provide a limited snapshot of talent and ability, and they often obscure the question marks and effort cues that NFL teams look for in the evaluation process. We will look at every position group between now and draft time and focus on some of the main things that scouts and GMs from the NFL look at in determining a prospect's draftability. Today, we focus on scouting 4-3 OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS.

The outside linebacker position has become more and more specialized in this era of football. You have 4-3 outside backers defending the weak side of the formation or the strong side of the formation. You have 3-4 outside linebackers that could work as a fourth rusher or in coverage. Each of these positions within the defense requires a different skill set, with some skills crossing over to the other in the respective defensive schemes.

For this installment of our series, we will look at the outside linebacker position for the 4-3 defense. The criteria scouts use has been streamlined to help you develop a keen eye in studying draft prospects. The four criteria we will use are:

  1. Physical Attributes
  2. Instincts
  3. Positional Skills
  4. Intangibles

Physical Attributes

These measureable traits are what most armchair fans use in determining the value of a draftable prospect. Height, weight and athletic traits are the common statistics fans have access to from traditional media coverage. But size for the linebacker position is not as vital as long as the player is productive; if a team takes a chance on a “project,” they tend to get guys with size. The toughest things for a fan to determine that scouts look at are the frames of prospects. If they are tall but light, they can always add weight to prospect with a good frame.

Fans will watch the Combine and evaluate speed based on the reported 40-yard dash time. As much as scouts utilize the timed 40s for verification purposes, they will want to evaluate the “game speed” with pads using game film. One trick scouts use to evaluate film speed is measuring the number of strides per five yards. Two strides per five yards indicates excellent speed; two-and-a-half strides indicates good speed. Some positions are easier to determine than others, but with most skill positions, you can find film that helps evaluate speed.

When trying to determine strength, fans will use the Combine bench press numbers to get an idea of strength, whereas scouts want to determine a player’s functional strength. Functional strength refers to the player’s ability to apply force (which, of course, is developed in the weight room) into the movement necessary to be successful on the football field.

One way to evaluate a linebacker’s functional strength like a scout is to see how he plays through blocks. Does he neutralize opponents at the line of scrimmage? Can he at least stalemate an offensive lineman he's giving away 60-70 pounds to? Is he able to use an opponent’s body to make plays?

Another element of functional strength is his force on a tackle. Does the linebacker explode into ballcarriers, stopping their momentum, or is he knocked back by the offensive player on contact? Strength is far more specific in application than what many fans realize.

Speed and size are not indicative of athletic ability, though they are commonly misapplied in determining athletic prowess. It’s through tape study that you can also develop the eye to gain a better understanding of athletic ability needed to be a successful NFL linebacker. 

Change of direction, for instance, is vital for linebackers. It is a position that will need to re-direct and adjust to the ball movement quickly. One of the key aspects in determining change of direction is the ability to bend at the hips and knees. A question you can ask as you watch is whether the athlete bends at the waist or knees. Having good knee flexibility is important in determining athletic ability. A player who has trouble changing direction may have “stiff hips,” limiting his capacity to change direction. Essentially what an athlete can or cannot do on the field is a critical part of evaluating his athletic ability.

Each outside linebacker position has specific positional attributes each team will be looking for. The Will linebacker aligns weak side for the most part based on scheme. It is a position that values speed over size. The position will look at strong safety body types for this position. The Sam aligns strong side in most 4-3 defenses. Teams will look for bigger and stronger body types who can align at the L.O.S. across from TEs. A prospect that has blitz and pass rush ability are sought after in this position.

Instincts

The next aspect of the evaluation process is determining instincts of a linebacker prospect. A lot of this evaluation is done during meetings and chalk talk sessions with respective NFL execs, which most of us won't have access to. Typical fans may use tackling statistics as an indicator of instincts, but that only tells a part of the story.

How a player aligns to a formation provides key clues. Does he align quickly? Does he look at other players for assistance in getting aligned? As you watch the play unfold, does the prospect move fluidly with flow action? If he moves opposite flow, it may indicate a lack of discipline in his keys.

While in coverage, will the backer jump shorter routes as the QB throws to a receiver that is deeper and directly behind him? This may be an indicator to the lack of understanding zone concepts.

A blitzing linebacker may make a lot of negative yardage plays, but that may not be indicative of his football IQ. As you watch a blitzer, you want to determine whether the player is disguising his intentions. Does he time his blitzes? Will he make his approach off offensive motions? These subtle keys are the tools a smart player will use and ways a viewer can determine his level of instincts.

As a run defender, every linebacker has a “gap” responsibility they need to defend. Primarily, the nearest uncovered or open gap the linebacker is aligned over will be his responsibility. How quickly the prospect defends his gap when threatened by an offensive player is critical in determining his run instincts. As you watch film, you will see linebackers attack an open gap and “run through." It appears to the naked eye that the linebacker timed a blitz perfectly, but this may be an indicator of his tremendous run instincts. Linebackers that are on point with their keys and reads will fly through the L.O.S. and make a play in the backfield. This was a strength for Manti Te’o during the 2013 draft evaluations. Linebackers who have this ability are few, so finding them and drafting them is vital for NFL defenses.

As a pass defender, the range a prospect shows will be aided by his athletic ability. Some linebackers with limited athletic ability may still be viable pass defenders with a good understanding of the offensive pass schemes. As a fan watches the game, you want to determine whether the coverage is man or zone. If it is zone, and you witness a linebacker driving hard to cover a man running through his zone and giving up a route behind him, that may indicate a lack of understanding of the zone coverage concept. When its man coverage, it’s pretty straightforward, yet we will watch an offensive player run free because a lack of focus on keys allowed him to get open.

It is also important to understand the type of coverage preferred by a team. Some zone coverage schemes are known as landmark quarterback key. Once pass is determined, the linebacker will key the QB once he arrives at a given landmark on the field. They will work within their respective zone areas, keying the QB shoulders. This style is prevalent in Tampa 2 schemes.

Another form is a progression concept where the linebacker has a predetermined threat he needs to identify, which for most OLBs is the second offensive threat counting from the outside of the formation in. As a threat enters and leaves his zone area, he will spot up the next #2 as they enter and leave zones. This concept will appear at times to seem like man coverage. Once a player enters a zone area, the defender will match up and defend the player through the zone until he passes it off looking for the next threat.

Positional Skills

Tackling is much more than the big hits highlighted on ESPN. Much of the skill of tackling takes place in the open field, and it is a job requirement that if not mastered will lead to short NFL career for any linebacker.

The ability to play in space is critical for an outside linebacker. Athletic ability, such as change of direction and acceleration, are key factors in the open field, but so is the proper mentality. Players who are aggressive tend to be better open-field tacklers. Aggressive refers to the attitude in approach rather than the attitude at contact. A defender who is aggressive on approach, someone not slowing down and closing the distance between him and the ballcarrier, will fair far better than a player who, on approach, will wait to see the offensive player catch a ball or make his cut with a couple yards of space between them. In the NFL, when a defender is face to face with an offensive skill player in the open field, the cliché goes: If he’s even, he’s leavin', and usually for a huge gain.

Scouts also evaluate a player’s ability to use their hands, not only to tackle but to fend off blockers. Does the linebacker gain leverage against a blocker relative to the ballcarrier? Does he have good body position (low)? Can he get separation on contact? A linebacker cannot use his functional strength if he plays too high, and if he cannot get separation, he runs the risk of being held, which happens virtually every play. Once he gets separation, can he shed the blocker? Linebackers who are block magnets and are unable to shed offensive lineman have short careers. Studying how a Linebacker can position himself to gain and maintain leverage against the offensive lineman is important; a linebacker getting caught up too much with an offensive player blocking him may also be an indicator of his poor instincts.

The ability to blitz is another skill that NFL scouts will evaluate heavily. Once the ball is snapped, a linebacker is be faced with defeating an offensive lineman or running back in a one-on-one situation. Can the prospect avoid and shed blockers? Is he able to use speed and athletic ability in defeating an offensive lineman? Once he wins, how quickly does he close on the QB? That burst in closing speed once after beating a blocker could be the difference in draft status. Watching a backer bend and dip under an offensive lineman naturally is a key trait in good pass rushers.

The last positional skill scouts evaluate is pursuit ability. Naturally, a player with 4.5 speed has the requisite ability to run down most players. Scouts will watch closely to see whether or not a prospect plays at that speed on every snap. As you watch film, ask yoursel whether the defender runs and then suddenly accelerates once the play breaks loose, or whether he is running full speed throughout. Evaluating these subtleties is critical in determining the consistent effort NFL teams expect from a player. The motivation to run down an offensive player is part athletic ability, part instinct in knowing the proper angle, and part determination to make the play.

Intangibles

Intangibles are far more subjective in evaluating, even for scouts, though they have the advantage to speak directly with coaches, administrators and others who may have better insight into a prospect's traits. Observing the competitive nature of a player is more than the bravado we witness on TV; at times, players will put on a show when they know the camera's on.

Watch how player’s demeanor changes after a bad play. Does he carry himself with his chin high, or does he slump in his posture? This could be an indicator of self-confidence. How does he react when a coach confronts him? How does he react to a teammate confronting him during a game? These interactions give us insight to the mental intangibles a player may possess.

Watching how a player plays in the clutch, the physical intensity he plays the game with, are qualities scouts desire and things we as fans can observe and notate.