Who’s the NFL player every middle linebacker to strive to become? Which space-eater is the ideal 3-4 nose tackle?
In this two-part series, I’ll outline the “prototypes” for every spot on the field, model competitors who have reached the pinnacle of their respective position. For a draft-related twist, I’ve added 2014 rookies who are candidates to develop into “prototypes” in the future.
Let’s start with defense.
(Note: I was as scheme and position specific as possible.)
4-3 Defensive End – Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams
Once a somewhat surprising Top 15 pick, Robert Quinn erupted in 2013 with 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles en route to the Pro Football Writers of America Defensive Player of the Year Award. At 6’4” and around 265 pounds, the former North Carolina Tar Heel has classic 4-3 defensive end size.
Although his pass-rushing prowess will always be the flashiest part of his game, Quinn excelled against the run last season—Rob Ninkovich and Michael Johnson were the only 4-3 defensive ends who received higher run-stopping grades from Pro Football Focus.
Quinn converts speed to power better than any edge defender in the NFL and is only 24 years old.
All 4-3 defensive ends should strive to play as productively and with as much controlled fury as the St. Louis Rams All-Pro.
Candidate From 2014 Draft Class: Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders
In Oakland’s 4-3 alignment, Khalil Mack should play a significant amount of snaps at defensive end, a spot that’ll provide him the opportunity to showcase his diverse pass-rushing skills.
During his time at the University at Buffalo, Mack was extremely comfortable in multiple front-seven positions, crashing inside on runs and when asked to drop into coverage. But his movement ability, strength, balance and burst off the snap lend credence to the idea that double-digit sack seasons will be the norm for the No. 5 overall pick.
4-3 Defensive Tackle – Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals
Most of the NFL’s better, more “advanced” and consistent quarterbacks have the refined ability to drift forward in the pocket to subtly avoid menacing pass-rushers flying around the corner.
(Drew Brees’ sack-avoiding movement is truly an art form.)
But just about every signal-caller gets overtaken with terror when faced with pressure up the middle.
That’s precisely how Geno Atkins makes his money—disrupting timing and rhythm from the interior.
Coming out of Georgia in 2010 at 6’1″ and 293 pounds, many believed Atkins was too small to play defensive tackle in a 4-3 alignment.
But now, his blend of “diminutive” size , sudden footwork and low-center-of-gravity power is viewed as the exemplary combination of attributes for the position. His “lack” of height and bulk helps him squeeze between offensive linemen to penetrate the opponent’s backfield on a regular basis.
An injury cut his 2013 season short after only nine games, but since the start of 2012, Atkins has accumulated 112 quarterback pressures in 27 contests, per Pro Football Focus, which equates out to a whopping 4.14 pressures per game. His average is better than Ndamukong Suh’s during that span.
Candidate From 2014 Draft Class: Aaron Donald, St. Louis Rams
Early on in the pre-draft process, like Atkins, many believed Donald was “too small” to be an first-round pick. Then, after an absolutely dominating Senior Bowl led most of those naysayers back to the film room, the consensus on the University of Pittsburgh stud changed dramatically.
Donald weighed in at a shade under 6’1″ and 285 pounds at the combine—pretty close to Atkins’ measurables four years prior.
Due to a sculpted upper body, continuous leg drive and nimble footwork, Donald lived in the backfield during his collegiate career.
Don’t be surprised that continues in the NFL while playing on the loaded St. Louis Rams defensive line.
4-3 Middle Linebacker – Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers first-round pick in 2012 began his professional career at weakside linebacker and just wasn’t comfortable. Midway through his rookie campaign, he kicked inside to middle linebacker, and he’s thrived ever since.
A plus athlete with lightning-fast play-recognition awareness and fundamental tackling expertise, Kuechly is one of those “always around the football” defenders.
While he’s a better run-stuffer and blitzer at this stage of his NFL career than he is dropping into zone coverage or running with tight ends down the seam, there aren’t many cracks in his game.
In all likelihood, the more he plays, the more stout he’ll become as a pass defender, which is a scary thought.
Candidate from 2014 Draft Class: Preston Brown, Buffalo Bills
Surprised? Well, hear me out. For this selection, there wasn’t a better prospect-to-position-and-scheme fit in the 2014 class. Preston Brown didn’t receive the media attention of C.J. Mosley or Ryan Shazier in 2013, mainly because he played on a Louisville team with a relatively soft schedule.
In fact, those who paid attention to the Cardinals games likely spent most of their time watching Teddy Bridgwater run the team’s offense.
At 6’1″ and 251 pounds, Brown has NFL middle linebacker size and bulk. According to SportsReference.com, he made 291 total tackles over the past three years, 98 of which game during his senior campaign. Brown also racked up 12.5 tackles for loss in 2013.
He’s already a heady, authoritative run-stuffer and blitzer. The athleticism is there for him to hold his own in coverage, much like Kuechly.
4-3 Weakside Linebacker – Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In many NFL defenses today, the most versatile and impactful linebacker plays on the weakside. That’s undoubtedly the case in Tampa Bay with Lavonte David.
Drafted in the second-round in 2012 out of Nebraska, David’s as fluid as they come flowing to the football and plays with a calculated urgency that equates to an abundance of tackles, quarterback pressures, sacks and tackles for loss.
His +14.6 Pro Football Focus coverage grade in 2013 trailed only Thomas Davis among 4-3 outside linebackers, and only Akeem Ayers racked up more quarterback pressures.
David’s just 24 years of age and isn’t limited by his frame at 6’1″ and 233 pounds. He’s active enough to avoid blockers or beat them to the corner, and his strength allows him to shed blocks with decent regularity as well.
According to SportingCharts.com, David finished his second season with 21 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Only J.J. Watt and Robert Quinn recorded more.
Candidate From 2014 Draft Class: Kevin Pierre-Louis, Seattle Seahawks
Watch Kevin Pierre-Louis at Boston College, and you’ll get flashbacks of Lavonte David at Nebraska.The “undersized” speed demon routinely drifts gracefully to the football and lays the lumber more often than not.
Per SportsReference.com, KPL amassed 108 total tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss as a senior for the Eagles.
With outside linebackers Malcolm Smith and K.J. Wright both unrestricted free-agents at the end of the 2014 season, expect to see an ultra-athletic starting linebacker tandem of KPL and Bobby Wagner in 2015 and beyond in Seattle’s 4-3 front.
4-3 Strongside Linebacker – Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Von Miller is, without question, the most prolific pass-rushing strongside linebacker in the NFL, and it certainly can be argued that he’s the best pure pass-rusher in the game today.
Some 4-3 strongside linebackers are a bit heavier than the Denver Broncos star, who weighs around 245-250 pounds. However, his innate ability to dip sharply around the edge with magnificent speed has made him an ominous presence for offensive linemen and quarterbacks.
Remarkably, Miller, who’s amassed 35 sacks in 40 career NFL games, is a phenomenal run defender. He’s graded as Pro Football Focus’ top run-stopping 4-3 outside linebacker in each of his three professional campaigns.
He’s dealt with some off-field issues, but when he lines up at strongside linebacker in Denver’s 4-3 alignment, there’s not many offensive line game plans that can stop or even contain him.
Candidiate From 2014 Draft Class – Anthony Barr, Minnesota Vikings
Anthony Barr is in need of some technical refinement, but from frame, athleticism and tenacity standpoints, he has what’s needed to morph into an All-Pro at the NFL level.
The UCLA product is nearly 6’5″ and a solid 255 pounds with tight end-caliber movement skills. New Minnesota Vikings head coach worked wonders in Cincinnati with the likes of Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, so it’s safe to assume the fiery instructor will be able to fine tune Barr’s game.
This physical specimen will shine as an edge-setting, block-exploding, pass-rushing strongside linebacker in the Vikings 4-3.
3-4 Defensive End – J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Unfortunately for quarterbacks and running backs, J.J. Watt is far from your typical 3-4 defensive end.
The former first-round pick is 6’6″ and 290 pounds— ideal 3-4 defensive end size. However, he possesses superb strength and athleticism, which, together, allow him to work his way through offensive lines at an alarming rate.
His bull rush usually rock offensive tackles toward the quarterback, his swim move is very sudden, and his burst off the snap allows him to slip through the gaps with ease.
Watt certainly eats blocks when need asked, but he’s as disruptive as they come at any defensive line position. The former Wisconsin Badger is arguably the best overall player in football right now.
Although Luke Kuechly won the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year award in 2013, Watt truly was the NFL’s best defender.
According to Pro Football Focus, Watt accumulated an outrageous 85 pressures last season, more than any defensive player outside of Robert Quinn.
Candidate From 2014 Draft Class: Ra’Shede Hageman, Atlanta Falcons
Ra’Shede Hagemen runs a little hot and cold, but when he’s hot, he dominates the line of scrimmage. At 6’5″ and 310 pounds, the University of Minnesota star can demolish offensive linemen, running backs and quarterbacks alike with sheer overwhelming power and heavy hand usage.
For someone of his stature, he moves extremely well.
The Atlanta Falcons run plenty of nickel—like many teams today—but the additions of Hageman, Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai indicate more 3-4 looks in their future.
If defensive coordinator Mike Nolan can tap into Hageman’s potential and keep his motor running consistently, he could have a J.J. Watt-esque impact on Sundays.
3-4 Nose Tackle – Dontari Poe, Kansas City Chiefs
Although many saw Dontari Poe as a raw prospect coming out of Memphis in 2011, the Kansas City Chiefs selected him No. 11 overall in the 2012 draft to man the nose tackle spot in their base 3-4 defense.
Unsurprisingly, it took Poe time to acclimate to the NFL, but in 2013, he was a space-eating monster.
He finished his sophomore season with a respectable five sacks, and his Pro Football Focus run-stopping grade was higher than the grades of Haloti Ngata, Ndamukong Suh, and Gerald McCoy.
Poe is 6’3″ and nearly 350 pounds, but he moves like he’s no more than 315 or 320. While his athleticism helps him penetrate the backfield on occasion, he’s big and strong enough to command a double team on every snap—the primary responsibility for a 3-4 nose tackle.
Candidate From 2014 Draft Class: Louis Nix III, Houston Texans
Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III isn’t as mammoth as Dontari Poe, but at 6’2″ and 331 pounds, it doesn’t feel right labeling him as “small.”
Nix III will play the nose in Houston’s 3-4 defense and will have the luxury of lining up on the same front seven as J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Brian Cushing.
Though Nix III has some quick-twitch movement skills that might allow him to sneak into the backfield on occasion, he’ll take on blocks and command double teams often.
Because of his deceptive power and athleticism, he could be a five- to-seven sack guy from his nose tackle spot down the road.
3-4 Inside Linebacker – NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers
During his first few years in the NFL, NaVorro Bowman found himself, to a certain degree, in the shadow of Patrick Willis.
In 2013, as Willis dealt with some nagging injuries, the former Penn State star emerged as the San Francisco 49ers finest defender.
There’s nothing Bowman can’t do from his inside linebacker position. Although he’s only 6’0″, the 2010 third-round pick flies from sideline-to-sideline with weakside linebacker speed and attacks the line of scrimmage with the devastating pop of an old-school, thumping middle linebacker.
He can stack and shed blocks without being blown off the ball, but he’s best when he’s relatively free to zero in on running backs, follow tight ends down the seam or blitz the A gap.
Candidate From 2014 Draft Class: Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh Steelers
Ryan Shazier is an incredible athlete for the linebacker position and coverts blistering speed to stunning power moving in any direction.
While he may need some time to assimilate to the typical coverage duties of an NFL linebacker, as a WILB in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 3-4 scheme, he should immediately flourish.
At 6’1″ and 237 pounds, he’ similarly sized to NaVorro Bowman has comparable line-of-scrimmage disruption ability along with amazing sideline-to-sideline speed.
3-4 Outside Linebacker – Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
Another Georgia product on this list, Justin Houston is 6’3″ and a chiseled 258 pounds. His frame and muscle build allow him to consistently set the edge against the run, but he’s made a name for himself as a standup pass-rusher.
Last year, Houston had 11 sacks in the first 11 games of the season and wasn’t a liability in coverage.
Although some believe 3-4 outside linebackers need to be adept at dropping into short zones, their chief duty is to get after the opposition’s quarterback, chase running backs from the backfield and set the edge on outside pitches.
Candidate From 2014 Draft Class: Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans
No player in the 2014 class gets off the ball with more suddenness than Clowney. Also, his bull rush puts offensive linemen on skates and his inside swim move is outrageously fast.
Add to all that 4.5-ish speed to catch running backs in the open field, and it’s very easy to see why Clowney was the No. 1 overall pick.
Cornerback – Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
The outspoken overachiever with an innate physical nature, long arms, and a sixth sense that helps him jump receiver’s routes as the ball is thrown is the prototypical NFL cornerback.
Richard Sherman, a fifth-round pick in 2010, completely locks down the left half of the field for the Seattle Seahawks premier secondary.
He frequently wins “on an island” in press man coverage and drops stealthy into the deep outside zone in Cover 3 looks.
According to Pro Football Focus, Sherman was only thrown at 58 times during the regular season in 2013 but managed to intercept a league-leading eight passes and defend five more. He also picked off eight passes in 2012 when he was thrown at 87 times and allowed a completion percentage under 50 percent.
Candidate From 2014 Draft Class: Kyle Fuller, Chicago Bears
Though Kyle Fuller isn’t as tall the 6’3″ Richard Sherman, his 32 7/8″ arms are as long as 6’4″ offensive lineman Zack Martin’s.
The Virginia Tech star seemingly knows where wide receivers plan to run before they make their cuts, and he regularly makes aggressive plays on the football when it’s thrown in his direction.
With 4.49 speed and no athletic limitations, Fuller has a great chance to become a shutdown cornerback in the NFL.
Strong Safety – T.J. Ward, Denver Broncos
T.J. Ward is an intimidating, helmet-rattling safety with impeccable run-stopping skills and above-average range in coverage.
Over the past two years for the Cleveland Browns, the former Oregon Duck standout has made his presence felt at each level of the Dawg Pound defense.
While he has a tendency to miss some tackles, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ best run-defending safety in 2012 and 2013.
Also during that span, the sturdy 5’11”, 211-pound Ward surrendered a completion percentage on passes thrown his way of only 54.6 percent. He’ll be a welcomed addition to the Denver Broncos secondary.
Candidate From 2014 Draft Class: Deone Bucannon, Arizona Cardinals
Tall and somewhat lanky, Deone Bucannon is “shaped” a bit differently than T.J. Ward, but their games can easily be likened to one another.
At Washington State, Bucannon routinely made his presence felt against the run with big pops near the line of scrimmage and made wideouts leery of climbing the ladder on post routes down the field.
With athletic specimens Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu alongside him in Arizona’s defensive backfield, Bucannon could emerge as an intimidating, run-halting safety.
Free Safety – Jairus Byrd, New Orleans Saints
Though Earl Thomas may have the best range due to pure physical gifts, Jairus Byrd covers nearly as much ground from the deep middle due to otherworldly anticipation skills.
Also, the New Orleans Saints safety is an established run-plugger despite, to some, being “small” for the position at 5’10” and 205 pounds.
Byrd’s the prototypical free safety because of his vast range, reliable ball skills and underrated work against the run near the line of scrimmage. He’s snagged 22 interceptions in 73 professional games over his five-year career.
Another secondary stud from the University of Oregon, Byrd allowed a paltry QB rating of 35.0 on the 22 passes thrown his way in 2013. That was after a 2012 campaign in which the QB rating on his targets was only 56.9, per Pro Football Focus.
Candidate From 2014 Draft Class: Jimmie Ward, San Francisco 49ers
Jimmie Ward played plenty of nickel cornerback during his time at Northern Illinois, and he also made plenty of spectacular, game-changing interceptions and pass breakups all over the field.
At 5’11” and 193 pounds, Ward compares to Byrd from a size perspective and showed similar range and ball skills in college.
Next to the larger, more assertive Eric Reid in San Francisco, Ward has a real possibility to find a niche as a ball-hawking center fielder with the 49ers.